This page supplements our basic About Us page with more information on GiveWell in general. For more information on our specific views on charitable causes and charities, see the "Issues" and "Top Charities" links above. There is also a Frequently Asked Questions page.
- What we do
- Transparency and credibility
- Our process and criteria for finding outstanding giving opportunities
- Criteria and process
- Some core beliefs about good giving and evidence of effectiveness
- Our strategy for having an impact
What we do
- GiveWell's mission is to find outstanding giving opportunities and publish the full details of our analysis to help donors decide where to give.
- GiveWell's vision is a world in which donors reward effectiveness in improving lives.
- GiveWell is focused on finding a small number of outstanding giving opportunities, not on reviewing as many charities - or as many causes - as possible. We focus the bulk of our research on the causes we find most promising for accomplishing as much good as possible, and within those, on the giving opportunities we find most promising. For more, see our 2011 blog post in which we solidified this commitment.
- GiveWell does in-depth research and tries to evaluate charities' impact in terms of improving the world. We do not focus on financial metrics such as "percentage of expenses spent on programs vs. administration." More
- We do not claim to provide "objective" analysis, nor do we believe that "objective" analysis is capable of identifying outstanding giving opportunities. We are open about the fact that we make many judgment calls and make an effort to make these judgment calls transparent so that readers can come to their own conclusions. In short, we care about transparency, not objectivity.
- We are currently running two separate research processes with different criteria. We have spent most of our history on our "top charities" process, which looks for evidence-backed, thoroughly vetted charities serving the global poor. The Open Philanthropy Project (which we work on in collaboration with Good Ventures) looks for the best ways to improve the world with philanthropy - no matter what form or sector. For our work on this project, we're open - among other things - to funding political advocacy, scientific research, startup organizations with no track record, projects with no precedent, and projects with extremely long time horizons.
- We publish as much information as we can - on charities we don't recommend as well as charities we do.
Transparency and credibility
- GiveWell is committed to extreme transparency in everything we do. We publish a great deal of information about our organization and about the reasoning behind our recommendations.
- GiveWell has accumulated evidence of credibility. We publish external reviews of our work from people with relevant credentials and experience; we are respected by scholars, nonprofit professionals, and major donors; our research has received significant press and has directed millions of dollars to our top charities. See our Credibility section.
Our process and criteria for finding outstanding giving opportunities
We use a different process and criteria for the two different parts of our research: our traditional work on finding evidence-backed, thoroughly vetted underfunded international aid charities and the Open Philanthropy Project. We discuss both below.
Evidence-backed, thoroughly vetted, underfunded international aid charities
Our current top charities are characterized by the following qualities:
- Serving the global poor. Low-income people in the developing world have dramatically lower standards of living than low-income people in the U.S., and we believe that a given dollar amount can provide more meaningful benefits when targeting the former. More
- Focused on evidence-backed interventions. We have a high standard for evidence: we seek out programs that have been studied rigorously and repeatedly, and whose benefits we can reasonably expect to generalize to large populations (though there are limits to the generalizability of any study results). The set of programs fitting this description is relatively limited, and mostly found in the category of health interventions (though there is also substantial evidence on cash transfers).
- Thoroughly vetted and highly transparent. We examine potential top charities thoroughly and skeptically, and publish thorough reviews discussing both strengths of these charities and concerns. We also follow top charities' progress over time and report on it publicly, including any negative developments. Charities must be open to our intensive investigation process — and public discussion of their track record and progress, both the good and the bad — in order to earn "top charity" status. We also provide a list of charities meeting our first two criteria for donors who are concerned that this requirement creates problematic selection effects.
GiveWell's general process for finding strong charities in an area is to
- Thoroughly review the independent literature in an area, forming a preliminary idea of promising areas of intervention
- Cast a wide net for relevant charities, reviewing tax records, foundations' grantees, submissions via our website, referrals and other sources
- Flag charities that look promising based on heuristics (such as working on a promising program type according to the independent literature, or publishing an unusual amount of substantive information publicly)
- Have open-ended conversations with promising charities, seeking to evaluate them preliminarily by the above criteria.
- Conduct very in-depth examinations of the most promising charities, usually including (a) thorough reviews of their evidence of effectiveness and room for more funding; (b) conversations with staff, funders, and other relevant parties; (c) site visits. Create in-depth reviews of these charities discussing their strengths and weaknesses.
- Rank the strongest opportunities we've found for donors based on the above criteria.
Open Philanthropy Project
The Open Philanthropy Project (which we work on in collaboration with Good Ventures) looks for the best ways to improve the world with philanthropy - no matter what form or sector. For our work on this project, we're open - among other things - to funding political advocacy, scientific research, startup organizations with no track record, projects with no precedent, and projects with extremely long time horizons.
Criteria and process
Thus far, our process has consisted of conducting initial investigations of many possible focus areas, searching for issues and approaches that seem "underinvested in" given their importance and tractability. We call this approach "strategic cause selection." For example, within policy-oriented philanthropy, we have investigated causes ranging from climate change to criminal justice reform to labor mobility. The questions we ask include:
- What is the problem? How many people does it affect, and how deeply does it affect them?
