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.

GiveWell and Good Ventures have launched a new website for the Open Philanthropy Project. This is the new name and brand for the project formerly known as GiveWell Labs.

The mission of the Open Philanthropy Project is to learn how to give as effectively as we can and share our findings openly so that anyone can build on them. The word “open” refers both to being (a) open to many possibilities (considering many possible focus areas, and trying to select the ones that will lead to as much good accomplished as possible) and (b) open about our work (emphasizing transparency and information sharing).

We have launched a new brand to replace the “GiveWell Labs” brand, because:

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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 have agreed to a major partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts as part of our work on criminal justice reform. Good Ventures will provide $3 million to support and expand the work of Pew’s public safety performance project (PSPP), which aims “to advance data-driven, fiscally sound policies and practices in the criminal and juvenile justice systems that protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and control corrections costs” through technical assistance to states, research and public education, and promotion of nontraditional alliances and collaboration around smart criminal justice policies.

We came into contact with Pew through our investigation on criminal justice reform. Our impression is that PSPP has been intensively involved in the criminal justice reform packages that have passed in over two dozen states since 2007. PSPP now seeks more funding to work in additional states, help states to cement existing reforms, explore the potential for reform at the federal level, and continue pursuing research and public education and engaging with nontraditional allies of reform.

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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.

A popular idea in the effective altruism community is the idea that most of the people we can help (with our giving, our work, etc.) are people who haven’t been born yet. By working to lower global catastrophic risks, speed economic development and technological innovation, and generally improve people’s resources, capabilities, and values, we may have an impact that (even if small today) reverberates for generations to come, helping more people in the future than we can hope to help in the present.

This belief is sometimes coupled with a belief that the most important goal of an altruist should be to reduce “existential risk”: the risk of an extreme catastrophe that causes complete human extinction (as, for example, a sufficiently bad pandemic - or extreme unexpected developments related to climate change - could theoretically do), and thus curtails large numbers of future generations.

We are often asked about our views on these topics, and this post attempts to lay them out. There is not complete internal consensus on these matters, so I speak for myself, though most staff members would accept most of what I write here. 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.

This post draws substantially on our recent updates on our investigation of policy-oriented philanthropy, including using much of the same language.

As part of our work on the Open Philanthropy Project, we’ve been exploring the possibility of getting involved in efforts to ameliorate potential global catastrophic risks (GCRs), by which we mean risks that could be bad enough to change the very long-term trajectory of humanity in a less favorable direction (e.g. ranging from a dramatic slowdown in the improvement of global standards of living to the end of industrial civilization or human extinction). Examples of such risks could include a large asteroid striking earth, worse-than-expected consequences of climate change, or a threat from a novel technology, such as an engineered pathogen.

In our annual plan for 2014, we set a stretch goal of making substantial commitments to causes within global catastrophic risks by the end of this calendar year. We are still hoping to decide whether to make commitments in this area, and if so which causes to commit to, on that schedule. At this point, we’ve done at least some investigation of most of what we perceive as the best candidates for more philanthropic involvement in this category, and we think it is a good time to start laying out how we’re likely to choose between them (though we have a fair amount of investigative work still to do). This post lays out our current thinking on the GCRs we find most worth working on for the Open Philanthropy Project.

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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.

Previously, we laid out our basic framework and reasoning for selecting U.S. policy causes to focus on for GiveWell Labs. This post goes through the specific causes that we’re most likely to commit to (and are accordingly performing in-depth investigations of, with some preliminary grantmaking, at the moment).

A few preliminary notes:

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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.

As part of our work on GiveWell Labs, we’ve been exploring the possibility of getting involved in policy-oriented philanthropy (see our previous posts on this subject). At this point, we feel that:

  • We’ve done at least some degree of investigating the causes that seem most promising to us, and we’ve gained an initial level of familiarity with how to think about what a promising cause is.
  • We see major gains to choosing longer-term focus areas - causes that we can commit substantial person-hours, and substantial funding, to over the next several years.

