Our Progress in 2021 and Plans for 2022

This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year.

In brief:

  • We recommended over $400 million worth of grants in 2021. The bulk of this came from recommendations to support GiveWell’s top charities and from our major current focus areas. [More]
  • We launched several new program areas — South Asian air quality, global aid policy, and effective altruism community building with a focus on global health and wellbeing — and have either hired or are currently hiring program officers to lead each of those areas. [More]
  • We revisited the case for our US policy causes — spinning out our criminal justice reform program as an independent organization, making exit grants in US macroeconomic stabilization policy, and updating our approaches to land use reform and immigration policy. [More]
  • We shared our latest framework for evaluating global health and wellbeing interventions, as well as several reports on key topics in potential risk from advanced AI. [More]

Continued grantmaking

Last year, we wrote:

We expect to continue grantmaking in potential risks from advanced AIbiosecurity and pandemic preparednesscriminal justice reformfarm animal welfarescientific research, and effective altruism, as well as recommending support for GiveWell’s top charities. We expect that the total across these areas will be over $200 million.

We wound up recommending over $400 million across those areas. Some highlights:

Plans for 2022

This year, we expect to continue grantmaking in potential risks from advanced AIbiosecurity and pandemic preparednessSouth Asian air qualityglobal aid policyfarm animal welfarescientific research, and effective altruism community building (focused on both longtermism and global health and wellbeing), as well as recommending support for GiveWell’s top charities.

We aim to roughly double the amount we recommend this year relative to last year, and triple it by 2025.

New program areas

We launched two new program areas this year: South Asian Air Quality and Global Aid Policy. We’re thrilled to have hired Santosh Harish and Norma Altshuler to lead these programs, and we look forward to sharing some of the grants they’re making in next year’s annual review.

We also announced plans to launch another new program area: supporting the effective altruism community with a focus on global health and wellbeing. We are still in the process of hiring a program officer to lead this area.

Plans for 2022

This year, our global health and wellbeing cause prioritization team aims to launch three more new program areas where we can find scalable opportunities above our bar, and to continue laying the groundwork for more growth in future years.

Revisiting our older US policy causes

We made our initial selection of US policy causes in 2014 and 2015. We chose criminal justice reform, macroeconomic stabilization policy, immigration policy, and land use reform in order to try to get experience across a variety of causes that stood out on different criteria (immigration on importance, CJR on tractability, land use reform and macro on neglectedness).

We’ve learned a lot from our experience funding in these fields, but over time have updated towards a more unified ROI framework that lets us more explicitly compare across causes. (Also, the world has changed a lot over the last 7 years.) We gave an initial update on our revised thinking back in 2019, and we are still evaluating our performance and plans for the future as of 2022.

On our new website, we are no longer referring to these causes as full “focus areas” because we do not have full-time staff leading any of them. But our particular plans for the future vary across the four causes:

  • We spun out our criminal justice reform program into an independent organization — Just Impact, which we supported with $50 million in seed funding.
  • After the rapid recovery of the U.S. from the most recent recession, we decided to wind down our giving to U.S. grantees in macroeconomic policy. (We made some exit grants, as we often do when we decide not to renew support to organizations we’ve supported for a long time.) We currently expect to continue to support regranting on this issue within Europe via Dezernat Zukunft, but will revisit depending on how economic and policy conditions evolve. We hope to write more about our thinking on and lessons learned in this area in the future.
  • On land use reform: we recently completed an updated review on the performance of our grantees and the valuation of a marginal housing unit in key supply-constrained regions, which made us think that our returns to date have been well above our bar and that there is room for expansion. We’ve commissioned an outside review of our analysis; pending the results of that review, we’re considering hiring someone to lead a bigger portfolio in this space.
  • On immigration policy:
    • We have never had a clear theory of how to change the political economy to be supportive of substantially larger immigration flows, which is what would be necessary to achieve the global poverty improvements that motivate our interest in this issue. Accordingly, our recent spending has been lower than in macro or land use reform.
    • Over the last few years, the US political climate for immigration reform has come to look even less promising than when we initially explored this space.
    • We’re currently planning to continue supporting Michael Clemens’ work (which is what motivated our interest in this cause), make occasional opportunistic grants that fit with our overall ROI framework, and explore whether we should have a program around STEM immigration. But we are not planning to do more on US immigration policy per se.

New approaches to funding

This year, we created a number of new programs to openly solicit funding requests from individuals, groups, and organizations. This represents a different approach from the proactive searching and networking we use to find most of our grants, and we are excited by the potential for these programs to unearth strong opportunities we wouldn’t have found otherwise.

The largest such program is our Regranting Challenge, which will allocate $150 million in funding to the grantmaking budgets for one to five outstanding programs at other foundations. That program is closed to new submissions, but we’ve listed many programs that are open to submissions on our “How to Apply for Funding” page.

Groups eligible for at least one open program include:

Worldview investigations

Last year, we wrote:

Our worldview investigations team is now working on:

  • More thoroughly assessing and writing up what sorts of risks transformative AI might pose and what that means for today’s priorities.
  • Updating our internal views of certain key values, such as the estimated economic value of a disability-adjusted life year (DALY) and the possible spillover benefits from economic growth, that inform what we have thus far referred to as our “near-termist” cause prioritization work.

New work we’ve published in these areas:

Other published work

This section lists other work we’ve published this year on our research and grantmaking, including work published by Open Phil staff on the Effective Altruism Forum.

Holden started a blog, Cold Takes. His Most Important Century series incorporates much of Open Phil’s research into an argument that we could be living in the most important century of all time for humanity, and includes a guest post from Ajeya Cotra on why aligning AI could be difficult with modern deep learning methods.

Open Phil staff were also interviewed for a variety of articles and podcasts:

Our new structure and grantmaking terminology

In June, Alexander was promoted to co-CEO alongside Holden. Alexander currently oversees the grantmaking in our Global Health and Wellbeing portfolio, while Holden oversees the grantmaking in our Longtermism portfolio.

These portfolios represent a new way of describing our work:

  • “Global Health and Wellbeing” (GHW) describes our work to increase health and/or wellbeing worldwide
  • “Longtermism” describes our work to raise the probability of a very long-lasting and positive future.

See this post for more on the two portfolios.

Hiring and other capacity building

Since our previous update, another 27 full-time hires have joined our team. We won’t list them all here, but you can see them on our team page.

Anya Hunt published articles on Open Phil’s approach to recruiting and our plans for hiring in 2022 (see below).

Plans for 2022: Hiring more people than ever

As we scale up our grantmaking, we’ll need to grow our staff to match. Accordingly, we plan to hire more than 30 people this year, and over 100 people in the next four years.

This represents massive growth compared to past years, which is an exciting opportunity and an immense challenge. If you’d like to help us achieve our hiring goals — and thus, all of our other goals — we are hiring recruiters and senior recruiters!

The growth also means that if you want to work at Open Phil, you’ll have more chances to apply this year than ever before. We will continue to post open positions on our Working at Open Phil page, and we encourage you to check it out! If you don’t see something you want to apply for, you can fill out our General Application, and we’ll reach out if we post a position we think might be a good fit.

Finally, we’re always looking for referrals. If you refer someone and we hire them, we’ll pay you $5,000!

Our Progress in 2020 and Plans for 2021

This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year.

In brief:

  • We recommended over $200 million worth of grants in 2020. The bulk of this came from recommendations to support GiveWell’s top charities and from our major current focus areas: potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, scientific research, and effective altruism. [More]
  • We completed and published a number of reports on the likelihood of transformative AI being developed within the next couple of decades and other topics relevant to our future funding priorities. We are now working on both publishing additional reports in this area and updating our internal views on certain key values that inform our “near-termist” giving. [More]
  • We’re interested in determining how quickly we should increase our giving. As a means of answering this question, we have developed a model to optimize our spending levels across time within “near-termist” causes, which we hope to share this year. [More]
  • We have also begun the process of investigating potential new areas for giving. This year, we hope to launch searches for program officers in multiple new focus areas. [More]

Progress in 2020

Last year’s post laid out plans for 2020. This section quotes from that section to allow comparisons between our plans and our progress.

Continued grantmaking

Last year, we wrote:

We expect to continue grantmaking in potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, scientific research and effective altruism, as well as recommending support of GiveWell’s top charities. We expect that the total across these areas will be over $200 million.

We recommended over $200 million across these areas and in support of GiveWell’s top charities. Some highlights:

We also wrote:

By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of focus and resource deployment in other areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy).

Our giving in causes beyond those listed above remained at comparatively low levels. Grants in these areas included the Center for Global Development (Immigration Policy), Employ America (Macroeconomic Stabilization Policy), Mercy Corps (Immigration Policy), the International Refugee Assistance Project (Immigration Policy), and YIMBY Law (Land Use Reform).

Worldview investigations

Last year, we wrote:

This work has been significantly more challenging than expected (and we expected it to be challenging). Most of the key questions we’ve chosen to investigate and write about are wide-ranging questions that draw on a number of different fields, while not matching the focus and methodology of any one field. They therefore require the relevant Research Analyst to try to get up to speed on multiple substantial literatures, while realizing they will never be truly expert in any of them; to spend a lot of time getting feedback from experts in relevant domains; and to make constant difficult judgment calls about which sub-questions to investigate thoroughly vs. relatively superficially. These basic dynamics are visible in our report on moral patienthood, the closest thing we have to a completed, public worldview investigation writeup.

We initially started investigating a number of questions relevant to potential risks from advanced AI, but as we revised our expectations for how long each investigation might take, we came to focus the team exclusively on the question of whether there’s a strong case for reasonable likelihood of transformative AI being developed within the next couple of decades.

We now have three in-process writeups covering different aspects of this topic; all are in relatively late stages and could be finished (though still not necessarily public-ready) within months. We have made relatively modest progress on being able to scale the team and process; our assignments are better-scoped than they were a year ago, and we’ve added one new hire (Tom Davidson) focused on this work, but we still consider this a very hard area to hire for.

