Recent Board Meeting on GiveWell’s Evolution

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

This year, GiveWell has been evolving in a couple of significant ways:

  • We’ve been exploring giving opportunities that may involve restricted/project-specific funding (as opposed to unrestricted support of charities), as well as giving opportunities that could be relatively speculative, hard to evaluate and high-risk (contrast with our previous focus on “proven cost-effective”) charities. (Previous discussion)
  • We’ve been working closely with Good Ventures, a major funder (previous discussion). We’ve also been reflecting on whether we ought to be focusing our outreach efforts more on major funders (relative to our current target audience of people giving $250,000 or less per year).

We recently held a Board meeting to discuss these shifts, and some of the potential challenges and decisions that may come up as a result. We have now published audio from this meeting, as well as the attachment featured in it that summarizes the issues we see ourselves as facing. This post gives a high-level overview of the issues we discussed and what we’ve concluded for the time being.

Summary:

  • GiveWell continues to prioritize research aimed at finding outstanding giving opportunities for individual donors. GiveWell continues to place a high importance on providing enough of these opportunities to keep up with demand, i.e., the amount of money we expect to move from individual donors to our top charities.
  • GiveWell’s research process is evolving in ways that we feel are necessary in order to find the best giving opportunities possible for all donors, both small and large. Since GiveWell’s staff capacity is increasing, it is able to increase its work on “proven cost-effective” interventions while also exploring other areas.
  • GiveWell will continue to work closely with Good Ventures, and may prioritize outreach to other potential major-donor partners. However, it does not plan to become a consultant to Good Ventures or any other “major donor.” The purpose of GiveWell’s working with Good Ventures, and of outreach to potential major donors, is to find people who share GiveWell’s core values and seek to support its mission – not to customize or alter its work to suit major donors. And transparency remains a core value of GiveWell’s; it continues to seek to publicly publish as much as possible of what goes into its reasoning and recommendations.

Evolution of our research process

As discussed previously, we feel that we’ve hit diminishing returns to our approach of focusing on no-strings-attached donations to organizations focused on proven cost-effective interventions. We’ve begun broadening the universe of giving opportunities we will consider.

We previously aimed to draw a bright line between our “traditional” research and GiveWell Labs, which is open to any giving opportunity regardless of form or sector. However, because our traditional approach has hit diminishing returns, we now are focusing the bulk of our research capacity on investigations that are “experimental” in some sense – either because they may involve project-specific funding or because they are in sectors outside of “direct aid.” Accordingly, we no longer find it helpful to draw a bright line between “GiveWell traditional” and “GiveWell Labs” – instead, we have laid out a research agenda and focus area for GiveWell as a whole.

That said, we are still committed to

  • Finding the most proven, cost-effective giving opportunities for individual donors to support. We believe that finding more of these opportunities (beyond our current top charities) requires being open to project-specific funding, as discussed previously.
  • Continuing to provide regular updates on previously recommended giving opportunities, including both good news and bad.
  • Continuing to maintain, assess, and update our top charities list, and clearly communicating the difference between this list (which focuses on proven cost-effective charities) and any giving opportunities we may recommend that fall into other categories.
  • Doing everything we can to provide enough “proven cost-effective” giving opportunities to meet the demand for them (i.e., the amount of money we expect to move to them) from our audience.

Since GiveWell’s staff capacity is increasing, it is able to increase its work on “proven cost-effective” interventions while also exploring other areas.

Relationship with Good Ventures

As we wrote previously, we have been working closely with Good Ventures in multiple ways. We find the relationship to be highly mutually beneficial; at the same time, it is important to us that

  • We retain our independence: the ability to prioritize giving opportunities based on what we find most promising, and to allocate our resources in line with our own prioritization.
  • We retain our transparency, continuing to publicly publish the full details of our analysis and other items of interest to donors.
  • We are not perceived as being unduly influenced – in our research direction, our use of resources, or otherwise – by Good Ventures.
  • We continue to serve other donors and to bring them enough outstanding giving opportunities to meet demand (i.e., the amount of money we expect to move from them).
  • We remain open to working closely with other major funders, as we are with Good Ventures.

In order to accomplish the above goals, we are planning to develop and publish some general guidelines regarding how we work with major donors, including policies for ensuring that we retain our independence and for ensuring that the role of any major donor in our research process is made transparent.

In addition, as discussed previously, we are thinking of putting more of our outreach efforts into reaching major funders (relative to our current target audience of people giving $250,000 or less per year). However, this concerns only our outreach efforts, not our research efforts or our commitment to transparency.

Seeking your feedback

If you’re a user of GiveWell’s research, we’d like to hear your thoughts on the above. We’d particularly like to hear from you if you have any concerns or see any risks to GiveWell’s value for you as a source of independent, in-depth research on how to accomplish the most good possible with your giving.

The ideal form of feedback (from our perspective) would be comments on this blog post, since that allows anyone to see the exchange, but we are also happy to be contacted privately.

Comments

Recent Board Meeting on GiveWell’s Evolution — 5 Comments

  1. Hi GiveWell gang,

    Overall, I see no deterioration of value in what your provide for you. You guys do outstanding stuff that no one else does. For that: Yippee! and also: THANK YOU.

    However, about focusing on just outreach to high network folks, I’ve a few thoughts (While we’ve had some one-on-one convos, I’ve had additional thoughts and feel it’s worthwhile to state publicly for community input).

    As a low-level donor/regular person, I constantly see direct or indirect solicitations for nonprofits that I know, because of your work, haven’t proven themselves to be worthwhile. Most recently, I wanted to buy something from xkcd but a portion of the proceeds go to Room to Read, and I’m not yet convinced they’re worth supporting. However, I’d guess 99% of folks of xkcd’s customers don’t think to think that way.

    When I’ve argued this in the past, my argument was mainly that nonprofits have a strong base of small givers because some of them may become larger givers in the future (as a fundraiser, this is the primary strategy of most campaigns). GW has logically countered that they have wonderful reach with those larger givers to begin with, and so the need to deliberately reach out to smaller donors isn’t necessary from the standpoint of financial security. Meanwhile, donors like me who are explicitly looking for that research will find it.

    My subsequent thoughts have been that while outreach to the smaller donors isn’t necessary for $ stability, it may be necessary because so many many donors are inadvertently making less-informed giving decisions. Specifically targeting outreach to these many donors who give smaller amounts may not fall under your goal of making operating expenses, but perhaps it should fall under your goal of educating a broad swath of donors what thoughtful giving should be.

  2. As a user of your research, I found the cost-effectiveness estimates quite useful. Please continue to provide those wherever possible. It might also be useful to provide a 95%-confidence (or similar) range when providing such estimates, to make it obvious which estimates are more/less certain.

    Keep up the great work!
    Scott

  3. “We are not perceived as being unduly influenced – in our research direction, our use of resources, or otherwise – by Good Ventures.”

    I don’t know how you can avoid this. It seems you’ve basically merged with GV in all but name. I think it’s great. From what I’ve seen, Cari and Dustin are top-notch people. My expectation is that Give Well is influencing GV more than the other way around.

  4. Sam, I don’t think it’s warranted to say “you’ve basically merged with GV in all but name.” As discussed in the document, one of the major differences from a merger – conceptual, not just technical – is that we are working together only as long as (and insofar as) our missions overlap. At the point where we find different giving opportunities and therefore wish to pursue different paths, there’s no consolidated authority that determines which path we take – each organization takes its own.

  5. In practice, though, I don’t think your missions will diverge much (values do not evolve much) and multiple feedback loops will continue to strengthen your already-tight bond. The logic of a formal merger will probably get stronger over time.