Published: July 2015
Greater Greater Washington and Smart Growth America staff reviewed this page prior to publication.
Note: This page was created using content published by Good Ventures and GiveWell, the organizations that created the Open Philanthropy Project, before this website was launched. Uses of “we” and “our” on this page may therefore refer to Good Ventures or GiveWell, but they still represent the work of the Open Philanthropy Project.
The Open Philanthropy Project made a grant of $275,000 to support Smart Growth America’s Greater Greater Washington Education Project. Greater Greater Washington (GGW) is a group blog that covers local policy issues, such as housing, education, and transportation, in the greater Washington, D.C. metro area. The GGW Education Project is a fiscally sponsored project of Smart Growth America, a 501(c)(3) organization. We encountered its work as part of our exploration of land use reform (which is a priority cause for us because we see few groups that are organizing people in support of reducing constraints on the housing supply in key metropolitan areas).
GGW requested funding to support the hiring and activities of three staff members, who would focus on increasing the capacity and influence of the blog as well as expanding the scope of the organization’s activities to include more organizing around housing supply issues. We do not have a strong sense of the likely impact of providing funds for these activities, but we see these donations as good opportunities to support a promising group that is attempting to generate support for land use reform in Washington, D.C., one of the most important housing supply-constrained metro areas in the U.S. We believe that GGW would not have been able to undertake these activities without funding from the Open Philanthropy Project and Cari Tuna.
The Open Philanthropy Project provided funding to Smart Growth America for the purpose of supporting the charitable activities of its fiscally sponsored project Greater Greater Washington Education Project; Open Philanthropy funds will not be used to support any lobbying activities.
- Rationale for the donations
- Plans for learning and follow up
Rationale for the donations
As of the time of this writing, we have identified land use reform (in particular, zoning reform to enable more housing construction in key metropolitan areas) as a priority cause within our work on U.S. policy (more detail here), and as such have prioritized it for possible grantmaking. In particular, this space stands out for the paucity of funding and organizations advocating in favor of allowing more housing supply,1 and accordingly we are interested in supporting new groups that would work on these issues.
Washington, D.C., where Greater Greater Washington is based, is one of several major metropolitan areas in the U.S. where land use reform could conceivably provide the greatest benefits and also stands out as a particularly valuable place to work on this issue because of the concentration of media attention there.2
Background on Greater Greater Washington
Greater Greater Washington (GGW) (www.greatergreaterwashington.org) is a group blog that covers local policy issues in Washington, D.C. Its mission statement is: “Greater Greater Washington builds informed and civically engaged communities who believe in a growing and inclusive Washington region and speak up for livable communities and high-quality education for all.”3 GGW was founded in 2007 by David Alpert, who currently serves as the organization’s unpaid President. Prior to starting GGW, Alpert was a Product Manager at Google for several years.4
David Alpert told us that GGW’s total budget has typically been under $25K per year. He said that it largely raises these funds from its annual reader drive, and that it primarily spends these funds on a part-time editor and other expenses associated with maintaining its website; other positions are all currently held by volunteers.
GGW currently consists of:5
- A five-person board of directors
- An 11-person editorial board (all volunteers except for one part-time paid staff member)
- A large group of volunteer contributors (>60 different contributors in past few months) who submit articles to the site
GGW has written about many local policy issues, with a particular focus on land use and transportation issues. Examples of GGW blog posts related to land use reform are in this footnote.6
David Alpert told us that GGW is organized as a not-for-profit corporation and is in the process of registering as a 501(c)(4). Cari Tuna provided funding to GGW for non-political use.7
Smart Growth America, a U.S.-registered 501(c)(3), serves as a fiscal sponsor for Greater Greater Washington, to support its charitable activities. The Open Philanthropy Project provided funding to Smart Growth America for the purpose of supporting the charitable activities of its fiscally sponsored project Greater Greater Washington Education Project; Open Philanthropy funds will not be used to support any lobbying activities.
GGW has written about a wide variety of local policy issues in the past, devoting only a portion of its attention to land use reform. It now intends to expand its focus on land use reform and expand the scope of its activities to include organizing work devoted to allowing more housing in Washington, D.C.8
GGW’s stretch goals for the next year include:
- Convening local D.C. policy leaders to talk about housing supply issues9
- Bringing public attention to planning processes that affect the housing supply, such as the upcoming D.C. Comprehensive Plan Update10
- Organizing its followers to take action on housing supply issues11
- Redesigning and improving its website and social media activities to increase traffic and engagement12
- Expanding its board of directors and increasing its fundraising efforts in order to diversify its funding sources and become a more sustainable organization.13
These donations would support the non-political and charitable activities of 3 full-time paid staff members that GGW would plan to hire:14
- A Managing Director, who would manage the day to day operations of the organization
- A Staff Editor, who would manage the website’s content
- A Housing Organizer, who would work to educate and organize D.C. political leaders and the general public on housing supply policy issues
GGW has already identified candidates that it would like to hire for its Staff Editor position. One of GGW’s first activities would be recruiting a Managing Director and Housing Organizer.