We have now completed and published a number of reports on the likelihood of transformative AI being developed within the next couple of decades, three of which are publicly available: Joseph Carlsmith’s report estimating how much computational power it takes to match the human brain, Ajeya Cotra’s draft report on AI timelines, and Tom Davidson’s report forecasting the development of artificial general intelligence using a “semi-informative priors” framework. We also published David Roodman’s report modeling historic and future economic growth, which may help inform future funding priorities.

Our worldview investigations team is now working on:

  • More thoroughly assessing and writing up what sorts of risks transformative AI might pose and what that means for today’s priorities.
  • Updating our internal views of certain key values, such as the estimated economic value of a disability-adjusted life year (DALY) and the possible spillover benefits from economic growth, that inform what we have thus far referred to as our “near-termist” cause prioritization work.

Other cause prioritization work

Last year, we wrote:

We now have a team working on investigating our odds of finding significant amounts of giving opportunities in the “near-termist” bucket that are stronger than GiveWell’s top charities, which in turn will help determine what new causes we want to enter and what our annual rate of giving should be on the “near-termist” side. By this time next year, we hope to have a working model (though subject to heavy revision) of how much we intend to give each year in this category to GiveWell’s top charities and other “near-termist” causes.

Peter Favaloro and Saarthak Gupta developed a Monte Carlo model to optimize our spending levels across time within “near-termist” causes, which informed our decision to allocate $100 million to GiveWell top charities. The model estimates what level of spending (vs. saving) can do the most good, based on estimates of parameters including: how quickly opportunities get worse as we spend more money within a given year, how fast philanthropic opportunities decline over time as the world improves, how fast other donors ramp up their spending, and our expected asset returns. We also incorporated GiveWell’s view that they expect to find more cost-effective opportunities in the coming years and accordingly would prefer funding to gradually grow (at least in the near term) rather than experience a rapid shift to a faster, but roughly constant, pace of funding. We’re still working to write up the model and hope to share the full details this year.

As part of our work seeking to identify causes that can consistently produce giving opportunities that are more cost-effective than GiveWell’s top charities, we have also begun what we expect to be a multi-year project of investigating a number of potential high-impact “near-termist” causes. Topics thus far have included South Asian air quality, global health research and development funding, and improving education in low-income countries. This work aims to help us identify additional focus areas into which we can expand our giving in the coming years. Our goal for this year is to launch multiple searches for program officers in new causes identified by this research.

As we contemplate adding new areas for giving, we have also been working on replacing the term “near-termist” with a name that we think more accurately describes work in this category, which tends to be defined by: aiming for verifiable impact within our lifetimes, being amenable to learning and changing course as we go, and relying more on highly evidence-based approaches (not just on a particular view on population ethics or timelines per se). We expect to begin incorporating the new name into internal and external materials this year.

Hiring and other capacity building

Last year, we wrote:

Hiring and other capacity building will not be a major focus for the coming year, though we will open searches for new roles as needed.

A number of new hires joined our team since our last hiring update: Asya Bergal, Lisa Briones, Saarthak Gupta, Paige Henchen, Molly Kovite, Adam Mohsen-Breen, Emily Oehlsen, Otis Reid, and Eli Rose. Our new colleagues contribute to the operations, program area, and research teams.

We will continue to post open positions on our Working at Open Phil page and encourage interested individuals to check it out.

Impact evaluation

Over the coming year, we hope to get to the point where our process is robust enough that we’re comfortable starting to hire further people for the Impact Evaluation team (this means we would have a job description ready, not necessarily that we would have made hires yet).

We have temporarily deprioritized our impact evaluation work, and are now prioritizing searching for new cause areas (as discussed above) more highly. This was due to a combination of personnel changes and re-prioritization toward cause prioritization and finding new causes. We plan to continue this work in the future, although we don’t expect to make significant progress in 2021.

Outreach to external donors

Last year, we wrote:

Outreach to external donors will remain a relatively low priority for the organization as a whole, though it may be a higher priority for particular staff.

As discussed previously, we work significantly with other donors interested in particularly mature focus areas where our Program Officers see promising giving opportunities that outstrip their budgets (especially criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare), and we do advise major donors who reach out to us seeking to generally maximize the impact of their giving.

In the immediate future, however, proactive outreach to external donors will remain a relatively low priority for the organization as a whole. Longer term, we still aim to eventually work with many donors in order to maximize our impact.

Plans for 2021

Our major goals for 2021 are:

Continued grantmaking. We expect to continue grantmaking in potential risks from advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, scientific research, and effective altruism, as well as recommending support for GiveWell’s top charities. We expect that the total across these areas will be over $200 million. By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of grantmaking in other areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy).

Worldview investigations. We expect to publish at least two more reports in 2021 on transformative AI (timelines and risks). We’re also working to update our internal views of certain key values that inform our “near-termist” cause prioritization work.

Other cause prioritization work. By this time next year, we hope to have shared our model for optimizing our spending levels across time within “near-termist” causes and to have launched multiple searches for program officers in new areas.

Our Progress in 2019 and Plans for 2020

This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year.

In brief:

Progress in 2019

Last year’s post laid out plans for 2019. This section quotes from that section to allow comparisons between our plans and our progress.

Continued grantmaking

Last year, we wrote:

We expect to continue grantmaking in potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, and scientific research and effective altruism. We expect that the total across these areas will be well over $100 million.

We hit our goal of giving well over $100 million across these six programs, and our total giving recommendations (including recommendations to support GiveWell’s top charities) were over $200 million. Some highlights:

We also wrote:

By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of focus and resource deployment in other areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy).

Other grants included the Center for Global Development (Global Health and Development), California YIMBY (Land Use Reform), the International Refugee Assistance (Immigration Policy), Employ America (Macroeconomic Stabilization Policy), and the Center for Election Science (other).

Operations

We’ve significantly expanded our Operations team, hiring Rinad Al-Anakrih, Povneet Dhillon, Leena Jones, Kira Maker, Eli Nathan, and Matthew Poe over the last year.

This has been needed, as our grants team now manages significant grant volume — 311 grants in 2019 with a median time of 13 days between grant recommendations and payment — and Open Philanthropy now numbers over 40 people. In addition to building and strengthening our culture and systems, the Operations team has made it easier for us to conduct events such as a retreat for our AI Fellows, has helped us build more robust recruiting processes, has greatly improved our office space, and more.

(Unlike some of the functions discussed below, Operations is a familiar function that doesn’t require much explanation; the relatively brief length of this section shouldn’t be taken as indicating lower importance.)

Impact evaluation

Last year, we wrote:

Our next step on self-evaluation is to build an internal function — which we’re currently calling impact evaluation — that can provide some degree of independent assessment of these portfolio reviews, and of our overall impact in a given area. We expect that it could take substantial time and experimentation before we develop an impact evaluation process that we’re happy with … We don’t have definite, dated goals for this work yet, as it’s at an early stage, but we hope that by 2020 we will have (a) a much better read on our impact for at least 1-2 grant portfolios to date; (b) a plan for beginning to scale the impact evaluation team and process.

We’ve now completed one major case study, and have several smaller writeups in progress, for cases where we think our funding has plausibly led to significant impact. These are internal writeups, and in many cases the content is based on frank conversations with grantees and others in the fields we work in such that it isn’t suitable for publication.

We feel that we are gaining clarity on how our grantmaking has performed in causes such as criminal justice and farm animal welfare (where our giving is relatively mature and seeks relatively near-term results), but we haven’t yet developed a robust, repeatable process for investigating potential cases for impact. Over the coming year, we hope to get to the point where our process is robust enough that we’re comfortable starting to hire further people for the Impact Evaluation team (this means we would have a job description ready, not necessarily that we would have made hires yet).

Worldview investigations

Last year, we wrote:

In 2019, we will be building out a function tentatively called “worldview investigations,” which will be a major priority for new Research Analyst hires. This function will aim to:

  • Identify debatable views we hold that play a key role in our cause prioritization, such as the view that there’s a nontrivial likelihood of transformative artificial intelligence being developed by 2036.
  • Put concentrated effort into examining the arguments for and against these views.
  • Create resources covering the arguments for and against these views as we see them. We have not yet decided what form these resources should take. Our best guess is that they will include Open Phil write-ups with strong reasoning transparency, but they may also include or instead be reports produced by contractors/grantees, recorded conversations covering the arguments for and against these views as we see them, summaries of such conversations, or something else. The goal of these resources will both be to make our own picture more precise and to make it easier for outsiders to understand and critique it, which in turn will hopefully raise the odds that we are able to subject key cause-prioritization-driving views to maximal critical scrutiny. (This could have major benefits whether or not the views withstand such scrutiny; we’d consider it a major benefit if we either changed our minds or caused people who currently disagree to change theirs.)

We expect that it could take substantial time and experimentation before we develop an approach that we’re happy with for worldview investigations … As with impact evaluation, this work is at an early stage and does not yet have definite dated goals, but we hope that by 2020 we will have (a) fairly thorough writeups (not necessarily public-ready) on at least 1-2 beliefs that are key to our cause prioritization; (b) a plan for beginning to scale the worldview investigations team and process.

This work has been significantly more challenging than expected (and we expected it to be challenging). Most of the key questions we’ve chosen to investigate and write about are wide-ranging questions that draw on a number of different fields, while not matching the focus and methodology of any one field. They therefore require the relevant Research Analyst to try to get up to speed on multiple substantial literatures, while realizing they will never be truly expert in any of them; to spend a lot of time getting feedback from experts in relevant domains; and to make constant difficult judgment calls about which sub-questions to investigate thoroughly vs. relatively superficially. These basic dynamics are visible in our report on moral patienthood, the closest thing we have to a completed, public worldview investigation writeup.

We initially started investigating a number of questions relevant to potential risks from advanced AI, but as we revised our expectations for how long each investigation might take, we came to focus the team exclusively on the question of whether there’s a strong case for reasonable likelihood of transformative AI being developed within the next couple of decades.

We now have three in-process writeups covering different aspects of this topic; all are in relatively late stages and could be finished (though still not necessarily public-ready) within months. We have made relatively modest progress on being able to scale the team and process; our assignments are better-scoped than they were a year ago, and we’ve added one new hire (Tom Davidson) focused on this work, but we still consider this a very hard area to hire for.

