GiveWell’s Top Charities for Giving Season 2013

Our top charities for this giving season are GiveDirectly, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), and the Deworm the World Initiative (DtWI) (led by Evidence Action). The first two have been recommended previously. The third is a new addition, and we encourage readers to see our full review.

We’ve had extensive internal discussions about how to rank these three giving opportunities against each other. These discussions have been particularly challenging this year because:

  • The three have extremely different strengths and weaknesses, in our view. Much of the decision between them comes down to judgment calls about how to weigh factors such as (a) estimated cost-effectiveness of a charity’s activities (SCI appears strongest here, in isolation, though some staff discount this observation because of the low robustness of our estimates); (b) potential leverage (DtWI has a potential advantage here, as it focuses on influencing government spending rather than covering all costs with its own funds); (c) a direct and robust case for impact (we believe GiveDirectly is strongest on this front); (d) “upside,” in terms of potential for the charity’s growth to have far-reaching effects beyond the direct impact of its services. (We think all three have some “upside” but see GiveDirectly as particularly promising in terms of its potential to improve the aid community’s understanding of, and interest in, cash transfer programs.)
  • The amounts of money given on the strength of our recommendations could be substantial, and so the question of “what do further donations accomplish?” can have complex answers: for example, the first million dollars to a charity can be quite different in their expected impact from the second million. We lay out what we know about each charity’s funding gap below.

For each charity, we have set out a “minimum target” that we very much hope to see it raise. The targets have no precision to them, but roughly speaking, we see more value in donations up to the minimum target for each charity than in donations beyond the minimum target for any of them. (In other words, if two of the charities had hit their minimum target and the third had not, we would prefer additional donations to go to the third charity until it hit its minimum target.) We believe that each charity will hit its minimum target. We would also be happy to see each charity raise funds beyond its minimum target, and expect that this will happen to some degree.

The minimum targets consider both the nature of the funding gap and the goal of providing positive incentives via rewarding charities that exemplify the values GiveWell is seeking to promote, such as transparency, strong monitoring and evaluation, and full participation in GiveWell’s evaluation process. We believe that all three top charities are outstanding in these respects and thus hope to move substantial funds to each, though we also feel there are some differences on this front that contribute to our differing minimum targets.

When it comes to donations beyond the minimum target, we haven’t reached a clear conclusion on which charities should be prioritized, and feel that donors will decide – reasonably accurately – which charities are the best fit for their own worldview and values with the guidance we provide. Accordingly, we have decided not to provide numerical rankings this year.

Please note that there will be some additional content coming out within the next 1-2 weeks:

  • Good Ventures is planning to announce its own plans re: grants to top charities. We expect this announcement to come this week and expect that it may influence donors’ choices.
  • We are planning to write about the evolution of our criteria for recommending charities, which are being modified from what they were in previous years. This content will not be directly relevant to the choice between charities (this post attempts to summarize all relevant considerations).
  • We are also planning to have individual staff members (who feel comfortable doing so) announce their plans and their reasoning for their own personal giving. In general, the most popular choice internally is GiveDirectly.

The rest of this post lays out what we see as the key considerations regarding the funding gap, strengths and weaknesses of each recommended charity.

GiveDirectly
Funding gap

We provide the details of GiveDirectly’s funding gap in our review. In brief, GiveDirectly has told us that, to facilitate its planning, it aims to raise $40 million, the amount it budgets for 2014 and 2015. It hopes to spend $14 million in 2014 and $26 million in 2015.

As of the writing of this blog post, GiveDirectly has allocated or committed over $5 million to cash transfer campaigns (the vast majority of these funds in the past year), utilizing most of the funds it has received to date from donors.

Our understanding is that the majority of additional donations will go directly to cash transfers, which themselves are part of GiveDirectly’s (a) experimentation with its operational model as it expands and (b) experiments into the impacts of different models of cash transfer programs.

