The GiveWell Blog

How thin the reed? Generalizing from “Worms at Work”

Hookworm (AJC1/flickr)

My last post explains why I largely trust the most famous school-based deworming experiment, in particular the report in Worms at Work about its long-term benefits. That post also gives background on the deworming debate, so please read it first. In this post, I’ll talk about the problem of generalization. If deworming in southern Busia County, Kenya, in the late 1990s permanently improved the lives of some children, what does that tell us about the impact of deworming programs today, from sub-Saharan Africa to South Asia? How safely can we generalize from this study?

I’ll take up three specific challenges to its generalizability:

  • That a larger evidence base appears to show little short-term benefit from mass deworming—and if it doesn’t help much in the short run, how can it make a big difference in the long run?
  • That where mass deworming is done today, typically fewer children need treatment than in the Busia experiment.
  • That impact heterogeneity within the Busia sample—the same treatment bringing different results for different children—might undercut expectations of benefits beyond. For example, if examination of the Busia data revealed long-term gains only among children with schistosomiasis, that would devalue treatment for the other three parasites tracked.

In my view, none of the specific challenges I’ll consider knocks Worms at Work off its GiveWell-constructed pedestal. GiveWell’s approach to evaluating mass deworming charities starts with the long-term earnings impacts estimated in Worms at Work. Then it discounts by roughly a factor of ten for lower worm burdens in other places, and by another factor of ten out of more subjective conservatism. As in the previous post, I conclude that the GiveWell approach is reasonable.

But if I parry specific criticisms, I don’t dispel a more general one. Ideally, we wouldn’t be relying on just one study to judge a cause, no matter how compelling the study or how conservative our extrapolation therefrom. Nonprofits and governments are spending tens of millions per year on mass deworming. More research on whether and where the intervention is especially beneficial would cost only a small fraction of all those deworming campaigns, yet potentially multiply their value.

Unfortunately, the benefits that dominate our cost-effectiveness calculations manifest over the long run, as treated children grow up. And long-term research tends to take a long time. So I close by suggesting two strategies that might improve our knowledge more quickly.

Continue reading “How thin the reed? Generalizing from “Worms at Work””

Just a few days left in 2016…

There are only a few days left to give to charity this calendar year.

The majority of donors who support GiveWell’s recommendations choose to make their gifts in December, for tax reasons or due to the holiday season.

This blog post contains quick tips and information about donating to GiveWell’s recommended charities.

But first, to everyone who supported our charities or followed our work in 2016: Thank you!

 

Will my donation be tax-deductible?

Donors in many countries can make tax-deductible donations to GiveWell’s recommended charities.

  • Click here to view this information by country; scroll down to see this information listed by charity.

What’s the best way for me to donate?

We discuss tips for giving efficiently (including tax considerations) on our website. More information about methods of donating is available here.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to donations@givewell.org if you have any questions about donation logistics. We’re happy to talk with you about questions about our research or recommendations, too.

Thank you!

Front-loading my personal giving this year

I’ve decided to give a little more than double what I normally give to charity this year, and skip giving next year. I see many reasons to give a larger-than-normal gift this year, and no countervailing reasons. If it weren’t for some idiosyncratic factors in my situation, I would roll my next three years of giving into this year’s gift.

I decided to write up my reasoning in the hopes of prompting others to consider whether they should be doing similarly. That said, everyone’s financial situation is different, and it may be a good idea to consult with a tax lawyer for personalized advice.

Tax policy

The issue that originally prompted me to consider a larger-than-usual gift was the prospect of changing tax policy due to the new administration, which could result in lower tax benefits for charitable giving in 2017 vs. 2016. A quick summary of my thinking follows; this should not be taken as tax advice, merely as my own personal guesswork and reasoning behind my own giving.

President-elect Trump’s public tax plan has three important features that could affect tax benefits for charitable giving:

  • Reducing tax rates “across-the-board.”* The proposal looks similar in this respect to the 2016 House Republican Tax Reform Plan. Depending on one’s tax bracket, this could mean that the benefit for charitable giving falls by a few percentage points, so giving this year could save more money on taxes than giving next year.
  • Raising the standard deduction significantly (more than doubling it). The proposal looks similar in this respect to the 2016 House Republican Tax Reform Plan. Charitable deductions are only beneficial insofar as total itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction; depending on how else treatment of itemized deductions changes, and on a taxpayer’s specific situation, this could reduce the amount of charitable giving that is effectively deductible by several thousand dollars per year, or not at all. It could also strengthen the case for giving less frequently than once per year.
  • Capping total itemized deductions at $100k for singles/$200k for couples. If this happened as stated, it could effectively eliminate the tax benefit of charitable giving for many people (most of them earning very high amounts, giving very high amounts, or both). The 2016 House Republican Tax Reform Plan does not have a similar provision, and I consider this change less likely than the above two.

Giving opportunities

GiveWell’s top charities look strong this year and have very large amounts of room for more funding. It’s reasonably likely that this will be true again in the next few years, but I don’t know that it will be, and it’s hard to imagine the giving opportunities on this front getting much better in the near term.

I also see a fair amount of appeal in the option I mentioned in the staff personal giving post:

I thought about reallocating my giving to another individual, someone who is quite value-aligned with me and quite knowledgeable, and thinks differently enough that they might see opportunities I don’t.

Right now, I can think of more than one individual in this category, and some of the giving opportunities they’re interested in are not a fit for Good Ventures. In future years, I hope that the Open Philanthropy Project makes connections with more donors and effective philanthropy rises generally, and this could mean that more money flows to opportunities in this category (opportunities that I don’t see and/or that aren’t a good fit for Good Ventures). This is another case where it seems like giving opportunities may get weaker, but are unlikely to get stronger.