Other cause prioritization work

Last year, we wrote:

We see our work on impact evaluation and worldview investigations as providing key inputs into our cause prioritization. We don’t plan on doing much other cause prioritization work in 2019, and for the time being we are likely to avoid major growth in our total giving.

Our picture on this front has evolved:

  • A key distinction at Open Philanthropy is between long-termist vs. near-termist giving. We’ve previously stated that it’s “reasonably likely that we will recommend allocating >50% of all available capital to giving directly aimed at improving the odds of favorable long-term outcomes for civilization [long-termist giving].”
  • While this is still the case, we believe that at some point the annual amount Open Philanthropy spends on near-termist giving will rise significantly. Accordingly, we need all three of the following: (a) a plan for deciding how to divide capital between near-termist and long-termist giving; (b) a plan for cause prioritization within long-termist giving; (c) a plan for cause prioritization within near-termist giving.
  • The worldview investigations work we’re doing (discussed above) is crucial for (a) and (b), but not as much for (c). We’ve come to believe that (c) requires a fundamentally different kind of team and set of investigations.
  • Alexander Berger is now leading our work on (c), and he conducted a job search for Research Fellows that resulted in two new hires: Peter Favaloro and Zachary Robinson. This team is now working on investigating our odds of finding significant amounts of giving opportunities that are stronger than GiveWell’s top charities in terms of near-term cost-effectiveness, which in turn will help determine what new causes we want to enter and how our annual rate of giving should change over time on the “near-termist” side.

Hiring and other capacity building

Last year, we wrote:

We are in the midst of another round of hiring for our Research Analyst roles, though this round has not been publicly advertised and we aren’t currently taking new applications. Unlike last year, when we took many people on for simultaneous trials, we will probably instead trial a much smaller number of RA applicants per year, with each trial period more customized to each trialist.

We hired only one new Research Analyst in the past year rather than a full round of trialists like we did in 2018. We also hired two Research Fellows and a number of Operations staff (see previous sections), as well as a new Communications Associate, Gabriela Romero.

We highlighted our new hires in this blog post.

Outreach to external donors

Last year, we wrote:

Outreach to external donors will remain a relatively low priority for the organization as a whole, though it may be a higher priority for particular staff.

In November, we announced a co-funding partnership with Ben Delo, co-founder of the cryptocurrency trading platform BitMEX and a recent Giving Pledge signatory. Ben will be providing funds (initially in the $5 million per year range as he gets started with his giving) for Open Philanthropy to allocate to our long-termist grantmaking, which assesses giving opportunities by how well they advance favorable long-term outcomes for civilization. This partnership grew out of Ben’s work with the non-profit Effective Giving UK.

Close partnerships of this type have so far been rare for Open Philanthropy, and pursuing them is still not currently a major organizational priority. However, we aspire to eventually work with many donors in order to maximize our impact. We want to be flexible in terms of relationship structures, and can imagine a variety of different forms.

Additionally, as discussed previously, we have continued to work significantly with other donors interested in particularly mature focus areas where our Program Officers see promising giving opportunities that outstrip their budgets (especially criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare).

Plans for 2020

Our major goals for 2020 are as follows:

Continued grantmaking. We expect to continue grantmaking in potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, scientific research and effective altruism, as well as recommending support of GiveWell’s top charities. We expect that the total across these areas will be over $200 million. By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of focus and resource deployment in other areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy).

Impact evaluation. Over the coming year, we hope to get to the point where our process is robust enough that we’re comfortable starting to hire further people for the Impact Evaluation team (this means we would have a job description ready, not necessarily that we would have made hires yet).

Worldview investigations. We expect to continue to build out our worldview investigations function in 2020, as discussed above. This work is at an early stage and does not yet have definite dated goals, but we hope that this year we will finalize the three draft reports mentioned above.

Other cause prioritization work. We now have a team working on investigating our odds of finding significant amounts of giving opportunities in the “near-termist” bucket that are stronger than GiveWell’s top charities, which in turn will help determine what new causes we want to enter and what our annual rate of giving should be on the “near-termist” side. By this time next year, we hope to have a working model (though subject to heavy revision) of how much we intend to give each year in this category to GiveWell’s top charities and other “near-termist” causes.

Hiring and other capacity building will not be a major focus for the coming year, though we will open searches for new roles as needed.

Outreach to external donors will remain a relatively low priority for the organization as a whole, though it may be a higher priority for particular staff.

Our Progress in 2018 and Plans for 2019

This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year.

In brief:

  • We recommended well over $100 million worth of grants in 2018. The bulk of these came from our major current focus areas: potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, scientific research, and effective altruism. Additionally, we recommended ~$70 million in grants to GiveWell’s top charities and incubation grants.
  • We continue to believe there are hints of impact in the causes where our giving is most mature and near-term: criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare. This coming year, a major priority is to develop our impact evaluation function and thereby apply more scrutiny to our progress to date.
  • Another major priority will be developing a “worldview investigations” function, which will seek to examine and document — and seek more debate, both internal and external, on — debatable views we hold that play a key role in our cause prioritization.
  • A major focus for 2018 was increasing our research capacity. Our research analyst recruiting program was a full-year effort, starting with our announcement of new openings in February and ending with hiring five full-time research-focused staff by December. There are a number of functions that we think Open Phil still needs to develop in order to be a fully mature grantmaker, and we believe our expanded research team will help us develop those functions.
  • We also increased and professionalized our operations capacity. Beth Jones, our director of operations, joined Open Phil in May. Beth’s arrival allowed Morgan Davis to transition into a new role beginning to build our impact evaluation function.
  • Like last year, we maintained a high level of grantmaking and made significant progress on increasing capacity and improving operations. We still believe we have room for further development on these fronts, and that we have more work to do in sharpening our thinking on cause prioritization and worldview diversification before we seek to increase our annual giving much more.

Progress in 2018

Last year’s post laid out plans for 2018. This section follows the order of that section, and quotes from it to allow comparisons between our plans and our progress.

Grantmaking

Last year, we wrote:

We expect to continue grantmaking in potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, scientific research and effective altruism. We expect that the total across these areas will be well over $100 million.

We hit our goal of giving well over $100 million across these six programs. Some highlights:

We also wrote:

By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of effort and resources in other focus areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy, or “other” global catastrophic risks).

Other grants included the Center for Popular Democracy and the Economic Policy Institute (macroeconomic stabilization policy), the International Refugee Assistance Project (immigration reform), and California YIMBY (land use reform).

Additionally, we recommended grants to GiveWell’s top charities and incubation grants. (Read more about our relationship to GiveWell here.)

Hiring and other capacity building

Last year, we wrote:

Hiring is a major priority for 2018, for both research and operational positions. We expect to put particular effort into hiring, training and mentoring generalist Research Analyst candidates. We see this as a long-term investment in our future, as we hope these hires will have the potential to become core contributors to the organization.

Our Research Analyst recruiting program was a full-year effort, starting with our announcement in February and culminating with hiring five new full-time research staff by December. We are very excited about our new hires. Luke Muehlhauser, who led this recruiting drive, recently reflected on our process and some lessons learned. As stated in Luke’s post, multiple aspects of this process proved more difficult than we had hoped, particularly with respect to the extended trial program we ran, and we aren’t planning to run such a large trial program in 2019. That said, we are very grateful for all the time people put in applying, and think that we learned a lot.

Additionally, we significantly increased our operations capacity. We’re excited to have Beth Jones leading the operations team. Beth joined as our director of operations in May after winding down the Hillary for America campaign, where she was COO. Beth’s arrival allowed Morgan Davis to transition into a new role beginning to build our impact evaluation function (described below).

We made several additional operations hires in 2018 and early 2019 and have several more people starting soon. Our increased operations capacity has already made Open Philanthropy a better place to work, and will allow us to take on more projects and grantmaking in the future.

We highlighted our new hires in this blog post.

Cause prioritization

Last year, we wrote:

As discussed previously, we believe we still have a great deal of work to do in terms of refining our long-term programmatic priorities, the planned trajectory of our giving, and growth in budgets for different focus areas. We aren’t sure how much progress we’ll make on this in 2018 (and we hope that we’ll make more progress in future years if hiring goes well). Our most likely focus will be on forming a preliminary sense of how much (if at all) we should be expanding the budgets of the near-termist causes we work on, vs. holding resources in reserve for later investment in long-termist work (which we tentatively expect to recommend large allocations to, though it is generally less shovel-ready today than near-termist work).

In 2018 we made some progress on the above question, deciding for now to err on the side of holding more money in reserve rather than expanding budgets as we seek more clarity and confidence in our cause prioritization over the coming years. We hope to write more about this in the coming months. (However, we are largely maintaining budgets at existing levels, meaning our annual giving is still significant.)

In 2019, we will be building out a function tentatively called “worldview investigations,” which will be a major priority for new Research Analyst hires. This function will aim to:

  • Identify debatable views we hold that play a key role in our cause prioritization, such as the view that there’s a nontrivial likelihood of transformative artificial intelligence being developed by 2036.
  • Put concentrated effort into examining the arguments for and against these views.
  • Create resources covering the arguments for and against these views as we see them. We have not yet decided what form these resources should take. Our best guess is that they will include Open Phil write-ups with strong reasoning transparency, but they may also include or instead be reports produced by contractors/grantees, recorded conversations covering the arguments for and against these views as we see them, summaries of such conversations, or something else. The goal of these resources will both be to make our own picture more precise and to make it easier for outsiders to understand and critique it, which in turn will hopefully raise the odds that we are able to subject key cause-prioritization-driving views to maximal critical scrutiny. (This could have major benefits whether or not the views withstand such scrutiny; we’d consider it a major benefit if we either changed our minds or caused people who currently disagree to change theirs.)

We expect that it could take substantial time and experimentation before we develop an approach that we’re happy with for worldview investigations; this work is at an early stage. For now, Nick Beckstead is leading this work, working with several others.

Our last extensive public update on cause prioritization is from January 2018. That post still accurately describes our views on some of the key challenges we’re facing, and on a number of specific issues such as how much funding to direct to GiveWell’s top charities.

