The Open Philanthropy Blog

One of our core values is our tolerance for philanthropic “risk.” Our overarching goal is to do as much good as we can, and as part of that, we’re open to supporting work that has a high risk of failing to accomplish its goals. We’re even open to supporting work that is more than 90% likely to fail, as long as the overall expected value is high enough.

And we suspect that, in fact, much of the best philanthropy is likely to fail. We suspect that high-risk, high-reward philanthropy could be described as a “hits business,” where a small number of enormous successes account for a large share of the total impact — and compensate for a large number of failed projects.

If this is true, I believe it calls for approaching our giving with some counterintuitive principles — principles that are very different from those underlying our work on GiveWell. In particular, if we pursue a “hits-based” approach, we will sometimes bet on ideas that contradict conventional wisdom, contradict some expert opinion, and have little in the way of clear evidential support. In supporting such work, we’d run the risk of appearing to some as having formed overconfident views based on insufficient investigation and reflection.

In fact, there is reason to think that some of the best philanthropy is systematically likely to appear to have these properties. With that said, we think that being truly overconfident and underinformed would be extremely detrimental to our work; being well-informed and thoughtful about the ways in which we could be wrong is at the heart of what we do, and we strongly believe that some “high-risk” philanthropic projects are much more promising than others.

This post will:

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When I started as the Open Philanthropy Project’s Farm Animal Welfare Program Officer in October, I decided to prioritize investigating opportunities to speed up the corporate transition away from using eggs from caged hens. Based on that investigation, the Open Philanthropy Project recommended three grants, totaling $2.5 million over two years, to the Humane League, Mercy for Animals, and the Humane Society of the United States’ Farm Animal Protection Campaign. This post explains why I wanted to make our first farm animal welfare grants on corporate cage-free campaigns.

In brief:

  • Battery cages cause severe suffering, and cage-free systems are much better.
  • Corporate cage-free campaigns are tractable and high-impact, with a strong recent track record.
  • The cost-effectiveness of these campaigns, in terms of animal suffering averted per dollar, looks better than any alternatives I’m aware of.
  • I don’t see these campaigns as representing a “short-term-only” approach. I see them as a logical step along a long-term path toward greatly reduced farm animal suffering, and I think they’re competitive with other approaches when thought of in these terms.
  • I believe our funding has made and will continue to make a tangible difference to the success of these campaigns.

Details follow.

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In keeping with our quarterly GiveWell open threads, we wanted to host a separate open thread for questions related to the Open Philanthropy Project.

Our goal 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.

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Around this time of year, we usually publish a review of the past year’s progress and an outline of our plans for the coming year. Past examples are here.

This year, the annual review and plan will be delayed significantly, because we feel that the plan we’re considering calls for a fair amount of investigation and consideration. We expect to publish our annual review and plan in April or May.

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The Open Philanthropy Project has recommended a grant of $1.75 million (plus a personal gift from Cari Tuna of $250,000) to launch the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ), a multi-state policy reform organization. This will be one of our first large grant recommendations within criminal justice reform since Chloe Cockburn joined us to lead our work in that area.

ASJ is being incubated by and modeled after Californians for Safety and Justice (CSJ), a state-based justice reform advocacy organization led by Lenore Anderson and Robert Rooks. CSJ has spent the last four years working on criminal justice reform in California, including by developing the first statewide organizing network for crime survivors that support justice reform. Vote Safe, the sister 501(c)(4) organization of CSJ, also crafted and ran the successful campaign for Proposition 47, a Californian ballot measure that changed several low-level crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and reallocated the prison cost savings into prevention and treatment. In the first year after the measure passed, California’s jail and prison population is estimated to have fallen by 13,000 people. We view CSJ’s work as an unusually successful example of state-based advocacy and organizing in the criminal justice reform space.

