Table of Contents
- Criteria for Grantmaking
- Additional Criteria for Top Charities
- Our Process for Identifying Top Charities
- Why These Criteria?
- More Questions?
Criteria for Grantmaking
The programs that we recommend funding to are characterized by:
- Evidence of effectiveness. 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. 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" 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. When we consider directing funding to a program, 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 paused directing funding to strong charities when we didn't feel they could use additional donations quickly and effectively.
- Transparency. We examine potential funding opportunities thoroughly and skeptically, and publish detailed reviews discussing strengths of these programs as well as concerns related to their work or room for more funding. Charities must be open to our intensive investigation process and to public discussion of their track record and progress, both the good and the bad. 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.
Additional Criteria for Top Charities
The four criteria described above characterize all of our grantmaking. The top charities that we recommend also meet the following additional, more precise criteria:
- We've directed a significant amount of money to this program and seen it operate effectively. A program meets this criterion if:
- We've directed a single grant to it of at least $10 million or multiple grants totaling at least $20 million, and
- We've supported the program as carried out by the implementing organization for at least one year.
It's a good sign of our confidence if a program fulfills these two requirements. If we've provided significant, sustained support, that means we've already analyzed it thoroughly and judged it likely to clear our bar for funding. And if we've supported it for a year or more, it's less likely (though possible) that we'll receive information that would dramatically update our cost-effectiveness analysis.
- We think there's a high likelihood of substantial impact from funding this program (as opposed to lower likelihood of enormous impact). This criterion is a function of both degree of impact and certainty, so the possibility of a very large impact (i.e., high expected value) alone would not meet it. We need to also believe there is a high likelihood that the large impact will be realized.
For example, we've directed funding to support public health regulation, because the expected impact from influencing policymakers to ban pesticides used in suicide or reduce lead exposure could be massive. But the political advocacy pathway through which these benefits may be realized is much less certain than, say, the path by which seasonal malaria chemoprevention reduces death from malaria, so our grantmaking in public health regulation hasn't led us to identify new top charities.
Deciding whether a program meets this criterion will depend on some judgment calls. We are committed to transparency and always aim to share the full reasoning behind our decisions in published materials, including when we've relied on judgment calls.
We will continue to recommend grants with high (or even enormous) expected value, but less certainty, from a different portfolio of funds that we direct through our grantmaking.
- Typically, the overwhelming case for funding rests on the direct impact of a grant, not on the value of information we might gather through it. For some of the programs we fund — often interventions that are newer to us and about which we have significant open questions — part of the expected value lies in the information we'll get about this program's impact through funding its implementation and/or scoping and evaluation exercises, which will guide our future grantmaking.
We want our top charities to represent opportunities to maximize life-saving and life-improving impact. This $540,000 grant to Precision Development (PxD) for scoping and planning an impact evaluation of its agricultural program is an example of a different type of grant. The PxD grant is valuable to us and our future grant decisions, but we don't fund grants like this through the Top Charities Fund, which only supports top charities. (We updated the name of this fund in September 2022; more information here.)
We also have supported top charities with grants for research and scoping activities, and expect to continue doing so, but the vast majority of funding we direct to top charities should go toward program implementation.
- The program has funding gaps that meet our current cost-effectiveness bar. We look for specific opportunities within the program where we believe our funding will be deployed cost-effectively. This is a straightforward test to ensure that we're directing funding to the most cost-effective opportunities we can find, rather than simply recommending programs that are generally strong and cost-effective on average. As of July 2022, a program must be estimated at 10 times as cost-effective as unconditional cash transfers to receive our funding recommendation (more here). We apply the same cost-effectiveness bar to opportunities we're evaluating outside of our top charities.
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 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.
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.
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 programs we found in 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?
The charities we recommend work in the developing world and focus on the interventions for which there is strong independent evidence of their effectiveness. They are also charities where we feel it is possible to thoroughly understand the impact of their programs, their cost-effectiveness, and their ability to put additional donations to use. This is a relatively small portion of the charitable sector, and is why the organizations we recommend are the best giving opportunities we’re aware of. Many organizations don’t conduct the type of monitoring and evaluation we’d want to see in order to feel confident in recommending them to donors, have room for more funding that is challenging to assess, or are implementing programs that fall outside of our priority areas, which we believe are the programs with the strongest evidence of effectiveness and cost-effectiveness in terms of lives saved or improved per dollar. We would be excited to recommend additional organizations that we feel represent equal or better giving opportunities relative to our current top charities.
In addition, our time-intensive evaluation process limits the number of charities we feel it would be beneficial to recommend. 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
Have other questions about our research? You are also welcome to contact us.