Self-evaluation

Last year, we wrote:

We expect to put significant effort into internal “portfolio reviews” in 2018. These will discuss impact, lessons learned, and future expectations for each of our major focus areas. We may also create public summaries of these reviews, which would then serve as updates on particular focus areas with more detail than this organization-wide annual review has.

Our program teams for criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare have produced internal portfolio reviews discussing impact, lessons learned, and future expectations. We have not yet produced public summaries of these reviews, but might do so in the future.

Our next step on self-evaluation is to build an internal function — which we’re currently calling impact evaluation — that can provide some degree of independent assessment of these portfolio reviews, and of our overall impact in a given area. We expect that it could take substantial time and experimentation before we develop an impact evaluation process that we’re happy with; this work is at an early stage. For now, Morgan Davis is leading this work.

Outreach to external donors

Last year, we wrote:

Outreach to external donors will remain a relatively low priority for the organization as a whole, though it may be a higher priority for particular staff, as a future post will discuss.

We shared a fairly extensive update on this work in May. Over the long run, the Open Philanthropy Project aspires to work with many donors, and to inform far more giving than our current primary funders can do on their own, in order to maximize our impact and do as much good as possible. While outreach to other donors is not a major organization-wide priority at this time, we have been working significantly with other donors interested in particularly mature focus areas where our Program Officers see promising giving opportunities that outstrip their budgets (especially criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare).

Summary

Last year, we wrote:

It could be several more years (or more) before we seek to increase our annual giving much more, and in the meantime our annual reviews are likely to be fairly similar to each other: each year, we will aim to maintain roughly our current level of giving ($100+ million per year on average, though with significant year-to-year variation) while increasing our organizational capacity, improving our operations, and making progress on cause prioritization. In addition, future years (more than 2017) will see an emphasis on looking back and learning from our past grantmaking in order to inform our future work.

It could still be several more years before we seek to significantly increase our annual giving, but our upcoming work will increasingly focus on cause prioritization and learning from past grantmaking. We have built strong research and operations teams that will allow us to grow in these directions while continuing to maintain our current level of giving.

Plans for 2019

Our major goals for 2019 are as follows:

Continued grantmaking. We expect to continue grantmaking in potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, and scientific research and effective altruism. We expect that the total across these areas will be well over $100 million. By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of focus and resource deployment in other areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy).

Impact evaluation. A major priority for 2019 is building out our impact evaluation function, as discussed above. We don’t have definite, dated goals for this work yet, as it’s at an early stage, but we hope that by 2020 we will have (a) a much better read on our impact for at least 1-2 grant portfolios to date; (b) a plan for beginning to scale the impact evaluation team and process.

Worldview investigations. Another major priority for 2019 is building out our worldview investigations function, as discussed above. As with impact evaluation, this work is at an early stage and does not yet have definite dated goals, but we hope that by 2020 we will have (a) fairly thorough writeups (not necessarily public-ready) on at least 1-2 beliefs that are key to our cause prioritization; (b) a plan for beginning to scale the worldview investigations team and process.

Other cause prioritization work. We see our work on impact evaluation and worldview investigations as providing key inputs into our cause prioritization. We don’t plan on doing much other cause prioritization work in 2019, and for the time being we are likely to avoid major growth in our total giving.

Hiring and other capacity building. We are in the midst of another round of hiring for our Research Analyst roles, though this round has not been publicly advertised and we aren’t currently taking new applications. Unlike last year, when we took many people on for simultaneous trials, we will probably instead trial a much smaller number of RA applicants per year, with each trial period more customized to each trialist.

Outreach to external donors will remain a relatively low priority for the organization as a whole, though it may be a higher priority for particular staff.

Our Progress in 2017 and Plans for 2018

This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year.

In brief:

  • We recommended well over $100 million worth of grants in 2017. The bulk of these came from our major current focus areas: potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, and scientific research. Additionally, we recommended ~$90 million in grants to GiveWell’s top charities and incubation grants.
  • We’re starting to see hints of impact in the causes where our giving is most mature and near-term: criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare. We’re hoping to apply more scrutiny in the future (via, e.g., our History of Philanthropy project) to the key cases where it seems our work has had impact. In addition, in 2017 we put significant work into deeply examining some of the key premises behind our work on criminal justice reform (via David Roodman’s report on the impacts of incarceration) and farm animal welfare (via Ajeya Cotra’s report on the welfare implications of cage-free systems).
  • Scientific research was an area of particular progress in 2017 compared to 2016. We published an update on our approach to neglected goals that we consider to have largely achieved (in spirit) the goal of setting focus areas. We completed our transformative research award “second chance” program. In total, we made over $30 million in recommendations in scientific research.
  • A major focus for 2017 work was cause prioritization, which we gave a fairly extensive update on in January. This work has proven quite complex, and we expect that it could take many years to reach reasonably detailed and solid expectations about our long-term giving trajectory and allocations.
  • We made significant progress on capacity building via hiring and improvements in operations and communications; we completed the process of becoming a separate organization from GiveWell; and we saw somewhat more progress than expected on self-evaluation and advising additional donors.
  • Overall, we maintained a high level of grantmaking and made significant progress on increasing capacity, improving operations, and sharpening our thinking on cause prioritization. However, we have considerable room for further development on these fronts. It could be several years (or more) before we seek to increase our annual giving much more, and in the meantime our annual reviews are likely to be fairly similar to each other: each year, we will aim to maintain roughly our current level of giving ($100+ million per year on average, though with significant year-to-year variation) while increasing our organizational capacity, improving our operations, making progress on cause prioritization, and looking back and learning from our past grantmaking in order to inform our future work. Hiring is a particularly high priority for the coming year.

Progress in 2017

Last year’s post laid out plans for 2017. This section follows the order of that section, and quotes from it to allow comparisons between our plans and our progress.

Grantmaking

Major focus areas with full-time staff

Last year, we wrote:

We expect to continue our work on potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare much as we did in 2016. I would guess that the total amounts given in these causes will be broadly similar to what they were in 2016, and it’s hard to say whether they’ll be higher or lower for a given cause, because we don’t know what sorts of opportunities we will find. My best guess is that the four causes combined will account for around $70-90 million in recommendations.

The four combined for about $95 million in recommendations:

As mentioned below, we are currently working on internal reviews of the strategies we’ve taken and the impact we’ve had to date in each cause, and may also publish public summaries of these later on.

US policy grantmaking

Last year, we wrote:

We believe that the results of the 2016 elections have changed the overall landscape for U.S. policy (though not in a way that substantially alters the promise of criminal justice reform or farm animal welfare). Alexander Berger plans to put less emphasis on finding new grantees in immigration reform, macroeconomic stabilization policy and land use reform, while focusing on maintaining existing grants in those areas. He plans to spend more of his time exploring new potential Open Phil policy priorities in light of the 2016 elections. It’s hard to say what level of grantmaking this will lead to.

Alexander has spent increasing time on both management and communications (the latter discussed below), and in 2017 we didn’t prioritize either (a) opening new US policy areas or (b) significant grantmaking in the three areas mentioned above. We are experimenting with a couple of contracting arrangements for people who might become Program Officers in the above causes.

Effective altruism

Last year, we wrote:

We now consider this to be among our focus areas. We’ve recommended (or will soon recommend) multi-year grants to the organizations we’re most interested in supporting in this area. Nick Beckstead will maintain relationships and continue keeping an eye out for new opportunities, including opportunities to provide further funding to existing grantees, though we won’t necessarily make new grant recommendations in 2017 beyond the couple we’re working on now.

We made about $7.5 million worth of recommendations in this area in 2017, about half of which went to Centre for Effective Altruism and 80,000 Hours.

Scientific research

Last year, we wrote:

We’ve been working with our new full-time staff in this area for a few months, and feel that we still have a lot to learn about how best to investigate causes in this area. We hope to set focus areas by the end of 2017 or early 2018, though we still consider that a “soft” goal such that we will feel unsurprised if we don’t achieve it. I expect that some grantmaking opportunities will come up in the meantime; we would like to recommend at least $10-20 million worth of grants while still choosing focus areas this year, including some of the “transformative research award” candidates mentioned above, and we plan to make larger grants if we can find outstanding opportunities (such as gene drives).

We saw significant progress on this front. We published an update on our approach to neglected goals that we consider to have largely achieved (in spirit) the goal of setting focus areas discussed above. We completed our transformative research award “second chance” program. In total, we made over $30 million in recommendations in scientific research; writeups for some of the major grants are still forthcoming.

Other

Last year, we wrote:

Claire Zabel has been investigating potential “one-off grants” for global catastrophic risks other than the two mentioned above, particularly climate change and nuclear weapons policy. We don’t yet know how much grantmaking this will result in.

We recommended about $9 million in grants along these lines, mostly related to climate change: $3 million for the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program, ~$2.8 million via two grants for governance of solar radiation management, and $3 million for nuclear conflict climate modeling.

GiveWell top charities and incubation grants

We recommended ~$90 million in grants to GiveWell’s top charities and incubation grants, using the framework outlined here. These are in addition to the well over $100 million in recommended grants through our focus areas and other work.

Overall grantmaking

Last year, we wrote: “Overall, I will not be surprised if 2017 grantmaking is lower than 2016 grantmaking, as there were some significant one-off grants in 2016 (particularly in the area of gene drives). But I’d guess that we will recommend at least $100 million worth of grants, and I’ll consider it quite surprising if we don’t recommend at least $80 million worth.” 2017 grantmaking was well over $100 million; it’s still possible that we will run out of “low-hanging fruit” and see a dip in the near future, but this looks less likely than it did a year ago.

Impact and self-evaluation

Last year, we wrote:

We expect to very preliminarily start looking back at previous grants and doing self-assessment. However, we think it will be more productive to focus on this work a year or two from now. We expect most of our grants to take several years to have noticeable impact (if any), and the bulk of our grantmaking to date is now less than a year old.

