GiveWell and Good Ventures

Last year, we met Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz of Good Ventures, a new foundation that is planning eventually on giving substantial amounts (Dustin and Cari aim to give the majority of their net worth within their lifetimes; Dustin is the co-founder of Facebook and, more recently, Asana). We immediately established that Good Ventures and GiveWell share some core values that relatively few others seem to share:

  • Both Good Ventures and GiveWell are aiming to do as much good as possible, from a global-humanitarian perspective.
  • Both are willing to consider any group and any cause in order to accomplish this goal.
  • Both are highly interested in increasing the level of transparency, accountability, and critical discussion and reflection within the world of giving.

Over time, GiveWell and Good Ventures have worked increasingly closely together. In April of last year, Cari joined our Board of Directors; in December of last year, Cari announced substantial grants to our top-rated charities from Good Ventures. In the meantime, Cari was exploring the rest of the world of philanthropy, speaking with a large number of major philanthropists, nonprofit representatives, philanthropic advisors, etc. After a year of exploration, Cari stated to us that while many of the people she had spoken to had been helpful, GiveWell seemed to be most in alignment with the values of Good Ventures and had given the most helpful support in pursuing these values, and that GiveWell’s research appears to her to be at least as high-quality as any foundation research she’s seen. Now, GiveWell and Good Ventures plan to “act as a single team” as we source and vet funding opportunities in areas in which our interests overlap.

This is a partnership, not a merger; we remain separate legal entities. Cari is President of Good Ventures, while Elie and I are Co-Executive Directors of GiveWell; our authorities differ accordingly. If Good Ventures is interested in an area or activity that we aren’t interested in, it will use its resources to pursue this area or activity; likewise, if we are interested in an area or activity that Good Ventures isn’t interested in, we will use GiveWell’s resources to pursue this area or activity.

However, “acting as a single team” does mean that

  • There are substantial areas of overlap between our interests – investigations and activities that rank high on both of our priority lists. The agenda we laid out recently is a close match to current points of intersection.
  • Within these areas, we maintain a common priority list and divide up labor so that we don’t double-do any work. Division of labor is done by consensus, and if there are unresolvable disagreements each organization makes its own choices about its own resources (this has not happened so far).
  • Within these areas, funding requests and ideas will go through a common process. I.e., if someone brings an idea or request to Cari and we have agreed that it fits within an area that is being primarily managed by GiveWell, she will refer the request or idea to GiveWell rather than evaluating it herself.
  • When given confidential materials that are “for our eyes only,” we will attempt to share these with each other (though of course this will require permission from those providing the materials).
  • We are currently experimenting with close coordination on screening and training new hires. We look for similar qualities in new hires, so people who are interested in a job with one organization or the other may be interviewed by both simultaneously.
  • Overall, the above items require close coordination. For this and other reasons, the GiveWell team is currently planning to move to the Bay Area (more on this in a future post).

It seems to me that this is a relatively unusual arrangement. Formally, each organization has full authority over its own resources and none over the other’s, and this fact underlies all procedures for resolving disagreements if and when we cannot reach consensus. However, in practice recently, these cases have been rare and it has often felt as though we’re a single team with a single agenda.

Why does this situation seem unusual? One possibility is that it isn’t a good idea and that the problems with it will become apparent in the future; this possibility is why we have been clear about procedures for resolving disagreements. But there is another possible explanation. In my view, nonprofit work is naturally suited to this sort of “teamwork without a single authority” arrangement, in a way that for-profit work is not. Both GiveWell and Good Ventures are mission-driven: there are no financial returns to divide up, just a vision for the world on which we are closely aligned.

I believe that nonprofits sometimes mimic for-profits in ways that don’t make sense given their missions. They raise money beyond what they need for their core work. They keep information confidential rather than publishing it as a public good. And they exaggerate successes and downplay shortcomings, while being more honest would help the rest of the world learn and thus ultimately promote their mission (if not their organization). If I’m right, the relative unusualness of “teamwork without mergers” could be another way in which nonprofits are missing opportunities to be effective that aren’t available for for-profits. I think it’s possible that the sort of collaboration GiveWell and Good Ventures have today will be far more common in the future.

Comments

GiveWell and Good Ventures — 7 Comments

  1. CONGRATULATIONS! We are both very impressed by your new model. We think it can become a great template for others to follow.

  2. I’m excited. I reckon GiveWell-Good Ventures will be a multi-billion-dollar-moving force within a decade.

  3. Holden,

    Congrats — big news. I wonder about not duplicating work, though. In my opinion, part of the reason you a finding it hard to replicate results is that the original team did the analysis only once. Contrast this with litigation consulting that economists do, where everything is done twice, by different people. The result is far fewer mistakes and much easier to replicate working documents (which the opposition will often take and replicate themselves). The quality of the analysis is poor relative to international development research, but the replicability is far higher. From this perspective, it might make sense for you to both independly evaluate opportunities and compare your results.

  4. Congratulations Holden on the partnership with Cari and Good Ventures. I agree that partnership/collaboration is different and, in theory, more feasible in the nonprofit world. The poor track record of outright mergers in the sector has more to do with bad matchmaking (combining two organizations in financial trouble seldom creates one healthy one) than anything else. Any of your readers interested in exploring the full continuum of nonprofit collaboration can search 671 actual cases here: http://tinyurl.com/428p8t6

  5. Ryan: we sometimes do internally have people double-check each others’ work, and if we had more capacity we would do this more often and more thoroughly (including potentially being open to doing some of the same work twice). However, it seems that the right way to go about this sort of work would be to set up teams with the explicit aim of replicating & checking each other; this division of labor could happen within a single organization.