Frequently Asked Questions About Our Charity Research and Recommendations – April 2022 version

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Table of Contents

Last Updated: April 2022

The Basics

How have you selected your top charities?

Our top charities are distinguished 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 our 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.

We have conducted several comprehensive searches for charities with these qualities (see our process for details). We provide a full list of charities meeting the first two criteria above, and invite readers to let us know if they know of an eligible charity we have overlooked.

For more on our process and the reasoning behind it, see our process.

What are the pros and cons of giving to GiveWell's top charities?

Our process for identifying top charities is rooted in our own struggles as donors and our attempt to find charities that were proven, cost-effective, and scalable, such that we could draw a maximally confident, linear, quantified link between donations and outcomes, along the lines of "$X per life saved" or "$Y per person enabled to get a job paying 20% more than they could have gotten otherwise." (See our former criteria.)

We don't believe that our top charities offer linear, reliably quantifiable returns along the lines of "$X per life saved," but we do believe that they are distinguished from other charities by their focus on evidence-backed programs aiming to help the global poor and by their transparency and accountability, all of which we believe to be important qualities. (More at our criteria.)

Many, but not all, staff support GiveWell's top charities with their personal giving.

We think the principal advantages of our current top charities are that:

  • They represent the best opportunities we're aware of to help low-income people with relatively high confidence and relatively short time horizons. If you're looking to give this year and you don't know where to start, we'd strongly recommend supporting our top charities.
  • Due to the emphasis on thorough vetting, transparency, and following up, our top charities represent excellent learning opportunities, and we feel that one of the most desirable outcomes of giving is learning more that will inform later giving. Supporting our top charities helps GiveWell demonstrate impact and improves our ability to learn, and we are dedicated to sharing what we learn publicly.

Some counter-considerations:

  • We have strict criteria about the sorts of charities we recommend. These criteria are partly about achieving maximum impact, but partly about having recommendations that others can fairly easily be confident in.
  • Seeking strong evidence and a straightforward, documented case for impact can be in tension with maximizing impact, as argued at this post by Open Philanthropy . (Open Philanthropy Project was incubated at GiveWell and looks for giving opportunities that can be longer term, harder to assess, and harder to explain. It does not have official recommendations for individual donors.)
  • Thus, we think there may be many giving opportunities that are better than our top charities but don't meet our criteria and/or are not known to us.
  • Even though we believe our top charities are backed by strong evidence, none of our recommendations are a 'sure thing' and a few carry a significant risk of failing to do much good.

I have a particular charity in mind. How can I see your view on this charity and why it isn't one of your top charities?

GiveWell focuses on finding the best charities possible, not on reviewing as many charities as possible. Understanding even a single charity in-depth generally takes hundreds of person-hours.

We have written informally about our views on some well-known charities:

Why should I consider GiveWell's recommendations to be credible?

GiveWell's Top Charities

Are GiveWell's top charities tax-deductible where I live?

Information about how to make tax-deductible donations in various countries can be found here.

We don't think so. The process for becoming a US-registered charity can be long and relatively involved, and some of our recommended charities have not had enough interest from US donors (prior to our recommendation) to have gone through this process. However, we have examined the financial records and established the charitable purposes of all recommended organizations. In addition, US donors can get a tax deduction for donations to GiveWell, and donors can request that we allocate those donations for the support of any of our recommended charities. Donor requests to grant donations to our recommended charities are subject to our approval (more details on this here).

GiveWell's evaluation process is highly intensive and can be a major cost for a charity. Should I be concerned that this requirement filters out excellent charities?

We recognize that this is a potential issue with our rankings, and we provide our full list of eligible charities — charities that focus on evidence-backed programs serving the global poor (our first two criteria), regardless of whether they engage in our process — at Full List of Eligible Charities.

With that said,

  • Given the large amounts of money that are driven by our recommendations, we believe that charities have strong incentives to engage in our process. We also make substantial efforts to give charities a sense of what they will need to provide in order to achieve recommended status (see our guide to applying for our recommendation). So we believe that charities seeking substantial funding and likely to do well in our process have strong reasons to apply for our recommendation.
  • We proactively reach out to eligible charities to encourage them to apply and discuss our process with them.
  • Supporting our top charities has the advantage that (a) they have been thoroughly vetted, with the results written up in detail in our charity reviews; (b) they represent excellent learning opportunities, and we feel that one of the most desirable outcomes of giving is learning more that will inform later giving. Supporting our top charities helps GiveWell demonstrate impact and improves our ability to learn, and we are dedicated to sharing what we learn publicly.

