- Top charities
GiveWell Labs is an arm of our research process that will be open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector.
The research we've been doing for the last couple of years has been constrained in a couple of key ways:
GiveWell Labs will not be subject to either of these constraints.
Through GiveWell Labs, we will try to identify outstanding giving opportunities (whether they're organizations or specific projects), publish rankings of these giving opportunities (separate from the top charities list we maintain using our existing research process) and try to raise money for these opportunities. Donors have pre-committed a minimum of $1 million to the GiveWell Labs initiative, meaning that we will have at least $1 million to commit to our choice of projects even if we are able to raise nothing else. (We expect to raise more if and when we find great giving opportunities; the $1 million has been committed based on donors' trust in our ability to find such opportunities.)
Our existing work of finding outstanding international aid charities - using a more systematic process - continues. Over the coming year, we expect to spend about 75% of our research time on our existing work of finding outstanding international aid charities, and 25% of our research time on GiveWell Labs. Note that our "standard" process continues to gradually evolve and broaden its scope, and hopefully will come to incorporate insights gained through the work on GiveWell Labs. The distinction between the two may even dissolve over time. But at this time, GiveWell Labs is the arm of our process that is open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector.
Our goals are twofold:
Find better giving opportunities. When we laid out our main goals for 2011, #1 was finding more great giving opportunities, and our possible strategies for doing so involved (a) broadening our scope (b) considering project-based funding. With GiveWell Labs, we are doing both simultaneously.
Position ourselves to advise seven-figure donors.
When analyzing our own impact, we've noted that it comes disproportionately from large donors. (We influence more $100 donors than $10,000 donors, but the ratio is far under 100:1, so the $10,000 donors end up accounting for the lion's share of our money moved.)
This seems logical to us, when considering that GiveWell is a "niche product" - we don't appeal to large interconnected groups of people, but the rare people who do resonate with our work resonate very strongly with it, and give a lot based on it. The logical implication is that our greatest potential for impact may come from very large donors - and we need to be positioned to be useful to these donors.
The research we've done to date - recommending direct-aid charities that can absorb arbitrary amounts of funding - seems best suited to those giving under $1 million per year. When we encounter people who give more, they generally are interested in funding whole projects at once, which gives them options that simply aren't open to our standard research process. That means our current product is a poor fit with the people who may represent our most potentially impactful audience.
We need to address this issue, and GiveWell Labs will allow us to do so. The $1 million in pre-committed funding is coming from large donors who will be able to give more if we find them great opportunities. More importantly, GiveWell Labs will allow us to move closer to having the same universe of options that seven-figure donors have, which will hopefully improve our ability to connect with and influence seven-figure donors.
GiveWell Labs is issue-agnostic, i.e., we are not restricting our work to particular areas of philanthropy (such as international aid, climate change, etc.) We will focus on what we consider the most promising areas, but we will be potentially open to anything.
There are clear disadvantages to issue-agnostic giving:
However, issue-agnostic giving has advantages as well.
Bottom line - at this point in our development, we think the advantages of issue-agnostic giving outweigh the disadvantages for us.
One of the major challenges of this initiative will be remaining systematic and transparent despite the very broad mandate of GiveWell labs. It's core to GiveWell that the thinking behind our recommendations
While we reserve the right to change plans mid-stream, our basic planned process is:
At this point we are most interested in funding others' ideas, and have a preference for cases where the implementing organization is the same as the organization that hatched the idea and strategy. We have the impression that much philanthropy works differently, as foundation staff design their own strategies and treat grantees to some extent as "contractors" for carrying it out; this model does not currently appeal to us, but we plan on further investigating the history of philanthropy (particularly success stories) to see whether there is more promise in this approach than we'd guess.
With a project as broad and open-ended as GiveWell Labs, we expect to make a lot of guesses and judgment calls regarding promising areas/ideas/projects, and we expect to use heuristics and take shortcuts in narrowing the field. We don't commit to detailed reviews of every idea or every proposal, or to the use of objective formulas to decide between them. (The same applies, and always has applied, to our existing research on top charities.)