We made slightly more progress than expected on this front. We completed internal “portfolio reviews” – discussions of impact, lessons learned, and future expectations for a broad set of grants – for farm animal welfare and potential risks from advanced AI, and have started work on portfolio reviews for other causes as well. We may publicly summarize these portfolio reviews later on.

While most of our grants are still a couple of years old at most, we believe we are seeing hints of impact, particularly in causes where our giving is most mature and near-term:

  • We believe our largest criminal justice reform grantee, Alliance for Safety and Justice, played a significant role in the passage of two criminal justice reform bills in Illinois. The first, signed into law in 2017, was projected by the state’s Sentencing Policy Advisory Council to reduce the state’s prison population by 4,000 people by 2025. The second, just recently signed, facilitates re-entry for individuals leaving incarceration and improves support available for children and youth affected by crime and violence.
  • As mentioned above, our 2017 giving in farm animal welfare was largely focused internationally. This expansion abroad was possible partially because corporate campaigns, which had previously been in motion and were likely accelerated by our funding, had already secured pledges from all of the top 25 U.S. grocers and 16 of the top 20 U.S. fast food chains. Our farm animal welfare Program Officer, Lewis Bollard, wrote last April that these pledges look like a major and unusual success story for rapid, large-scale change brought on by advocacy.

We are hoping to subject cases like these (where it appears our work has had impact) to further scrutiny in the future; for example, we are hoping to support a case study on the first point above, under our History of Philanthropy project. In addition, in 2017 we put significant work into deeply examining some of the key premises behind our work:

  • David Roodman analyzed whether decarceration reforms increase crime. His extensive report, published in September, summarized in a series of blog posts, and covered by Vox, The Economist, and Marginal Revolution, concluded that the best available evidence suggests that at typical policy margins in the United States today, decarceration likely would have zero net impact on crime, while bringing substantial financial and humanitarian benefits.
  • Ajeya Cotra analyzed the extent to which moving to cage-free systems represents a welfare improvement for chickens. Her report, published in September and summarized in this blog post, suggests that cage-free systems provide valuable behavioral opportunities to hens that likely outweigh possible short-term mortality increases caused by the transition to the new systems.

Cause prioritization framework and “last dollar” analysis

Last year, we wrote:

A major goal of 2017 will be to reach and publish better-developed views on:

We gave a fairly extensive update on this work in January. It has proven quite complex, and we expect that it could take many years to reach reasonably detailed and solid expectations about our long-term giving trajectory and allocations. We now expect a continuing iterative process in which – at any given time – we are making enough guesses and tentative allocations to set our working budgets for existing focus areas and our desired trajectory for total giving over the next few years. We expect the detail and confidence of our capital allocation between buckets to increase in parallel with total giving, and to be fairly high by the time we reach peak giving.

Progress on this front also included the publication of Luke Muehlhauser’s report on moral patienthood, one of the key questions for our cause prioritization.

Capacity building

Last year, we wrote:

We hope to improve our staff capacity and processes on a few fronts:

  • We’re hoping to improve our grantmaking process, particularly the process of completing a writeup, grant agreement, and grant payment. (Currently, it often takes months from when we recommend a grant to when we finalize and announce the grant.) We recently hired Morgan Davis to help with this work, and may hire more people in line with this goal.
  • We’re hoping to hire a Director of Operations so that we can be in good position to build an operations team as we grow further in the future. Currently, we largely share operations capacity with GiveWell.
  • We’re hoping to improve our communications capacity. Currently, we make many grants with relatively little sense for what communications challenges they might raise, and what we can do to minimize or mitigate such challenges. We are exploring the idea of more intensive engagements with communications firms, and/or hiring, in order to get better at this. Doing so might also improve our ability to create public communications about our work that are more digestible than the content we currently put out.

We made significant progress on these fronts.

  • We made two Grants Associate hires, Dev Basumallik and Derek Hopf; Derek has now taken over as Grants Manager, and Morgan is now Interim Director of Operations.
  • The grant logistics team cut the average time from receiving a recommendation from program officers to grantees receiving a transfer by 50%, and implemented a number of other improvements to our process.
  • We hired Michael Levine as our Communications Officer, and we now conduct an internal review of potential communications challenges for all public content before it goes up.

We continue to feel capacity-constrained on the operations front, and we are hiring for several roles.

Other

Last year, we wrote:

  • We expect to complete the process of becoming a separate organization from GiveWell this year.
  • We are becoming more interested in the idea of finding additional donors to partner on our work, whether it takes the form of funding good giving opportunities that aren’t a fit for us, pooling resources, or simply sharing a lot of information. Part of our increased interest comes from our increased sense that we can spend a lot of money in a high-impact way. We don’t have any particular goals on this front for 2017, but we expect to spend more time talking with major philanthropists and future major philanthropists than we did in 2016.
  • We expect to very preliminarily start looking back at previous grants and doing self-assessment. However, we think it will be more productive to focus on this work a year or two from now. We expect most of our grants to take several years to have noticeable impact (if any), and the bulk of our grantmaking to date is now less than a year old.

We completed the process of becoming a separate organization from GiveWell, and we saw somewhat more progress than expected on the other two points as well. We did some preliminary work advising additional donors, which we will discuss in a future post. As noted above, we also completed internal “portfolio reviews” – discussions of impact, lessons learned, and future expectations for a broad set of grants – for farm animal welfare and potential risks from advanced AI, and have started work on portfolio reviews for other causes as well. We may publicly summarize these portfolio reviews later on.

Summary

Last year, we wrote:

Speaking broadly, the main significance of 2016 for us is that we greatly increased our grantmaking … At this level of giving, we now see more importance for careful public communications, the need for a more streamlined and systematic grantmaking process, and the need for more thinking about the question of how much grantmaking to aim for in each of our focus areas and how to decide when a grant is worth making. In particular, we believe that we will gain a lot from sharpening our thinking on several points related to worldview diversification – and the relative appeal of different worldviews – before increasing our annual giving level much more.

In 2017, we maintained a high level of grantmaking and made significant progress on increasing capacity, improving operations, and sharpening our thinking on cause prioritization and worldview diversification. However, we have considerable room for further development on these fronts. It could be several more years (or more) before we seek to increase our annual giving much more, and in the meantime our annual reviews are likely to be fairly similar to each other: each year, we will aim to maintain roughly our current level of giving ($100+ million per year on average, though with significant year-to-year variation) while increasing our organizational capacity, improving our operations, and making progress on cause prioritization. In addition, future years (more than 2017) will see an emphasis on looking back and learning from our past grantmaking in order to inform our future work.

Plans for 2018

Our major goals for 2018 are as follows:

Continued grantmaking. We expect to continue grantmaking in potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, scientific research and effective altruism. We expect that the total across these areas will be well over $100 million. By default, we plan to continue with our relatively low level of effort and resources in other focus areas (e.g., macroeconomic stabilization policy, or “other” global catastrophic risks).

Hiring and other capacity building. Hiring is a major priority for 2018, for both research and operational positions. We expect to put particular effort into hiring, training and mentoring generalist Research Analyst candidates. We see this as a long-term investment in our future, as we hope these hires will have the potential to become core contributors to the organization.

Cause prioritization. As discussed previously, we believe we still have a great deal of work to do in terms of refining our long-term programmatic priorities, the planned trajectory of our giving, and growth in budgets for different focus areas. We aren’t sure how much progress we’ll make on this in 2018 (and we hope that we’ll make more progress in future years if hiring goes well). Our most likely focus will be on forming a preliminary sense of how much (if at all) we should be expanding the budgets of the near-termist causes we work on, vs. holding resources in reserve for later investment in long-termist work (which we tentatively expect to recommend large allocations to, though it is generally less shovel-ready today than near-termist work).

Self-evaluation. We expect to put significant effort into internal “portfolio reviews” in 2018. These will discuss impact, lessons learned, and future expectations for each of our major focus areas. We may also create public summaries of these reviews, which would then serve as updates on particular focus areas with more detail than this organization-wide annual review has.

Outreach to external donors will remain a relatively low priority for the organization as a whole, though it may be a higher priority for particular staff, as a future post will discuss.

Our Progress in 2016 and Plans for 2017

This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year.

In brief:

  • Our main goal for 2016 was increasing our level of grantmaking, and we focused on this rather than hiring. The team expanded little, but we recommended[1]Throughout this post, “recommended” means that a recommendation was made by an Open Phil grant investigator and approved by Cari and Holden. However, the recommendation is generally conditional on finalizing a grant agreement and completing due diligence, and in many cases the next step … Continue reading over $100 million worth of grants in 2016, compared to under $20 million in 2015. We briefly summarize our activity in each of the major causes we worked on below. In most cases, it is too early to see impact from our work, but in a couple of cases there appears to be some early impact.
  • We had three Scientific Advisors – Chris Somerville, Heather Youngs and Daniel Martin-Alarcon – start in mid-2016. (Chris was previously consulting on a part-time basis.) We still have a good deal of work to do before setting focus areas within scientific research.
  • We did not complete the spinoff of the Open Philanthropy Project into a separate organization; this turned out to be more time-consuming than anticipated. We anticipate completing it by mid-2017.
  • We expect to be able to continue recommending grants at a pace of $100+ million per year (though with considerable year-to-year variation) and maintaining current quality (i.e. grants that we consider reasonably well-investigated and good expected value for money). We now have a much more tangible sense of what the day-to-day key questions and operational challenges are for giving in this range. Many new questions and challenges have come up.
  • At this stage, we now see greater importance for a number of issues including the question of how much grantmaking to aim for in each of our focus areas and how to decide when a grant is worth making, our approach to public communications, and how to make our grantmaking process more streamlined and systematic. In particular, we believe that we will gain a lot from sharpening our thinking on several points related to worldview diversification – and the relative appeal of different worldviews – before increasing our annual giving level much more.
  • For 2017, we don’t plan to focus on scaling up our program staff or grantmaking. Instead, we expect to maintain them at roughly the same level while making significant progress on the items listed in the previous point.

Progress in 2016

Last year’s post laid out plans for 2016. This section follows the order of that section, and quotes from it to allow comparisons between our plans and our progress.

