The Open Philanthropy Blog

As we wrote last week, we’re substantially growing our overall giving in Global Health and Wellbeing, with the bar in that broad portfolio continuing to be set by the cost-effective, evidence-backed charities recommended by GiveWell. (As most of our readers know, Open Philanthropy started off as a project of GiveWell.)

Today we are excited to announce our largest-to-date support for GiveWell’s recommendations: $300 million for 2021, up from $100 million last year, with tentative plans1 to donate an additional $500 million per year in 2022 and 2023.

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In 2019, we wrote a blog post about how we think about the “bar” for our giving and how we compare different kinds of interventions to each other using back-of-the-envelope calculations, all within the realm of what we now call Global Health and Wellbeing (GHW). This post updates that one and:

  • Explains how we previously compared health and income gains in comparable units. In short, we use a logarithmic model of the utility of income, so a 1% change in income is worth the same to everyone, and a dollar of income is worth 100x more to someone who has 100x less. We measure philanthropic impact in units of the welfare gained by giving a dollar to someone with an annual income of $50,000, which was roughly US GDP per capita when we adopted this framework. Under the logarithmic model, this means we value increasing 100 people’s income by 1% (i.e. a total of 1 natural log unit increase in income) at $50,000. We have previously also valued averting a disability-adjusted life year (DALY; roughly, a year of healthy life lost) at $50,000, so we valued increasing income by one natural-log unit as equal to averting 1 DALY. This would imply that a charity that could avert a DALY for $50 would have a “1,000x” return because the benefits would be $50,000 relative to the costs of $50. (More)
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Today, we’re making three announcements:

  1. After hundreds of grants totaling more than $130 million over six years, one of our first programs – criminal justice reform (CJR) – is becoming an independent organization.
  2. The team that had been leading our CJR program, Chloe Cockburn and Jesse Rothman, is transitioning to Just Impact, which describes itself as “a criminal justice reform advisory group and fund that is focused on building the power and influence of highly strategic, directly-impacted leaders and their allies to create transformative change from the ground up”.
  3. We are helping to launch Just Impact with approximately $50 million in seed funding spread over 3.5 years.

We’ve had internal discussions around the possibility of a different structure for more than a year, and have spent the past few years continuing to search for new potential causes that might yield cost-effective giving opportunities. That has led to some important updates:

  • As we wrote in 2019, we think the top global aid charities recommended by GiveWell (which we used to be part of and remain closely affiliated with) present an opportunity to give away large amounts of money at higher cost-effectiveness than we can achieve in many programs, including CJR, that seek to benefit citizens of wealthy countries. Accordingly we’re shifting the focus of future grantmaking from our Global Health and Wellbeing portfolio (which CJR has been part of) further towards the types of opportunities outlined in that post – specifically, efforts to improve and save the lives of people internationally (including things like distributing insecticide-treated bednets to prevent the spread of malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa, and fighting air pollution in South Asia).
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Open Philanthropy is expanding and we are recruiting a number of talented new hires to help us direct philanthropic funding in new-to-OP causes and to join the team that identifies new areas for grantmaking. Our Global Health and Wellbeing team – which works to improve life through causes like global development, scientific research, and farm animal welfare – is ramping up its grantmaking. The GHW team directed more than $200M in grants in 2020 and we expect that number to rise substantially in the years to come.

We’re looking for two types of roles to help us direct billions of dollars of new giving over the coming years. First, we’re looking for experts who will lead Open Philanthropy’s giving in new cause areas we’ve identified as potential focus areas. We’re hiring two new Program Officers, in South Asian air quality and global aid advocacy. Each of these Program Officers will identify specific grants and grantees that we believe can beat our 1,000x social return on investment bar.1 We expect these positions to be filled by grantmakers who combine deep expertise in their area, strategic vision, and a quantitative mindset. We’re looking for people who already know many potential grantee organizations and can make reasoned and balanced arguments about why their approach is likely to clear our high bar for giving. We think finding the right grantmaker is a key ingredient to our potential impact in these causes, so we may not end up going into them if we can’t find the right people.

