1. Learning the basics

Starting in 2012, we sought out information on the history of philanthropy as well as what foundations focus on today. We also spent substantial time getting to know established philanthropists and foundations, learning about how they approach their work and in some cases co-funding projects with them. We continue to learn about philanthropy’s track record through our History of Philanthropy project, and about other foundations’ work by periodically catching up with their donors, leaders, and staff.

2. Exploring potential focus areas

We believe it’s important for philanthropists to make deliberate multi-year commitments to causes (more). A “cause” is the field around a particular problem or opportunity — such as preventing pandemics, reducing animal suffering, or saving and improving lives in the developing world — in which it’s necessary to develop expertise and networks to make good giving decisions. We refer to the causes we’re prioritizing most highly as focus areas. We think the choice of focus areas is the most important one a philanthropist makes. While there are many worthy causes, additional philanthropy may accomplish much more in some areas than others. That’s why we put a great deal of effort into gathering information on different possibilities before choosing our focus areas. Our overall aim is always to do as much good as possible, and in pursuit of that goal we’ve sought focus areas that are strong on some combination of the following criteria:

  • Importance. How many individuals does this issue affect, and how deeply? How much good could a major breakthrough or victory accomplish? “Good accomplished” might include economic value created, income gains, improvements in health, reductions in suffering, increased odds of human flourishing, reduced odds of global catastrophes, and more.
  • Neglectedness. All else equal, we prefer causes that receive less attention from others, particularly other major philanthropists. Are there important aspects of a cause, or opportunities to make a difference, that receive little support relative to their importance? When investigating a cause, we tend to consider multiple different kinds of activities that might make a difference, looking for major gaps.
  • Tractability. We look for clear ways in which a funder could contribute to progress. It can be difficult to anticipate what opportunities will arise and how long they will last, but there are some issues where we see relatively broad and robust dynamics that make progress particularly likely – or unlikely.

We selected an initial set of focus areas in 2015 and 2016, and are currently exploring more causes as part of planning for our next round of growth.

2.1 Shallow investigations

We keep a long internal list of causes we’ve come across, via conversations, reading, and looking at other foundations’ work. For areas that seem likely to stand out on the criteria mentioned above, we get a quick lay of the land by speaking with a few experts and reading some background material. In these shallow investigations, we try to get a sense of:

  • What is the problem or opportunity? How important is it?
  • What could be done to address it?
  • Who else is working on it?

A compilation of the investigations we’ve published is available here. While the bulk of the shallow investigations we’ve published are from our initial round of exploratory work, we continue to conduct new shallow investigations on an ongoing basis. 

2.2 "Medium-depth" investigations

For causes that seem especially promising after a cursory look, we conduct more thorough investigations. These involve many more conversations with experts, extensive reviews of academic literature, and sometimes making some preliminary “learning grants” in order to get a sense of what funding opportunities exist. The main output from these “medium-depth” investigations is a tentative conclusion about whether there are likely to be enough grantmaking opportunities that are above “our bar” for cost-effectiveness in order to justify a search for a program officer.

A compilation of the “medium-depth” investigations we’ve published is available here.

3. Hiring and grantmaking

Once we’ve identified potential focus areas that we think warrant a full-time hire, we then:

  • Search for specialized staff in these areas. A list of open positions is available here, and you can meet our team here. We see finding the right program officers as key ingredients for our potential impact, and will hold off on entering some areas if we can’t find the right person.
  • Make grants in these areas. You can see our grants database here.

To learn about the focus areas we’re currently prioritizing, and what we’re doing in each area, visit our Focus Areas page.

4. Evaluating and revisiting

While we make multi-year commitments to our focus areas, we also revisit them periodically, in order to stay open to new ideas and reflect on whether we’re using our time and resources as well as possible. This can lead to a decision to grow a focus area, to spin it off as an independent organization, or to wind down responsibly.