Grantmaking

In the intro to last year’s post, we wrote:

This year, we have a general goal of focusing on making grants in the most outstanding causes we’ve found. This is a departure from past years’ goals, which revolved around building knowledge and staff capacity. We expect to prioritize building knowledge and staff capacity again in the future, but we think this is a good year to focus on increasing our grantmaking. We currently are bottlenecked in terms of management capacity, and we believe that focusing on grantmaking will likely lead to a lot of learning that will inform future hiring and capacity building.

2016 progress was consistent with this: we did little hiring, and increased grantmaking greatly. We recommended over $100 million worth of grants. (A comparable figure for 2015 would have been under $20 million.)

Potential risks from advanced AI

Last year, we wrote:

Potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence will be a major priority for 2016 … Daniel Dewey will work on it full-time, and Nick Beckstead and I [Holden] will both put significant time into it as well. Some other staff will be contributing smaller amounts of time as appropriate … We won’t necessarily recommend a large amount of grantmaking in this cause, though it’s possible that we will. Our main goal is to lay the groundwork for more grantmaking in the future.

We recommended approximately $11 million in grants, including $5.56 million to start UC Berkeley’s Center for Human-Compatible AI, $2.4 million to Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (writeup forthcoming), approximately $2 million to the Future of Humanity Institute, and $500,000 to Machine Intelligence Research Institute. Our grantmaking has focused on (a) creating more spaces for work on technical safety research in academia; (b) “shovel-ready” grants to existing organizations.

We also put substantial effort into writing up our views on the topic, making connections with people in relevant fields, and developing a general grant process that we’ll be using for more grants on technical safety work.

We feel much better informed about this area, with a clearer sense of our future potential activities, than we did a year ago. We still consider it a highly promising philanthropic area, and we plan to continue allocating partial time from several staff (especially Nick Beckstead, Helen Toner and myself) as well as all of Daniel Dewey’s time. Working this way in 2016 did not require cutting or suspending any other top-priority work, and we don’t expect it to in 2017 either.

We see this as a very long-time-horizon cause, and we don’t think we can point to tangible impact of our work yet.

Biosecurity and pandemic preparedness

Last year, we wrote:

We hope to recommend at least $10 million worth of grants in the area of biosecurity in the next year. A full-time Program Officer will be starting work in this area soon.

With Jaime Yassif as our new Program Officer who started in mid-2016, we’ve recommended a bit over $21 million in grants in this area. $16 million of that was for the Center for Health Security; other major grants included $1.8 million for the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense and $2.7 million for the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative.

We focused initially on “shovel-ready” grants to organizations that relevant staff had pre-existing knowledge of. We then spent some time setting priorities more systematically. In the near term our top three priorities will be: (1) risk assessment; (2) managing the risks posed by advances in biotechnology, its global spread and decreasing barriers to access; and (3) building capacity for independent policy research and advocacy. In the coming year we plan to refine our strategic priorities and set longer term goals for the program. Most of our grantmaking in this cause was done after mid-year and has aimed to build capacity for key institutions; we don’t think we can point to tangible impact of this work yet.

Criminal Justice Reform

Last year, we wrote:

We hope to recommend at least $10 million worth of grants in each of criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare. We have cause-specific staffers leading our work in both areas.

We recommended about $20 million worth of Criminal Justice Reform grants in 2016.[2]Last year’s review stated, “We hope to recommend at least $10 million worth of grants in each of criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare. We have cause-specific staffers leading our work in both areas. (In each case, we’d include grants already made in these areas – … Continue reading

Priorities include sentencing reform (including $3 million for the Alliance for Safety and Justice), organizing (including Faith in Texas, Mijente and The Ordinary People Society), prosecutorial accountability and reform (such as The Accountable Justice Project), and piloting and promoting alternatives to incarceration (such as restorative justice). We expect to publish significantly more content on this topic in the coming months.

We’ve seen several cases where our grants may have had an impact, and will likely write more about some of these in the future (while some are best not to share publicly). So far, we believe the most significant case is that of a recent bill signed in Illinois that our grantee, the Alliance for Safety and Justice, estimates will result in approximately a 3000-person reduction in the prison population (we plan to discuss this in more detail in a future post). It is our understanding that ASJ developed the strategy for the bill, and worked very closely with the bill’s champion Jehan Gordon-Booth, to cover all bases necessary in the state to get it passed. It passed with strong bipartisan majority and support from key law enforcement associations. Our grant to ASJ constituted 54% of its income in 2016; we believe this grant substantially increased the scope of ASJ’s work, and that the work ASJ did in Illinois is among the work that would have been unlikely to occur without our support.

Farm Animal Welfare

As quoted above, last year we wrote that we hoped to recommend at least $10 million worth of grants in this area. We recommended about $15 million worth of grants in 2016 (not including an additional $2.5 million we recommended in 2015). This included about $3 million each to Mercy for Animals (grants here, here and here) and The Humane League (here, here, and here).

Our main focus was on corporate campaigns for better treatment of both layer and broiler chickens, both in the U.S. and abroad. Our grantees have now secured cage-free pledges from all of the top 25 US grocers, foodservice companies, and food manufacturers, and 16 of the top 20 fast food chains, which will benefit >250M hens annually once implemented. They have also secured global cage-free pledges from the world’s two largest foodservice companies, the world’s largest discount grocery chain, and several of the world’s largest hotel chains, and regional cage-free pledges from Latin America’s largest fast food operators and France and Britain’s largest grocers. And they have secured commitments from the largest US foodservice operators and several fast food chains to reduce the suffering of >200M broiler chickens annually.

We also supported work on fish welfare, work on promoting animal product alternatives, and nascent work to build stronger farm animal welfare organizations in China and India. We view these as long-term efforts and don’t expect to see tangible progress from these grants soon.

Other U.S. policy

Last year, we wrote:

Alexander Berger’s top priority continues to be supporting Chloe and Lewis’s work (on criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare, respectively). We’re less set on what his other priorities will be, but with his remaining time, he is likely to work on some combination of:

  • exploring funding opportunities around a cluster of science and technology policy issues, such as policy around emerging technologies (potentially including advanced artificial intelligence) and other topics related to science policy and infrastructure.
  • investigating a set of funding opportunities in macroeconomic stabilization policy.
  • maintaining or expanding upon our grants in immigration policy and land use reform.

I’d guess that his work (aside from supporting Chloe and Lewis) will result in about $10 million worth of grant recommendations in 2016, but with high uncertainty.

Alexander spent less time on the above priorities than anticipated, instead focusing on supporting Chloe and Lewis, helping Open Philanthropy move toward spinning out as an independent organization, and working with the science team on grants around the use of gene drives in malaria control (discussed more below).

We recommended about $2 million in grants to think tanks to work on macroeconomic stabilization policy (grant writeups here, here, here, here and here), as well as a renewal for Fed Up (writeup forthcoming). We also recommended $1-2 million for immigration policy and land use reform. We mostly think it is too early to see especially clear impact from these grants.

We plan to lower the priority of new grantmaking (as opposed to renewals for existing grantees) in macroeconomic stabilization policy, immigration policy and land use reform this year. We’ve made a relatively small number of grants in these causes, and this is related to the fact that Alexander’s attention has been divided between multiple priorities. (We’ve also updated in favor of the “expert” model of philanthropy described in this blog post.) For now, we anticipate mostly keeping our work in these areas in “maintenance mode,” while Alexander works on some other priorities (more below).

Scientific research

Last year, we wrote:

We still have a substantial amount of work to do before we’ll be ready to set focus areas within scientific research. We don’t plan to set a particular goal for 2016, because (a) we are allocating senior generalist time to potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence; and (b) we think time spent on scientific research will be much more productive after our scientific advisors come on board.

We had three Scientific Advisors – Chris Somerville, Heather Youngs and Daniel Martin-Alarcon – start in mid-2016. We’ve been investigating several areas of interest but have not completed any investigations yet. We have also:

  • Recommended a large grant for work on gene drives that might reduce malarial burdens (main writeup forthcoming; one grant is written up here).
  • Reviewed over 100 grant proposals that were submitted to the NIH’s Transformative Research Award Program and not funded, and we plan to recommending funding for some. We see this as a way of getting a very broad view of what sort of ambitious and unfunded ideas are out there in the life sciences.

Effective altruism

Last year, we wrote:

There is a strong possibility that we will make grants aimed at helping grow the effective altruist community in 2016. Nick Beckstead, who has strong connections and context in this community, would lead this work.

We recommended about $1 million to Founders’ Pledge, and $1.4 million for SPARC and Center for Applied Rationality. We also made recommendations for Machine Intelligence Research Institute and Future of Humanity Institute (writeup forthcoming), though we’ve classified these as falling under potential risks from advanced AI rather than under effective altruism.

We are hoping to recommend grants for 80,000 Hours and Centre for Effective Altruism soon. At that point we believe we will have covered most of the major opportunities in this area, but we will continue to keep an eye out.

We expect to have substantive updates on these organizations’ progress and the impact of our funds within about a year, but we don’t at the moment.

Other grantmaking

Last year, we wrote:

As discussed above, we have significantly better capacity – and context – for evaluating potential grants than we’ve had in the past. As such, we are making a moderate effort to identify potential grants that don’t fit neatly into an existing focus area but are highly “shovel-ready” (in the sense that we can identify a specific potential grantee) and appear strong overall based on the knowledge we’ve picked up in the course of our many cause investigations and discussions. We don’t expect to make a large number of these grants, but we expect to make some.

We recommended about $5.5 million in grants on outstanding opportunities to mitigate risks from climate change: $2.5 million for research on solar geoengineering (writeup forthcoming) and $3 million to encourage reduction in hydrofluorocarbon emissions. We also made about $1 million worth of other “one-off grants” (see here, here and here).

We wrote about our recommendation to Good Ventures to grant $50 million to GiveWell’s top charities. We aren’t including this figure when we say (above) that “We recommended over $100 million worth of grants” in 2016.

