The Open Philanthropy Blog

Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. 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.

We previously laid out our high-level priorities for 2012. The top two priorities are “make significant progress on GiveWell Labs” and “find more outstanding giving opportunities under the same basic framework as our existing recommendations.” This post elaborates on our plans for these two priorities.

A note on relative priorities: our current top charities have significant room for more funding, so it would not be catastrophic (though it would be highly undesirable) to end 2012 without new top charities. Because of this, we view GiveWell Labs as slightly more crucial for 2012. However, we plan substantial work on both and anticipate that the quality of our standard research will continue to improve significantly.

GiveWell Labs
We believe that GiveWell Labs is very important for our long-term impact; it represents a substantial new opportunity to both find great giving opportunities and expand our potential target audience (more).

However, at this time GiveWell Labs is still in the very early stages. (We announced it in September, but a few weeks later put our entire focus on finding top charities in time for 2011’s holiday season.) The stage it’s at is somewhat comparable to the stage GiveWell was at in August of 2007; and like the GiveWell of 2007, we will probably go through a lot of experimentation, go down some significant dead ends, and possibly miss some deadlines and change our vision of what we’re trying to accomplish. So we don’t want to commit to highly concrete or definite goals at this time.

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. 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.

In previous posts, we discussed the progress we’ve made, where we stand, and how we can improve in core areas. This post focuses on the latter, and lays out our top-level strategic choices for the next year.

The big picture

Broadly, we see the key aspects of GiveWell - the areas in which we can improve - as

  1. Research expansion: finding additional outstanding giving opportunities.
  2. Research maintenance and systemization: keeping our research up to date, while allocating as much responsibility as possible to junior staff. This includes regular updates on charities that we have directed significant funding to.
  3. Research vetting: checking the quality of our research and providing evidence for this quality.
  4. Outreach: working to increase awareness of GiveWell, traffic to our site, conversion of website traffic into donors and followers, etc.
  5. Fundraising/operating: maintaining the organization.

These are broadly similar to the areas for improvement we’ve listed in the past. And as in the past, we feel that the first two of these - finding more outstanding giving opportunities and staying up to date on those we’ve found - are at the core of our work and remain our top priorities. The basic reasoning:

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. 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.

We previously listed our five chief criteria for GiveWell Labs, an arm of our research process that will be open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector. This post further discusses the third of these criteria: “accountability.”

We’re OK with funding a project that might fail, but it’s very important to us that we be able to recognize, document, publicly discuss, and learn from such a failure if it happens.

This is the area in which we feel most strongly that current philanthropists are coming up short: they’re failing to learn (or at least, to help others learn) from their track records. For a simple example, take the issue of sustainability in developing-world aid.

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. 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.

We previously listed our five chief criteria for GiveWell Labs (a new arm of our research process that will be open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector). This post further discusses the first two of these criteria - “upside” and “high likelihood of success” - and the tradeoff between them.

Upside

We use “upside” to refer to the possibility that a philanthropic project will have a huge/outsized impact. While it’s a good thing to fund projects that have this kind of potential - and while a single hugely successful project can make up for many failures - we also see danger in overthinking the upside of projects.

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. 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.

We’re starting a new initiative, GiveWell Labs, an arm of our research process that will be open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector.

This post lays out, very broadly, what qualities we are looking for in giving opportunities. Future posts will elaborate on each of these criteria, and we will also discuss how we think these criteria apply to specific areas of philanthropy. Readers will hopefully be left with a strong sense of our beliefs and biases and what we’re looking for.

The main things we’re looking for in a giving opportunity are:

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. 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.

We’re starting a new initiative, GiveWell Labs, an arm of our research process that will be open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector.

One of the major challenges of this initiative (as mentioned in the previous post) will be remaining systematic and transparent despite the very broad mandate of GiveWell labs. It’s core to GiveWell that the thinking behind our recommendations

  • Comes from reasoning and principles that are applied consistently, not from whims.
  • Is transparent, i.e., interested people can read up on why we made the decisions we did and judge our thinking for themselves, with as little need as possible to have trust in us.

This post lays out our plan for accomplishing these.

Process

While we reserve the right to change plans mid-stream, our basic planned process is:

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. 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.

We previously announced GiveWell Labs, a new arm of our research process that will be open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector. Here I share a bit more of the thinking behind why we’re doing this.

What we’re trying to accomplish with this initiative

Our goals are twofold:

Find better giving opportunities. When we laid out our main goals for 2011, #1 was finding more great giving opportunities, and our possible strategies for doing so involved (a) broadening our scope (b) considering project-based funding. With GiveWell Labs, we are doing both simultaneously.

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. 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.

The research we’ve been doing for the last couple of years has been constrained in a couple of key ways:

  • We’ve pre-declared areas of focus (based on our guesses as to where the most promising charities would be found), and disqualified charities for recommendations on the basis of their being “out of scope” (though we’ve been gradually broadening our scope).
  • We’ve needed to decide which organizations to recommend without being able to say in advance how much money would go to them as a result. This has led to challenges with the question of “room for more funding.” We’ve had to find charities that could essentially use any amount of funding (large or small) productively, and this has drastically narrowed our options.

We’re now launching a new initiative within GiveWell that will not be subject to either of these constraints. We plan to invest about 25% of our research time in what we’re calling GiveWell Labs: an arm of our research process that will be open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector.

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