The Open Philanthropy Blog

One of the challenges of large-scale philanthropy is: how can a small number of decision-maker(s) (e.g., donors) find a large number of giving opportunities that they understand well enough to feel good about funding?

Most of the organizations I’ve seen seem to use some combination of project-based, people-based, and process-based approaches to delegation. To illustrate these, I’ll use the hypothetical example of a grant to fund research into new malaria treatments. I use the term “Program Officers” to refer to the staff primarily responsible for making recommendations to decision-makers.

  • Project-based approaches: the decision-makers hire Program Officers to look for projects; decision-makers ultimately evaluate the projects themselves. Thus, decision-makers delegate the process of searching for potential grants, but don’t delegate judgment and decision-making. For example, a Program Officer might learn about proposed research on new malaria treatments and then make a presentation to a donor or foundation Board, explaining how the project will work, and trying to convince the donor or Board that it is likely to succeed.
  • People-based approaches: decision-makers delegate essentially everything to trusted individuals. They look for staff they trust, and then defer heavily to them. For example, a Program Officer might become convinced of the merits of research on new malaria treatments and propose a grant, with the funder deferring to their judgment despite not knowing the details of the proposed research.
  • Process-based approaches: the decision-makers establish consistent, systematic criteria for grants, and processes that aim to meet these criteria. Decisions are often made by aggregating opinions from multiple grant reviewers. For example, a donor might solicit proposals for research on new malaria treatments, assemble a technical review board, ask each reviewer to rate each proposal on several criteria, and use a pre-determined aggregation system to make the final decisions about which grants are funded. Government funders such as the National Institutes of Health often use such approaches. These approaches often seek to minimize the need for individual judgment, effectively delegating to a process.

    These different classifications can also be useful in thinking about how Program Officers relate to grantees. Program Officers can recommend grants based on being personally convinced of a particular project; recommend grants based primarily on the people involved, deferring heavily on the details of those people’s plans; or recommend grants based on processes that they set up to capture certain criteria.

    This post discusses how I currently see the pros and cons of each, and what our current approach is. In large part, we find the people-based approach ideal for the kind of hits-based giving we’re focused on. But we use elements of project-based evaluation (and to a much lesser degree, process-based evaluation) as well - largely in order to help us better evaluate people over time.

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  • In 2015, I researched and wrote about the risk to industrial society from geomagnetic storms—terrestrial phenomena that, despite their name, originate on the sun. Mild storms give us the ineffable beauty of the Northern Lights, and the Southern Lights too. Severe geomagnetic maelstroms might, some fear, knock out key satellites or cause continent-wide blackouts that would take months to undo.

    I concluded that the risk had been exaggerated in the studies that gained the most attention. Still, given the potential stakes and the historical neglect of the problem, the issue deserved more attention from people in science, business, and government.

    As I wrapped up my investigation, I tripped on a question of statistical method that I did not have time to fully explore. I have since put more time into the question. I just finalized a working paper about the results and submitted it to a journal. The upshot for the geomagnetic storm investigation is that I have modified my methods for extrapolating storm risks from the historical record. As a result, I have raised my best estimate of the chance of a really big storm, like the storied one of 1859, from 0.33% to 0.70% per decade. And I have expanded my 95% confidence interval for this estimate from 0.0–4.0% to 0.0–11.6% per decade.

    More explanation follows.

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    Over a year ago, we started exploring options for spinning the Open Philanthropy Project out from GiveWell as an independent organization. Though the process took a bit longer than we had hoped, the new legal arrangement took effect on June 1.

    This post covers the evolution of the Open Philanthropy Project into an independent entity, and the reasons for the spin-out from our perspective. It also discusses why we’re operating the Open Philanthropy Project as an LLC, and what our relationship to GiveWell will be going forward. (For some more technical details on the transaction, see the GiveWell post here.)

    This transition has been in motion for some time, and we expect that the bulk of our operations will appear unchanged to outsiders.

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    As we’ve written previously, we aim to extend empathy to every being that warrants moral concern, including animals. And while many experts, government agencies, and advocacy groups agree that some animals live lives worthy of moral concern, there seems to be little agreement on which animals warrant moral concern. Hence, to inform our long-term giving strategy, I’ve prepared a new report on the following question: “In general, which types of beings merit moral concern?” Or, to phrase the question as some philosophers do, “Which beings are moral patients?”

    For this preliminary investigation, I focused on just one commonly endorsed criterion for moral patienthood: phenomenal consciousness, a.k.a. “subjective experience.” I have not come to any strong conclusions about which (non-human) beings are conscious, but I think some beings are more likely to be conscious than others, and I make several suggestions for how we might make progress on the question.

