There are three answers to this. The first is that we eventually want to understand the entire nonprofit sector, because our goal is to do as much good as possible with our dollar. But doing this in the near future is completely impossible (even if we restricted ourselves to charities with budgets of at least $1 million, we’d be looking at over 80,000 organizations in the US alone!)
So we have to narrow our scope – drastically.
The second answer to the question is to say how we chose the organizations currently reviewed on GiveWell.net. Some context is necessary for this. GiveWell began as an informal project, a collaboration between friends who wanted to accomplish more good with our donations. We knew we had to bite off something we could chew, so each of us chose a cause that we were personally interested in, found organizations that focus on it, and started digging for more detail on what they do. Our goal was to find great organizations to donate to, not to be comprehensive, and we reviewed the best organizations we found; the result was the website currently up at GiveWell.net. Our reviews are straightforward about where more information is needed; nothing on this website is, or pretends to be, comprehensive or authoritative.
It was in constructing this website that we determined that the only way to do our project well is through a more concentrated effort. We are going to be far more comprehensive than we were last fall, and far less comprehensive than we hope to be eventually. The third answer to the question is what nonprofits we will seek to review in our first year.
This answer is the most complex, and we haven’t finalized our answer to it. Here’s where we stand now.
We constructed a rough map of all the problems with the world that US-registered charities (which we will be focusing on) address. (Once we make this map intelligible to an outsider, it will be available on our website.) We chose a small subset of these problems with the preliminary aim of (1) helping people who are unfortunate and disadvantaged, but not irrevocably so; (2) translating money directly and reasonably quickly into improving people’s lives, without relying on changing others’ opinions or laws. Our preliminary list of the causes we plan to address is:
Causes 1-3: aid the poorest of the poor, focusing on Africa.
Cause 1 : Provide for basic human needs including basic health care, food, water, and shelter.
Cause 2 : Fight epidemic curable/treatable diseases, including malaria, diarrhea, tuberculosis, AIDS, measles, and pneumonia.
Cause 3 : Enable economic opportunity through microcredit, job assistance and training, and education.
Causes 4-8: remove barriers to opportunity in wealthy societies, focusing on New York City.
Cause 4 : Provide for basic human needs including basic health care, food, and shelter.
Cause 5 : Aid early-childhood development, through child care and programs such as Early Head Start.
Cause 6 : Improve educational opportunities through charter schools, summer schools, after-school activities, and public school reform.
Cause 7 : Enable economic opportunity through microcredit, job assistance and training.
Cause 8 : Protect women from domestic abuse.
Causes 9-10: bring people from extreme suffering to fully enabled lives in one step.
Cause 9 : Facilitate the adoption of disadvantaged children by self-sufficient families, focusing on China.
Cause 10 : Provide full-service boarding schools to the impoverished, focusing on South Africa.
In focusing on certain regions, we are not saying that these are the only regions worth assisting with donations – we are just narrowing our scope so that we can have an attainable goal. We took the existing structure of the nonprofit sector into account, which explains why the regions vary so much in size (most of the charity in New York City is done by organizations focused on New York City, whereas most of the charity in Nigeria is done by organizations with a broad mandate of serving Africa).
Since we aim to serve US donors, we will focus initially on US-registered 501(c)(3) charities with annual expenses of at least $1 million. We want to be able to recommend these charities without fear that they’ll attract donations beyond what they can use effectively.
We will also generally not evaluate other grantmakers (such as private foundations), unless they are providing something concrete (such as consulting services or measurement) along with their evaluations, enough to justify the extra expense and loss of discretion that comes with passing money through another grantmaker.
All of this is preliminary and highly open to discussion.
(As a note to Matt, who asked this question: we are still considering Romania as a possible region of focus along the lines of causes 9-10; this list is the most likely one we will end up with for our first year, but HopeChest’s area is not far from where we’re focusing.)