This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year.
- 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.
- Progress in 2017
- Plans for 2018
Progress in 2017
Last year’s post laid out plans for 2017. This section follows the order of that section, and quotes from it to allow comparisons between our plans and our progress.
Major focus areas with full-time staff
Last year, we wrote:
We expect to continue our work on potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare much as we did in 2016. I would guess that the total amounts given in these causes will be broadly similar to what they were in 2016, and it’s hard to say whether they’ll be higher or lower for a given cause, because we don’t know what sorts of opportunities we will find. My best guess is that the four causes combined will account for around $70-90 million in recommendations.
The four combined for about $95 million in recommendations:
- ~$20 million in criminal justice reform. Writeups for some of the major grants here are still forthcoming; they include major ongoing support to Alliance for Safety and Justice and significant investments in grassroots advocacy and prosecutorial accountability work (such as the work done by Color of Change).
- ~$20 million in farm animal welfare, much of which went to support international campaigns: for example, $2 million to the Open Wing Alliance for European advocacy generally, $1.3 million to L214 in France, and ~$2.5 million to the Humane Society International in India and East Asia.
- ~$40 million in potential risks of advanced AI, $30 million of which was a grant to OpenAI, and another $6.5 million of which went to three grants on technical safety research: Machine Intelligence Research Institute, Berkeley AI Research, and Prof. Percy Liang’s lab at Stanford.
- ~$15 million in biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, ~$12 million of which went to the following three grants: Nuclear Threat Initiative (significantly expanding its biosecurity program), Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, and a renewal to Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense.
As mentioned below, we are currently working on internal reviews of the strategies we’ve taken and the impact we’ve had to date in each cause, and may also publish public summaries of these later on.
US policy grantmaking
Last year, we wrote:
We believe that the results of the 2016 elections have changed the overall landscape for U.S. policy (though not in a way that substantially alters the promise of criminal justice reform or farm animal welfare). Alexander Berger plans to put less emphasis on finding new grantees in immigration reform, macroeconomic stabilization policy and land use reform, while focusing on maintaining existing grants in those areas. He plans to spend more of his time exploring new potential Open Phil policy priorities in light of the 2016 elections. It’s hard to say what level of grantmaking this will lead to.
Alexander has spent increasing time on both management and communications (the latter discussed below), and in 2017 we didn’t prioritize either (a) opening new US policy areas or (b) significant grantmaking in the three areas mentioned above. We are experimenting with a couple of contracting arrangements for people who might become Program Officers in the above causes.
Last year, we wrote:
We now consider this to be among our focus areas. We’ve recommended (or will soon recommend) multi-year grants to the organizations we’re most interested in supporting in this area. Nick Beckstead will maintain relationships and continue keeping an eye out for new opportunities, including opportunities to provide further funding to existing grantees, though we won’t necessarily make new grant recommendations in 2017 beyond the couple we’re working on now.
Last year, we wrote:
We’ve been working with our new full-time staff in this area for a few months, and feel that we still have a lot to learn about how best to investigate causes in this area. We hope to set focus areas by the end of 2017 or early 2018, though we still consider that a “soft” goal such that we will feel unsurprised if we don’t achieve it. I expect that some grantmaking opportunities will come up in the meantime; we would like to recommend at least $10-20 million worth of grants while still choosing focus areas this year, including some of the “transformative research award” candidates mentioned above, and we plan to make larger grants if we can find outstanding opportunities (such as gene drives).
We saw significant progress on this front. 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 discussed above. We completed our transformative research award “second chance” program. In total, we made over $30 million in recommendations in scientific research; writeups for some of the major grants are still forthcoming.
Last year, we wrote:
Claire Zabel has been investigating potential “one-off grants” for global catastrophic risks other than the two mentioned above, particularly climate change and nuclear weapons policy. We don’t yet know how much grantmaking this will result in.
We recommended about $9 million in grants along these lines, mostly related to climate change: $3 million for the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program, ~$2.8 million via two grants for governance of solar radiation management, and $3 million for nuclear conflict climate modeling.
GiveWell top charities and incubation grants
We recommended ~$90 million in grants to GiveWell’s top charities and incubation grants, using the framework outlined here. These are in addition to the well over $100 million in recommended grants through our focus areas and other work.
