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.

To date, our work on GiveWell Labs has been highly exploratory and preliminary, but we’ve recently been refining our picture of what we expect our output to look like in the reasonably near (~1 year) future. Our plans are still tentative, but have changed enough that an update seems worthwhile at this stage.

In brief,

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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.

I previously discussed our view that in general, further economic development and general human empowerment are likely to be substantially net positive, and are likely to lead to improvement on many dimensions in unexpected ways. In my view, the most worrying counterpoint to this view is the possibility of global catastrophic risks. Broadly speaking, while increasing interconnectedness and power over our environment seem to have many good consequences, these things may also put us at greater risk for a major catastrophe - one that affects the entire world (or a large portion of it) and threatens to reverse, halt, or substantially slow the ongoing global progress in living standards.

This post lists the most worrying global catastrophic risks that I’m aware of, and briefly discusses the role that further technological and economic development could play in exacerbating - or mitigating - them. A future post will discuss how I think about the overall contribution of economic/technological development to exacerbating/mitigating global catastrophic risks in general (including risks that aren’t salient today). The purpose of this post is to (a) continue fleshing out the broad view that further economic development and general human empowerment are likely to be substantially net positive, which is one of the deep value judgments and worldview characteristics underlying our approach to giving recommendations; (b) catalogue some possible candidates for philanthropic focus areas (under the theory that major global catastrophic risks are potentially promising areas for philanthropy to address).

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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.

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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