The Open Philanthropy Blog

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.

Benjamin Soskis, who has been working for us on our history of philanthropy project, has completed a case study of philanthropy’s impact on the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The case study focuses first on the Atlantic Philanthropies’ funding of Health Care for America Now! (HCAN), as well as on HCAN’s activities and impact. The second part of the study surveys the activities of other funders involved in health care reform, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Commonwealth Fund.

The case study concludes that, as a whole, philanthropic spending had a critical, though not necessarily easily quantifiable, role in the passage of the ACA. In the following passage, Dr. Soskis quotes HCAN’s Doneg McDonough:

“There’s just no way health reform would have passed without the [philanthropically funded] outside efforts going on. No question about it. Beyond that, it gets a little fuzzy. How much of an impact did [any particular intervention] have and which things actually were critical to making the ACA happen?”

This last statement, with its combination of broadly conceived certitude and localized indeterminacy, epitomizes one of this report’s central findings regarding the claims of philanthropic impact. (Case Study, Pg. 4)

Dr. Soskis’s study also examines the difficulty of disentangling the impact of any one funder from the impact of philanthropy as a whole. He writes:

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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.

This is the fourth post in a series about geomagnetic storms as a global catastrophic risk. A paper covering the material in this series was recently released.

I devoted the first three posts in this series to describing geomagnetic storms and assessing the odds that a Big One is coming. I concluded that the iconic Carrington superstorm of 1859 was neither as intense nor as overdue for an encore as some prominent analysts have suggested. (I suppose that’s unsurprising: those who say more-alarming things get more attention.) But my analysis is not certain. To paraphrase Churchill, the sun is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a corona. And great harm would flow from what I cannot rule out: a blackout spanning states and lasting months.

I shift in this post from whether the Big One is coming to what will happen if it does. And here, unfortunately, my facility with statistics does less good, for the top questions are now about power engineering: how grids and high-voltage transformers respond to planetary magnetic concussions.

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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.

Note: this post aims to help a particular subset of our audience understand the assumptions behind our work on global catastrophic risks.

One focus area for the Open Philanthropy Project is reducing global catastrophic risks (such as from pandemics, potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence, geoengineering, and geomagnetic storms). A major reason that the Open Philanthropy Project is interested in global catastrophic risks is that a sufficiently severe catastrophe may risk changing the long-term trajectory of civilization in an unfavorable direction (potentially including human extinction if a catastrophe is particularly severe and our response is inadequate).

One possible perspective on such risks—which I associate with the Future of Humanity Institute, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and some people in the effective altruism community who are interested in the very long-term future—is that (a) the moral value of the very long-term future overwhelms other moral considerations; (b) given any catastrophe short of an outright extinction event, humanity would eventually recover, leaving humanity’s eventual long-term prospects relatively unchanged. On this view, seeking to prevent potential outright extinction events has overwhelmingly greater significance for humanity’s ultimate future than seeking to prevent less severe global catastrophes.

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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.

This is the third post in a series about geomagnetic storms as a global catastrophic risk. A paper covering the material in this series was just released.

My last post examined the strength of certain major geomagnetic storms that occurred before the advent of the modern electrical grid, as well as a solar event in 2012 that could have caused a major storm on earth if it had happened a few weeks earlier or later. I concluded that the observed worst cases over the last 150+ years are probably not more than twice as intense as the major storms that have happened since modern grids were built, notably in 1982, 1989, and 2003.

But that analysis was in a sense informal. Using a branch of statistics called Extreme Value Theory (EVT), we can look more systematically at what the historical record tells us about the future. The method is not magic—it cannot reliably divine the scale of a 1000-year storm from 10 years of data—but through the familiar language of probability and confidence intervals it can discipline extrapolations with appropriate doses of uncertainty. This post brings EVT to geomagnetic storms.

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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.

This is the second post in a series about geomagnetic storms as a global catastrophic risk. A paper covering the material in this series was just released.

My last post raised the specter of a geomagnetic storm so strong it would black out electric power across continent-scale regions for months or years, triggering an economic and humanitarian disaster.