Last year, we wrote: “Overall, I will not be surprised if 2017 grantmaking is lower than 2016 grantmaking, as there were some significant one-off grants in 2016 (particularly in the area of gene drives). But I’d guess that we will recommend at least $100 million worth of grants, and I’ll consider it quite surprising if we don’t recommend at least $80 million worth.” 2017 grantmaking was well over $100 million; it’s still possible that we will run out of “low-hanging fruit” and see a dip in the near future, but this looks less likely than it did a year ago.
Impact and self-evaluation
Last year, we wrote:
We expect to very preliminarily start looking back at previous grants and doing self-assessment. However, we think it will be more productive to focus on this work a year or two from now. We expect most of our grants to take several years to have noticeable impact (if any), and the bulk of our grantmaking to date is now less than a year old.
We made slightly more progress than expected on this front. We completed internal “portfolio reviews” - discussions of impact, lessons learned, and future expectations for a broad set of grants - for farm animal welfare and potential risks from advanced AI, and have started work on portfolio reviews for other causes as well. We may publicly summarize these portfolio reviews later on.
While most of our grants are still a couple of years old at most, we believe we are seeing hints of impact, particularly in causes where our giving is most mature and near-term:
- We believe our largest criminal justice reform grantee, Alliance for Safety and Justice, played a significant role in the passage of two criminal justice reform bills in Illinois. The first, signed into law in 2017, was projected by the state’s Sentencing Policy Advisory Council to reduce the state’s prison population by 4,000 people by 2025. The second, just recently signed, facilitates re-entry for individuals leaving incarceration and improves support available for children and youth affected by crime and violence.
- As mentioned above, our 2017 giving in farm animal welfare was largely focused internationally. This expansion abroad was possible partially because corporate campaigns, which had previously been in motion and were likely accelerated by our funding, had already secured pledges from all of the top 25 U.S. grocers and 16 of the top 20 U.S. fast food chains. Our farm animal welfare Program Officer, Lewis Bollard, wrote last April that these pledges look like a major and unusual success story for rapid, large-scale change brought on by advocacy.
We are hoping to subject cases like these (where it appears our work has had impact) to further scrutiny in the future; for example, we are hoping to support a case study on the first point above, under our History of Philanthropy project. In addition, in 2017 we put significant work into deeply examining some of the key premises behind our work:
- David Roodman analyzed whether decarceration reforms increase crime. His extensive report, published in September, summarized in a series of blog posts, and covered by Vox, The Economist, and Marginal Revolution, concluded that the best available evidence suggests that at typical policy margins in the United States today, decarceration likely would have zero net impact on crime, while bringing substantial financial and humanitarian benefits.
- Ajeya Cotra analyzed the extent to which moving to cage-free systems represents a welfare improvement for chickens. Her report, published in September and summarized in this blog post, suggests that cage-free systems provide valuable behavioral opportunities to hens that likely outweigh possible short-term mortality increases caused by the transition to the new systems.
Cause prioritization framework and “last dollar” analysis
Last year, we wrote:
A major goal of 2017 will be to reach and publish better-developed views on:
- Which worldviews we find most plausible: for example, how we allocate resources between giving that primarily focuses on present-day human welfare vs. present-day animal welfare vs. global catastrophic risks.
- How we allocate resources among worldviews.
- How we determine whether it’s better to make a given grant or save the money for a later date.
We gave a fairly extensive update on this work in January. It 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 now expect a continuing iterative process in which - at any given time - we are making enough guesses and tentative allocations to set our working budgets for existing focus areas and our desired trajectory for total giving over the next few years. We expect the detail and confidence of our capital allocation between buckets to increase in parallel with total giving, and to be fairly high by the time we reach peak giving.
Progress on this front also included the publication of Luke Muehlhauser’s report on moral patienthood, one of the key questions for our cause prioritization.
Last year, we wrote:
We hope to improve our staff capacity and processes on a few fronts:
- We’re hoping to improve our grantmaking process, particularly the process of completing a writeup, grant agreement, and grant payment. (Currently, it often takes months from when we recommend a grant to when we finalize and announce the grant.) We recently hired Morgan Davis to help with this work, and may hire more people in line with this goal.
- We’re hoping to hire a Director of Operations so that we can be in good position to build an operations team as we grow further in the future. Currently, we largely share operations capacity with GiveWell.
