GiveWell’s plan for 2012: specifics of research

We previously laid out our high-level priorities for 2012. The top two priorities are “make significant progress on GiveWell Labs” and “find more outstanding giving opportunities under the same basic framework as our existing recommendations.” This post elaborates on our plans for these two priorities.

A note on relative priorities: our current top charities have significant room for more funding, so it would not be catastrophic (though it would be highly undesirable) to end 2012 without new top charities. Because of this, we view GiveWell Labs as slightly more crucial for 2012. However, we plan substantial work on both and anticipate that the quality of our standard research will continue to improve significantly.

GiveWell Labs

We believe that GiveWell Labs is very important for our long-term impact; it represents a substantial new opportunity to both find great giving opportunities and expand our potential target audience (more).

However, at this time GiveWell Labs is still in the very early stages. (We announced it in September, but a few weeks later put our entire focus on finding top charities in time for 2011′s holiday season.) The stage it’s at is somewhat comparable to the stage GiveWell was at in August of 2007; and like the GiveWell of 2007, we will probably go through a lot of experimentation, go down some significant dead ends, and possibly miss some deadlines and change our vision of what we’re trying to accomplish. So we don’t want to commit to highly concrete or definite goals at this time.

That said, here’s our current working framework.

The building blocks of GiveWell Labs

As we try to find the best giving opportunities, we believe it will be helpful to work separately on the questions of what the most promising sectors (general areas of philanthropy, such as “climate change mitigation” or “tuberculosis control” are) vs. what the most promising projects are within a sector. We’re thinking of GiveWell Labs as being divided into the following categories:

  1. Completely open-ended, sector-agnostic investigation (example: examining data on foundation grants to get a sense for what today’s foundations work on).

  2. Basic research to determine how promising a sector is (example: investigating climate change in a low-depth way, focusing on determining what strategies are open to philanthropists and whether their cost-effectiveness could be competitive with other sectors).
  3. In-depth work getting a deep understanding of a particular sector (example: trying to gather as many relevant ideas/conversations as possible for tuberculosis control).
  4. Researching a particular project, or kind of project, to determine whether to recommend it.

There is some justification for doing the 4 steps sequentially: #1 helps one choose the right sectors to research (#2), which helps one choose the right sectors to focus on (#3), which helps one choose the best projects to recommend (#4). However, there is also some justification for working on multiple tracks in parallel: learning more about specific projects and specific sectors will probably inform the way we go about deciding between sectors, and there are some sectors we already know well enough to consider them high-priority. In addition, we don’t ever expect to have final or rigid choices of the most promising sectors, and will always be open to particularly promising projects from any sector.

Goals for 2012

Within GiveWell Labs, our current (and very much subject to change) top goal for 2012 is getting a good working understanding of the most promising sectors, which means making significant headway on #1 and #2 above. Our second-most important goal is to get an in-depth understanding of the landscape of giving opportunities in at least one sector, likely one within global health and nutrition (which we believe we already know enough about to consider it a highly promising area of philanthropy). Our third-most important goal is to recommend a specific project to fund, but we think it’s very possible that we won’t get this far in 2012, i.e., that we’ll end the year with some good and durable insights regarding “where to look” but without a specific project recommendation yet.

Finding more top charities

Finding more top charities is also very important to the long-term impact of GiveWell.

  • If we grow as much as we hope, we will run out of room for more funding for our current top charities within a few years. (This is, however, unlikely to happen within the year.)
  • Researching more top charities is also our core method for improving the general quality of our research, by learning more about the most promising areas of aid.

In 2011, our main strategy for finding top charities was to consider as many charities as we could, and deeply investigate those that showed signs of promise. (More on our process.) We expect our 2012 strategy to be quite different.

All of the best charities we’ve found so far (VillageReach, AMF and SCI) are within the broad area of global health and nutrition. Furthermore, all focus on interventions that have substantial evidence bases behind them – the kind of evidence bases that, as far as we can tell, are found only within global health and nutrition.

The set of interventions that we feel have substantial, encouraging evidence bases behind them is fairly contained. The main such interventions are immunization campaigns, insecticide-treated bednets, control of neglected tropical diseases, nutrition interventions (particularly those focused on micronutrients), and tuberculosis control interventions. Water-quality-focused interventions may qualify as a “priority sector” as well; we would need to do more work before declaring it to be one.

In the past, we have struggled to identify good giving opportunities in these areas, largely because of concerns over room for more funding – the major organizations working in these areas tend to be large and diverse, and we haven’t been satisfied with our prospects of connecting donations to activities. However, we think there is a possibility that we will be able to address this problem by working more intensively with these organizations – to better understand them and, if necessary, to use some form of restricted funding in order to make sure that GiveWell-sourced donations have a true effect on GiveWell-recommended activities.

If we can do this, we feel our chances of finding more good giving opportunities are significant. By contrast, we are pessimistic about our chances of finding great charities by continuing our broad outreach; we have already examined a large number of the most promising charities and don’t see much potential in the majority of those that remain on our list. Therefore, we expect to spend more time in 2012 on intensive investigations of large charities working in priority areas than on broad outreach to many charities.

Some caveats to this statement:

  • We want to maintain an “open door” for any demonstrably outstanding organization, even if it doesn’t fit into our pre-defined priority areas. We will likely raise the bar for what it takes to consider an organization “promising” when it is outside of our priority areas, but we will maintain a process by which any charity can submit information and be considered. (Note that we’ve recently updated our charity submission form.)
  • There are a small number of charities that we are currently in the process of investigating and find quite promising, despite not being in priority interventions. We intend to continue these investigations and conclude them by holiday season of 2012.
  • We expect to follow a 2011-style “examine many charities” strategy again in the future. We want to make sure that we maintain a relatively up-to-date understanding of what sorts of organizations are out there, and this means casting a wide net periodically – just not necessarily every year.

We hope to identify at least one new outstanding giving opportunity for individual donors in 2012.

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