Questions about AMF and its program: distributing bednets to prevent malaria:

Is there really a need for more bednets?

We believe that there is a very large need for more bednets to cover at-risk populations. Details at our writeup on net distribution.

Do people use the free bednets they get?

While this is one of our remaining concerns, we believe the best available evidence suggests that most people do use the bednets they receive. Multiple studies associate nets with cost-effective reductions in malaria burden and child deaths; these studies generally saw usage rates in the 60-80% range; and the best available evidence suggests that usage rates of 60-80% are common. AMF has begun to post survey results on net usage from several years after distributions have been completed.Details at our writeup on net distribution and our review of AMF.

Do nets become less effective over time as mosquitoes adapt to them by evolving resistance to insecticide or changing their behavior?

We see the possibility of resistance as a concern, but there is strong evidence that nets reduce malaria and save lives and only preliminary/suggestive/mixed evidence that insecticide resistance may reduce their impact.

Our very rough best guess is that nets are roughly one-third less effective in the areas where the Against Malaria Foundation is working than they would be in the absence of insecticide resistance. Nets remain a highly cost-effective intervention after incorporating this discount.

For more information, see our page on insecticide resistance and malaria control.

Questions about GiveDirectly and its program: direct cash transfers to very poor individuals

Do recipients spend the money from transfers wisely/productively, or on unproductive uses such as alcohol/gambling?

The academic evidence we've seen, including a high-quality study on GiveDirectly's program, while not conclusive, indicates that cash transfers are largely spent in beneficial ways.

  • The most robustly established use of cash transfers is on food (i.e., shifting toward a higher-quality diet).
  • There are also multiple high-quality studies arguing that recipients spend cash transfers on productive investments with high long-term returns, leading to improved long-term incomes.
  • Attempts to monitor alcohol expenditures have found that these expenditures increase, at most, proportionally with overall expenditures.

More at our discussion of the academic evidence regarding cash transfers and in our review of GiveDirectly.

How much does receiving a cash transfer improve the recipient's life?

We are not able to quantify the improvement in quality of life due to cash transfers, in a way that can be directly compared to that of health interventions. As with deworming, there are studies arguing that cash transfers lead to strong productive investment and long-term benefits, but it is also possible that these studies are not representative and that the benefits are more minor.1 Given the state of the available evidence, we concede a major role for one's worldview and intuitions in deciding between cash transfers and health interventions.

Questions about deworming children (a focus of four of our top charities)

What are the benefits of deworming?

Treating children for parasitic infections (deworming) is extremely inexpensive, and there is evidence linking it with substantial developmental benefits (people dewormed in childhood may attend school more, achieve better test results, and earn more later in life); the evidence is not as strong as for insecticide-treated nets but is still far above what we've seen for most charitable interventions. Evidence regarding shorter-term health benefits is mixed. More details at our full report on deworming.

How much money do your top charities need? How much do you expect to get them?

Each review of a recommended charity discusses its room for more funding, i.e., how much more funding it can productively absorb and how this funding would change its activities. We closely track the revenue received by recommended charities, and we cease to recommend donating to a charity once we feel it no longer has short-term room for more funding.

What are GiveWell’s past recommendations?

GiveWell publishes an annual short list of organizations to which we recommend donating: our top charities. These are the organizations that we believe represent the best giving opportunities we know of, based on our criteria.

Our past charity recommendations can be found below:

GiveWell's Focus on International Aid

We have put much of our effort into investigating international aid because this is where we feel an individual donor can accomplish the most good (in terms of significant life change) per dollar given. More

We have investigated charities serving the poor in the U.S. in the past and may do so again in the future. See our research in this area.

Do the people whose lives are saved just die the next year from something else? What is their quality of life?

We discuss these issues at our writeup on quality of life in the developing world. On one hand, people in Sub-Saharan Africa are much worse off, and much more likely to die prematurely, than people in wealthier parts of the world. On the other hand, those who live past the age of 5 have strong chances of living to age 60 or so; saving a life even from a single cause of death means saving a person who is likely to live quite a while longer.

Does saving lives just lead to overpopulation and long-run damage?

We commissioned David Roodman (whose work we have referenced in the past) to examine the rather extensive and complex literature on this question.

