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 (.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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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, we’ve been working on improving our broad understanding of the role that philanthropy can play in influencing and informing policy. One of my goals has been to hear different perspectives on how one should (for maximum effectiveness) approach policy-oriented philanthropy: what sorts of issues one should look to get involved in vs. steer clear of, what sorts of organizations make the most sense to support, etc.

This post lays out:

  • Several different visions of policy-oriented philanthropy and what it does best, based on conversations that we’ve had.
  • Some preliminary impressions of which (mostly U.S. federal) policy issues might be promising areas for a new philanthropist.
  • Key questions we still have on this front, and plans for moving forward from here.

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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 working on improving our broad understanding of the role that philanthropy can play in influencing and informing policy. One of the questions I’ve been focused on is “What is the track record of policy-oriented philanthropy?” Specifically:

  • Are there compelling cases in which a major policy change can be partially or fully credited to philanthropic efforts?
  • How often have philanthropic efforts succeeded in bringing about change? Often enough to imply a good “return on investment?”

I’ve concluded that answering these questions reasonably well could require an enormous, long-term effort. This is true both because the questions are inherently difficult to answer - many of philanthropy’s claimed impacts on politics are highly long-term and diffuse, such that it is difficult to confidently isolate impact - and because there has been little academic work on the subject.

Below, I first list salient examples I’ve seen in which philanthropy is believed (by some) to have had an important impact on public policy. I think the nature of these examples illustrates some of the challenges with isolating the impact of philanthropy. I then discuss our understanding of the current state of the literature on this topic, and what we would do to make more progress. For the purposes of this post only, “success” is defined as causally impacting public policy, not as having positive social impact, since the goal is to determine how and when philanthropy has been effective in changing policy (the question of how policy should be changed is a different question).

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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 working on improving our broad understanding of the role that philanthropy can play in influencing and informing policy. One of the questions I’ve been focused on is “what sorts of activities can one fund in order to have an influence on policy?” I haven’t restricted myself to learning about activities permitted for 501(c)(3) charitable organizations; I’ve tried to get a broad understanding of the different activities that one can fund, from very direct (supporting candidates in elections) to very indirect (funding studies and analysis).

The range of possible activities is very wide, and due to the adversarial nature of policymaking, it may sometimes be the case that the most effective activities are the ones no one else has thought of yet. With that said, I’ve found it useful to make a rough list of what I perceive as the most common ways to translate funding into influence, to give a flavor of how (and in how many ways) money can play a role.

One of the ideas that I think emerges from this list is that the connection between money and policy change isn’t necessarily a matter of “quid pro quo” donations for actions. The connection can be very indirect, long-term, and complex - and is perhaps most powerful when it fits this description.

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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.

Over the last few months, I’ve been working on improving our broad understanding of the role that philanthropy can play in influencing and informing public policy. We feel that this is one of the major categories of philanthropy that we’re currently least well suited to understand.

This is the first in a series of posts. This post discusses:

  • Why we think it’s important to explore policy-oriented philanthropy.
  • What we’ve done so far in this exploration.
  • What our key questions have been.

First, a general note: there are cases in which philanthropists are legally constrained from funding certain types of policy-oriented activities, particularly (a) attempting to influence elections and (b) lobbying. (A summary of these constraints is discussed on page 13 of an Atlantic Philanthropies paper on supporting advocacy.) We haven’t yet focused on thoroughly understanding these issues, whose relevance may be limited since most of our audience has freedom to structure its giving as it chooses (i.e., we aren’t managing an endowment that’s locked into a particular organization type). When we refer to “influencing and informing policy,” we mean this statement to broadly encompass a variety of possible activities from lobbying and advocacy to general provision of information and education.

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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 completed a medium-depth writeup on geoengineering research - large-scale interventions in the climate to attempt to reduce climate change or its impacts - focusing on research around efforts to artificially cool the planet. This writeup outlines the basic case for why geoengineering research might be a promising cause for philanthropy, as well as listing all of the funded projects we know of in a spreadsheet. It is a medium-depth, rather than shallow-depth, investigation, in that it involved many conversations and represents our attempt to speak to a broad, representative set of relevant people (rather than the 1-3 conversations that typically constitute a shallow-depth investigation). With that said, it leaves many questions unanswered, and leaves us a fair distance from having a confident view on the value of philanthropic investment in geoengineering.

In this post, we first summarize why we’ve looked into geoengineering, what we’ve learned about it, and what we see as the pros and cons of geoengineering as a philanthropic cause. We then address a series of meta-questions: why are we pausing our investigation here? What would it look like to do a deeper investigation? What is a reasonable goal for a medium-depth investigation? Making progress on these sorts of questions is a key goal of our current ongoing research, which is why we’ve gone ahead with some medium-depth investigations of causes that we’ve had only very preliminary reasons to be interested in.

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