Progress on other fronts

Last year, we wrote:

  • We hope that by the end of 2016, the Open Philanthropy Project will operate as an independent organization from GiveWell, with its own employees and financials, though some individuals will continue to do work for both organizations.
  • We continue to commission case studies on philanthropy’s past successes as part of our history of philanthropy work. We also continue to collect relevant cases informally. By the end of 2016, we hope to publish a summary of what we’ve learned about the history of philanthropy, which will be a significant update from our 2012 post on the subject.
  • We hope to continue improving cross-cutting aspects of how we work. Our interests include improving our process for producing public writeups, refining our approach to cost-effectiveness estimates and comparing the good accomplished by different grants, refining our thinking about how much giving we should recommend to GiveWell’s top charities, and finding ways to improve our general forecasting abilities (since our grantmaking decisions rely on views about what developments are likely in the future). We expect to do some work on all of these fronts, but it will not be a major priority with a concrete goal this year.
  • We still don’t have the capacity we’d need to identify focus areas within the category of global health and development – beyond our existing connection to GiveWell‘s work and our support of the Center for Global Development. We don’t plan to build this capacity in 2016 and expect to revisit this in a future year.

The first of these – spinning off into an independent organization – turned out to be more complex and involved than we had anticipated. We put significant time into it in 2016 and are planning to complete the spinoff by mid-2017.

We put less time than anticipated into the other points listed above. We did not publish an updated writeup on the history of philanthropy, and may or may not do so in 2017. We made some progress on the third point, including a revised approach to information sharing, starting to explore best practices for forecasting, improvements to our grantmaking process and new hires who focus on it, and an internal “Program Officer guide” that we expect to eventually create a public version of.

Takeaways from 2016

Speaking broadly, the main significance of 2016 for us is that we greatly increased our grantmaking, to the point where it is now comparable to that of major foundations. We expect to be able to maintain this pace and quality of giving recommendations (i.e. $100+ million per year, though with substantial year-to-year variation, from grants that we consider reasonably well-investigated and good expected value for money).

If we had a goal of increasing the annual level of grantmaking further, we think we could fairly easily do so, and this has affected how we think about giving now vs. later.

We now have a much more tangible sense of what the day-to-day key questions and operational challenges are for giving in this range. Many new questions and challenges have come up. At this level of giving, we now see more importance for careful public communications, the need for a more streamlined and systematic grantmaking process, and the need for more thinking about the question of how much grantmaking to aim for in each of our focus areas and how to decide when a grant is worth making. In particular, we believe that we will gain a lot from sharpening our thinking on several points related to worldview diversification – and the relative appeal of different worldviews – before increasing our annual giving level much more.

Plans for 2017

For reasons outlined above, we aren’t planning much staff expansion in 2017. We plan to continue grantmaking roughly as we have been, while trying to improve the underlying processes and intellectual framework.

Continued grantmaking

  • Major focus areas with full-time staff: we expect to continue our work on potential risks of advanced AI, biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare much as we did in 2016. I would guess that the total amounts given in these causes will be broadly similar to what they were in 2016, and it’s hard to say whether they’ll be higher or lower for a given cause, because we don’t know what sorts of opportunities we will find. My best guess is that the four causes combined will account for around $70-90 million in recommendations.
  • Other US policy grantmaking. We believe that the results of the 2016 elections have changed the overall landscape for U.S. policy (though not in a way that substantially alters the promise of criminal justice reform or farm animal welfare). Alexander Berger plans to put less emphasis on finding new grantees in immigration reform, macroeconomic stabilization policy and land use reform, while focusing on maintaining existing grants in those areas. He plans to spend more of his time exploring new potential Open Phil policy priorities in light of the 2016 elections. It’s hard to say what level of grantmaking this will lead to.
  • Effective altruism. We now consider this to be among our focus areas. We’ve recommended (or will soon recommend) multi-year grants to the organizations we’re most interested in supporting in this area. Nick Beckstead will maintain relationships and continue keeping an eye out for new opportunities, including opportunities to provide further funding to existing grantees, though we won’t necessarily make new grant recommendations in 2017 beyond the couple we’re working on now.
  • Scientific research. We’ve been working with our new full-time staff in this area for a few months, and feel that we still have a lot to learn about how best to investigate causes in this area. We hope to set focus areas by the end of 2017 or early 2018, though we still consider that a “soft” goal such that we will feel unsurprised if we don’t achieve it. I expect that some grantmaking opportunities will come up in the meantime; we would like to recommend at least $10-20 million worth of grants while still choosing focus areas this year, including some of the “transformative research award” candidates mentioned above, and we plan to make larger grants if we can find outstanding opportunities (such as gene drives).
  • Other. Claire Zabel has been investigating potential “one-off grants” for global catastrophic risks other than the two mentioned above, particularly climate change and nuclear weapons policy. We don’t yet know how much grantmaking this will result in.

Overall, I will not be surprised if 2017 grantmaking is lower than 2016 grantmaking, as there were some significant one-off grants in 2016 (particularly in the area of gene drives). But I’d guess that we will recommend at least $100 million worth of grants, and I’ll consider it quite surprising if we don’t recommend at least $80 million worth.

Cause prioritization framework and “last dollar” analysis

We recently wrote:

Our framework for “giving now vs. later” has gotten a lot more complex compared to last year’s, and it’s very far at this point from being as systematic as I would like. Currently, we apply the framework very loosely and informally … In 2017, I hope to put significantly more time into the issues that were preliminarily addressed in this post, such as the value of the “last dollar” …

A major goal of 2017 will be to reach and publish better-developed views on:

This work is likely to include addressing several of the fundamental questions we listed recently: how to compare cost-effectiveness across very different causes, how to make decisions under different kinds of uncertainty, how best to realize the benefits of worldview diversification, and which types of beings warrant our moral concern. It may also include some degree of further investigation on the moral value of the far future, and the question of how likely it is that we can have non-negligible impact on humanity’s long-term prospects.

We hope this work will put us in better position to make systematic day-to-day decisions about our grantmaking, and to choose the best possible cause prioritization and funding allocation as we scale up our giving further.

Capacity building

We hope to improve our staff capacity and processes on a few fronts:

  • We’re hoping to improve our grantmaking process, particularly the process of completing a writeup, grant agreement, and grant payment. (Currently, it often takes months from when we recommend a grant to when we finalize and announce the grant.) We recently hired Morgan Davis to help with this work, and may hire more people in line with this goal.
  • We’re hoping to hire a Director of Operations so that we can be in good position to build an operations team as we grow further in the future. Currently, we largely share operations capacity with GiveWell.
  • We’re hoping to improve our communications capacity. Currently, we make many grants with relatively little sense for what communications challenges they might raise, and what we can do to minimize or mitigate such challenges. We are exploring the idea of more intensive engagements with communications firms, and/or hiring, in order to get better at this. Doing so might also improve our ability to create public communications about our work that are more digestible than the content we currently put out.

Other

  • We expect to complete the process of becoming a separate organization from GiveWell this year.
  • We are becoming more interested in the idea of finding additional donors to partner on our work, whether it takes the form of funding good giving opportunities that aren’t a fit for us, pooling resources, or simply sharing a lot of information. Part of our increased interest comes from our increased sense that we can spend a lot of money in a high-impact way. We don’t have any particular goals on this front for 2017, but we expect to spend more time talking with major philanthropists and future major philanthropists than we did in 2016.
  • We expect to very preliminarily start looking back at previous grants and doing self-assessment. However, we think it will be more productive to focus on this work a year or two from now. We expect most of our grants to take several years to have noticeable impact (if any), and the bulk of our grantmaking to date is now less than a year old.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Throughout this post, “recommended” means that a recommendation was made by an Open Phil grant investigator and approved by Cari and Holden. However, the recommendation is generally conditional on finalizing a grant agreement and completing due diligence, and in many cases the next step after this is a recommendation to a donor-advised fund that has final say in what grant (if any) is made. Grants are not posted to our database until completed, so in many cases the date of a grant’s being “recommended” in the sense used here is different from the date that a grant appears in the database.
2 Last year’s review stated, “We hope to recommend at least $10 million worth of grants in each of criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare. We have cause-specific staffers leading our work in both areas. (In each case, we’d include grants already made in these areas – since late 2015, when both staffers joined – as part of the $10 million.)” However, we decided that this accounting method is needlessly confusing, and we’re now just listing numbers for calendar-year 2016.

Our Progress in 2015 and Plans for 2016

This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year.

In brief:

  • Our 2015 goals revolved mostly around building our staff capacity, and particularly around hiring. Broadly speaking, we mostly accomplished our goals, though we significantly scaled back our goals for scientific research at mid-year.
  • Our team has roughly doubled in size compared to a year ago. We’re now in a much better position to recommend a significant amount of grantmaking. We also feel much better positioned to identify outstanding causes.
  • This year, we have a general goal of focusing on making grants in the most outstanding causes we’ve found. This is a departure from past years’ goals, which revolved around building knowledge and staff capacity. We expect to prioritize building knowledge and staff capacity again in the future, but we think this is a good year to focus on increasing our grantmaking. We currently are bottlenecked in terms of management capacity, and we believe that focusing on grantmaking will likely lead to a lot of learning that will inform future hiring and capacity building.
  • Potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence will be a major priority for 2016. Not only will Daniel Dewey be working on this cause full-time, but Nick Beckstead and I will both be putting significant time into it as well. Some other staff will be contributing smaller amounts of time as appropriate.
  • Other major focus areas where we expect significant grantmaking include criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, and biosecurity. We expect to recommend at least $10 million in grants in each of these areas.
  • We have a variety of other goals, including completing the separation of the Open Philanthropy Project as an independent organization from GiveWell, with its own employees and financials, though some individuals will continue to do work for both organizations.

Progress in 2015

In 2015, our goals were set out in several posts, and we set 6- rather than 12-month goals (with an update about 6 months in). Below is a summary, based on four posts.1 Footnotes provide quotes from these posts supporting the summary.