David Alpert plans to continue to serve as an active unpaid President of the organization and as Managing Director until one can be hired.
GGW’s overall budget would be about $260K per year during the two-year donation period. Its major cost categories are:15
- Salaries and related staff costs: ~$200K per year
- Miscellaneous general expenses (e.g., office space, events/meetings costs, legal fees, etc.): ~$35K per year
- Website and computer expenses: ~$15K per year
- Reserves/contingency funds: ~$10K per year
Case for the donations
The primary reasons for these donations are:
- As discussed above, we identified land use reform as a promising area for philanthropy but saw very few groups attempting to organize people in support of reform. GGW presents an opportunity to organize people in support of land use reform in Washington, D.C., one of the key housing supply-constrained metropolitan areas.
- GGW seems like a promising organization to support within the land use reform space. Our tentative, informal impression is that it is generally well-respected by others in the space and that it has a reasonably sizable and dedicated following, and we generally have a positive impression of the organization’s leadership based on our limited interactions.
- Though we did not attempt a formal cost-effectiveness analysis for these donations, we believe that funding early stage organizations can be particularly cost-effective because of the possibility that they grow and develop a sustainable independent funding base.
- These donations may help us to signal our interest in this field to other groups and to improve our land use reform grantmaking strategy in the long run. We hope to learn more about what kinds of local land use reform activities are effective by following up on GGW’s activities over the next two years (more below).
Risks to the success of the donations
Because the type of work that GGW is undertaking is new and untested, it is difficult to project its probability of success, but we start from the general belief that achieving policy change is difficult, and accordingly we would be surprised if GGW is able to significantly affect housing policy in D.C. in the short term. Nonetheless, we think these donations are valuable because of the chance that GGW is able to affect policy in the short or (more likely) long term. We can imagine many ways that GGW could fail to have an impact, such as unsuccessful hiring, failure to find other funders, failure to attract interest from a sufficiently broad range of D.C. residents,16 or more straightforwardly failing to attract support for their policy agenda, etc.
We do not foresee specific major risks of causing harm due to these donations, though we recognize that policy change efforts can carry uncertain and unpredictable consequences.
Room for more funding
Without these donations, we believe that GGW would not have been able to significantly expand its activities. We are not aware of any other funders who would have considered providing sizable donations to support GGW’s activities.
David Alpert told us that if the Open Philanthropy Project and Cari Tuna did not provide these donations, GGW likely would have taken one of two paths:
- Tried to fundraise more aggressively to get to a ~$50K per year budget, then hired a full-time managing editor to manage the blog.
- Scaled down to a volunteer-only editorial staff and accepted fewer outside submissions to the blog (due to having less editorial capacity).
We believe GGW could potentially take on many other worthwhile activities beyond the scope of these donations; we aimed to choose a funding level that would be enough to get it off the ground but not large enough to conduct all of the activities that it would like to. Some activities that GGW could undertake with additional funding are in this footnote.17
Plans for learning and follow up
Goals for these donations
Ideally, these donations would:
- establish GGW as a sustainable independent organization and a model for similar organizations in other key metropolitan areas
- achieve meaningful improvements to land use policy in D.C., e.g. through the upcoming Comprehensive Plan Update, that create more economic opportunities for people and increase economic growth
- educate the public in the D.C. area about urban policies that could improve economic growth and create economic opportunities
- help us learn about what kinds of local land use organizing can be effective.
However, we see the above goals as ambitious and would not be surprised if GGW does not achieve them all, particularly #2, which may not be possible in the current environment.
Key questions for follow up
Questions that we hope to eventually try to answer include:
- How does GGW spend the donated funds? How does this compare to its expectations at the beginning of the donation period?
- What work does GGW ultimately prioritize during the next two years? Who is hired to fill the full time positions?
- To what extent is GGW able to achieve grassroots mobilization on land use reform issues?
- What impact, if any, does GGW seem to have on land use policies in D.C.?
- Is GGW able to find other funders for its operations? Does it seem to be on the path to sustainability?
Follow up expectations
We expect to have a conversation with GGW staff every 3-6 months for the next two years, with public notes if the conversation warrants it.
We expect to provide an update on these donations after one year either by publishing public notes or by producing a brief writeup. After the donations are spent down, we plan to attempt a more holistic and detailed evaluation of the donations’ performance.
We may abandon either or both of these follow-up expectations if land use reform ceases to be a major focus area of ours, or perform more follow-up than planned if the circumstances call for it.
