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Cause Selection

We’re dedicated to learning how to give as well as possible, and we’re still early in the process. Here’s what we’ve done so far.

Learning the basics

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

Exploring potential focus areas

We believe it’s important for philanthropists to make deliberate, long-term commitments to causes (more). A “cause” is the field around a particular problem or opportunity — such as reforming the criminal justice system, preventing pandemics, or reducing the burden of Alzheimer’s disease — in which it’s necessary to develop expertise and networks to make good giving decisions. We refer to the causes we’re prioritizing most highly as focus areas. The choice of focus area is one of the most important a philanthropist makes. While there are many worthy causes, additional philanthropy may accomplish more in some areas than others, depending on the circumstances. That’s why we put a great deal of effort into gathering information on different possibilities before choosing our focus areas. We’ve sought focus areas that are strong on some combination of the following criteria:

  • Importance. How many individuals does this issue affect, and how deeply?
  • Neglectedness. All else equal, we prefer causes that receive less attention from others, particularly other major philanthropists.
  • Tractability. We look for clear ways in which a funder could contribute to progress.

Shallow investigations

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

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

A list of the investigations we’ve completed is available here.

Deeper investigations

For causes that seem especially promising after a cursory look, we conduct more thorough investigations. These can involve many conversations with experts (at least 10 to 20, and sometimes over 100); extensive reviews of academic literature; and making some preliminary “learning grants” in order to get a sense of what funding opportunities exist. A list of the investigations we’ve completed is available here.

Selecting and prioritizing focus areas

After investigating the most compelling potential focus areas, we prioritize them based on importance, neglectedness, tractability, and other factors, such as whether we see concrete steps our staff could take to make progress. So far, we have completed this process for two broad categories: U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks. We have not yet selected focus areas for other categories. We summarized what we learned from our cause investigations — and how we planned to prioritize our work going forward — in Google sheets, to make it easy for others to quickly absorb what we’ve learned. We have not updated these documents regularly — they are intended to provide a snapshot of our thinking at a point in time, and of how we came to the causes we’ve chosen. You can read our most recent public summaries, last updated in 2015, here:

For each cause we’ve investigated, the Google sheets show:

  • How we prioritized the cause and what our goals should be.
  • Links to additional information about the cause and notes on how deeply we investigated it.
  • How we assessed the cause’s importance, neglectedness, and tractability. (In the case of global catastrophic risks, we laid out what we saw as the likelihood of various worst-case scenarios and describe activities that might reduce the risk.)
  • (U.S. policy only) What we saw as the main “venues” (federal, state or local) for working on the cause. This factored into our assessment of the cause’s tractability (more) and complexity.
  • Whether we saw the cause as a good fit for hiring a full-time specialist. (Read more about this idea here.)

While we intend to make long-term commitments to our focus areas, we also expect to revisit our priorities periodically, in order to stay open to new ideas and reflect on whether we’re using our time and resources as well as possible.

Hiring and grantmaking

Once we’ve identified focus areas, we seek to:

  • Hire specialized staff in these areas, when that seems like the best way forward. A list of open positions is available here.
  • Make grants in these areas. The higher a cause ranks on our priority list, the more time we will spend finding and vetting giving opportunities, and the more open we will be to making large grants.

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