US policy: Our top priority was hiring and, later, onboarding full-time staff. We surpassed our 6-month goal (making two hires rather than the one we had aimed for), and then focused on working with the hires – Chloe Cockburn and Lewis Bollard – to get in sync about goals and plans. A secondary priority was to explore giving opportunities in immigration policy, land use reform and macroeconomic stabilization policy.2

While we ended up making a small number of immigration policy grants and land use reform grants, we chose to focus more on macroeconomic stabilization policy because we saw a clear set of funding opportunities that seemed timely and high-potential. (Investigations for these are still ongoing.)

Global catastrophic risks: One of our top goals throughout the year was to make a full-time hire for working on biosecurity. We recently had an offer accepted for the biosecurity role, which concludes that several-months-long search.

The other top goal evolved. Initially, we planned to explore giving opportunities in several other areas. We then put significant time into a $1.2 million grant in the cause of potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence. We came to believe this cause could be suitable for a full-time hire, and began working on a trial basis with Daniel Dewey to explore it further.3

Scientific research: We initially hoped to form clear priorities within scientific research funding by the end of 2015, comparable to where we then stood on U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks, though we recognized this was a stretch goal. By mid-year, it had become clear that we needed more scientific advisory capacity than we had. We wrote that we did not expect to accomplish this goal and shifted our focus to building advisory capacity. We also began preliminary exploration of possibilities in the social sciences.4

Since then, we have made substantial progress in scientific advisory hiring: Daniel Martin-Alarcon will be joining us in June as a full-time Scientific Advisor, and Chris Somerville, who is currently working with us part-time, is planning to join us later in the year (after he finishes some other projects) as a full-time Senior Scientific Advisor. We have an offer out that, if accepted, would result in a third full-time scientific advisory hire.

We have made partial progress on a number of investigations of neglected goals, including malaria, tuberculosis, life extension, finding new uses for off-patent drugs, and animal product alternatives. Only the last of these has progressed to a public writeup, and much of this work was done as trial assignments with potential advisors (not all of whom ended up working with us long-term), so some of these investigations could still be a long way from public writeups.

Other: We aimed to create an Open Philanthropy Project website and transfer our content from the GiveWell website to it. We also fell behind on putting out public content, and hoped to improve our processes around this.5

Since then, we launched the website and substantially improved our processes around writeups. There are still some cause investigations that we never finished or published, but we are now fairly consistently publishing grant writeups a few months after recommending grants.

Another notable event of 2015 was our partnership with Kaitlyn and Mike Krieger.

Takeaways from 2015

We’ve expanded the team significantly and plan to slow the pace of hiring at this point. At the beginning of the year, the people spending significant (>50%) time on the Open Philanthropy Project were:

  • Alexander Berger and Howie Lempel, who were primarily focused on hiring and/or cause selection, and recommended a limited number of grants.
  • David Roodman, who focused on in-depth literature reviews that aided our cause selection.
  • Nick Beckstead, whom we had just hired and begun onboarding.
  • Cari Tuna and myself, focused on cause selection and oversight.

Since then, the team has roughly doubled in size. Specifically:

  • We’ve brought on three cause-specific Program Officers: Chloe Cockburn (criminal justice reform), Lewis Bollard (farm animal welfare), and Daniel Dewey (potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence). A fourth cause-specific Program Officer will be starting soon to work on biosecurity.
  • We’ve improved our processes and significantly increased our capacity for recommending grants and producing grant writeups. Helen Toner and Nicole Ross lead this work.
  • Nick Beckstead (new at the beginning of 2015) and Luke Muehlhauser (hired during 2015) now work on a variety of things, including helping with cause selection for life sciences (Nick) and social sciences (Luke).
  • With two offers accepted and a third outstanding, we expect to have significant scientific advisory capacity by the end of 2016.

Hiring was our main priority on nearly every front in 2015, and this growth in capacity was our main output for the year.

We’re now in much better position to do a significant amount of grantmaking. For 2016, we plan to focus significantly more on grantmaking, because:

  • We haven’t focused intensively on grantmaking before. Doing so now is likely to lead to a lot of learning that will inform future hiring and capacity building.
  • Many of our teammates are still relatively new. In general, we expect to work intensively with new staff, and see them gradually take on more autonomy, freeing up managers’ capacity for further hiring and onboarding. Our management capacity is constrained now, and it would be difficult to do more hiring, but I expect this to change in the future.
  • As discussed immediately below, we see some compelling philanthropic opportunities that we’d like to pursue as quickly as we can.

We now feel that we have reasonably good context for identifying the causes that best fit our criteria.

  • We’ve put serious thought and discussion into all four of the major categories of potential focus areas that we’ve identified as potential priorities. US policy and global catastrophic risks are categories that we’ve investigated to the point of picking initial focus areas and starting to make grants. We’ve looked into several causes in the life sciences (and to a lesser extent in the social sciences) and had many discussions with scientific advisors about which ones seem most promising. And through our experience with GiveWell and discussions with the Center for Global Development, we have at least a preliminary sense of what focus areas we might find promising within global health and development.
  • We’ve also been putting more effort into the kinds of cost-effectiveness calculations that can start to give us an idea of how to compare opportunities across causes. We’ve done very rough estimates of the good accomplished per dollar for grants where this seemed worth doing; see examples from criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, and global development policy. We’ve also started thinking about how to compare these opportunities to GiveWell’s top charities, and about the more general issue of what the threshold should be for “good enough to fund now rather than saving the money for later” (see this GiveWell post). We’re still a long way away from having a systematic take on these issues, but we’re starting to build our intuition about what sorts of giving opportunities are good, very good and outstanding by our criteria. We see some outstanding causes that we feel ready to work on now; we think doing so soon would be much better than doing so later, especially since we generally expect there to be more philanthropy following similar approaches to ours in the future (which would make our counterfactual impact smaller).

With all of the above considerations in mind, we have a general goal this year of focusing on making grants in the most outstanding causes we’ve found.

This is a departure from past years’ goals, which revolved around building knowledge and staff capacity. It is also distinct from a goal we may have in the future: maximizing our “money moved” by, for instance, looking for giving opportunities where we could recommend a large amount of grantmaking while spending relatively little time. By contrast, focusing on the most outstanding causes we’ve found could involve spending significant time per dollar of grantmaking and recommending a limited amount of grantmaking overall.

Plans for 2016

Potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence will be a major priority for 2016. Based on our investigations over the last few months, we believe that:

  • This cause stands out unusually strongly on our criteria of importance, neglectedness and tractability.
  • Doing good work in this cause is likely to require a major time investment, beyond what we can expect from one cause-specific staffer alone. We aren’t sure whether this will be true over the long run, but it seems likely to be true of our first year working intensively in this area.

Accordingly, we are going to be investing significant capacity in this cause. Daniel Dewey will work on it full-time, and Nick Beckstead and I will both put significant time into it as well. Some other staff will be contributing smaller amounts of time as appropriate. Since Nick and I are both generalists, we expect this plan to have major opportunity costs: it will lower our overall capacity for cause selection and other cross-cutting work, such as refining our approach to cost-effectiveness estimates and improving our process for producing writeups. This is a tradeoff we’re comfortable with for 2016, and we’ll revisit the matter in about a year.

We won’t necessarily recommend a large amount of grantmaking in this cause, though it’s possible that we will. Our main goal is to lay the groundwork for more grantmaking in the future. We will elaborate more on the case that this cause presents an outstanding opportunity in future posts.

Other global catastrophic risks. We hope to recommend at least $10 million worth of grants in the area of biosecurity in the next year. A full-time Program Officer will be starting work in this area soon. We don’t plan to prioritize other global catastrophic risks, though it’s possible we will make some one-off grants (more on one-off grants below).

U.S. policy. We hope to recommend at least $10 million worth of grants in each of criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare. We have cause-specific staffers leading our work in both areas. (In each case, we’d include grants already made in these areas – since late 2015, when both staffers joined – as part of the $10 million.)

Alexander Berger’s top priority continues to be supporting Chloe and Lewis’ work (on criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare, respectively). We’re less set on what his other priorities will be, but with his remaining time, he is likely to work on some combination of:

I’d guess that his work (aside from supporting Chloe and Lewis) will result in about $10 million worth of grant recommendations in 2016, but with high uncertainty.

Scientific research. We still have a substantial amount of work to do before we’ll be ready to set focus areas within scientific research. We don’t plan to set a particular goal for 2016, because (a) we are allocating senior generalist time to potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence; and (b) we think time spent on scientific research will be much more productive after our scientific advisors come on board.

Effective altruism. There is a strong possibility that we will make grants aimed at helping grow the effective altruist community in 2016. Nick Beckstead, who has strong connections and context in this community, would lead this work. This would be a change from our previous position on effective altruism funding, and a future post will lay out what has changed.

Other grants. As discussed above, we have significantly better capacity – and context – for evaluating potential grants than we’ve had in the past. As such, we are making a moderate effort to identify potential grants that don’t fit neatly into an existing focus area, but that are highly “shovel-ready” (in the sense that we can identify a specific potential grantee) and appear strong overall based on the knowledge we’ve picked up in the course of our many cause investigations and discussions. We don’t expect to make a large number of these grants, but we expect to make some.

Other goals.

  • We hope that by the end of 2016, the Open Philanthropy Project will operate as an independent organization from GiveWell, with its own employees and financials, though some individuals will continue to do work for both organizations.
  • We continue to commission case studies on philanthropy’s past successes as part of our history of philanthropy work. We also continue to collect relevant cases informally. By the end of 2016, we hope to publish a summary of what we’ve learned about the history of philanthropy, which will be a significant update from our 2012 post on the subject.
  • We hope to continue improving cross-cutting aspects of how we work. Our interests include improving our process for producing public writeups, refining our approach to cost-effectiveness estimates and comparing the good accomplished by different grants, refining our thinking about how much giving we should recommend to GiveWell’s top charities, and finding ways to improve our general forecasting abilities (since our grantmaking decisions rely on views about what developments are likely in the future). We expect to do some work on all of these fronts, but it will not be a major priority with a concrete goal this year.
  • We still don’t have the capacity we’d need to identify focus areas within the category of global health and development – beyond our existing connection to GiveWell‘s work and our support of the Center for Global Development. We don’t plan to build this capacity in 2016 and expect to revisit this in a future year.