This page collects the posts from our blog that summarize particularly important lessons we’ve learned or judgment calls we’re making. Together, these give an in-depth picture of our general philosophy of giving, and what it’s based on.
Updated: July 2019
We summarize and reflect on the “100 of the highest-achieving foundation initiatives” since 1900, as described in the Casebook for The Foundation: A Great American Secret. Overall, we wish there were more to read about the history of philanthropy, and we are working to generate more such information via our History of Philanthropy project.
Many funders choose focus areas based on pre-existing personal passions, and then become more analytical when determining which strategies to pursue within those causes. However, we believe that the first step — choosing focus areas — may well be the most important, and deserves a strategic approach. We lay out a basic framework for evaluating causes based on the potential for positive impact.
We summarize the causes that foundations tend to focus on today using two data sets, which we share in the post.
We spend a lot of time thinking about the spectrum from “passive funding” to “active funding.” “Passive funding” refers to a dynamic in which the funder’s role is to review others’ proposals, ideas and arguments and choose which ones to support. Meanwhile, “active funding” refers to a dynamic in which the funder’s role is to participate in — or lead — the development of a strategy, and find partners to “implement” it. Active funders, in other words, aim to influence partner organizations at some level, whereas passive funders merely choose between plans that other nonprofits have already devised. We see major advantages to being as “passive” as possible. A good partner organization will know their field better than we will, and they’ll be better positioned to design strategy. Plus, we’d expect a project to go better when its implementer has fully bought into the plan, as opposed to carrying out the wishes of a funder. However, most major funders appear highly “active.” In trying to understand why, we’ve learned about some major challenges to passive funding. In the nonprofit sector, funder interest is a major driver of which ideas get proposed and fleshed out. Partly because of that, we’ve come to believe that a degree of active strategy setting is important.
We list many ways in which a funder might work to improve policy. We’ve found this list to be a helpful guide when thinking about which policy issues are “crowded” — where funders are already pursuing most viable strategies for influencing policy — and which are “neglected,” where there’s space for a great deal more work. Many people associate “policy-oriented giving” with funding lobbying and elections, but these are not the only or necessarily best ways to have an impact.
Is it worthwhile for a philanthropist to try to influence policy? Do such attempts have a history of working often enough and significantly enough to make up for the failed attempts? This post reviews what we know about the “return on investment (ROI)” (or “good accomplished per dollar”) of policy-oriented philanthropy. The final section gives one reason to think that policy-oriented philanthropy is promising: significantly less money appears to be spent on policy-oriented work compared with scientific research and global health aid.
How does the ROI of scientific research funding compare to that of other ways of giving? This post reviews what we know about the question.
We’ve consistently found that the level of interest we show in a cause — including our willingness to provide funding — is a major driver of what sorts of giving opportunities we’re able to find. This is one argument for the importance of “giving to learn.” Sometimes it’s necessary to make grants in order to find out what kinds of giving opportunities are available.
We used to wonder why major foundations didn’t write more about the thinking behind (and results of) their giving, in order to share their knowledge and influence others. In trying to be a highly transparent funder, we’ve learned a lot about why transparency is so difficult in philanthropy, and we no longer find it mysterious that transparency is so rare. This post describes what we see as the biggest challenges of being public and open about giving decisions.
A common model in philanthropy — seen at nearly every major staffed foundation — is to hire people who specialize in a particular cause (for example, criminal justice policy). Often, they focus their time exclusively on one cause, to the point of becoming an expert in it, if they weren’t already. There are strong advantages of this model, but we also see some drawbacks. Deep expertise in one area comes at the price of breadth, or the ability to consider opportunities across many areas. This post asks whether there’s a way to be involved in a broad set of causes at a low level of depth, looking for the most outstanding giving opportunities to come along. Another post examines one foundation that seems to have accomplished a lot with a breadth-oriented approach.
We lay out a basic guide to different types of biomedical research: improving tools and techniques, studying healthy biological processes, studying diseases and conditions of interest, generating possible treatments, evaluating possible treatments, and clinical trials. We use the example of the cancer drug Herceptin to demonstrate how these different types of research interact. Finally, we discuss some common misconceptions that stem from too much focus on a particular kind of research, rather than on the complementary roles of many kinds of research.
In the context of life sciences, “breakthrough fundamental science” refers to research that achieves important, broadly applicable insights about biological processes. Such insights can bring about many new promising directions for research. However, at the outset, it’s often difficult to anticipate all the specific ways in which the insights will be applied, and thus to be assured of “results” in the sense of new clinical applications. We’ve heard repeatedly that it is difficult to secure support for breakthrough fundamental science in the existing environment, and that this may present an opportunity for private philanthropy. For more on what we’re learning about potential funding opportunities in science, see our posts on translational science and Science Policy and Infrastructure.
