Announcing GiveWell Labs

[Added August 27, 2014: GiveWell Labs is now known as the Open Philanthropy Project.]

The research we’ve been doing for the last couple of years has been constrained in a couple of key ways:

  • We’ve pre-declared areas of focus (based on our guesses as to where the most promising charities would be found), and disqualified charities for recommendations on the basis of their being “out of scope” (though we’ve been gradually broadening our scope).
  • We’ve needed to decide which organizations to recommend without being able to say in advance how much money would go to them as a result. This has led to challenges with the question of “room for more funding.” We’ve had to find charities that could essentially use any amount of funding (large or small) productively, and this has drastically narrowed our options.

We’re now launching a new initiative within GiveWell that will not be subject to either of these constraints. We plan to invest about 25% of our research time in what we’re calling GiveWell Labs: an arm of our research process that will be open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector.

Through GiveWell Labs, we will try to identify outstanding giving opportunities (whether they’re organizations or specific projects), publish rankings of these giving opportunities (separate from the top charities list we maintain using our existing research process) and try to raise money for these opportunities. Donors have pre-committed a minimum of $1 million to the GiveWell Labs initiative, meaning that we will have at least $1 million to commit to our choice of projects even if we are able to raise nothing else. (We expect to raise more if and when we find great giving opportunities; the $1 million has been committed based on donors’ trust in our ability to find such opportunities.)

Our existing work of finding outstanding international aid charities – using a more systematic process – continues. Over the coming year, we expect to spend about 75% of our research time on our existing work of finding outstanding international aid charities, and 25% of our research time on GiveWell Labs. Note that our “standard” process continues to gradually evolve and broaden its scope, and hopefully will come to incorporate insights gained through the work on GiveWell Labs. The distinction between the two may even dissolve over time. But at this time, GiveWell Labs is the arm of our process that is open to any giving opportunity, no matter what form and what sector.

In future blog posts, we’ll be giving a lot more information about this project, including:

  • More on why we’re moving in this direction at this time, and why we think a less-constrained, exploratory arm of our research process will help us find better giving opportunities.
  • Our planned process for finding great giving opportunities through GiveWell Labs, and what you can expect from us in terms of transparency.
  • The main qualities we’re looking for in a funding opportunity (when unconstrained by the form or sector of the opportunity), and why we’re looking for them.
  • The areas we think are most likely to yield great giving opportunities, and why.

In the meantime, if you know of any giving opportunities that are (a) not already funded or likely to be funded by others; (b) outstanding opportunities to have a large positive impact, please let us know.

Comments

Announcing GiveWell Labs — 9 Comments

  1. Hi Jeff, good question. My preliminary answer is that

    • GiveWell Labs is still about giving, not making money. We won’t be looking at opportunities that claim (or ought to claim) strong enough potential for returns to be justifiable based on pure money-making motives.
    • There may be some opportunities to make investments with some expected returns, but not enough to be justifiable based on pure money-making motives. In these cases, one might think of these investments as “gifts” where the gift is the size of the discrepancy between actual expected returns and the expected returns one would need to justify participation based on pure money-making motives. We will be potentially open to recommending these sorts of opportunities, though we have our reservations about them, as we will discuss in a future post.
  2. “In the meantime, if you know of any giving opportunities that are (a) not already funded or likely to be funded by others; (b) outstanding opportunities to have a large positive impact, please let us know.” The link was broken so I’m letting you know here.

    I recommend you research New Harvest (www.new-harvest.org) through GiveWell Labs because:
    - We raise over 60 land billion animals a year for food
    - Most of these are factory-farmed
    - This is also a huge burden on the environment
    - Converting people to veganism/vegetarianism is a huge challenge; in recent decades, there has been little change in the number of vegans/vegetarians in the US and the UK, despite massive lobbying from animal rights organisations
    - Technical solutions, e.g. in vitro meat, which New Harvest develops, seem more promising, particularly since there are few interest groups opposed to it.
    - In vitro meat development is chronically underfunded.

  3. Predictable question: what counts for you as “large positive impact”?

    How about a donation to an orphaned disease research charity where there might be huge improvements in quality of life, but for small numbers of people?

  4. Hey Holden,

    Thanks for your response. I guess my question was more getting at whether or not you will consider for-profit entities not because of financial returns, but because of the possibility that some ventures/models will be more impactful with a for-profit model. Limiting to one “sector” (not just a sub-sector within the nonprofit sector) can have your “donors” miss out on some big social returns.

    Thanks,

    Jeff

  5. R. Reich: I don’t think it’s necessary, or practical, to give a full formal up-front definition of what counts as “positive impact.” At GiveWell we generally place high value on improving human health, productivity, and general freedom/empowerment (i.e., the ability to make choices and self-actualize). I’m not convinced that making fine-grained distinctions regarding how highly to weight each sort of benefit (or whether it’s good to help a lot of people a little vs. a few people a lot) is going to end up being practically relevant (and if it does turn out to be, we will do so).

    We will be writing a lot more about our criteria and process for assessing giving opportunities.

    Jeff, we’re not restricting ourselves to nonprofits necessarily, though in practice I would guess that those will be where the best opportunities lie.

  6. Cool, thanks Holden. In whatever reporting you do end up putting out, I’d love to see the analysis of any for-profit ventures you surfaced, and why you chose to invest or not invest in those that you found.

  7. Hi Holden.

    This seems like a very worthwhile initiative, and I’m glad you’re undertaking it. Given that, applying your traditional criteria, you only recommend 2% of the charities you review, a project that’s designed to explore what the rigid application of your criteria might be missing seems likely to unearth at least a few gems. I’ll look forward to future posts on how you’re going to tackle the evaluative challenge, how flexible or inflexible you’ll be about including social enterprises, etc. Good luck!

    Regards,
    Paul