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.

While we haven’t spent as much time as hoped on GiveWell Labs, we have made some progress. This post summarizes how we’ve spent our time, what we’ve learned, and what we’re planning next.

We’ve put substantial time into each of the following:

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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.

Something I think about a lot is the spectrum from “passive funding” to “active funding.” By “passive funding,” I mean a dynamic in which the funder’s role is to review others’ proposals/ideas/arguments and pick which to fund, and by “active funding,” I mean a dynamic in which the funder’s role is to participate in - or lead - the development of a strategy, and find partners to “implement” it. Active funders, in other words, are participating at some level in “management” of partner organizations, whereas passive funders are merely choosing between plans that other nonprofits have already come up with.

My instinct is generally to try the most “passive” approach that’s feasible. Broadly speaking, it seems that a good partner organization will generally know their field and environment better than we do and therefore be best positioned to design strategy; in addition, I’d expect a project to go better when its implementer has fully bought into the plan as opposed to carrying out what the funder wants. However, (a) this philosophy seems to contrast heavily with how most existing major funders operate; (b) I’ve seen multiple reasons to believe the “active” approach may have more relative merits than we had originally anticipated. This post discusses our observations on this front, and the implications. Note that Good Ventures has played a major role in facilitating and participating in conversations with other major funders, which is where most of our learning on this front comes from.

Brief summary:

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Note: 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.

Programs’ track records have always been a major input into our research process. For example, when assessing the case for distributing nets to prevent malaria, we’ve looked for information about the track record of similar programs.

As we begin to research other areas where philanthropy could play a role, we similarly want to learn from history about philanthropy’s track record. We’ve done some minimal work looking for literature, but what we’ve found was either not on the topic we’re most interested in (i.e., what has philanthropy accomplished?) or wasn’t at a sufficient level of depth to adequately answer the question “what role did philanthropy, as opposed to other factors, play in the outcome in question?” (For more, see our 2012 post on the best source we’ve found so far for this sort of information.)

Because we’ve struggled to find relevant literature, we’ve begun a project to investigate the possibility of funding someone to do a more thorough job of synthesizing what already exists - or to create better literature. We think it’s possible that we might seek to fund this type of work in the future. Such funding would be modest in size, at least to start, and would be thought of more as “costs of research” than as “top giving opportunities.” We would view this work, at least in the short term, as a potential way to increase our total “research capacity” by answering questions that we would otherwise try to answer internally.

Some examples of projects we might consider include:

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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.

Previously, we wrote about the need to trade off time spent on (a) our charities that meet our traditional criteria vs. (b) broadening our research to include new causes (the work we’ve been referring to as GiveWell Labs). This post goes into more detail on the considerations in favor of assigning resources to each, and lays out our working plan for 2013.

Key considerations in allocating resources to traditional criteria vs. GiveWell Labs

We see major advantages to upping our allocation to GiveWell Labs:

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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.

This is the fourth post (of five) we’re planning to make focused on our self-evaluation and future plans. The final post will be our metrics report.

One of the major questions we grappled with in 2012 - and probably the single biggest open question at this moment - is how to prioritize researching charities that meet our traditional criteria vs. broadening our research to include new causes (the work we’ve previously referred to as GiveWell Labs).

We discussed this tradeoff previously, saying that we would put enough work into our traditional research to “meet demand” and would otherwise be prioritizing research-broadening work. We believe this approach did not work well and needs to be changed, because

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Note: 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.

Recently, we did something that may strike many GiveWell followers as out of character. We recommended a $100,000 grant to the US Cochrane Center, despite the fact that we have done relatively little investigation of it so far (compared with our investigations of current top charities)—and have many unanswered questions. Good Ventures, which helped with our investigation and therefore followed it closely, was a part of the conversation in which we came to the conclusion that this grant represented a good giving opportunity, and it committed the funds shortly afterward (before we had finalized our writeup; we considered this appropriate since, as we discuss below, speed was desirable in this situation.*)

This post covers two topics:

  • Why we believe it is important to be able to make quick grants (i.e., grants with far less than our usual level of investigation) when warranted, and we are working on principles for doing so.
  • Why we believe that the grant discussed in this post meets our working criteria for a quick grant.

In brief:

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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.

This year, GiveWell has been evolving in a couple of significant ways:

  • We’ve been exploring giving opportunities that may involve restricted/project-specific funding (as opposed to unrestricted support of charities), as well as giving opportunities that could be relatively speculative, hard to evaluate and high-risk (contrast with our previous focus on “proven cost-effective”) charities. (Previous discussion)
  • We’ve been working closely with Good Ventures, a major funder (previous discussion). We’ve also been reflecting on whether we ought to be focusing our outreach efforts more on major funders (relative to our current target audience of people giving $250,000 or less per year).

We recently held a Board meeting to discuss these shifts, and some of the potential challenges and decisions that may come up as a result. We have now published audio from this meeting, as well as the attachment featured in it that summarizes the issues we see ourselves as facing. This post gives a high-level overview of the issues we discussed and what we’ve concluded for the time being.

Summary:

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Note: 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 approach that GiveWell took from 2007-2011 had two crucial qualities:

  • We have been passive. That is, we have focused on finding the best existing organizations and supporting them with no-strings-attached donations, rather than a more “active” approach of designing our own strategy, treating charities as partners in carrying out this strategy, and restricting donations accordingly.
  • We have sought proven cost-effective giving opportunities. That is, we have looked for situations where a donor can be reasonably confident - based on empirical evidence - that his/her donation will result in lives being changed for the better, at a high rate of “expected good accomplished per dollar spent.”

This year, we have been experimenting with giving opportunities that lack one or both of these qualities. We previously defended our shift in this direction; this post gives more context on the history that has led us to this point and discusses why we don’t think we can retain both of the qualities above and continue to find great giving opportunities at an acceptable rate. A future post will go into some of the questions we are addressing as we begin to shift our approach.

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Note: 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.

Last year, we met Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz of Good Ventures, a new foundation that is planning eventually on giving substantial amounts (Dustin and Cari aim to give the majority of their net worth within their lifetimes; Dustin is the co-founder of Facebook and, more recently, Asana). We immediately established that Good Ventures and GiveWell share some core values that relatively few others seem to share:

  • Both Good Ventures and GiveWell are aiming to do as much good as possible, from a global-humanitarian perspective.
  • Both are willing to consider any group and any cause in order to accomplish this goal.
  • Both are highly interested in increasing the level of transparency, accountability, and critical discussion and reflection within the world of giving.

Over time, GiveWell and Good Ventures have worked increasingly closely together. In April of last year, Cari joined our Board of Directors; in December of last year, Cari announced substantial grants to our top-rated charities from Good Ventures. In the meantime, Cari was exploring the rest of the world of philanthropy, speaking with a large number of major philanthropists, nonprofit representatives, philanthropic advisors, etc. After a year of exploration, Cari stated to us that while many of the people she had spoken to had been helpful, GiveWell seemed to be most in alignment with the values of Good Ventures and had given the most helpful support in pursuing these values, and that GiveWell’s research appears to her to be at least as high-quality as any foundation research she’s seen. Now, GiveWell and Good Ventures plan to “act as a single team” as we source and vet funding opportunities in areas in which our interests overlap.

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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.

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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