Overall, it appears that life-saving interventions unaccompanied by other improvements, where access to contraception is weak, are likely to lead to some acceleration of population growth. With that said, we wish to note the following:

  • No intervention takes place in isolation, and we expect population growth to slow in the future in most low-income areas as poverty falls.
  • Acceleration of population growth should not necessarily be associated with overpopulation and its connotations of a net decline in standards of living.
  • Five of GiveWell's nine current top charities are focused on improving living standards rather than averting deaths: Evidence Action's Deworm the World Initiative, SCI Foundation, END Fund's deworming program, Sightsavers' deworming program, and GiveDirectly.

    Four of GiveWell's nine top charities are recommended for programs that avert deaths: the Against Malaria Foundation, Malaria Consortium's seasonal malaria chemoprevention program, Helen Keller International's vitamin A supplementation program, and New Incentives.

    For more, see our blog post on Mr. Roodman's writeup.

    His complete writeup is available on his website.

    Why doesn't GiveWell recommend organizations focused on animal suffering?

    GiveWell has not prioritized research into organizations focused on animal suffering in part because there are two organizations we know well that are investigating this question: Open Philanthropy and Animal Charity Evaluators. We have limited research capacity, and would guess that we may come to similar conclusions as those groups about which groups to recommend, although we would likely have a different research process.

    Open Philanthropy is an independent organization that was formerly a collaboration between GiveWell and Good Ventures. Open Philanthropy is currently investigating giving opportunities to improve the welfare of farm animals in industrial agriculture. You can read the most recent personal giving recommendations of its farm animal welfare program team, Lewis Bollard and Amanda Hungerford, here and sign up for Lewis' monthly research newsletter here.

    Animal Charity Evaluators is an organization that researches and recommends animal charities. We generally point interested individuals to these two organizations when they reach out to us for recommendations in this cause area. You can visit its website here.

    I'm trying to figure out where to give, but you haven't covered my cause, and it looks like you aren't going to in the near future. Any advice?

    We publish critical questions that you can ask charities working in causes we haven't covered. These questions are based only on our very limited understanding of these causes, but they may be useful starting points.

    This blog post offers generalizable advice for all causes.

    Other Questions

    What happened to the money I gave last year? Will I find out what happens to the money I give this year?

    For the charities that we direct the most funds to, we intend to publish regular reports on the charity's progress against its objectives and on its updated financial situation.

    We plan to continue the practice of publishing regular updates on our top charities.

    How reliable are figures like "$X per life saved"? How important are these in your rankings?

    Accomplishing as much good as possible per dollar spent is an important value to us, and we put substantial work into cost-effectiveness estimates. We publish cost-effectiveness figures that represent our best estimates, given all available information. We publish the full details behind these figures and provide spreadsheets that allow readers to see what the most debatable inputs are, and how the estimates change as these estimates vary.

    However, all cost-effectiveness analysis of charities we're aware of — including ours — involves a great deal of simplification and guesswork. Therefore, we do cost-effectiveness analysis primarily to look for large, clear differences in good accomplished per dollar spent. We consider many other factors in rating and ranking charities.

    For more on this, read "How We Produce Impact Estimates."

    What kind of evidence does GiveWell consider legitimate for establishing impact?

    We don't have any hard-and-fast rules for what constitutes persuasive evidence; we believe that interpreting evidence on charity effectiveness always takes a substantial amount of judgment calls. We discuss our general principles for evaluating evidence of impact in a series of 2012 blog posts:

    Why doesn't Good Ventures fund the top charities' full needs?

    Read more about this in our November 2021 blog post "We aim to cost-effectively direct around $1 billion annually by 2025."

    Do you look at how much a charity spends on program expenses vs. overhead?

    We do check this figure, but we do not place much emphasis on it — we believe it is the most over-used metric in charity. More at our 2009 comment on the joint press release by GiveWell, GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and other charity evaluators on the pitfalls of over-emphasizing the "administrative expense ratio."

    I have an opportunity to have my gift "matched" if I give to another charity. Does this mean that donation would have double the impact? Could this be a better choice than giving to your top charities without a match?

    We recommend against letting "donation matching" affect your choice of charity. More

    Should I give now, or save my money and give later?

    We don't believe there is a clear answer, and do believe that it makes sense to give relatively regularly — for example, setting aside a set percentage of annual income. More

    I have more questions. How can I get them answered?

    Contact us.

    You may also wish to visit our transparency policy, which lists and links to most of the different kinds of information we provide.

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