What I’m doing

I’m planning to give an amount equivalent to my next two years’ worth of charitable giving, taking the likely trajectory of my salary into account. If not for some idiosyncratic aspects of my situation, I would have gone with three years. I don’t want to plan beyond three years because I think there are a lot of difficult-to-anticipate changes that could take place in that time.

Note that there are limits on the total proportion of income that can be deducted in a year, and one should check these before deciding to make a multi-year gift this year.

* Though as written, the tax plan would appear to constitute a major tax increase for many single filers, based on this statement: “Brackets for single filers are ½ of these amounts.” I’ve chosen not to focus on this issue, partly because there is no similar change in the 2016 House Republican Tax Reform Plan.

GiveWell’s operations team is hiring!

I’m the Director of Operations at GiveWell, and I’m spreading the word about two openings on my team for experienced professionals.

We’re hiring a Donations Manager to lead the team that processes donations to GiveWell for the support of our recommended charities and our operating support. We’re also hiring an Operations and Legal Program Manager to lead complex, multi-disciplinary projects and assist with compliance and legal matters.

If you’re interested in applying, we’d love to hear from you! Links to the application forms are included in the job descriptions linked above.

We’d be glad to chat with you!

If you’re currently trying to figure out where you’ll give this year and think it might be helpful to talk to us about your decision, please feel free to contact us at info@givewell.org or via this form. We’d be happy to set up a phone call or answer questions over email.

We’ve spoken with many individuals who use our research over the past year. Our impression is that these conversations can be useful for donors and potential donors because (1) we publish a lot of information on our website, and it can be challenging for a time-constrained individual to find, read, and analyze all of it; and (2) different donors have different values and intuitions, and we believe it can be helpful to talk through the strengths and weaknesses of, and other considerations related to, the organizations we recommend. Conversations like these also help us understand how people use our research and what questions they have.

Due to limited staff capacity, it’s possible we won’t be able to speak with everyone who requests a call, although based on past experience we hope to be able to connect with anyone who gets in touch.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Discretionary grant making and implications for donor agency

A few weeks ago, we wrote:

[…] we are recommending that donors split their gift, with 75% going to [the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)] and 25% going to [the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)], or give to GiveWell for making grants at our discretion and we will use the funds to fill in the next highest priority gaps.

We’ve gotten some questions about what the difference is between giving according to our recommended allocation (75% to AMF and 25% to SCI) and giving to GiveWell for making grants at our discretion. This post explains the difference.

How we will use discretionary grant funds

In the past, we allocated grants to top charities either in line with our most recent recommendation to individual donors or, if we had tracked enough funding to hit the targeted amounts recommended to individual donors, we would allocate grants to top charities where we judged them to be most needed. (See this post for a more in-depth description of this process.)

For the next set of grants we will make with discretionary funds, in February or March 2017, we plan to:

  • Ask top charities for an update on their total revenues from all sources; and
  • Use this information to update our views on which remaining funding gaps are most valuable to fill, and grant the funds to that gap.

AMF currently has our highest-ranked funding gap for individuals, followed by SCI. (We are recommending that individuals give 75% of their donation to AMF and 25% to SCI, instead of 100% to AMF, because we expect donors following our recommendation to give more than it would take to fill AMF’s highest priority gap and it would be difficult for us to coordinate a quick change in our recommended allocation as soon as AMF’s highest-ranked funding gap was filled.)

Note that, using the plan described above, we would likely not allocate exactly 75% of our grant to AMF and 25% to SCI. If the AMF funding gap we are prioritizing is still sufficiently large in February or March when taking all of AMF’s revenues from all sources into account, it’s likely that we would allocate 100% of the grant to AMF. If AMF’s gap were already filled (or could be filled with only part of the grant), we may allocate the funds to SCI or another top charity that we judge to have the most valuable funding gap.

We are uncertain whether we will continue to use this full process for other grants we make in the future. If we decide to not reassess charities’ funding gaps before making a grant, we will plan to allocate the grant according to our last public recommendation to individual donors.

What implications does our approach have for donor agency

It is almost always the case in charitable giving that donors that give after you will be affected, in expectation, by your gift and may reduce their gift to the organization of your choice as a result. There are some specific ways in which that dynamic plays out as a result of the allocation decisions we have made:

  • For donors who give to our top charities, but not the one(s) that we recommend on the margin, those gifts will affect how much funding we expect those organizations to get next year. The funds may also affect how quickly the organization is able to scale in the next year, which could increase how much we think they can use productively in the following year. Both these factors (working in opposite directions) could affect how much funding we recommend donors give to them next year. (See our review of Deworm the World for an example of how we calculate room for more funding based on past revenue.)
  • For donors who give to the charities we recommend on the margin (AMF and SCI currently), their gifts increase the chance that the funding gaps we have prioritized are filled and that we reallocate funds to other charities. The reallocation could happen as soon as February/March, when we plan to make our next round of grants.

We would guess that many of our donors would be happy to learn that these decisions allow us to play a “coordinating” role, in which we direct some additional funding to where we believe it’s needed most. However, donors who disagree with us to some degree may decide to give to top charities we haven’t prioritized on the margin. For example, donors who feel strongly about giving to deworming over malaria prevention (because, say, they disagree with how steeply we’ve discounted the evidence for deworming or because they value lives improved over deaths averted more than we do), may choose to give to the END Fund, whose funding gap is GiveWell’s highest priority deworming gap that is unlikely to be filled, rather than SCI. Donors who feel strongly about supporting malaria prevention over deworming, they may decide to give to Malaria Consortium over AMF, for the same reason.

For a full list of the funding gaps we seek to fill and in what order, see this spreadsheet.