The Open Philanthropy Blog

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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Recently, we’ve been hearing from a lot of people who are wondering about where to donate in response to things like:

The volume and nature of requests seems comparable in many ways to what GiveWell generally sees in the wake of a natural disaster. (The relationship between GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project is described here.) GiveWell has generally tried to accommodate the latter by posting disaster relief recommendations that are less closely vetted than its traditional charity recommendations but represent rough suggestions for how to help. In that spirit, we’ve decided to put out some very tentative suggestions for donating to help immigrants and refugees at heightened risk and to maintain constitutional protections in the U.S.

We haven’t had time to explore the issues deeply; the situation is changing rapidly; and there seems to be heightened interest from many donors, making it harder to say where there are important funding gaps. For all of the below organizations, we have little sense of their current plans or the impact (or cost-effectiveness) of marginal dollars.

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Note: in this post, “we” refers to the Open Philanthropy Project. I use “I” for cases where I am going into detail on thoughts of mine that don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Open Philanthropy Project as such, though they have factored into our decision-making.

Last year, we wrote about the question:

Once we have investigated a potential grant, how do we decide where the bar is for recommending it? With all the uncertainty about what we’ll find in future years, how do we decide when grant X is better than saving the money and giving later?

(The full post is here; note that it is on the GiveWell website because we had not yet launched the Open Philanthropy Project website.)

In brief, our answer was to consider both:

  • An overall budget for the year, which we set at 5% of available capital. This left room to give a lot more than we gave last year.
  • A benchmark. We determined that we would recommend giving opportunities when they seemed like a better use of money than direct cash transfers to the lowest-income people possible, as carried out by GiveDirectly, subject to some other constraints (being within the budget indicated above, having done enough investigation for an informed decision, and some other complicating factors and adjustments).

This topic is particularly important when deciding how much to recommend that Good Ventures donate to GiveWell’s top charities. It is also becoming more important overall because our staff capacity and total giving has grown significantly this year. Changing the way we think about the “bar for recommending a grant” could potentially change decisions about tens of millions of dollars’ worth of giving.

We have put some thought into this topic since last year, and our thinking has evolved noticeably. This post outlines our current views, while also noting that I believe we failed to put as much thought into this question as should have in 2016, and are hoping to do more in 2017.

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Last year, we published a set of suggestions for individual donors looking for organizations to support. This year, we are repeating the practice and publishing updated suggestions from Open Philanthropy Project staff who chose to provide them.

The same caveats as last year apply:

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In principle, we try to find the best giving opportunities by comparing many possibilities. However, many of the comparisons we’d like to make hinge on very debatable, uncertain questions.

For example:

  • Some people think that animals such as chickens have essentially no moral significance compared to that of humans; others think that they should be considered comparably important, or at least 1-10% as important. If you accept the latter view, farm animal welfare looks like an extraordinarily outstanding cause, potentially to the point of dominating other options: billions of chickens are treated incredibly cruelly each year on factory farms, and we estimate that corporate campaigns can spare over 200 hens from cage confinement for each dollar spent. But if you accept the former view, this work is arguably a poor use of money.
  • Some have argued that the majority of our impact will come via its effect on the long-term future. If true, this could be an argument that reducing global catastrophic risks has overwhelming importance, or that accelerating scientific research does, or that improving the overall functioning of society via policy does. Given how difficult it is to make predictions about the long-term future, it’s very hard to compare work in any of these categories to evidence-backed interventions serving the global poor.
  • We have additional uncertainty over how we should resolve these sorts of uncertainty. We could try to quantify our uncertainties using probabilities (e.g. “There’s a 10% chance that I should value chickens 10% as much as humans”), and arrive at a kind of expected value calculation for each of many broad approaches to giving. But most of the parameters in such a calculation would be very poorly grounded and non-robust, and it’s unclear how to weigh calculations with that property. In addition, such a calculation would run into challenges around normative uncertainty (uncertainty about morality), and it’s quite unclear how to handle such challenges.

In this post, I’ll use “worldview” to refer to a set of highly debatable (and perhaps impossible to evaluate) beliefs that favor a certain kind of giving. One worldview might imply that evidence-backed charities serving the global poor are far more worthwhile than either of the types of giving discussed above; another might imply that farm animal welfare is; another might imply that global catastrophic risk reduction is. A given worldview represents a combination of views, sometimes very difficult to disentangle, such that uncertainty between worldviews is constituted by a mix of empirical uncertainty (uncertainty about facts), normative uncertainty (uncertainty about morality), and methodological uncertainty (e.g. uncertainty about how to handle uncertainty, as laid out in the third bullet point above). Some slightly more detailed descriptions of example worldviews are in a footnote.1

A challenge we face is that we consider multiple different worldviews plausible. We’re drawn to multiple giving opportunities that some would consider outstanding and others would consider relatively low-value. We have to decide how to weigh different worldviews, as we try to do as much good as possible with limited resources.

When deciding between worldviews, there is a case to be made for simply taking our best guess2 and sticking with it. If we did this, we would focus exclusively on animal welfare, or on global catastrophic risks, or global health and development, or on another category of giving, with no attention to the others. However, that’s not the approach we’re currently taking.

Instead, we’re practicing worldview diversification: putting significant resources behind each worldview that we find highly plausible. We think it’s possible for us to be a transformative funder in each of a number of different causes, and we don’t - as of today - want to pass up that opportunity to focus exclusively on one and get rapidly diminishing returns.

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