However, a core value of ours is that interested parties - no matter who they are - ought to be able to understand as much as possible of (a) which options we considered; (b) why we chose the ones we chose. To this end, we plan on publishing:
We will withhold information when necessary to respect confidentiality agreements. However, we will make our best effort to obtain clearance for - and share - all important/relevant information. This is the same policy we've used in charity investigations, and while some information remains confidential, we've still published the vast majority of the information we have (enough so that our views generally don't need to be taken on trust).
GiveWell Labs is different in substantial ways from our existing research (which continues). However, we feel that we will be able to preserve the most important aspects of GiveWell:
If we can preserve these things while working in a more open-ended way, we'll be able to find better giving opportunities and to demonstrate our principles' broad applicability. This means there will be fewer reasons than ever for other large givers to be keeping their own processes opaque.
The main things we're looking for in a giving opportunity are:
We are relatively new to giving and plan to be doing a lot more of it in the future, so making sure that early projects are learning opportunities is crucial.
We don't have an explicit formula for weighing the above criteria above against each other. Broadly speaking, we'd prefer to fund an opportunity that is strong on all of the following: (a) at least one of #1 and #2; (b) at least one of #3 and #4; (c) #5. (Note that we do not feel the approach of estimating 'expected good accomplished' for each project, and simply ranking by this metric, is a good way to maximize actual expected good accomplished; for more, see the body and comments of a recent post on expected-value calculations.)
One more consideration is leverage: we prefer projects where our funding mobilizes more funding from other givers as well, thus multiplying the impact of our funds in some sense. However, we think this is far less important than the criteria listed above. We'd rather fund a great project all on our own, and leave other funders to spend on their own projects, than get a 5:1 or 100:1 funding match from others on a project that is weak on the above criteria.
We are not at all confident that these causes represent the most promising ones; we see our list of priority causes as a starting point for learning. By publishing our reasoning, along with all data we've used, we hope to elicit feedback at this early stage; in the course of investigating our priority causes, we expect to learn more about these causes and about the best way to choose causes in general. And we have prioritized our causes partly based on the potential for learning, not just based on how promising we would guess that they are. Also note that these causes do not represent restrictions - we will consider outstanding giving opportunities in any category - but rather areas of focus for investigation.
We currently believe that no established philanthropist engages in strategic cause selection - the practice of listing all the causes one might work on, and choosing them based on a combination of "potential impact" and "underinvestment by other philanthropists." (This is not to say that no established philanthropist picks good causes - we believe many have picked excellent causes, perhaps through more implicit "strategy" - it is just to say that we know of no established philanthropist applying the sort of explicit strategic selection we envision.) So we believe we are in uncharted territory; thus, we expect to hit a fair amount of dead ends and to do a lot of revision and learning, but we also hope that strategic cause selection will eventually become a valuable tool for having maximal impact with one's giving.
Summary of our priority causes (details follow):
We also briefly discuss popular causes that we aren't currently prioritizing.
Based on our past work seeking outstanding charities, we feel that global health and nutrition is the strongest area within the category of "directly helping the disadvantaged." It's also an area that we know fairly well (again, because of our past work), so we expect to be able to find strong giving opportunities more quickly here than in areas we're less familiar with. Because of this, global health and nutrition is our top priority for GiveWell Labs.
As discussed previously, we believe many of the most impressive "success stories" in the history of philanthropy are in the category of funding research, particularly biomedical research. We also find research funding to be a good conceptual fit for philanthropy, as well as something that could plausibly get better "bang for the buck" than global health and nutrition interventions (since it involves creating global public goods - once developed, a new insight can be applied on a global scale and potentially for a long time).
In philanthropy currently, it appears that biomedical research is a moderately popular area, while natural sciences are less popular but still have some philanthropic presence. Of course, much of the funding for (early-stage) research comes via government and/or university money, but we hypothesize that philanthropy may be able to play a special role in supplementing these systems, by specifically aiming to support the kind of work that the traditional academic system and government funders cannot or will not. (We believe that there may be ways in which the traditional system falls short of maximum value-added, as discussed in the next section.) When we look at the activities of current philanthropic players (see our notes on the biomedical research activities of the top 100 foundations), it seems possible to us that relatively few of these players are specifically looking to supplement or improve on the government and university systems (by contrast, we believe that many efforts within U.S. education and global health seek to improve on and contrast with government programs in these areas).
