The Open Philanthropy Blog

Last year, I wrote that Open Philanthropy was expanding and we were recruiting to help us direct philanthropic funding in new causes:

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. 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.

Today, I’m excited to announce two new hires who we believe combine these qualities, and that we will be launching South Asian Air Quality and Global Aid Advocacy as our first two new causes in more than five years when these new hires join Open Philanthropy early this year.

South Asian Air Quality

Our new South Asian Air Quality program will be led by Santosh Harish. Santosh was until recently a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, where he was a leading voice on the governance of air quality. He previously worked at the India Center of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC-India). Before that, he was a Post-Doctoral Fellow with Evidence for Policy Design India and J-PAL South Asia and received a B. Tech from IIT Madras and a PhD in Engineering & Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon.


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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)
  • Reviews our previous “bar” for what level of cost-effectiveness a grant needed to hit to be worth making. Overall, having a single “bar” across multiple very different programs and outcome measures is an attractive feature because equalizing marginal returns across different programs is a requirement for optimizing the overall allocation of resources
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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.
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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.

In brief:

  • We recommended over $200 million worth of grants in 2020. The bulk of this came from recommendations to support GiveWell’s top charities and from our major current focus areas: potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, scientific research, and effective altruism. [More]
  • We completed and published a number of reports on the likelihood of transformative AI being developed within the next couple of decades and other topics relevant to our future funding priorities. We are now working on both publishing additional reports in this area and updating our internal views on certain key values that inform our “near-termist” giving. [More]
  • We’re interested in determining how quickly we should increase our giving. As a means of answering this question, we have developed a model to optimize our spending levels across time within “near-termist” causes, which we hope to share this year. [More]
  • We have also begun the process of investigating potential new areas for giving. This year, we hope to launch searches for program officers in multiple new focus areas. [More]
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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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