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.

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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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, GiveWell and Good Ventures have identified several philanthropic causes that seem like promising candidates for “deep dives” - investigations deep enough to be headed toward major giving recommendations. (In this post, as in the previous one, “we” should be taken to refer to both GiveWell and Good Ventures.)

We’ve had a lot of internal discussion about how we might investigate a new cause at this level of depth. Much of our discussion has centered around the idea of a “program officer” or “program director” - a staffer who is dedicated full-time to a particular cause, and therefore can invest very heavily in getting to know the relevant people, organizations and literature. However, at this time, (a) we don’t feel that we can spare any of our generalist staff for a full-time investigation into a particular cause; (b) there aren’t yet any people we’re ready to hire as cause-specific program officers. So we’re thinking about what we can do in the meantime to find potential program officers, as well as potentially make progress on “deep dives” in other ways.

Below are some of the possibilities we’ve considered. Many involve the possibility of expenditures in the range of $100,000 - whether grants or research consulting expenses - and we address this issue in a later section.*

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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 made substantial progress since our last update on GiveWell Labs, and we’re now ready to take a major new step: moving beyond “shallow” and “medium-depth” investigations of causes to “deep dives” that are likely to involve grantmaking. This post summarizes our progress so far and plans going forward; a future post will elaborate on our plans for “deep dives.”

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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 previous posts, I have:

  • Laid out the view that in general, further economic development and general human empowerment are likely to be substantially net positive, and are likely to lead to improvement on many dimensions in unexpected ways.
  • Listed possible global catastrophic risks that provide a potential counterpoint to this view, while also noting “global upside possibilities” in which progress could lead to a future that is far brighter than the present.

This post attempts to lay out my reasons for thinking that speeding the pace of global development and empowerment should be thought of as increasing humanity’s odds of an extremely bright future, relative to its odds of a future that is worse than the present. Note that

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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 previously wrote about a decision to complete a “medium-depth investigation” of the cause of open science: promoting new ways of producing, sharing, reviewing, and evaluating scientific research. The investigation broadly fits under the heading of GiveWell Labs research, which we are conducting in partnership with Good Ventures.

We have now completed the “medium-depth investigation,” led by Senior Research Analyst Alexander Berger, and have written up the investigative process we followed and the output that process produced (XLS). This post synthesizes that output, and gives our current views on the following questions:

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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.

Via the grantmaking process described previously, Good Ventures has decided – with GiveWell’s input – to make a grant to the Center for Global Development (CGD) for general operating support. The grant will be $300,000 paid evenly over the next three years. This post lays out the thinking behind this grant. As mentioned previously, this grant is distinct from our charity recommendations in terms of the primary justification.

The observation that led to this grant – and underlies much of the reasoning behind it – is that we (GiveWell and Good Ventures) are relying on CGD substantially for help with our learning agenda. This has implications for all of the principles we previously laid out for making grants:

  • A grant to CGD is likely to have “learning value” via increasing our access to CGD.
  • Because we’re directly engaging with CGD’s “product,” we feel relatively well positioned to evaluate the quality of that “product” and by extension the quality of CGD. Though our view of CGD is far from exhaustive, what we have seen of the organization is quite positive, which implies to us that general operating support is a good giving opportunity.
  • Because CGD’s work is important and valuable to us and because CGD relies on (and seeks) philanthropic funding, we believe that supporting CGD falls under the heading of “good citizenship” discussed previously.

In general, we’re planning to frequently consider grants to organizations whose work is highly valuable to our research, because such situations tend to be associated with the above points: they tend to be situations in which we value access, in which we are reasonably positioned to have a favorable view of at least a part of the organization’s work, and in which “good citizenship” principles call for providing support.

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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 stated previously, we expect that it will take quite a long time for us to reach the point of issuing major recommendations based on our GiveWell Labs work. That said, there have been – and will be – situations in which making a grant is appropriate and helpful. Since we are working closely with Good Ventures on Labs, our default approach has been – and will be – to jointly assess situations in which a grant may be called for, with the final call (and any grant) being made by Good Ventures. (If we encounter a point of disagreement, in which we feel it is important to make a grant and Good Ventures does not, we may approach other donors.) This post lays out the basic principles by which we (GiveWell and Good Ventures) decide when to make a grant.

Note that these grants are importantly different from our official recommendations. There is much less emphasis on thorough investigation and maximizing good accomplished per dollar (though the latter is a consideration), and much more weight placed on practical value to our agenda (particularly learning opportunities).

1. Giving to learn

We’ve written before about the concept of “giving to learn,” stating that “gaining information from an organization … is much easier to obtain as a ‘supporter’ (someone who has helped get funding to an organization in the past) than simply as an evaluator (someone who might help get funding to an organization in the future).”

To elaborate a bit on this idea, there are multiple forms that “giving to learn” can take:

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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 mentioned previously, we are currently conducting an in-depth investigation of meta-research, with the hopes of producing our first “medium-depth” report on the giving opportunities in a cause.

Our investigation isn’t yet complete, but it has taken several turns that we’ve found educational, and our vision of what it means to investigate a “cause” has evolved. This post gives an update on how we’ve gone from “investigating meta-research in general, starting with development economics” to “specifically investigating the issue of reproducibility in medical research” to “investigating alternatives to the traditional journal system.”

The big-picture takeaway is that if one defines a “cause” the way we did previously - as “a particular set of problems, or opportunities, such that the people and organizations working on them are likely to interact with each other, and such that evaluating many of these people and organizations requires knowledge of overlapping subjects” - then it can be difficult to predict exactly what will turn out to be a “cause” and what won’t. We started by articulating a broad topic - a seeming disconnect between the incentives academics face and the incentives that would be in line with producing work of maximal benefit to society - and looking for people and organizations who do work related to this topic, but found that this topic breaks down into many sub-topics that are a better match for the concept of a “cause.”

Simply identifying which sub-topics can be approached as “causes” is non-trivial. We believe it is important to do so, if one wishes to deliberately focus in on the most promising causes that can be understood in a reasonable time frame, rather than spreading one’s investigative resources exploring several causes at once.

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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.

To date, our work on GiveWell Labs has been highly exploratory and preliminary, but we’ve recently been refining our picture of what we expect our output to look like in the reasonably near (~1 year) future. Our plans are still tentative, but have changed enough that an update seems worthwhile at this stage.

In brief,

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