Our Progress in 2018 and Plans for 2019

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 well over $100 million worth of grants in 2018. 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, scientific research, and effective altruism. Additionally, we recommended ~$70 million in grants to GiveWell’s top charities and incubation grants.
  • We continue to believe there are hints of impact in the causes where our giving is most mature and near-term: criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare. This coming year, a major priority is to develop our impact evaluation function and thereby apply more scrutiny to our progress to date.
  • Another major priority will be developing a “worldview investigations” function, which will seek to examine and document — and seek more debate, both internal and external, on — debatable views we hold that play a key role in our cause prioritization.
  • A major focus for 2018 was increasing our research capacity. Our research analyst recruiting program was a full-year effort, starting with our announcement of new openings in February and ending with hiring five full-time research-focused staff by December. There are a number of functions that we think Open Phil still needs to develop in order to be a fully mature grantmaker, and we believe our expanded research team will help us develop those functions.
  • We also increased and professionalized our operations capacity. Beth Jones, our director of operations, joined Open Phil in May. Beth’s arrival allowed Morgan Davis to transition into a new role beginning to build our impact evaluation function.
  • Like last year, we maintained a high level of grantmaking and made significant progress on increasing capacity and improving operations. We still believe we have room for further development on these fronts, and that we have more work to do in sharpening our thinking on cause prioritization and worldview diversification before we seek to increase our annual giving much more.

Progress in 2018

Last year’s post laid out plans for 2018. This section follows the order of that section, and quotes from it to allow comparisons between our plans and our progress.

Grantmaking

Last year, we wrote:

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.

We hit our goal of giving well over $100 million across these six programs. Some highlights:

We also wrote:

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).

Other grants included the Center for Popular Democracy and the Economic Policy Institute (macroeconomic stabilization policy), the International Refugee Assistance Project (immigration reform), and California YIMBY (land use reform).

Additionally, we recommended grants to GiveWell’s top charities and incubation grants. (Read more about our relationship to GiveWell here.)

Hiring and other capacity building

Last year, we wrote:

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.

Our Research Analyst recruiting program was a full-year effort, starting with our announcement in February and culminating with hiring five new full-time research staff by December. We are very excited about our new hires. Luke Muehlhauser, who led this recruiting drive, recently reflected on our process and some lessons learned. As stated in Luke’s post, multiple aspects of this process proved more difficult than we had hoped, particularly with respect to the extended trial program we ran, and we aren’t planning to run such a large trial program in 2019. That said, we are very grateful for all the time people put in applying, and think that we learned a lot.

Additionally, we significantly increased our operations capacity. We’re excited to have Beth Jones leading the operations team. Beth joined as our director of operations in May after winding down the Hillary for America campaign, where she was COO. Beth’s arrival allowed Morgan Davis to transition into a new role beginning to build our impact evaluation function (described below).

We made several additional operations hires in 2018 and early 2019 and have several more people starting soon. Our increased operations capacity has already made Open Philanthropy a better place to work, and will allow us to take on more projects and grantmaking in the future.

We highlighted our new hires in this blog post.

Cause prioritization

Last year, we wrote:

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).

In 2018 we made some progress on the above question, deciding for now to err on the side of holding more money in reserve rather than expanding budgets as we seek more clarity and confidence in our cause prioritization over the coming years. We hope to write more about this in the coming months. (However, we are largely maintaining budgets at existing levels, meaning our annual giving is still significant.)

In 2019, we will be building out a function tentatively called “worldview investigations,” which will be a major priority for new Research Analyst hires. This function will aim to:

  • Identify debatable views we hold that play a key role in our cause prioritization, such as the view that there’s a nontrivial likelihood of transformative artificial intelligence being developed by 2036.
  • Put concentrated effort into examining the arguments for and against these views.
  • Create resources covering the arguments for and against these views as we see them. We have not yet decided what form these resources should take. Our best guess is that they will include Open Phil write-ups with strong reasoning transparency, but they may also include or instead be reports produced by contractors/grantees, recorded conversations covering the arguments for and against these views as we see them, summaries of such conversations, or something else. The goal of these resources will both be to make our own picture more precise and to make it easier for outsiders to understand and critique it, which in turn will hopefully raise the odds that we are able to subject key cause-prioritization-driving views to maximal critical scrutiny. (This could have major benefits whether or not the views withstand such scrutiny; we’d consider it a major benefit if we either changed our minds or caused people who currently disagree to change theirs.)

We expect that it could take substantial time and experimentation before we develop an approach that we’re happy with for worldview investigations; this work is at an early stage. For now, Nick Beckstead is leading this work, working with several others.

Our last extensive public update on cause prioritization is from January 2018. That post still accurately describes our views on some of the key challenges we’re facing, and on a number of specific issues such as how much funding to direct to GiveWell’s top charities.

Self-evaluation

Last year, we wrote:

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.

Our program teams for criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare have produced internal portfolio reviews discussing impact, lessons learned, and future expectations. We have not yet produced public summaries of these reviews, but might do so in the future.

Our next step on self-evaluation is to build an internal function — which we’re currently calling impact evaluation — that can provide some degree of independent assessment of these portfolio reviews, and of our overall impact in a given area. We expect that it could take substantial time and experimentation before we develop an impact evaluation process that we’re happy with; this work is at an early stage. For now, Morgan Davis is leading this work.

Outreach to external donors

Last year, we wrote:

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.

We shared a fairly extensive update on this work in May. Over the long run, the Open Philanthropy Project aspires to work with many donors, and to inform far more giving than our current primary funders can do on their own, in order to maximize our impact and do as much good as possible. While outreach to other donors is not a major organization-wide priority at this time, we have been working significantly with other donors interested in particularly mature focus areas where our Program Officers see promising giving opportunities that outstrip their budgets (especially criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare).

Summary

Last year, we wrote:

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.

It could still be several more years before we seek to significantly increase our annual giving, but our upcoming work will increasingly focus on cause prioritization and learning from past grantmaking. We have built strong research and operations teams that will allow us to grow in these directions while continuing to maintain our current level of giving.

Plans for 2019

Our major goals for 2019 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, and 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 focus and resource deployment in other areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy).

Impact evaluation. A major priority for 2019 is building out our impact evaluation function, as discussed above. We don’t have definite, dated goals for this work yet, as it’s at an early stage, but we hope that by 2020 we will have (a) a much better read on our impact for at least 1-2 grant portfolios to date; (b) a plan for beginning to scale the impact evaluation team and process.

Worldview investigations. Another major priority for 2019 is building out our worldview investigations function, as discussed above. As with impact evaluation, this work is at an early stage and does not yet have definite dated goals, but we hope that by 2020 we will have (a) fairly thorough writeups (not necessarily public-ready) on at least 1-2 beliefs that are key to our cause prioritization; (b) a plan for beginning to scale the worldview investigations team and process.

Other cause prioritization work. We see our work on impact evaluation and worldview investigations as providing key inputs into our cause prioritization. We don’t plan on doing much other cause prioritization work in 2019, and for the time being we are likely to avoid major growth in our total giving.

Hiring and other capacity building. We are in the midst of another round of hiring for our Research Analyst roles, though this round has not been publicly advertised and we aren’t currently taking new applications. Unlike last year, when we took many people on for simultaneous trials, we will probably instead trial a much smaller number of RA applicants per year, with each trial period more customized to each trialist.

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.

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