Strategic Cause Selection

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

Our picture of how most major foundations work is as follows:

  1. First, broad program areas or “causes” – such as “U.S. education” and “environment” – are chosen. This step is almost entirely “from the heart” – no systematic review is conducted, but rather the philanthropist (or foundation President) chooses areas s/he is passionate about.

  2. Foundation staff speak to relevant people in the field and lay out a foundation strategy. This process may lead to direct identification of potential grantees or to RFPs/guidelines for open applications.
  3. Foundation staff continually work with and evaluate grantees and potential grantees.

(Our recent conversation with Paul Brest of the Hewlett Foundation, which funds GiveWell, gives one example.)

Steps #2 and #3 make sense, and seem likely to lead to at least reasonable results if carried out by people who listen well and keep their minds open. We see some potential room for improvement in terms of documentation and transparency – we believe that our own commitment to writing up and sharing our reasoning and results (rather than just discussing them internally) leads us to better-considered decisions and generates information that can inform other givers as well.

However, our working hypothesis is that the biggest room for improvement lies in step #1 – picking causes. This is where existing philanthropists seem to be least thoughtful and to ask the fewest critical questions; yet this is where we’d guess the bulk of variation in “how much good a philanthropist accomplishes” comes from.

So as we work on GiveWell Labs, we’re interested in seeing whether we can approach the “What cause should I work on?” question in a more systematic, thoughtful way, and get better results (in terms of overall good accomplished). This is what we refer to as “strategic cause selection.” We have just started this effort, and we expect a long time and multiple iterations before we feel we have a truly strong and effective approach; this post lays out our approach so far, as a starting point.

Key investigations for strategic cause selection

We’ve started our work on strategic cause selection by trying to understand the following two things:

  • The history of philanthropy. What are philanthropy’s biggest success stories, and why did they succeed? What has gone well and what has gone poorly, and why? Are there patterns what successful philanthropy looks like?

    We have previously posted our analysis of the single best source we know of on this question, a set of 100 “philanthropic success stories” published as a companion volume to The Foundation: a Great American Secret. We’ve been looking for all the books we can find on the history of philanthropy (there don’t seem to be many, which itself suggests that there isn’t much interest today in strategic cause selection) and intend to review several of them.

  • The current state of philanthropy. What are the causes that today’s major foundations work in? What sort of work are they doing in these causes?

    We are currently examining data from the Foundation Center’s database of foundation grants, and will be publishing our analysis in the future. We are also systematically reviewing the websites of the top 100 foundations (looking at what their causes are and how they describe them) and will be discussing this as well.

What makes a good philanthropic cause?

Reflecting on the examinations above, we’ve started to maintain a list of qualities that seem, logically, to make for a “good philanthropic cause.” We expect this list to evolve significantly in the future. For the moment, here are the qualities we look for in a philanthropic cause:

  • An articulable vision for the world as it could and should be, and a large gap between this and the world as it is now. (This quality may seem obvious, but we include it for completeness; one can think of it as a measure of how “big” or “ambitious” a cause is.) For example, the cause of global health and nutrition involves the following gap: it should be the case that the vast bulk of the world’s population receives adequate nutrition (certainly enough to prevent being clinically underweight or stunted), as well as any medical treatment/preventive measures that are relatively cheap and effective. We know that this vision of the world is possible, because it describes large parts of the world (such as the U.S.) today. Yet we also know that today’s world is very far from this vision – there is a lot of room for improvement, which philanthropy can pursue. Other causes involve a vision of the world that may or may not be possible (e.g., a world in which no one dies of cancer).
  • A shortage of “constituents” who can achieve change through non-philanthropic ends. As we’ve written before, most of the good in the world is accomplished through methods other than philanthropy. A good cause should be accompanied by a clear explanation of why the sought-after change cannot happen through for-profit work (people who need help pay for it directly), constituent-led government work (people who need help exercise political pressure to get it), or local philanthropy.

    As we noted previously, philanthropy commonly works on (a) helping the people with the least money and power; (b) basic research, top-level education reform, and other global public goods with long time horizons. Both of these seem to lack non-philanthropic constituents.

  • A shortage of strong other philanthropic actors. We have been told before that a philanthropist wishes to stay away from global health, since the Gates Foundation is probably finding most of the best opportunities and the ones it doesn’t fund are likely to be worse. This reasoning is partly valid, though mitigated by the point below.
  • Good performance by the other strong philanthropic actors. If the other strong funders in a cause area seem to be consistently funding excellent projects and/or getting excellent results, this gives some reason to believe that there is room for more strong philanthropy in the cause.

In future posts, we will list some of the causes we find most promising; we will also give our views on some of the most popular causes in today’s philanthropy.

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