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Since 1900, the global economy has grown by about 3% each year, meaning that it doubles in size every 20–30 years. I’ve written a report assessing whether significantly faster growth might occur this century. Specifically, I ask whether growth could be ten times faster, with the global economy growing by 30% each year. This would mean it doubled in size every 2–3 years; I call this possibility ‘explosive growth’.

The report builds on the work of my colleague, David Roodman. Although recently growth has been fairly steady, in the distant past it was much slower. David developed a mathematical model for extrapolating this pattern into the future; after calibration to data for the last 12,000 years, the model predicts that the global economy will grow ever faster over time and that explosive growth is a couple of decades away! My report assesses David’s model, and compares it to other methods for extrapolating growth into the future.

At first glance, it might seem that explosive growth is implausible — that it is somehow absurd or economically naive. Contrary to this view, I offer three considerations from economic history and growth theory that suggest advanced AI could drive explosive growth. In brief:

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We’re excited to announce that Open Philanthropy co-founder Alexander Berger has been promoted to co-CEO!

For some time now, Alexander has been the primary leader for most of our work on causes focused on maximizing verifiable impact within our lifetimes, while I have increasingly focused on causes directly aimed at affecting the very long-run future. I felt that Alexander should be promoted to recognize this reality and formalize the division of labor at Open Philanthropy. I am confident that he is an excellent fit for this role.

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Since our last hiring update, we have had a lot of new staff join Open Philanthropy. I’d like to use this post to introduce the new members of our team. We’re excited to have them!

If you are interested in joining our team, check out open positions on our Working at Open Phil page.

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This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year.

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One of Open Phil’s major focus areas is technical research and policy work aimed at reducing potential risks from advanced AI.

To inform this work, I have written a report developing one approach to forecasting when artificial general intelligence (AGI) will be developed. By AGI, I mean computer program(s) that can perform virtually any cognitive task as well as any human, for no more money than it would cost for a human to do it. The field of AI is largely understood to have begun in Dartmouth in 1956, and since its inception one of its central aims has been to develop AGI.1

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Open Philanthropy’s ability to give effectively to the world’s most important and neglected causes hinges on the collective strength and expertise of our team. As such, we’ve thought extensively about how we can identify those who could most meaningfully contribute to Open Philanthropy’s mission, and how we can craft a recruitment process that encourages them to apply.

Recruiting Manager Anya Hunt sat down with Communications Officer Michael Levine to talk about Open Philanthropy’s approach to recruiting, the role of work tests in the application process, and measures we are taking to diversify our pipeline and attract talent from different communities. The questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity.

Generally speaking, how does Open Philanthropy approach the recruitment process?

There are parallels to the way we approach grantmaking. Each hire is an investment — we’re making a bet that this person will help Open Phil more effectively carry out our mission. In both cases, we’re trying to be evidence-based where we can, but we’re also trying to minimize bureaucracy. We try to hold ourselves to rigorous standards of decision-making, accounting for our biases wherever possible. We can only be as effective as the people we hire. So we’re willing to invest an unusual amount of time and energy into sourcing and vetting candidates.

How does that mindset impact the recruiting process?

Mainly, it causes us to put work tests at the center of the process. After some basic screening, the first thing candidates do, typically, before we interview them, before anything else happens, is to take at least one work test, and we’ll pay them an honorarium to complete it. Then we evaluate it blind and generally admit people to the next round only if they meet a certain preset standard. This results in an unusually long process — that’s both an upside and a downside. It’s a downside for the obvious reasons, but it’s an upside because we think making a hire, and accepting an offer, is a really important decision on both our end and the candidate’s. Because onboarding new staff can be very costly to both us and the new hire, we aim to be highly confident in every offer we make (though of course we do still make mistakes).

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