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.

Via the grantmaking process described previously, Good Ventures has decided – with GiveWell’s input – to make a grant to the Center for Global Development (CGD) for general operating support. The grant will be $300,000 paid evenly over the next three years. This post lays out the thinking behind this grant. As mentioned previously, this grant is distinct from our charity recommendations in terms of the primary justification.

The observation that led to this grant – and underlies much of the reasoning behind it – is that we (GiveWell and Good Ventures) are relying on CGD substantially for help with our learning agenda. This has implications for all of the principles we previously laid out for making grants:

  • A grant to CGD is likely to have “learning value” via increasing our access to CGD.
  • Because we’re directly engaging with CGD’s “product,” we feel relatively well positioned to evaluate the quality of that “product” and by extension the quality of CGD. Though our view of CGD is far from exhaustive, what we have seen of the organization is quite positive, which implies to us that general operating support is a good giving opportunity.
  • Because CGD’s work is important and valuable to us and because CGD relies on (and seeks) philanthropic funding, we believe that supporting CGD falls under the heading of “good citizenship” discussed previously.

In general, we’re planning to frequently consider grants to organizations whose work is highly valuable to our research, because such situations tend to be associated with the above points: they tend to be situations in which we value access, in which we are reasonably positioned to have a favorable view of at least a part of the organization’s work, and in which “good citizenship” principles call for providing support.

Our experience as “customers” of CGD
We have benefited from CGD’s work for several years, dating back to when we were focused exclusively on direct aid.
  • Millions Saved has been a valuable resource for us in identifying interventions that have worked at scale. It’s the only work we’ve seen that has collected success stories like these into one place, and we’ve vetted the report and found it to be of reasonably good quality. We are currently engaged in an update of the report and have found this project to be one of the most promising “shovel-ready” opportunities within the category of history of philanthropy.
  • We have been extremely impressed with – and helped by - David Roodman, one of CGD’s resident scholars. We have made use of his critiques of nonexperimental studies of microfinance, review of the problems with literature on the macro effects of aid, and review of higher-quality evidence regarding microfinance. He’s the person we know of who has made the biggest contributions to examining the validity and reliability of research relevant to foreign aid (something we have looked for a great deal). In addition, I found his book Due Diligence to be the best discussion of microfinance I’ve seen, and to be generally a model of analysis that is simultaneously thoughtful and careful, holistic (looking at many different angles of a problem), and transparent (in the sense that it is always clear what his claims are based on).
  • More recently, we have had conversations with Todd Moss and Michael Clemens (both CGD staff) as part of our shallow investigations of new causes. We spoke to Dr. Clemens because we had been repeatedly pointed to him as a leading scholar and advocate on the topic of international migration (and his work in reviewing the literature was a major contributor to sparking our interest in this cause as a potentially high-impact one in the first place). We spoke to Dr. Moss because we had run across his work in our review of discussions of developing-world infrastructure (writeup forthcoming). In both cases, we found the conversations helpful and informative, though we have not independently investigated the accuracy of the statements made in these conversations.
  • As we continue to go down our list of potential shallow investigations, there are many more for which we anticipate that speaking to a CGD staffer will be a good starting point. This is because of CGD’s relatively unique standing as an organization that examines both the intellectual and practical/political aspects of designing policy to help the global poor.
  • As a more minor point, we found our conversation with Lant Pritchett (also a CGD staffer) to be one of the more interesting open-ended conversations we’ve had on how a funder can accomplish as much good as possible. Dr. Pritchett had concrete ideas for areas that could plausibly be high-impact and do not seem to be already “crowded” with funders.

More on CGD as an organization
CGD describes itself as conducting “research and analysis on a wide range of topics related to how rich country policies impact people in the developing world.” Looking across CGD’s topics, initiatives, and experts, the consistent picture is of an organization doing analysis on practical policy ideas aimed at improving conditions for the world’s poorest. We know of few other organizations with similar missions.

We have not done an exhaustive review of CGD’s activities and the case for each, and in particular we know little about CGD’s influence. (We have also not done room for more funding analysis, though we do know that CGD is soliciting general operating support.) But the fact that the people and work we’ve seen so far are generally high-quality – and that CGD’s activities are both broad and consistently aimed at a population that we think is particularly appropriate as a target of philanthropic efforts – point to CGD as an organization that stands out on both mission and staff, and therefore can potentially do substantial good with general operating support.

One more point influencing our overall impression of CGD is its data disclosure policy, announced in 2011. We have previously written about our interest in data/code sharing, and we know of no other research organization (focused on social sciences) with a similar policy, even two years later.

Grant size and structure
We haven’t done an in-depth investigation of CGD, and since much of our goal is to fulfill the goals of “access” and “good citizenship” discussed previously, we have tried to settle on a grant large enough to show seriousness of support and to ensure that CGD will consider interacting with us to be worth its time. Via informal conversations with other funders and organizations, we have arrived at the figure of $100,000 per year as a reasonable figure to accomplish this for a fairly large (~$10 million per year) and established organization such as CGD.

The grant is a three-year grant ($100,000 each year for the next three years). As we will be discussing in a future post, we believe that providing multiple-year commitments is helpful for other organizations’ planning, and that a three-year grant is therefore substantially better for the grantee better than a one-year grant renewed twice.

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