We asked Steve Teles, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a consultant for the Open Philanthropy Project, to explore possible giving opportunities in land use reform. During his research process, he spoke with David Alpert and Alpert articulated a vision for how GGW might be able to use additional funding.
Prior to deciding on these donations, Open Philanthropy Project staff had further conversations with Alpert, reviewed documents GGW prepared, and did some limited background research on GGW. In addition, staff communicated with Smart Growth America and other parties about the logistics of making these donations.
We shared a draft version of this page with GGW and Smart Growth America prior to the donations being finalized.
See our Land use reform shallow investigation, particularly footnote 23, which lists the organizations working in this space that we are aware of.
- Economists Edward Glaeser, Joseph Gyourko, and Raven Saks have compared the sale price of housing to the combined cost of construction and price of land in different cities to estimate the level of regulatory “tax” that drives up prices by limiting construction.
- “Because the degree of housing market regulation is so difficult to measure, we adopt an alternative approach that is based on neoclassical economic theory. With or without regulation, that theory predicts that competition among builders will ensure that prices equal average costs. In unregulated markets, building heights will rise to the point where the marginal cost of adding an additional floor equals average costs (which will equal the market price). If market restrictions limit the size of a building, free entry of firms still will keep price equal to average cost. However, under the standard assumption of an increasing marginal cost function, both prices and average costs will be above marginal costs. Hence, the key difference between a regulated and an unregulated market is the gap between prices and marginal costs, and we use this difference to measure the extent of housing supply restrictions.” Glaeser et al. 2005
- They estimate that land use regulations increase housing prices by 19% in Boston, 34% in Los Angeles, 12% in New York, 53% in San Francisco, and 22% in Washington, DC, while estimates for other areas are generally much smaller (close to zero).
Metropolitan Area Hedonic Price of Land ($/Square Foot) Average House Value ($) Zoning Tax/House Value Baltimore 1998 0.88 154,143 0.018 Birmingham 1998 0.13 114,492 0.000 Boston 1998 0.68 236,231 0.186 Chicago 1999 1.62 187,669 0.057 Cincinnati 1999 0.40 133,050 0.000 Detroit 1999 0.37 144,686 0.000 Houston 1998 0.15 103,505 0.000 Los Angeles 1999 2.59 260,744 0.339 Minneapolis 1998 0.38 144,719 0.000 New York 1999 1.38 253,232 0.122 Newport News (Va.) 1998 0.48 127,475 0.207 Oakland 1998 2.34 284,443 0.321 Philadelphia 1999 0.81 135,862 0.000 Pittsburgh 1998 0.70 100,060 0.000 Providence 1998 0.56 148,059 0.000 Rochester 1998 0.21 109,050 0.000 Salt Lake City 1998 0.83 167,541 0.119 San Francisco 1998 4.10 418,890 0.531 San Jose 1998 3.92 385,021 0.469 Tampa 1998 0.37 103,962 0.000 Washington, D.C. 1998 0.64 213,281 0.219
Glaeser et al. 2005 Pg 359, Table 4
These funds will not support “political activity” as defined on Pg. 13 of this document: Bolder Advocacy resource document
“For this project, we will work to educate policy-makers, neighborhood leaders, and the general public about the critical importance of planning for and ensuring adequate new housing to meet demand as a major part of cities’ and counties’ housing strategies, particularly in Washington, DC.
Failure to ensure adequate housing would mean that housing prices in areas with easy access to jobs continue to rise too rapidly for poorer, middle class, or even upper middle class residents. This will stifle economic growth in the District of Columbia, Washington region, and by extension the nation, and exacerbate inequality by limiting access to better jobs for those unable to afford the rising costs.
We will educate the public and leaders with a combination of online media-related activities on the Greater Greater Washington blog, the leading voice covering planning issues in the Washington region, and in-person organizing. Off-line events will also lead to information shareable online, such as videos or articles, and we will recruit people who participate off-line to write articles for the blog.
One key early public participation opportunity is DC’s upcoming Comprehensive Plan update. The Comprehensive Plan sets high-level and neighborhood-level policies and can orient the city toward (or away from) increasing housing supply. It will be a clear opportunity for neighborhood leaders and the public to participate.” Greater Greater Washington plan document
- Convene leaders from across the District to talk about housing supply issues
- Convene Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) commissioners, former commissioners, citizens/civic association members, and other neighborhood influencers from all eight wards for education and conversation on these issues.
- Include ANC commissioners from at least half of ANCs (20 of 40), at least 2 per ward.
- Hold one discussion per month, in varying parts of the city, beginning at most 3 months after the grant period begins.
- Encourage the group to participate in the upcoming DC Comprehensive Plan Update.
