Small Discretionary Grantmaking – February 2022 version

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GiveWell enables some staff to recommend a certain amount of funding annually via "small discretionary grants." We believe that we can increase our expected impact by occasionally funding small, promising opportunities without investing a lot of time in evaluating them. These small discretionary grants will make up a very small portion of the total funding we direct each year. More details follow.

Note: These grants are not to be confused with the Maximum Impact Fund, which was previously referred to as "grants to recommended charities at GiveWell's discretion."

Published: February 2022

Table of Contents

Why make small discretionary grants?

In the course of GiveWell's work, our researchers sometimes come across opportunities that seem plausibly high-impact but that are small or don't fit into our overall grantmaking strategy, such that we wouldn't want to invest a lot of time in evaluating them.

In some cases, a researcher expects that one of these opportunities may be as cost-effective or more cost-effective than our top charities. However, it might be difficult for the researcher to make the type of robust case that we make for most of our grants because their opinion of the opportunity relies on judgments that may be more subjective and difficult to falsify, and making a compelling, falsifiable case would be very time-consuming relative to the size of the grant.

We could choose to pass on all these opportunities, but we believe that some of them will increase GiveWell's impact and are therefore worth funding. We think researchers' judgment calls (informed by many interactions or by particular expertise in a field) can be an important part of good decision-making.

So, we've created a mechanism for providing funding in cases where we know enough about the people or organizations involved in the opportunity or about the context to believe that supporting it is the right call. The size of these opportunities is very small relative to most of our grantmaking and the apparent downside risk to funding them is minimal.

Who recommends these grants? How big are they?

A small number of GiveWell staff now have the opportunity to recommend a certain amount of discretionary funding annually. Small discretionary grants will make up a very small portion of the total funding we direct each year.

As of February 2022, our CEO and our four Program Officers each may recommend up to $250,000 in small discretionary grants each year, for a maximum of $1.25 million in small discretionary grants annually, as compared to the $244 million we directed in 2020.

We will publish information about these grants on our website, including in the table at the bottom of this page.

What criteria must these grants meet?

The intention is for these small grants to require minimal due diligence from the people recommending them. The only requirements are that:

  1. A relevant GiveWell staff member (our CEO or one of our four Program Officers, as of February 2022) recommends the grant.
  2. It plausibly contributes to our goal of saving or improving lives the most per dollar.
  3. It fits within that staff member's budget ($250,000 annually as of February 2022).
  4. It has little or no downside risk, in our view.

Examples of downside risk that could lead us not to recommend a small discretionary grant include:

  • Possibility of causing harm. For instance, if we recommend funding to an organization in a small field, we may be empowering that organization relative to others. Unless we feel confident in our knowledge of the field and the organization's place in that ecosystem, we should be wary of taking that step.
  • Possibility of creating dependence. We should be cautious of creating a situation where we recommend the grant and the organization then expects or needs to receive additional funding from us in the future.
  • Reputational risk. Some opportunities could pose a public relations risk to GiveWell, like supporting someone or something that's very controversial. Those opportunities would likely not be a good fit for a small discretionary grant.

How will they be funded?

Funding for our small discretionary grantmaking is likely to come from unrestricted donations received by GiveWell that have since been restricted for us to grant to programs, due to either our "excess assets" policy or our policy of having no single donor fund more than 20% of our operations in a given year. Funding could also come from other sources, like Open Philanthropy, the Effective Altruism Global Health and Development Fund, or individual donors.

If you give to the Maximum Impact Fund or to GiveWell for granting to a specific program, your donation will not be used for this small discretionary grants program.

Past recipients of small discretionary grants

Grant Amount Date Source of funds Recommender​​
Oxford University – Research on Cash Spillover Effects $121,626 June 2021 Unrestricted funding designated for granting Elie Hassenfeld
Innovations for Poverty Action — Scale-Up of Face Masks in South Asia $100,000 May 2021 Effective Altruism Global Health and Development Fund James Snowden