The Open Philanthropy Blog

Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

GiveWell has recently been taking on activities that may seem to represent a pretty substantial change of direction, especially for those who think of us as a “charity evaluator focused on saving the most lives per dollar spent.”

  • Within global health and nutrition, we’re considering restricted funding for specific projects, not just recommendations of particular charities.
  • We’re also exploring other causes that are extremely different from global health and may be far less amenable to measurement and “cost per life saved” type calculations, such as meta-research.

When discussing these activities, we’ve lately been encountering a couple of different objections and concerns; this post discusses the objections and our responses. In a nutshell:

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We previously laid out our working set of focus areas for GiveWell Labs. This post further elaborates on the cause of “meta-research” and explains why meta-research is currently a very high priority for us - it is our #2 highest-priority focus area, after global health and nutrition.

Meta-research refers to improving the incentives in the academic world, to bring them more in line with producing work of maximal benefit to society. Below, we discuss

  • Problems and potential solutions we perceive for (the incentives within) development economics, the area of academia we’re currently most familiar with.
  • Some preliminary thoughts on the potential of meta-research interventions in other fields, particularly medicine.
  • Why we find meta-research so promising and high-priority as a cause.
  • Our plans at the moment for investigating meta-research further.

Meta-research issues for development economics

Through our work in trying to find top charities, we’ve examined a fair amount of the literature on how Western aid might contribute to reducing poverty, which we broadly refer to in this post as “development economics.” In doing so, we’ve noticed - and discussed - multiple ways in which development economics appears to be falling short of its full potential to generate useful knowledge:

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

Over the past few months, the main focus of GiveWell Labs has been strategic cause selection. Before diving into a particular cause, we want to make sure we’ve done a reasonable amount of work looking at all our options and picking our causes strategically.

We’ve published our take on what information we can find on philanthropy’s past successes and our observations on what foundations work on today (both with spreadsheets so others can examine our data), and we’ve published our framework for identifying a good cause. With these in mind, this post lists causes we’re planning to focus on over the short term.

We are not at all confident that these causes represent the most promising ones; we see our list of priority causes as a starting point for learning. By publishing our reasoning, along with all data we’ve used, we hope to elicit feedback at this early stage; in the course of investigating our priority causes, we expect to learn more about these causes and about the best way to choose causes in general. And we have prioritized our causes partly based on the potential for learning, not just based on how promising we would guess that they are. Also note that these causes do not represent restrictions - we will consider outstanding giving opportunities in any category - but rather areas of focus for investigation.

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We think there are two key questions for someone trying to do strategic cause selection: (1) What is the history of philanthropy - what’s worked and what hasn’t? (2) What is the current state of philanthropy - what are philanthropists focused on and what might they be overlooking?

We started to answer (1) in our discussion of foundation “success stories.” This post addresses (2). We first discuss the data sets we have used, which we are making publicly available and linking from this post. We then make some observations from these data sets.

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

Our picture of how most major foundations work is as follows:

  1. First, broad program areas or “causes” - such as “U.S. education” and “environment” - are chosen. This step is almost entirely “from the heart” - no systematic review is conducted, but rather the philanthropist (or foundation President) chooses areas s/he is passionate about.
  2. Foundation staff speak to relevant people in the field and lay out a foundation strategy. This process may lead to direct identification of potential grantees or to RFPs/guidelines for open applications.
  3. Foundation staff continually work with and evaluate grantees and potential grantees.

(Our recent conversation with Paul Brest of the Hewlett Foundation, which funds GiveWell, gives one example.)

Steps #2 and #3 make sense, and seem likely to lead to at least reasonable results if carried out by people who listen well and keep their minds open. We see some potential room for improvement in terms of documentation and transparency - we believe that our own commitment to writing up and sharing our reasoning and results (rather than just discussing them internally) leads us to better-considered decisions and generates information that can inform other givers as well.

However, our working hypothesis is that the biggest room for improvement lies in step #1 - picking causes. This is where existing philanthropists seem to be least thoughtful and to ask the fewest critical questions; yet this is where we’d guess the bulk of variation in “how much good a philanthropist accomplishes” comes from.