- Convene leaders from across the District to talk about housing supply issues
- Bring regular attention to review processes that affect housing
- Identify and recruit regular contributors from all eight wards to write about development projects in their neighborhoods on the website.
- Reach an average pace of two articles per week on neighborhood development projects and/or housing supply issues, written by non-staff and edited by the Staff Editor.
- Develop a plan to reach out to other media outlets, neighborhood blogs, etc. to disseminate content and drive traffic to action alerts.
- “One key early public participation opportunity is DC’s upcoming Comprehensive Plan update. The Comprehensive Plan sets high-level and neighborhood-level policies and can orient the city toward (or away from) increasing housing supply. It will be a clear opportunity for neighborhood leaders and the public to participate.” Greater Greater Washington plan document
- Build organizing capacity
- Deploy a CRM system and begin testing embedded take action messages at the ends of posts and report on what works well to drive signups and actions.
- Send an average of one alert to the email list per week over the second half of the year. Track the open and conversion rates of the alerts to gauge their success and report on what works best for our issues.
- Build organizing capacity
- Maximize the effect of the current media site
- Redesign the Greater Greater Washington site to better maximize traffic, sharing, clicks to related articles. Launch new version by 6 months after the grant period begins.
- Increase daily email subscribers to Greater Greater Washington from 1,800 to 2,500.
- Increase average weekday pageviews plus in-place opens (clicking “read more” to see the whole article inline without reloading) from current 65,000/day to 75,000/day.
- Grow Twitter from 18,700 followers to 20,500 and from 2.5 retweets per article to 3.5.
- Grow Facebook from 3,200 fans to 4,000; from a daily total reach of 4,000 to 4,500; from 284 average daily engaged users to 325.
- Maximize the effect of the current media site
“In summer 2015, we will expand the board to add approximately 3-4 other individuals who bring new expertise in areas such as fundraising, organizational development, and media management, and help to connect to new donors and potential donor audiences.
The board will then convene a core executive committee that meets more frequently and a larger group that meets less often; many of the current board members will be on the executive committee. We will then aim to grow the board size gradually in upcoming years to reach a size of approximately 11-12.” Greater Greater Washington plan document
- The Director will manage the day to day operations of the organization. He/she will manage the hiring process for staff in coordination with the board, set day-to-day objectives for staff, manage income and expenses, and ensure consistent progress toward fundraising programs including reader drives, corporate relations, and foundation outreach.
- The Staff Editor will operate the website on a day to day basis, ensuring that a steady stream of high-quality articles get published. He or she will work with the volunteer Editorial Board and volunteer contributors to seek article submissions, work with authors to maximize stories’ impact, and write headlines and social media messages to drive traffic to the articles.
- Jonathan Neeley, who has served as part-time Staff Editor for Greater Greater Washington (initially as Associate Editor) since October of 2014, will likely become full-time Staff Editor, subject to his and the Board’s approval.
- The Housing Organizer will work to educate neighborhood and citywide leaders and the general public on housing supply policy issues within the District of Columbia. He or she will build relationships with these leaders, convene group discussions, ensure that in-person events get shared through text, images, or video on the website, recruit contributors to write about neighborhood housing issues, promote housing topics on social media, and build an email list to grow engagement among the public.
The Washington City Paper profile of David Alpert notes: “A glance at the overwhelmingly white happy hour crowd underscores the perception that Alpert’s group represents one part of the city prescribing solutions for another—which, no matter how logical their ideas, can create a public relations problem.”
“This list shows top priority items from the original discussion which will either not happen or will only happen in small scale under the current project, but which could happen at larger scale if further funding opportunities arise; we will seek to apply for grants to pursue these when possible.
- Educate the public further about the economics of development. Many developers make arguments about how a particular regulatory hurdle would make a project not “pencil out,” but few members of the public really understand the economics and are unable to reliably evaluate the truth or falsity of the claim. A writer with an economics background could help explain, through text, graphics, and video, the calculations that go into such buildings and how various regulations affect it, publish that information, and create seminars for neighborhood leaders.
- Pilot policies to better link neighborhood and citywide incentives. Any negative impacts of development are primarily localized, while policy benefits are mainly diffuse across the city or even the entire region. Laws could ensure that revenue-generating growth in one neighborhood also brings specific improvements that residents affirmatively want, and planning processes could help build consensus on where within the neighborhood more growth would best go.
- Develop “games” around planning and constraints: Online tools can directly help people engage with the planning process and understand the constraints around economic development. The Redistricting Game (http://redistricting.greatergreaterwashington.org/) let people redraw ward boundaries given constraints of each ward’s size and contiguousness; similar constraint satisfaction “games” could help people explore what it would take to bring a grocery store to their neighborhood or recommend how the city or community should grow.