The Open Philanthropy Blog

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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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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