- What are the possible interventions? Are there opportunities to make tangible progress?
- Who else is working on it? All else equal, we expect to have more impact where there is less existing philanthropy.
We intend to choose the focus areas that seem most promising based on these initial investigations to prioritize for future research and donation recommendations.
Some core beliefs about good giving and evidence of effectiveness
- We believe that donors should try to accomplish as much good as possible, which means focusing donations on the most outstanding opportunities rather than spreading them out across many charities. More
- We approach charities from a skeptical point of view. For some color on why this is, see
- We are not only skeptical of charities' claims. We also feel it is important not to put too much trust in academic research, and to subject it to the same sort of scrutiny and skepticism.
- We deeply investigate any claims that are important to us. In 2011 we found serious errors in World Health Organization figures, strengthening our commitment to these investigations.
- We put heavy weight on empirical evidence of effectiveness, not just conceptual logic of an approach to helping people.
- Broadly speaking, we look for evidence of effectiveness that is highly specific, representative and credible.
- Regarding specificity of evidence. Claims like "Our program raises the incomes of farmers by an average of $100 per year" aren't specific enough for us. We try to understand exactly what data a charity has collected to assess its impact and exactly how it has found that data. When we get to this level of specificity - at which there is so little room for interpretation that the charity would be committing fraud if it sent inaccurate figures - we generally take the charity at its word, though we do keep an eye out (on site visits, in conversations with representatives, etc.) for any anomalies, inconsistencies, or other signs that things don't add up.
In our experience, we rarely see extravagant claims of impact once we get to this level of specificity. It is not practical for us to go to the next level of auditing, which would involve being physically present when data is collected in the field (though we do conduct site visits).
- Regarding representativeness of evidence. It's common for charities to tell stories of individuals affected by their programs, but most charities serve large numbers of clients, and these sorts of stories could be picked very selectively.
We are open to all sorts of evidence, including qualitative evidence, if we feel it is representative of the bulk of a charity's activities. In practice, the most common evidence that we think has reasonable claims to "representativeness" usually consists of studies discussing patterns in data.
- Credibility. Most studies we see are prone to a couple of major problems: selection bias and publication bias. We feel that high-quality studies are relatively rare. We examine studies in depth to determine their credibility, and our writeups include reasons why we find any given study to be more or less credible.
- In giving, we think it's a mistake to put too much weight on any one criterion, including estimated cost-effectiveness (given the roughness of cost-effectiveness estimates). We collect many different kinds of information on recommended charities and consider them from many different angles.
- We feel the principle aim of charity should be to empower the people being helped, not to push donors' values upon them. We see some appeal in the idea of giving out cash transfers and often ask why a given charity believes its program is a better use of funds than just giving them out to the poor.
- We feel that donors should focus on the question of "How can I accomplish the most good?" rather than "How can I address the problem I care most about?" More:
- The most important problem may not be the best charitable cause
- The root causes of poverty (we feel that the root causes of poverty are, fairly clearly, unknown and that having a preference for focusing on "root causes" over "symptoms" is misguided)
- Aid is not the only thing that reduces poverty
- In defense of the streetlight effect
- We also don't necessarily believe in "helping those who need the most help" - we believe that accomplishing the maximum amount of good is a bit more complex than this.
- As of December 2014, the most promising area of giving we've found is in developing-world aid (most often focused on health), though we continue to work to expand our scope via the Open Philanthropy Project. We feel that providing direct aid to the poor in the developing world is broadly more promising than direct aid to the poor in the developed world (e.g., United States), and that aid has a stronger track record in health than in other areas.
- Your dollar goes further overseas
- Hunger here vs. hunger there (11/27/2009): Part I in a two-post series comparing poverty in the US to poverty in the developing world.
- Poor in the U.S. = rich (11/27/2009): Part II of the series.
- 2011 piece on why we favor global health and nutrition as causes
Our strategy for having an impact
- We aim to produce thorough, credible research on outstanding giving opportunities. We hope that this will lead donors to support these opportunities, which in turn will create incentives for those in the nonprofit sector to bring their organizations more in line with our key criteria.
- Our #1 priority is the thoroughness and credibility of our research. We feel this is essential for our long-term impact. We're unlikely to make efforts to improve our popular appeal / outreach that interfere with the thoroughness and credibility of our research. (This includes stretching ourselves thin by undertaking any outreach-focused project that requires excessive involvement by core staff.) More in this April 2014 blog post.
- We focus on reaching an audience that naturally resonates with our worldview rather than on "converting" a broader audience to our point of view (or on adapting our research to the desires of a broader audience). We seek to create a product that some love, not a product that all like.
- We think the priority of charity research should be on identifying the most outstanding giving opportunities, which can directly influence donors and create public information and incentives for nonprofits in general. We do not try to make our analysis "fair" to charities with different degrees of difficulty (we just try to find the best giving opportunities) and we do not see promise in developing standardized metrics by which all charities can be compared.
- We publish an annual self-evaluation and outlook on our priorities; reading the most recent one can give a good sense of what we've accomplished and where we stand.