Our Criteria for Top Charities – January 2020 version
We have published a more recent version of this page. See our most recent version of this page.
Table of Contents
The top charities we recommend to donors 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, 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" 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, in 2016, we provided a list of charities focused on evidence-backed, potentially cost-effective programs whether or not we had investigated them. This list has not been kept up to date.
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 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?
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
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.
Have questions about our process for choosing top charities? You are also welcome to contact us.