Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

It seems to me that the most common model in philanthropy - seen at nearly every major staffed foundation - is to have staff who specialize in a particular cause (for example, specializing in criminal justice policy). Often, such staff have a very strong background in the cause before they come to the foundation, and they generally seem to focus their time exclusively on one cause - to the point of becoming (if they weren’t already) an expert in it.

I think this model makes a great deal of sense, partly for reasons we’ve discussed previously. Getting to know the people, organizations, literature, challenges, etc. most relevant to a particular cause is a significant investment - a “fixed cost” that can then make one more knowledgeable about all giving opportunities within that cause. Furthermore, evaluating and following a single giving opportunity can be a great deal of work. Now that the Open Philanthropy Project has made some early grants, it is hitting home just how many questions we could - and, it feels, should - ask about each. If we want to follow each grant to the best our abilities, we’ll need to allocate a lot of staff time to each; having staff specialize in causes is likely the only way to do so efficiently.

Yet I’m not convinced that this model is the right one for us. Depth comes at the price of breadth. With our limited management capacity, following each grant to the best of our abilities shouldn’t be assumed to be the right approach. I’ve been asking myself the question of whether there’s a way to be involved in many more causes at a much lower level of depth, looking for the most outstanding giving opportunities to come along in the whole broad set of causes. I’ve been thinking about this question recently mostly in the context of policy, which will be the focus of this post.

Having a “low-depth” involvement in a given issue could take a number of forms - for example:

  • One might make a concerted effort to identify a small number of “big bets” related to an issue, and focus effort on following these “big bets.”
  • One might make a concerted effort to identify a small number of “gaps” - aspects of an issue that get very little attention and have very few people working on them - and focus grantmaking activity on these “gaps.” This approach could be consistent with making a relatively large number of grants in the hopes that some grantee gains traction.
  • One might focus on identifying a trusted advisor in an issue space, and make a small number of grants as recommended by the advisor (this is largely the approach behind our grants so far on labor mobility).
  • One might co-fund the work of another major funder, join a collaboration of major funders, or support the work of a large and established organization, and gain more familiarity with the issue over time by following this partner’s work.
  • One might aim for a very basic level of understanding of an issue - in particular, which way we would like to see policy change relative to the status quo, and whom we feel aligned enough with to take their advice. With this understanding in hand for multiple issues, one might then be well-positioned to support: (a) “cross-issue” organizations and projects that are likely to have a small impact on many issues; (b) campaigns aiming to take advantage of short-term “windows of opportunity” that arise for various issues.

I can see a few arguments in favor of trying one or more of these, all of which make it possible to take some form of a “breadth” oriented approach (more causes, at with a lower degree of depth and expertise, than the standard cause-specialist approach would involve).

First and most importantly, we will never know as much about grantees’ work as they do, and it arguably makes more sense to think of grantees as the relevant experts. The best funder might be the one who picks qualified grantees in an important cause, supports them and otherwise stays out of their way. With this frame in mind, focusing on in-house expertise is arguably inefficient (in the sense that our expertise would become somewhat redundant with grantees’) and possibly even counterproductive (in the sense that it could lead us to be overly “active” with grantees, pushing them toward our theory of the case).

Of course, picking qualified grantees is a serious challenge, and one that is likely harder without deep context. But the question is how much additional benefit deep context provides. Even without expertise, it is possible to get some signals of grantee quality - general reputation, past accomplishments, etc. - and even with expertise, there will be a great deal of uncertainty. In a high-risk model of the world, where perhaps 10% of one’s grants will account for 90% of one’s impact, it may be better pick “potentially outstanding” grantees from a relatively broad space of possibilities than to limit oneself to a narrower space, while having more precise and reliable ways of distinguishing between marginally better or worse giving opportunities.

Expertise would also be an advantage for following a grant, learning from it and continuing to help grantees as they progress. However, it seems quite possible to me that the best grantees tend to be self-driven and improvisatory, such that following them closely wouldn’t add value to what they’re doing, and would largely serve to assuage our own anxiety without doing much to increase our impact.

Secondly, the best giving opportunities may sometimes cut across multiple causes and be hard to assess if we’ve engaged seriously with only a small number of causes. This issue seems particularly important to me in the area of U.S. policy, where the idea of strengthening the network of people who share our values - or the platform representing those values - could be very important. If we focus exclusively on a small number of policy areas, and give little attention to others, we could end up lacking the knowledge and networks to perform well on this goal, and we could be ill-positioned to evaluate the ramifications of a giving opportunity for the full set of issues we care about. (An argument for pursuing both breadth- and depth-oriented strategies simultaneously is that the depth-oriented work may surface opportunities that are relevant to a large number of issues, and the breadth-oriented work could then be helpful in assessing such opportunities.)

Finally, it seems to us that there are some issue areas where the giving opportunities are quite limited - particularly issues that we think of as green fields, as well as neglected sub-areas of other issues. Devoting a full staff member to such an issue would pose particular risks in terms of inefficiency, and it might be better to fund the few available opportunities while waiting for more to emerge.

I think the cases of Ed Scott and the Sandler Foundation represent interesting examples of what a philanthropist can accomplish despite not specializing exclusively in a particular cause, and despite not building out a staff of domain experts.

  • Ruth Levine of the Hewlett Foundation writes that Ed Scott has “built at least four excellent organizations from the ground up” - including the Center for Global Development, which we have
  • We know less about the Sandler Foundation, but it seems to have played a founding role in several prominent organizations and to be well-respected by many, despite not having staff who specialize in a particular cause over the long run. It does do deep cause investigations in sequence, in order to identify promising grantees, but staff work on new cause investigations even while maintaining their funding of previous causes and organizations; this approach therefore seems distinct from the traditional foundation model and can be thought of as one approach to the kind of “broad” work outlined here. One of its core principles is that of looking for excellence in organizations and in leadership, and entrusting those it supports with long-term, flexible support (rather than continuously revisiting and revising the terms of grants).

In both cases, from what we can tell (and we are considering trying to learn more via case studies), a funder helped create organizations that shared a broad set of values but weren’t focused on a particular policy issue; the funder did not appear to become or hire a domain expert, and may have been more effective by being less hands-on than is the norm among major foundations. My point isn’t that these funders should be emulated in every way (I know relatively little about them), but that the “cause-focused, domain expert” model of grantmaking is not the only viable one.

I’m not yet sure of exactly what it would look like for us to try a breadth-emphasizing model, and I know that we don’t want this to be the only model we try. The depth-emphasizing model has much to recommend it. I can anticipate that, in some ways, a breadth-emphasizing model could be both genuinely risky and psychologically challenging, as we’d have a lower level of knowledge about our grants than many foundations have of theirs. But I think the potential benefits are big, and I think this idea is worth experimenting with.

Leave a comment