We’ve come across many cases where a funder took a leading role in creating a now-major nonprofit. This has been surprising to us: intuitively, it seems like the people best suited to start new organizations are the people who would work full-time on creating them, rather than funders. We give examples of funder-initiated startups, and some thoughts on why they seem to be more common in the nonprofit world than in the for-profit world.
Key questions about philanthropy
A three-part series on fundamental (and, in our view, under-discussed) questions about philanthropy with which we’ve grappled in starting a grantmaking organization:
- Part 1: What is the Role of a Funder?
- Part 2: Choosing Focus Areas and Hiring Program Staff
- Part 3: Making and Evaluating Grants
We discuss the details of our approach to hiring, and the case (including reservations) for our first major cause-specific hire.
We describe the approach we use to grantmaking within our focus areas, and outline our current process for deciding whether or not to make a particular grant.
We think of high-risk, high-reward philanthropy as a “hits business,” where a small number of enormous successes account for a large share of the total impact — and compensate for a large number of failed projects. In order to maximize the size of these successes, we sometimes bet on ideas that contradict conventional wisdom, contradict some expert opinion, and have little in the way of clear evidential support. We discuss some principles we use — and some we don’t — in our attempt to pursue bold ideas while remembering how easy it would be for us to be wrong.
In 2016, we made potential risks of advanced artificial intelligence a high priority because we believed it presented an outstanding combination of importance, neglectedness, and tractability. This post lays out our thinking on the matter, as well as some risks and reservations.
We’ve designed our process to put major weight on the views of individual leaders and program officers in decisions about the strategies we pursue, causes we prioritize, and grants we ultimately make. As such, we think it’s helpful for individual staff members to discuss major ways in which their personal thinking has changed, not only about particular causes and grants, but also about their background worldviews. This post discusses the way Executive Director Holden Karnofsky’s views have changed regarding three interrelated topics: (1) the importance of potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence; (2) the potential of many of the ideas and people associated with the effective altruism community; (3) the properties to look for when assessing an idea or intervention, and in particular how much weight to put on metrics and “feedback loops” compared to other properties.
Our grantmaking decisions rely crucially on our uncertain, subjective judgments — about the quality of some body of evidence, about the capabilities of our grantees, about what will happen if we make a certain grant, about what will happen if we don’t make that grant, and so on. We think it’s important to improve the accuracy of our judgments and forecasts if we can. This post discusses research on the general question of how to make good and accurate forecasts, and steps we are taking to improve our forecasting accuracy across the organization.
In principle, we try to find the best giving opportunities by comparing many possibilities. However, many of the comparisons we’d like to make hinge on very debatable, uncertain questions. For example, some people think that animals such as chickens have essentially no moral significance compared to that of humans; others assign some importance to such animals, which would imply that farm animal welfare is an extraordinarily outstanding cause. To us, these value sets represent two different “worldviews.”
We’re drawn to several causes that are similarly polarizing — that is, which some people consider outstanding and others consider relatively low-value. Rather than take our “best guess” and focus exclusively on a single cause, we practice worldview diversification: putting significant resources behind the most promising causes according to each worldview that we find highly plausible. We think it’s possible for us to be a transformative funder in a number of causes, and we don’t — as of today — want to pass up that opportunity, in order to focus exclusively on one area and get rapidly diminishing returns on our giving.
The question, “Who deserves empathy and moral concern?” is central for us. We don’t think we can trust conventional wisdom and intuition on the matter: history has too many cases where entire populations were dismissed, mistreated and deprived of basic rights for reasons that fit the conventional wisdom of the time but today look indefensible. Instead, we aspire to radical empathy: working hard to extend empathy to everyone it should be extended to, even when when it’s unusual or seems strange to do so. As such, one theme of our work is trying to help populations that many people don’t feel are worth helping at all.
As part of our research on the history of philanthropy, we investigated several case studies of early field growth, especially those in which philanthropists purposely tried to grow the size and impact of a (typically) young and small field of research or advocacy. The case studies looked into the fields of bioethics, cryonics, molecular nanotechnology, neoliberalism, the conservative legal movement, American geriatrics, American environmentalism, and animal advocacy.
How can a small number of decision-makers find a large number of giving opportunities that they understand well enough to feel good about funding? We evaluate the pros and cons of three different approaches, and explain our view that delegating heavily to trusted individuals is ideal for the kind of hits-based giving we’re focused on. This means we aim to find people we trust, and then defer heavily to them.
Our thinking on prioritizing across different causes has evolved as we’ve made more grants. This post explores one aspect of that: the high bar set by the best global health and development interventions, and what we’re learning about the relative performance of some of our other grantmaking areas that seek to help people today.