Progress to Date | Open Philanthropy Project

This outlines the history of the Open Philanthropy Project and links to our annual plans and self-reviews, and other progress updates.

2011-2012

The Open Philanthropy Project was launched as GiveWell Labs in late 2011, but we made little progress on it until 2013. Specifically:

  • In its 2011 annual review (published in 2012), GiveWell wrote, “GiveWell Labs made little progress in 2011 aside from being launched, but we expect it to be a major priority for 2012.”
  • We laid out our 2012 plans in GiveWell’s Plan for 2012: Specifics of Research. Among other things, we wrote: “Within GiveWell Labs, our current (and very much subject to change) top goal for 2012 is getting a good working understanding of the most promising sectors.” We now see this as having been an unrealistic one-year goal.
  • In our 2012 annual review (published in 2013), we reported that we had made little progress on the Open Philanthropy Project (then called GiveWell Labs) due to the small amount of staff time we had allocated to it. We outlined plans to allocate significantly more time to the Project, but (by design) did not articulate specific goals for this work. Read more at:

2013 review & 2014 plan (published in early 2014)

We reviewed our progress and plans for the Open Philanthropy Project (then called GiveWell Labs) in GiveWell Labs – Progress in 2013 and Plans for 2014. Our progress in 2013 included:

  • developing a framework for selecting focus areas,
  • getting the basic context necessary to investigate causes within policy-oriented philanthropy and scientific research,
  • completing 19 shallow investigations (one to three conversations with experts) and two medium-depth investigations (10-30 conversations) of causes,
  • starting work on deeper dives for two causes, and
  • learning about the work of major foundations and philanthropy’s track record.

We had two major goals for 2014:

  • To make serious commitments to causes in U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks. We felt this was a stretch goal.
  • To learn more about scientific research and foreign aid, to enable us to make serious commitments to causes in these categories by the end of 2015.

August 2014 update

We changed the name of GiveWell Labs to the Open Philanthropy Project.

2014 review & 2015 plan (published in early 2015)

In early 2015 we published Progress and plans for the Open Philanthropy Project in 2014. In summary:

  • We made substantial progress in the two categories we prioritized for 2014: U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks. We began to shift our focus within these categories from cause investigations to making major grants and/or hires in our top-priority causes, also known as focus areas.
  • We made less progress than hoped on learning about scientific research and global health and development (previously referred to as foreign aid). Our main goal on this front for 2015 was to form clear priorities within scientific research, comparable to where we currently stand on U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks. This was a stretch goal. We deprioritized further learning about global health and development temporarily, while we focused on forming priorities in science. (Meanwhile, Good Ventures continued to support GiveWell’s top charities, which work in global heath and development.)
  • We made some progress on separating the Open Philanthropy Project brand from the GiveWell brand, including choosing a new name, as discussed above, and creating a preliminary website. In 2015, we planned to launch a more substantial website for the Open Philanthropy Project and continue the process of separating the two organizations.

September 2015 update

Our mid-year update reported on our progress and updated goals across all causes.

2015 review & 2016 plan (published in April 2016)

In April 2016, we published Our Progress in 2015 and Plans for 2016. In summary:

  • Our 2015 goals revolved mostly around building our staff capacity, and particularly around hiring. Broadly speaking, we mostly accomplished our goals, though we significantly scaled back our goals for scientific research at mid-year.
  • Our team roughly doubled in size between 2015-2016, putting us in much better position to recommend a significant amount of grantmaking. We also felt much better positioned to identify outstanding causes.
  • For 2016, we laid out a general goal of focusing on making grants in the most outstanding causes we’d found. This was a departure from past years’ goals, which revolved around building knowledge and staff capacity.
  • We made potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence a major priority for 2016 .
  • Other major focus areas where we expected significant grantmaking in 2016 included criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, and biosecurity. We expected to recommend at least $10 million in grants in each of these areas.
  • We laid out a variety of other goals, including completing the separation of the Open Philanthropy Project as an independent organization from GiveWell, with its own employees and financials.

2016 review & 2017 plan (published in March 2017)

In March 2017, we published Our Progress in 2016 and Plans for 2017.

In brief:

  • Our main goal for 2016 was increasing our level of grantmaking, and we focused on this rather than hiring. The team did not grow much, but we recommended over $100 million worth of grants in 2016, compared to under $20 million in 2015.
  • We had three Scientific Advisors - Chris Somerville, Heather Youngs and Daniel Martin-Alarcon - start in mid-2016. (Chris had previously been consulting on a part-time basis.) We still felt we had a good deal of work to do before setting focus areas within scientific research.
  • We did not complete the spinoff of the Open Philanthropy Project into a separate organization; this turned out to be more time-consuming than anticipated. We anticipated completing it by mid-2017.
  • For the coming years, we expected to be able to continue recommending grants at a pace of $100+ million per year (though with considerable year-to-year variation) and maintaining current quality (i.e. grants that we consider reasonably well-investigated and good expected value for money).
  • At this stage, we saw greater importance than before for a number of issues including the question of how much grantmaking to aim for in each of our focus areas and how to decide when a grant is worth making, our approach to public communications, and how to make our grantmaking process more streamlined and systematic. In particular, we believed that we had much to gain from sharpening our thinking on several points related to worldview diversification - and the relative appeal of different worldviews - before increasing our annual giving level much more.
  • For 2017, we didn’t plan to focus on scaling up our program staff or grantmaking. Instead, we expected to maintain them at roughly the same level while making significant progress on the items listed in the previous point.

2017 review & 2018 plan (published in March 2018)

In March 2018, we published Our Progress in 2017 and Plans for 2018.

In brief:

  • We recommended well over $100 million worth of grants in 2017. The bulk of these came from our major current focus areas: potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, and scientific research. Additionally, we recommended ~$90 million in grants to GiveWell’s top charities and incubation grants.
  • We’re starting to see hints of impact in the causes where our giving is most mature and near-term: criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare. We’re hoping to apply more scrutiny in the future (via, e.g., our History of Philanthropy project) to the key cases where it seems our work has had impact. In addition, in 2017 we put significant work into deeply examining some of the key premises behind our work on criminal justice reform (via David Roodman’s report on the impacts of incarceration) and farm animal welfare (via Ajeya Cotra’s report on the welfare implications of cage-free systems).
  • Scientific research was an area of particular progress in 2017 compared to 2016. We published an update on our approach to neglected goals that we consider to have largely achieved (in spirit) the goal of setting focus areas. We completed our transformative research award “second chance” program. In total, we made over $30 million in recommendations in scientific research.
  • A major focus for 2017 work was cause prioritization, which we gave a fairly extensive update on in January. This work has proven quite complex, and we expect that it could take many years to reach reasonably detailed and solid expectations about our long-term giving trajectory and allocations.
  • We made significant progress on capacity building via hiring and improvements in operations and communications; we completed the process of becoming a separate organization from GiveWell; and we saw somewhat more progress than expected on self-evaluation and advising additional donors.
  • Overall, we maintained a high level of grantmaking and made significant progress on increasing capacity, improving operations, and sharpening our thinking on cause prioritization. However, we have considerable room for further development on these fronts. It could be several years (or more) before we seek to increase our annual giving much more, and in the meantime our annual reviews are likely to be fairly similar to each other: each year, we will aim to maintain roughly our current level of giving ($100+ million per year on average, though with significant year-to-year variation) while increasing our organizational capacity, improving our operations, making progress on cause prioritization, and looking back and learning from our past grantmaking in order to inform our future work. Hiring is a particularly high priority for the coming year.