The Open Philanthropy Blog

We’ve recently posted a number of new openings to our jobs page, including:

Additionally, our Director of Operations search is ongoing. The Director of Operations will be responsible for significantly expanding our current grants management team and building out our own finance, budgeting, HR, IT, office management, and legal teams. As we grow, the Director of Operations will also help us maintain a strong culture that prioritizes truth-seeking and honesty, a drive for constant improvement, ambition paired with skeptical inquiry, diversity and inclusion, active listening to grantees and other partners, and attentive and dedicated management at all levels of the organization.

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Suzanne Kahn, a consultant who has been working with us as part of our History of Philanthropy project, recently finished a case study on the role of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) in state-level Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) programs. This report is a follow-up to her earlier report on CBPP’s founding and early growth, and investigates CBPP’s claim that CBPP “created the concept of state EITCs and… developed state issue campaigns to secure their adoption. Before we started this work, no state had its own EITC; today, 26 do.”

The report finds that:

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Last year, we wrote:

A major goal of 2017 will be to reach and publish better-developed views on:

This post gives an update on this work.

The questions we’re tackling here are complex, and we are still far from having a fully developed framework.

However, we do have a tentative high-level approach to these questions, and some rough expectations about a few high-level conclusions (at least as far as the next few years are concerned). Hopefully, laying these out will clarify - among other things - (a) why we continue to work on multiple highly disparate causes; (b) ranges for what sort of budgets we expect in the next few years for each of the focus areas we currently work in; (c) how we decided how much to recommend that Good Ventures donate to GiveWell’s top charities for 2017.

In brief:

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Note: This post originally appeared in the monthly farm animal welfare newsletter written by Lewis Bollard, our program officer for farm animal welfare. Sign up here to receive an email each month with Lewis’ research and insights into a farm animal advocacy research topic. We decided to cross-post this one because we thought it was especially interesting and wanted to make people aware of Lewis’ newsletter, but note that the newsletter is not thoroughly vetted by other staff and does not necessarily represent consensus views of the Open Philanthropy Project as a whole.

When we think of farm animals, we likely don’t think of carp. But this family of freshwater fish — which includes the three most populous farmed fish species in the world: crucian carp, silver carp, and catla — is likely the most numerous farmed vertebrate animal in the world, with an estimated 25-95 billion farmed every year. (About 62 billion chickens are farmed every year, but each is farmed for just 5-8 weeks, whereas carp are farmed for 12-14 months, meaning far more carp are alive at any given time.)

Fish are the forgotten farm animal. Of the more than 100 undercover investigations that U.S. animal advocates have done to expose abuse of farm animals, just one focused on fish. For a long time scientists questioned if fish could feel pain, though our internal investigation suggests there’s about as much evidence for some fish being able to feel pain as there is for birds.

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A little over a year ago, the HistPhil blog put up a post by Tamara Mann Tweel about a now-published report we commissioned her to work on, regarding the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI)’s role in global price drops for antiretroviral drugs (which can be crucial in treating HIV/AIDS).

The HistPhil post states:

Antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) went down from 10,000 – $15,000 per person per year to $140 per person per year between 2000 and 2005. This price drop inspired governments and international bodies to purchase ARVs and administer therapy to millions of individuals stricken with HIV/AIDS.

While the Clinton Foundation often receives credit for the entirety of the ARV price drop, my report affirmed scholarship that claimed the price drop actually occurred in three stages. The first, from $15,000 per person per year to approximately $1000 per person per year in specific cases, can be attributed to activists persuading pharmaceutical companies to offer philanthropic prices to discreet pilot projects; the second price drop, from approximately $1000 per person per year to approximately $350 per person per year, can be attributed to the active creation of an international generic drug market; and the final drop, from $350 to $140, can be attributed to deliberate market interventions into the generic market by the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI).

As discussed in the full report, this three-stage price drop corresponded to a massive increase in the purchases of antivirals (especially by governments and nonprofits); we haven’t specifically estimated the deaths averted by this development, but feel confident that it qualifies as the sort of hit we’re interested in.

