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.

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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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 (.docx) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-Pew Memorial Trust Health Care for the Homeless (HCH) program. We have found this case study very interesting and believe it to be a helpful addition to the literature on the history of philanthropy and its impacts. Dr. Soskis had previously compiled a literature review for this program (.docx).

In brief, the HCH program consisted of the following:

“In December 1983, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), in partnership with Pew Memorial Trusts, spurred by a recognition of how little was being done to address the health care needs of the homeless, issued a call for proposals to … develop means of incorporating the homeless into local outpatient health care systems…. Ultimately, the foundations funded 19 coalitions over the course of four years, spending a total of $25 million…. In June 1987, Congress passed the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, the first major piece of federal legislation to address homelessness in more than half a century…. That the RWJF-Pew program should be granted a significant degree of causal impact in the incorporation of the program into the McKinney Act is undeniable.” (Case Study, Pg 1)

The full case study is available here (.docx).
The full list of sources is available here (.docx).

Dr. Soskis’s case study provides an example of how philanthropy can influence policy change. He writes:

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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.

This is the fourth post (of six) we’re planning to make focused on our self-evaluation and future plans.

Our 2013 plan did not lay out specific goals for GiveWell Labs, other than time allocated (“we expect to be able to raise our allocation to GiveWell Labs, to the point where our staff overall puts more total research time into GiveWell Labs than into our traditional work”). This was by design: as of the beginning of the year we had spent relatively little time on GiveWell Labs, and saw ourselves as still being in a very early exploratory phase. We will have more concrete goals for the coming year, as discussed below.

This post lays out the progress that we did make on GiveWell Labs in 2013, then gives our high-level plan and goals for 2014. Good Ventures has been a crucial partner to us on this work, and “we” refers collectively to GiveWell and Good Ventures throughout the below.

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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 noted previously, I’ve been investigating the question: How does the “good accomplished per dollar” of life sciences funding compare to that of other giving options (such as LLIN distribution)? At this point, I believe that there is very little in the way of academic literature that can shed light on this question. I’ve put together some very limited and preliminary analysis; to produce something better, I’d want to work with both generalist scientific advisors and at least one economist.

Existing literatureIn order to assess the existing literature on returns to life sciences funding, we have:

Our takeaways on the relevance of this literature for our purposes:

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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 noted previously, I’ve been exploring the question, “What are the best opportunities for funders aiming to contribute to progress in life sciences (i.e., biology and medicine)?” This post lays out what we’ve done to date and how we plan to move forward.

The basic approach I’ve taken: interviews and immersion

Because this area is so different from anything GiveWell has looked at before, I’ve initially tried to “immerse” myself in it: I’ve taken opportunities to have extended and low-stakes interactions with scientists and learn a little bit of the basic knowledge underlying life sciences, without having specific questions or goals in mind.

The most helpful person in this endeavor has been Dario Amodei. Dario is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford Medical School studying proteomics; he is a recipient of the Hertz Fellowship and winner of the Hertz Foundation’s 2012 Thesis prize for his Ph.D. dissertation in the field of neuroscience. He is also a longtime GiveWell fan and supporter (see his 2009 guest post on the GiveWell blog), and the two of us have been housemates since GiveWell relocated to San Francisco.

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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.

One of our priorities over the last few months has been to learn, broadly speaking, about scientific research and the role philanthropy can play in it. Along with political advocacy (which we’ve been writing about recently), we feel that this is one of the major categories of philanthropy that we’re currently least well suited to understand.

This is first in a series of three posts. It discusses:

  • Why we believe it’s important to explore scientific research as a philanthropist.
  • Why we’ve tentatively chosen to start by focusing on life sciences (biology, medicine).
  • The key questions we’ve been focused on.

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