So we see funding research as a potentially high-impact area, and we're especially interested in the possibility of opportunities that the government/university systems systematically underfund. In addition, funding research is fundamentally different from the sort of direct-aid-oriented work we've focused on in the past, and we feel that investigating it will be an important learning experience.
Our next steps will be to
In the course of our research on outstanding charities, we've come to the working conclusion that academic research - at least on topics relevant to us - is falling far short of its maximum value-added to society, largely due to problematic incentives. We laid out some of our views last year in Suggestions for the Social Sciences; we also think that GiveWell Board member Tim Ogden's recent SSIR piece is worth reading on this topic.
In brief, we believe that (a) academic incentives do not appear fully aligned with what would be most useful (for example, replicating studies is highly useful but does not appear to be popular in academia); (b) academics rarely engage in practices - such as preregistration, and sharing of data and code - that could make their research easier for outsiders to evaluate and use in decisionmaking; (c) too much academic research is restricted to pay-access to journals, rather than being in a format and place that would allow maximum accessibility. Based on informal conversations, we believe these issues are present across academia generally, not just in the areas we've examined, though we intend to investigate more.
We have seen some philanthropy focused on (c). Two of the 82 foundations we've examined have program areas that we've categorized as "scholarship and open access"; the Wellcome Trust in the UK is also pushing for open access. However, we're not aware of any foundation making a concerted push to improve (a) and (b), aligning academic incentives with what would be most useful to society.
As discussed in the previous section, we think of research as a highly promising and important area for philanthropy, based both on history and on the conceptual possibility of impact-per-dollar-spent. If problematic incentives are causing academic research to systematically fall short of its maximum potential value-added to society, investments in meta-research could have highly leveraged impact. That's sufficient to think that this cause has some potential; the fact that it appears to be largely absent from today's large-scale philanthropy increases its appeal.
We will write more in the future about our plans for investigating meta-research, which overlap strongly with our plans for investigating direct funding of research (the previous section). We are aiming to speak to a broad range of academics about whether, and how, the work being done in their fields - and the general practices of their field - diverge from what would add maximum value to society.
Foundations work to address a variety of threats - such as climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation, and bioterrorism - that could conceivably lead to major global catastrophes.
We see this work as an excellent conceptual fit for philanthropy, because the potential catastrophes are so far-reaching that it is hard to articulate any other actor that has good incentives to invest sufficiently in preparing for and averting them. (Governments do have some incentives to avert catastrophic risks, but catastrophic risk preparation has no natural "interest groups" to lobby for it, and it is easy to imagine that governments may not invest sufficiently or efficiently.) As with research, we find it plausible that opportunities in this area could have good "bang for the buck" relative to international aid, simply because they seek to avert such large catastrophes.
In philanthropy currently, working on climate change is moderately popular, but work on other risks is extremely rare. Out of 82 foundations we examined, two work on nuclear non-proliferation and one works on biological threats; none work on other potential threats.
One concern about this area is that gauging the success or failure of projects seems extremely difficult to do, even in a proximate way, because projects are so focused on low-probability events.
We are currently reviewing the literature on climate change and will be posting more in the future. We are also advising Nick Beckstead and a few volunteers from Giving What We Can as they collect information on the organizations working on GCRs other than climate change.
A note on policy advocacy
A long-term goal of ours is to learn more about policy advocacy, which is a general philanthropic tactic (an option for funding in almost any cause) that we know very little about. For the near future, we do not plan on recommending any policy advocacy funding; we plan on allocating small amounts of time to conversations with people in the space to learn more about how it works in general.
Our survey of the current state of philanthropy highlighted the following as particularly popular causes that aren't listed above. We will be writing more about them; for now, we provide very brief thoughts and relevant links to some work we've done in the past.