ASJ will build on these strategies to bring Anderson’s and Rooks’ strategic and policy sophistication to bear on state-level efforts across the U.S. ASJ aims to advance state efforts to reduce incarceration and reallocate from spending on prisons to prevention and community health. ASJ plans to select partner states to engage deeply with, in order to help state advocates strengthen their communications, alliance-building and organizing strategies and win policy reform. ASJ also plans to build a national ‘center of gravity’ for state advocates to share information and strategies across states and give more prominence to state-based reform efforts in the national dialogue on justice reform. Finally, ASJ aims to change the national narrative on safety by drawing attention to the experiences and voices of crime survivors calling for new safety priorities.

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We’ve written previously about our approach to choosing focus areas for the Open Philanthropy Project, and we’ve described the advantages that working within causes (as opposed to being open to making grants in any area at any time) has for grantmaking. To date, however, we haven’t said much about our grantmaking process itself.

As part of my role at Open Philanthropy, I manage the logistics and overall process of how we make grants. In this post, I’ll describe the approach we use to grantmaking within our focus areas, and outline our current process for deciding whether or not to make a particular grant.

For our first couple of years, grantmaking has not been the top priority for the Open Philanthropy Project; so far we have focused most highly on selecting cause areas and building internal capacity (see our most recent update and this blog post for more on how we’re thinking about balancing these with grantmaking). As such, the approach and process outlined in this post are both fairly preliminary — we expect them to change and mature somewhat as we gain more experience as a grantmaking organization.

This post describes:

March 2017 update: Since this blog post was published, our process has largely stayed the same, but we wanted to note a few changes:

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Writing in the Wall Street Journal last May, the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald blackly heralded a “new nationwide crime wave.” She blamed the “Ferguson effect”: a pull-back by police in the face of public hostility over alleged abuses. Ferguson, of course, is the city in St. Louis county where in August 2014, a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, leading to days of rioting.

Toward the end of last summer, two reporters at the New York Times chimed in on the existence of an uptick, at least in homicide: “Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities.”

These suggestions of an incipient crime wave caught Open Phil’s attention because we are entering the field of criminal justice reform. Might attempts to curb the “tough-on-crime” approach that has made the United States the world’s greatest prison state backfire in the form of higher crime? Or if not, might fear of such obstruct reform?

As the crime wave meme spread, it provoked counterreactions: Joseph Margulies on “The Dangerous Notion of a Nationwide Crime Wave”; Richard Rosenfeld of St. Louis University questioning whether even St. Louis felt the Ferguson effect; FiveThirtyEight’s Carl Bialik on how “Scare Headlines Exaggerated The U.S. Crime Wave”; a Brennan Center report and a New York Times editorial it inspired; and end-of-year updates by Radley Balko for the Washington Post and Thomas Abt for the Marshall Project.

Here, I present my attempt, with the help of GiveWell’s Jake Marcus, to sort out the controversy of whether America is experiencing a crime wave. Our results are all graphical. Our analysis is distinctive in starting from daily data rather than monthly or yearly totals, which I find a bit coarse when examining trends over just the last year or so.

But, as with the other articles and posts, our numbers are not definitive. We obtained high-frequency data—lists of individual crimes—for 19 major municipalities. The statistics pertain only to territories within city limits, not to broader metropolitan areas. Even if they did, the sampled cities may not be representative of all cities, let alone the entire United States.

Nevertheless, the results look reasonable and interesting. In our sample, the murder rate does rise starting around January 2014. But this fluctuation so far looks small compared to the big, overall slide since 2001, and is commensurate with past, temporary reversals. And it may have peaked a few months ago. (You heard it here first.) Meanwhile, totals for the broader category of violent crime, in which the rare offense of homicide hardly figures, rose only slightly, even as property crime kept dropping. These splits across crime types are the opposite of what I would expect from a Ferguson effect. Seemingly, more than with crimes of passion, theft and burglary begin with rational consideration of risk factors such as whether the police are around. But they kept falling.

Zeroing in on the conceptual boundary within violent crime between homicide and everything else, we find that the crime subtype most resembling murder—armed assault—also appears to have ticked upward, especially if we restrict to assault with a firearm. It may be then the recent crime wave is best seen as a gun crime wave. We are not certain, in part because data limitations force us to base that finding on just nine cities. And, in an even smaller sample, non-gun homicides have recently climbed faster than gun homicides.