How likely is that? One relevant source of knowledge is the historical record of geomagnetic disturbances, which is what this post considers. In approaching the geomagnetic storm issue, I had read some alarming statements to the effect that global society is overdue for the geomagnetic “Big One.” So I was surprised to find reassurance in the past. In my view, the most worrying extrapolations from the historical record do not properly represent it.

I hasten to emphasize that this historical analysis is only part of the overall geomagnetic storm risk assessment. Many uncertainties should leave us uneasy, from our incomplete understanding of the sun to the historically novel reliance of today’s grid operators on satellites that are themselves vulnerable to space weather. And since the scientific record stretches back only 30–150 years (depending on the indicator) and big storms happen about once a decade, the sample is too small to support sure extrapolations of extremes.

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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.

Image from NASA via Wikipedia

This is the first post in a series about geomagnetic storms as a global catastrophic risk. A paper covering the material in this series was recently released.

The Open Philanthropy Project has included geomagnetic storms in its list of global catastrophic risks of potential focus.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of them either. But when I was consulting for GiveWell last fall, program officer Howie Lempel asked me to investigate the risks they pose. (Now I’m an employee of GiveWell.)

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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. This post was updated on July 6 with language edits but substantially unchanged content. As a new funder, we’ve found it surprisingly difficult to “learn the ropes” of philanthropy. We’ve found relatively little reading material - public or private - on some of the key questions we’re grappling with in starting a grantmaking organization, such as “What sorts of people should staff a foundation?” and “What makes a good grant?” To be sure, there is some written advice on philanthropy, but it leaves many of these foundational questions unaddressed. As we’ve worked on the Open Philanthropy Project, we’ve accumulated a list of questions and opinions piecemeal. This blog post is the first in a series that aims to share what we’ve gathered so far. We’ll outline some of the most important questions we’ve grappled with, and we’ll give our working answer for each one, partly to help clarify what the question means, and partly to record our thoughts, which we hope will make it easier to get feedback and track our evolution over time. We’d love to see others - particularly experienced philanthropists - write more about how they’ve thought through these questions, and other key questions we’ve neglected to raise. We hope that some day new philanthropists will be able to easily get a sense for the range of opinions among experienced funders, so that they can make informed decisions about what kind of philanthropist they want to be, rather than starting largely from scratch. This post focuses on the question: “what is the role of a funder, relative to other organizations?” In brief:

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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.

We’re excited to announce that Chloe Cockburn has accepted our offer to join the Open Philanthropy Project team as a Program Officer, leading our work on criminal justice reform. She expects to start in August and to work from New York, where she is currently based. She will lead our work on developing our grantmaking strategy for criminal justice reform, selecting grantees, and sharing our reasoning and lessons learned.

Chloe comes to us from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she currently serves as the Advocacy and Policy Counsel for the ACLU’s Campaign to End Mass Incarceration, heading up the ACLU’s national office support to state-level ACLU affiliates.

The search to fill this role has been our top priority within U.S. policy over the last few months. We conducted an extensive search for applicants and interviewed many strong candidates.

We feel that hiring Chloe is one of the most important decisions we’ve yet made for the Open Philanthropy Project. In the future, we plan to write more about how we conducted the search and why we ultimately decided to make Chloe an offer.

We’re very excited to have Chloe on board to lead our investment in substantially reducing incarceration while maintaining or improving public safety.

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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.

We’ve come across many cases where a funder took a leading role in creating a now-major nonprofit. This has been surprising to us: it intuitively seems that the people best suited to initiate new organizations are the people who can work full-time on conceiving an organization, fundraising for it, and doing the legwork to create it. Most successful companies seem to have been created by entrepreneurs rather than investors, and the idea that a philanthropist can “create” a successful organization (largely through concept development, recruiting and funding, without full-time operational involvement) seems strange. Yet we’ve seen many strong examples:

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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.

We’re hoping to set the Open Philanthropy Project’s initial priorities within scientific research this year. That means being in a place roughly comparable to where we currently are on U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks: having a ranked list of focus areas and goals for hiring and grantmaking.

The process is going to have to look very different. For both U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks, we were able to do a relatively large number of “shallow investigations,” in which we quickly got a sense for the importance, tractability, and crowdedness of a cause. By contrast, it seems to us that investigating even a single cause within scientific research - to the level of understanding we achieved with shallow investigations in other areas - is a major project.

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