Because of this, we are now laying out the causes we tentatively feel most likely to commit to, and doing substantial investigation (including some grantmaking) in these areas. We aren’t yet committing to these causes, but we think that laying out our current thinking and reasoning will help surface important questions and intensify the period of reflection leading up to a decision.

We previously wrote about the importance of committing to causes.

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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.

In our work on the Open Philanthropy Project, we’ve consistently found that the level of interest we show in a cause - including our perceived willingness to provide funding within it - is a major driver of what sorts of giving opportunities we’re able to find.

This dynamic has been one of the major factors in the grants we’ve made so far, and it’s also a major reason that we’re eager to “commit” to causes, as mentioned earlier this year. We believe that there’s a limited amount we can learn about a cause when presenting ourselves as “potentially interested in providing moderate amounts of funding” rather than “strongly interested in providing major funding.”

We’ve come to believe in the importance of committing to causes in order to investigate them, and in the importance of “giving to learn” for the Open Philanthropy Project, via the following process:

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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’ve just published an extensive writeup on the cause of U.S. criminal justice reform, which was one of the causes we previously listed as a priority for investigation under GiveWell Labs.

We first became interested in this cause when our initial conversations around promising policy areas (in particular, our extended conversation with Steve Teles) highlighted it as having unusual political tractability. We heard from multiple sources that the combination of the adverse U.S. fiscal situation, low crime rates, and emerging conservative interest in an issue historically supported by progressives may have created a “unique moment” for criminal justice reform with a limited window.

Due to the significant amount of suffering and expense associated with incarceration, we believe there are high humanitarian stakes as well. And in initial conversations about the cause, we identified some approaches that we believe to have relatively little in the way of philanthropic support.

There are other causes that we see as having higher humanitarian stakes than criminal justice reform, and other causes that we see as being more philanthropically “neglected,” but such causes generally don’t have the same “window of opportunity” dynamic. So criminal justice reform is a plausible, though not the only plausible, candidate for “outstanding cause to work on.”*

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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.

As part of our work on GiveWell Labs, we retained Dr. Steven Phillips as a consultant to source giving opportunities in malaria control/elimination.

This post lays out:

  • The work that Dr. Phillips did for us in order to source giving opportunities. More
  • Why we undertook this project in partnership with Dr. Phillips. We are not currently moving forward with the giving opportunities sourced; this is a function not of the quality of the opportunities (many of which appear potentially strong to us) but of how our strategic priorities have evolved. More
  • What we learned from this project about giving opportunities in this area, as well as about the practice of sourcing giving opportunities more generally. More
  • Brief summaries of the giving opportunities. More

About Dr. Phillips: Dr. Phillips serves or has served on the Boards and Advisory bodies of the following organizations: Malaria No More, Net Impact, the World Economic Forum’s Global Health Advisory Board, advisor to the United Nations Special Envoy for Malaria, the Harvard School of Public Health’s Leadership Council and the advisory panels of Medicines for Malaria Ventures, the UCSF Global Health Group, Episcopal Relief and Development’s “NetsforLife” Initiative, the World Bank Malaria Booster Program, the Strategic Advisory Group of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria, the World Health Organization Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) Strategic Alliances Advisory Group. He was also a Private Sector Advisory Board representative to the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria, and a private sector representative on the board of Roll Back Malaria.

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Notes on this post:

  • Stuart Buck of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, as well as Prof. Steven Goodman of METRICS, reviewed a draft of this post.
  • 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 very excited for the launch of Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford (METRICS), co-founded by John Ioannidis and Steven Goodman and supported by a grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF). METRICS will bring together researchers to study the state of medical research quality, including questions such as how concerned we should be about publication bias (which the founders have published helpful papers on in the past), and to advocate for potential solutions. (Also see coverage in The Economist.)

Our work on GiveWell Labs was responsible for initially connecting the METRICS founders to LJAF, which is providing a commitment of up to ~$6 million to help METRICS through its initial years, during which time METRICS will be seeking more sources of support. We find it worthwhile to lay out the events that led to this connection, partly because they indicate some degree of impact on our part (though not of our usual kind) and partly because they make for an interesting case study in how to source giving opportunities.

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