As the FBI gathers comprehensive statistics this year, the reality of last year will become clearer.

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The Open Philanthropy Project looks for outstanding giving opportunities, but its target audience is large institutional donors - unlike GiveWell’s top charities work, which targets individual donors. Some individuals have expressed interest in hearing whether there are any organizations we’ve come across, in our work on the Open Philanthropy Project, that they might consider donating to.

For this post, I polled the Open Philanthropy Project team and asked whether there are any organizations they think are reasonably strong options for individual donors, based on their Open Philanthropy Project work. The recommendations are listed below, along with some brief reasoning and information about how to donate.

Some caveats to these recommendations:

  • These are reasonably strong options in causes of interest, and shouldn’t be taken as outright recommendations (i.e., it isn’t necessarily the case that the recommender thinks they’re the best option available across all causes). For example, Alexander suggests two groups in causes he’s worked on, but he personally gave to top charities this year (as did I).
  • In many cases, we find a funding gap we’d like to fill, and then we recommend filling the entire funding gap with a single grant. That doesn’t leave much scope for making a recommendation to individuals. The cases listed below, then, are the cases where, for one reason or another, we haven’t decided to recommend filling an organization’s full funding gap, and we believe it could make use of fairly arbitrary amounts of donations from individuals. (These tend to be larger organizations.)
  • In the cases below, we don’t yet have a public writeup making the case for these organizations. Unlike with GiveWell top charities, we don’t prioritize having writeups completed by the holiday season. As a result, our explanations for why these are strong giving opportunities are very brief and informal, and we don’t expect individuals to put weight on them unless they trust the judgment of the person making the recommendation.

Summary of the recommendations:

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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.

The Open Philanthropy Project has ambitions of influencing very large amounts of giving in the future (hundreds of millions of dollars a year or more). To date, we haven’t made nearly enough recommendations to reach this level of giving, and this is not ideal. In a perfect world, we’d be recommending far more giving.

However, our approach is deliberate: we have chosen to prioritize capacity-building (choosing focus areas and hiring/onboarding program staff, in order to lay the groundwork for future grantmaking) over near-term grantmaking. This post discusses the reasons we’ve done this so far, as well as outlining our plans for ramping up giving in the future.

Contents:

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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.

Mariel_Refugees[1]

As a consultant for the Open Philanthropy Project last year, I reviewed the research on whether immigration reduces employment or earnings for workers in receiving countries. I concluded that for natives the harm, if any, is small.

Last month the prominent immigration researcher George Borjas posted a challenge to a seminal study in my review. His new paper contends that the Mariel boatlift, which brought some 60,000 Cuban refugees to Miami in 1980, did profoundly affect the labor market there, depressing wages for low-education men (ones with less than a high school education) by 10–30%.

Borjas’s work is especially significant because it seems to upend a study of the boatlift published by David Card 25 years ago, which found little impact of all that immigration on workers in Miami. Interestingly, Borjas, who emphasizes the harm of Cuban immigration, is himself a Cuban emigré.

I probed this dispute, replicating and checking the results in the dueling papers. I ultimately found little cause to change my views. The main reasons:

  • Of the two Census Bureau data sets that Borjas relies on, the one with larger samples shows smaller impacts.
  • According to that data set, wages for women, which Borjas excludes, rose, if anything, after immigration spikes (especially after a second one in 1994–95).
  • I see no sharp breaks from long-term trends of the sort that could be confidently attributed to the 1980 immigration surge. The Borjas analysis appears correct that wages for low-education Miami men (defined henceforth as those with less than a high school education) were lower on average in 1981–83 than in 1977–79—with the drop being larger than in most other US cities. But the data argue more for a steady long-term decline than sudden drops after immigration surges. The Borjas analysis tends to obscure this distinction by aggregating or smoothing data over several years.
  • The original study by David Card is one of 17 covered in my review, including three others exploiting natural experiments in mass migration. None of the studies is as compelling as a randomized trial, but the overall picture—of at most modest harm from substantial immigration—does not change if the Card study is removed.

Details follow.

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