    In the long run, to make well-grounded decisions about how much we should value grants aimed at (e.g.) chicken or fish welfare, we need to form initial impressions not just about which creatures are more and less likely to be conscious, but also about (a) other plausible criteria for moral patienthood besides consciousness, and also about (b) the question of “moral weight.” However, those two questions are beyond the scope of this initial report on consciousness. In the future I hope to build on the initial framework and findings of this report, and come to some initial impressions about other criteria for moral patienthood and about moral weight.

    My goals for this report on consciousness and moral patienthood were to:

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    As part of our research on the history of philanthropy, I recently investigated several case studies of early field growth, especially those in which philanthropists purposely tried to grow the size and impact of a (typically) young and small field of research or advocacy.

    The full report includes brief case studies of bioethics, cryonics, molecular nanotechnology, neoliberalism, the conservative legal movement, American geriatrics, American environmentalism, and animal advocacy. My key takeaways are:

    • Most of the “obvious” methods for building up a young field have been tried, and those methods often work. For example, when trying to build up a young field of academic research, it often works to fund workshops, conferences, fellowships, courses, professorships, centers, requests for proposals, etc. Or when trying to build up a new advocacy community, it often works to fund student clubs, local gatherings, popular media, etc.
    • Fields vary hugely along several dimensions, including (1) primary sources of funding (e.g. large philanthropists, many small donors, governments, companies), (2) whether engaged philanthropists were “active” or “passive” in their funding strategy, and (3) how much the growth of the field can be attributed to endogenous factors (e.g. explicit movement-building work) vs. exogenous factors (e.g. changing geopolitical conditions).
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    Campaigns since early 2015 have secured pledges from over 200 US companies to eliminate battery cages from their supply chains, including from all of the top 25 US grocers and 16 of the top 20 fast food chains. Collectively, the US Department of Agriculture estimates that these pledges will affect ~225M hens, or ~70% of the US non-organic flock (from less than 5% of hens covered by cage-free pledges previously).

    These campaigns were primarily funded by $3M in grants from the Open Philanthropy Project, split between four groups: the Humane League, Mercy for Animals, the Humane Society of the United States’ Farm Animal Protection Campaign, and Compassion in World Farming USA. (International campaigns using similar tactics, funded by $3.8M in Open Philanthropy Project grants, have secured pledges from corporate giants in Canada, Colombia, Brazil, France, Germany, Mexico, and the UK.) However, it’s worth noting that much or all of the success may have been inevitable once the early pledges (which preceded our funding) were achieved.

    Regardless of the role Open Philanthropy played, these campaigns look like a major and unusual success story for rapid, large-scale change brought on by advocacy. Here, I give my subjective and somewhat loose impressions on why these campaigns were so successful. It’s possible that we’ll do a more in-depth look-back at a later date, but for now I wanted to share my thinking for those looking for lessons that might be drawn.

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    This post aims is to give blog readers and followers of the Open Philanthropy Project an opportunity to publicly raise comments or questions about the Open Philanthropy Project or related topics (in the comments section below). As always, you’re also welcome to email us at info@openphilanthropy.org if there’s feedback or questions you’d prefer to discuss privately. We’ll try to respond promptly to questions or comments.

    You can see our previous open thread here.

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    This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year.

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    Note: this post discusses a number of technical and philosophical questions that might influence our overall grantmaking strategy. It is primarily aimed at researchers, and may be obscure to most of our audience.

    We are dedicated to learning how to give as well as possible. Thus far, we’ve studied the history of philanthropy, adopted an overall approach we call “strategic cause selection,” chosen three criteria and used them to select some initial focus areas, embraced hits-based giving, and learned many notable lessons about effective giving. These and other judgment calls are subject to revision, but overall we feel reasonably happy about these big-picture choices and “lessons learned.”

    However, we also feel that we have many other things left to learn about how to give as well as possible — not just about the details relevant to current and potential focus areas, but also about how we should think about certain “fundamental questions” that could greatly affect our overall approach to giving and our choice of focus areas.

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    One theme of our work is trying to help populations that many people don’t feel are worth helping at all. We’ve seen major opportunities to improve the welfare of factory-farmed animals, because so few others are trying to do it. When working on immigration reform, we’ve seen big debates about how immigration affects wages for people already in the U.S., and much less discussion of how it affects immigrants. Even our interest in global health and development is fairly unusual: many Americans may agree that charitable dollars go further overseas, but prefer to give domestically because they so strongly prioritize people in their own country compared to people in the rest of the world.1

    The question, “Who deserves empathy and moral concern?” is central for us. We think it’s one of the most important questions for effective giving, and generally. Unfortunately, we don’t think we can trust conventional wisdom and intuition on the matter: history has too many cases where entire populations were dismissed, mistreated and deprived of basic rights for reasons that fit the conventional wisdom of the time but today look indefensible. Instead, we aspire to radical empathy: working hard to extend empathy to everyone it should be extended to, even when when it is unusual or seems strange to do so.

    To clarify the choice of terminology:

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