- We’re hoping to improve our communications capacity. Currently, we make many grants with relatively little sense for what communications challenges they might raise, and what we can do to minimize or mitigate such challenges. We are exploring the idea of more intensive engagements with communications firms, and/or hiring, in order to get better at this. Doing so might also improve our ability to create public communications about our work that are more digestible than the content we currently put out.
We made significant progress on these fronts.
- We made two Grants Associate hires, Dev Basumallik and Derek Hopf; Derek has now taken over as Grants Manager, and Morgan is now Interim Director of Operations.
- The grant logistics team cut the average time from receiving a recommendation from program officers to grantees receiving a transfer by 50%, and implemented a number of other improvements to our process.
- We hired Michael Levine as our Communications Officer, and we now conduct an internal review of potential communications challenges for all public content before it goes up.
We continue to feel capacity-constrained on the operations front, and we are hiring for several roles.
Last year, we wrote:
- We expect to complete the process of becoming a separate organization from GiveWell this year.
- We are becoming more interested in the idea of finding additional donors to partner on our work, whether it takes the form of funding good giving opportunities that aren’t a fit for us, pooling resources, or simply sharing a lot of information. Part of our increased interest comes from our increased sense that we can spend a lot of money in a high-impact way. We don’t have any particular goals on this front for 2017, but we expect to spend more time talking with major philanthropists and future major philanthropists than we did in 2016.
- We expect to very preliminarily start looking back at previous grants and doing self-assessment. However, we think it will be more productive to focus on this work a year or two from now. We expect most of our grants to take several years to have noticeable impact (if any), and the bulk of our grantmaking to date is now less than a year old.
We completed the process of becoming a separate organization from GiveWell, and we saw somewhat more progress than expected on the other two points as well. We did some preliminary work advising additional donors, which we will discuss in a future post. As noted above, we also completed internal “portfolio reviews” - discussions of impact, lessons learned, and future expectations for a broad set of grants - for farm animal welfare and potential risks from advanced AI, and have started work on portfolio reviews for other causes as well. We may publicly summarize these portfolio reviews later on.
Last year, we wrote:
Speaking broadly, the main significance of 2016 for us is that we greatly increased our grantmaking … At this level of giving, we now see more importance for careful public communications, the need for a more streamlined and systematic grantmaking process, and the need for more thinking about 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. In particular, we believe that we will gain a lot 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.
In 2017, we maintained a high level of grantmaking and made significant progress on increasing capacity, improving operations, and sharpening our thinking on cause prioritization and worldview diversification. However, we have considerable room for further development on these fronts. It could be several more 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, and making progress on cause prioritization. In addition, future years (more than 2017) will see an emphasis on looking back and learning from our past grantmaking in order to inform our future work.
Plans for 2018
Our major goals for 2018 are as follows:
Continued grantmaking. We expect to continue grantmaking in potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, scientific research and effective altruism. We expect that the total across these areas will be well over $100 million. By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of effort and resources in other focus areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy, or “other” global catastrophic risks).
Hiring and other capacity building. Hiring is a major priority for 2018, for both research and operational positions. We expect to put particular effort into hiring, training and mentoring generalist Research Analyst candidates. We see this as a long-term investment in our future, as we hope these hires will have the potential to become core contributors to the organization.
Cause prioritization. As discussed previously, we believe we still have a great deal of work to do in terms of refining our long-term programmatic priorities, the planned trajectory of our giving, and growth in budgets for different focus areas. We aren’t sure how much progress we’ll make on this in 2018 (and we hope that we’ll make more progress in future years if hiring goes well). Our most likely focus will be on forming a preliminary sense of how much (if at all) we should be expanding the budgets of the near-termist causes we work on, vs. holding resources in reserve for later investment in long-termist work (which we tentatively expect to recommend large allocations to, though it is generally less shovel-ready today than near-termist work).
Self-evaluation. We expect to put significant effort into internal “portfolio reviews” in 2018. These will discuss impact, lessons learned, and future expectations for each of our major focus areas. We may also create public summaries of these reviews, which would then serve as updates on particular focus areas with more detail than this organization-wide annual review has.
Outreach to external donors will remain a relatively low priority for the organization as a whole, though it may be a higher priority for particular staff, as a future post will discuss.