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.

Note: Steve Daetz of the Sandler Foundation reviewed a draft of this post prior to publication.

Previously, we wrote about the tradeoff between expertise and breadth in philanthropy. We noted the traditional “program officer” model of philanthropy, in which staff specialize in particular causes, and we contrasted it with some other possible models that sacrifice true cause-level expertise, while allowing a philanthropist to work in more areas at once.

We cited the Sandler Foundation as an example of a foundation that appears to have a strong track record despite not following the traditional “program officer” model. Since then, we’ve had a couple of extended conversations with the Sandler Foundation’s Herb Sandler and Steve Daetz. We’ve tried to understand better how its approach differs from more traditional approaches, and what the pros and cons are. We’ve come out thinking that:

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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.

Last November, we held a day-long convening in Washington, D.C. to discuss possible priorities for Open Philanthropy Project work on U.S. policy.

Our main goal was to present our picture of several policy issues, as well as to receive input to inform upcoming decisions about which issue(s) we should focus on. For each issue, we laid out what sort of change we’d like to see, why we find the issue especially promising for philanthropy, what the current landscape looks like (including other funders), and what possible strategies might look like. We sought feedback on all of these points, as well as ideas for promising issue areas and promising strategies that haven’t occurred to us.

We’ve now posted a summary of points raised at the convening, a partial list of participants, and the briefing materials for the convening here:

Page on Nov. 10 policy convening

Many points were raised at the convening, and it served as an input into our overall strategy setting on U.S. policy (which we will be writing more about). Some of the highlights, from our perspective, were:

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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.

Our last major public updates on the Open Philanthropy Project were our May and June posts on global catastrophic risks and U.S. policy. This post summarizes our progress since then and where we currently stand on our goal 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.

It seems to me that the most common model in philanthropy - seen at nearly every major staffed foundation - is to have staff who specialize in a particular cause (for example, specializing in criminal justice policy). Often, such staff have a very strong background in the cause before they come to the foundation, and they generally seem to focus their time exclusively on one cause - to the point of becoming (if they weren’t already) an expert in it.

I think this model makes a great deal of sense, partly for reasons we’ve discussed previously. Getting to know the people, organizations, literature, challenges, etc. most relevant to a particular cause is a significant investment - a “fixed cost” that can then make one more knowledgeable about all giving opportunities within that cause. Furthermore, evaluating and following a single giving opportunity can be a great deal of work. Now that the Open Philanthropy Project has made some early grants, it is hitting home just how many questions we could - and, it feels, should - ask about each. If we want to follow each grant to the best our abilities, we’ll need to allocate a lot of staff time to each; having staff specialize in causes is likely the only way to do so efficiently.

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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.

When we first started GiveWell, we wondered why major staffed foundations didn’t write more about the thinking behind their giving (and the results of it), in order to share their knowledge and influence others. We’ve tried to counterbalance normal practice by making transparency one of our core values.

Our commitment to transparency is as strong as it’s ever been; we derive major benefits from it, and we believe there’s far too little public information and discussion about giving. At the same time, we’ve learned a lot about just why transparency in philanthropy is so difficult, and we no longer find it mysterious that it is so rare. This post summarizes what we see as the biggest challenges of being public and open about giving decisions.

Summary:

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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.

As discussed previously, we are investigating the cause of labor mobility as a potential focus area within U.S. policy. Much of our investigation is focused on outlining potential giving opportunities; concurrently, we are interested in reviewing the academic literature on the merits (and possible drawbacks) of the policy changes that we would be working toward.

One key question around this cause is whether increasing immigration to the U.S. (something that we believe could be an excellent outcome in global anti-poverty terms) would result in lower wages for current U.S. residents. We commissioned David Roodman to provide a critical review of the literature on this question. David previously completed a project for us on the connection between infant mortality and fertility.

We haven’t yet fully vetted this writeup (something we are planning to do), but we believe it gives a thorough and convincing picture of the literature, and provides some reason to believe that immigration is unlikely to result in substantially lower wages (particularly over the long run) for current residents.

From the introduction:

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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.

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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