We don’t feel fully confident that any particular funder or nonprofit was crucial to the price drop. The key things we learned from the report were that:

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Last year and the year before, we published a set of suggestions for individual donors looking for organizations to support. This year, we are repeating the practice and publishing updated suggestions from Open Philanthropy Project staff who chose to provide them.

The same caveats as in previous years apply:

  • These are reasonably strong options in causes of interest, and shouldn’t be taken as outright recommendations (i.e., it isn’t necessarily the case that the person making the suggestion thinks they’re the best option available across all causes). Note that interested staff wrote separately about where they personally donated, in this post.
  • In many cases, we find a funding gap we’d like to fill, and then we recommend filling the entire funding gap with a single grant. That doesn’t leave much scope for making a suggestion for individuals. The cases listed below, then, are the cases where, for one reason or another, we haven’t decided to recommend filling an organization’s full funding gap, and we believe it could make use of fairly arbitrary amounts of donations from individuals.
  • Our explanations for why these are strong giving opportunities are very brief and informal, and we don’t expect individuals to be persuaded by them unless they put a lot of weight on the judgment of the person making the suggestion.
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As part of getting started in science funding, we’ve explored several different methods of finding high-impact giving opportunities, including scanning published research, networking in fields of interest, and considering proposals sent to us by people we know. We recently announced four grants totalling $10.8 million that represent another approach: piggybacking on a government grant program designed to find transformative research.

The approach, in brief:

  • The National Institutes of Health has a program specifically for higher-risk, high-impact research.
  • The NIH has been able to fund only a small portion of proposals received through that program. Some projects considered worthy by peer review were ultimately rejected.
  • The NIH sent out a notice on our behalf to all unfunded 2016 applicants, and more than half re-submitted their applications to us. We received 120 proposals in three weeks.
  • We viewed this RFP as a way to both identify high-risk, high-reward projects and to test our hypothesis that high-risk, high-reward research is underfunded in general.
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For this post, some Open Phil staff members wrote up the thinking behind their personal donations for the year. Staff are listed in order of their start dates.

You can click the below links to jump to a staff member’s entry:

Holden Karnofsky

I front-loaded my giving last year, and consistent with that, I am not giving this year.

Alexander Berger

This year, I’m planning to follow the same allocation I did last year:

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We divide our scientific research funding into two categories: neglected goals and basic research. We believe that some research areas are underfunded because achieving the relevant research objectives is underrated by the “broad market” (according to our values). We call such research objectives “neglected goals.”

In 2014, we set a goal to be in a position to identify focus areas in science by the end of 2016. This post explains our initial plan for this work, our original hopes and expectations, what we have done so far, and our plans for work in this area going forward. In brief:

  • Our initial plan was to identify focus areas using a series of shallow and medium-depth investigations, analogous to the process we used to identify focus areas in U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks.
  • We found that our investigations took longer than expected and we felt that they gave us an inadequate basis to declare focus areas and hire specialist program staff to lead our work in those areas. Moreover, we could not envision investigations with acceptable time costs that would form an adequate basis for making such decisions.
  • However, our investigations did, in multiple cases, result in our science advisors’ identifying “standout” giving opportunities: giving opportunities that seemed unusually promising by the standards of the field they were investigating, and strong compared to giving opportunities we’ve seen generally.
  • We decided to pivot to a model in which generalist scientific advisors are given a broad mandate to opportunistically identify standout giving opportunities within about a dozen areas. Rather than investigating each area in depth and choosing a few as focus areas, they investigate one at a time, looking primarily for standout opportunities, and choose which area to investigate based on their subjective estimate of the odds of finding standout opportunities. We’re very excited by the giving opportunities that the science team is finding under this model, and it’s unclear whether it would have been better to use our previous model and hire staff specializing in just a couple of program areas.
  • A spreadsheet summarizing our list of priorities and cause-specific progress so far (listed in alphabetical order) is here.

We are likely to give a separate, shorter update on basic research in the future.1

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This post aims to give blog readers and followers of the Open Philanthropy Project an opportunity to publicly raise comments or questions about the Open Philanthropy Project or related topics (in the comments section below). As always, you’re also welcome to email us at info@openphilanthropy.org if there’s feedback or questions you’d prefer to discuss privately. We’ll try to respond promptly to questions or comments.

You can see our previous open thread here.

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