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

The first item on the agenda for GiveWell Labs is to get the broadest possible view of philanthropy: its history (what’s gone well, what hasn’t) and its current state (what’s being funded and what isn’t).

On the history front, I’ve found very little of interest. Most books on philanthropy are how-to’s rather than histories, and most of the histories don’t appear to focus on listing specific cases where foundations had (or failed to have) impact. One exception is the Casebook for The Foundation: A Great American Secret, which lists and discusses “100 of the highest-achieving foundation initiatives” since 1900.

I thoroughly examined this volume, and collected some basic notes into a spreadsheet. My reflections follow. In brief, I felt there were some very strong cases here, particularly in the area of medical research, and I was surprised by philanthropy’s history of being active in shaping various graduate education programs. At the same time, I thought the Casebook’s history had important shortcomings - in particular, not putting successes in context along with failures - and I see a lot of room for improvement in the amount of information available about the history of philanthropic successes and failures.

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We previously laid out our high-level priorities for 2012. The top two priorities are “make significant progress on GiveWell Labs” and “find more outstanding giving opportunities under the same basic framework as our existing recommendations.” This post elaborates on our plans for these two priorities.

A note on relative priorities: our current top charities have significant room for more funding, so it would not be catastrophic (though it would be highly undesirable) to end 2012 without new top charities. Because of this, we view GiveWell Labs as slightly more crucial for 2012. However, we plan substantial work on both and anticipate that the quality of our standard research will continue to improve significantly.

GiveWell Labs
We believe that GiveWell Labs is very important for our long-term impact; it represents a substantial new opportunity to both find great giving opportunities and expand our potential target audience (more).

However, at this time GiveWell Labs is still in the very early stages. (We announced it in September, but a few weeks later put our entire focus on finding top charities in time for 2011’s holiday season.) The stage it’s at is somewhat comparable to the stage GiveWell was at in August of 2007; and like the GiveWell of 2007, we will probably go through a lot of experimentation, go down some significant dead ends, and possibly miss some deadlines and change our vision of what we’re trying to accomplish. So we don’t want to commit to highly concrete or definite goals at this time.

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

In previous posts, we discussed the progress we’ve made, where we stand, and how we can improve in core areas. This post focuses on the latter, and lays out our top-level strategic choices for the next year.

The big picture

Broadly, we see the key aspects of GiveWell - the areas in which we can improve - as

  1. Research expansion: finding additional outstanding giving opportunities.
  2. Research maintenance and systemization: keeping our research up to date, while allocating as much responsibility as possible to junior staff. This includes regular updates on charities that we have directed significant funding to.
  3. Research vetting: checking the quality of our research and providing evidence for this quality.
  4. Outreach: working to increase awareness of GiveWell, traffic to our site, conversion of website traffic into donors and followers, etc.
  5. Fundraising/operating: maintaining the organization.

These are broadly similar to the areas for improvement we’ve listed in the past. And as in the past, we feel that the first two of these - finding more outstanding giving opportunities and staying up to date on those we’ve found - are at the core of our work and remain our top priorities. The basic reasoning:

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We previously listed our five chief criteria for GiveWell Labs, an arm of our research process that will be open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector. This post further discusses the third of these criteria: “accountability.”

We’re OK with funding a project that might fail, but it’s very important to us that we be able to recognize, document, publicly discuss, and learn from such a failure if it happens.

This is the area in which we feel most strongly that current philanthropists are coming up short: they’re failing to learn (or at least, to help others learn) from their track records. For a simple example, take the issue of sustainability in developing-world aid.

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Note: The Open Philanthropy Project was formerly known as GiveWell Labs. Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We previously listed our five chief criteria for GiveWell Labs (a new arm of our research process that will be open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector). This post further discusses the first two of these criteria - “upside” and “high likelihood of success” - and the tradeoff between them.

Upside

We use “upside” to refer to the possibility that a philanthropic project will have a huge/outsized impact. While it’s a good thing to fund projects that have this kind of potential - and while a single hugely successful project can make up for many failures - we also see danger in overthinking the upside of projects.

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