GiveWell tries to help donors do as much good as possible with each dollar they give. We aim to find outstanding giving opportunities and to publish the full details of our analysis to help donors decide where to give. We do not aim to rate every charity, but to find the ones which we feel will maximize the impact of additional donations in terms of lives saved or improved.
Below we discuss:
- The criteria that define our top charities: evidence, cost-effectiveness, room for more funding, and transparency.
- Why we believe these criteria are good ones, and why they lead to a heavy focus on global health.
- The basics of our process for finding the charities that best fit these criteria.
- The Open Philanthropy Project, a distinct part of our work using different criteria than GiveWell.
The top charities we recommend to donors are characterized by:
- Evidence. We seek out charities implementing programs that have been studied rigorously and ideally 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. We also examine charity-specific data in order to determine how well we can expect an individual charity's real-world results to correspond to results found in academic studies of programs.
- Cost-effectiveness. We attempt to estimate figures such as the total "cost per life saved," "cost per disability-adjusted life-year averted" or "cost per total economic benefit to others, normalized by base income" for each of the charities we consider. We seek out charities running programs that perform well on metrics like this. 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.
- Room for more funding. Our top charities receive a substantial number of donations as a result of our recommendation. We ask, "What will additional funds — beyond what a charity would raise without our recommendation — enable, and what is the value of these activities?" In the past, we have suspended recommendations of strong charities when we didn't feel they could use additional donations quickly and effectively.
- Transparency. We examine potential top charities thoroughly and skeptically, and publish detailed reviews discussing strengths of these charities as well as concerns related to their work or room for more funding. 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 believe that any good giving decision involves intuition and judgment calls, and we aim to put all of our reasoning out in the open where others can assess and critique it.
For those who believe the intensity of our process creates problematic selection effects, we also provide a list of charities focused on evidence-backed, potentially cost-effective programs whether or not we have investigated them.
Why these criteria?
Why is evidence so important?
We believe that helping people efficiently — the mission of many charities — is challenging and complex. We also believe that most available information about charities' impact is simplified, exaggerated, or incomplete.1
We believe answers to the following questions are among those needed to predict the amount of good a donation will do:
- What will the donation allow to happen that wouldn't have happened otherwise?
- Will this activity change people's lives for the better, or will it run into unexpected challenges?
- Will it accomplish a large amount of good, relative to other options?
We believe that one can make an informed assessment of these questions by taking the time to get to know an organization and the field it operates in. However, we seek to serve donors who don't have the time to do this, and so we aim to recommend charities that are verifiably outstanding, and to make a case that relies relatively little on the highly debatable judgment calls that can best be made with a strong understanding of the organization as well as the field it operates in (though some degree of guesswork and judgment calls is unavoidable). Accordingly, we make recommendations that can be grounded in a strong evidence base and thus whose impact can be somewhat easily verifiable for a low-information donor.
A separate project housed at GiveWell, the Open Philanthropy Project, looks more broadly for great giving opportunities — ones that may not be as easily verifiable as our top charity recommendations. (More on this project below.) The Open Philanthropy Project seeks to serve donors with high trust in our judgment and/or the ability to spend large amounts of time on investigation. As a result, the opportunities the Open Philanthropy Project is open to considering include those that are more speculative and long-term than the near-term, verifiable approaches taken by GiveWell’s recommended charities. Through this project, we've spent several years searching more broadly for giving opportunities in areas such as policy advocacy, scientific research and reducing the likelihood of global catastrophic risks, and we still believe that GiveWell’s top charities are extremely strong relative to other opportunities we’ve identified while conducting research under the Open Philanthropy Project. If we became aware of other giving opportunities that we felt were clearly superior, we would revisit our criteria and approach to GiveWell’s top charity recommendations.
Our top charities aren't the only great charities, and the case for them is far from airtight, but we believe they are the best bet for a low-information donor looking for a verifiably strong chance to do good.
Why the focus on global poverty?
When GiveWell started, we issued separate recommendations for charities focused on the developing world and charities focused on the U.S., where GiveWell is based. Over time, however, we narrowed our focus. We believe that the top charity candidates we found for the developing world had considerably more robust evidence bases, considerably lower per-person costs, and overall a stronger case for accomplishing a lot of good per dollar (more in this blog post).
We believe the root issue here is that developing-world poverty is far more severe than developed-world poverty. People in the developing world often lack basic, cheap things that can help them a great deal. For example, they may suffer from infectious diseases that could be treated or prevented relatively straightforwardly, if the funding were available.2
Why the focus on direct aid, rather than addressing root causes?
We believe there have been many efforts to find and address the root causes of poverty, and that they haven't generated strong conclusions or successful programs.3 Root-causes-based approaches are, in our view, the kind of speculative and long-term undertakings that are best suited to highly engaged donors (as discussed above).
We also believe that direct aid, such as distributing malaria-preventing bed nets or providing pills to treat intestinal parasites, can empower individuals to make differences in their own communities. These individuals may be better positioned to understand and address many problems than we are. We think it's appropriate for donors to focus on the problems they're best at helping with, recognizing that they aren't the only people who are working toward positive change. More
Why recommend so few charities?
Thoroughly understanding even one charity is a great deal of work. If we tried to recommend large numbers of charities, we couldn't do so confidently. By focusing on a few outstanding charities, we are able to make strong recommendations and direct substantial funds to where they can do a lot of good. More
Our process for identifying top charities
Finding eligible charities: We have conducted extensive searches for charities that focus on our priority programs, both by talking to individuals and organizations working in the field as well as via Internet research. We will invite promising charities to apply for a GiveWell recommendation. We are also frequently contacted by charities looking to apply for a recommendation.
Examining charities: Our intensive evaluation process aims to deeply and critically question the case for the charity's impact, and lay out what we see as the strengths and weaknesses publicly. More details on our review process
Following up: We follow up intensively with our top charities over time, and consider this one of the major arguments in favor of supporting such charities. Because our recommendation directs substantial donations to a charity, top charities are generally willing to engage substantively with us and help us deepen our understanding of their activities and progress over time.
Crucially, we believe — and make clear to our top charities that we believe — in sharing both positive and negative developments, and we have written extensively in the past about unanticipated struggles faced by top charities. See, for example, our series of updates on VillageReach.
For more on our process and the reasoning behind it, see our process page describing our process for analyzing and recommending top charities for donors.
Open Philanthropy Project
The Open Philanthropy Project, which we work on in collaboration with Good Ventures, grew out of our work on GiveWell. (More on this partnership.) It 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. The Open Philanthropy Project’s process for identifying opportunities is described here.
More information is available on the Open Philanthropy Project website.
Still have questions about our process for choosing top charities? You are also welcome to contact us.
To learn more about the Open Philanthropy Project, please visit its website.