We hope that GiveDirectly is able to close a sizable portion of its funding gap, and have set a “minimum target” of $2.5 million, about half of what it has spent in the last year. We would be relatively comfortable with its receiving up to $20 million, though as it received more funds we would begin to prefer that those funds be allocated elsewhere.

Details on GiveDirectly’s room for more funding

Strengths and weaknesses

  • Program impact and cost-effectiveness. Cash transfers are relatively strongly evidence-backed, and are in the range of our other priority programs’ cost-effectiveness, but our best guess is that cash transfers are 2-3x less cost-effective than the deworming programs carried out by SCI. Details at our updated cost-effectiveness spreadsheet. Our estimates are subject to substantial uncertainty.
  • Monitoring and evaluation. All the programs implemented by our top charities are evidence-backed, but GiveDirectly is the only one that has a randomized controlled trial (finding strong results) of its own implementation of its program. Thus, GiveDirectly has been evaluated in a more rigorous way than our other top charities. We also feel that we have seen stronger evidence of successful execution of its program than for our other top charities.
  • Directness and robustness of the case for impact. We believe there is a highly direct and robust connection between GiveDirectly’s receiving funds and those funds reaching very poor individuals. We believe GiveDirectly to be the strongest of the recommended charities on this front.
  • Transparency and participation in our process. GiveDirectly has been exceptionally open with us, enabling us to understand the full details of its work.
  • Scale. Were GiveDirectly to receive the full level of support it is seeking, this would result in a significant increase in scale. We view this both as a risk and an opportunity. As of the end of 2013, GiveDirectly was distributing cash at a rate of approximately $3.6 million per year; it hopes to reach close to $15 million by the end of 2014. GiveDirectly has scaled up successfully in the past; it had been distributing cash at a rate of $360,000 per year at the end of 2012. For donors who believe GiveDirectly can effectively scale up, this represents an opportunity to provide early-stage funding to an organization that may eventually grow to be much larger. For donors who are skeptical of GiveDirectly’s ability to scale, providing such funds may appear unreasonably risky (though only after the first $5-10 million in support; the first $5-10 million would be consistent with the size GiveDirectly has been to date). Full GiveDirectly review

Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)

Funding gap

SCI has told us that it hopes to raise at least $4 million for work it plans to undertake in 2014 and believes it could effectively absorb up to $10 million (though some of this spending would spread into 2015). This work would mostly consist of direct implementation of deworming.

Since November 2011, when we first recommended SCI, SCI has received approximately $4.6 million in unrestricted funds. It has spent $2.9 million, committed an additional $1.2 million and approximately $1 million remains unallocated, including approximately $500,000 it had in reserve prior to our recommendation (more).

We have set a “minimum target” of $1 million for SCI, which is consistent with the levels of GiveWell-attributable funding it has received in the past. We would be relatively comfortable with its receiving up to $10 million, though as it received more funds we would begin to prefer that those funds be allocated elsewhere.

Details of SCI’s room for more funding

Strengths and weaknesses

  • Program impact and cost-effectiveness. Our best guess is that SCI’s deworming program is more cost-effective than cash transfers by a factor of 2-3x and 1-2x as cost-effective as DtWI’s deworming program. Details at our updated cost-effectiveness spreadsheet. Our estimates are subject to substantial uncertainty.
  • Monitoring and evaluation. We recently became aware of major limitations to the studies we had previously been relying on as evidence of SCI’s impact. We will be reviewing further evidence that SCI sent us in response; we had not previously focused on collecting such evidence because of our impression that the studies we were using were sufficient. The program SCI works on (deworming) is relatively strongly evidence-backed.
  • Directness and robustness of the case for impact. We believe that the connection between SCI’s receiving funds and those funds’ reaching very poor individuals is more direct than DtWI’s but less direct than GiveDirectly’s. SCI has spent (and plans to spend) a sizable amount of its budget directly carrying out deworming programs, but it also spends funds on a variety of activities related to deworming (e.g., advocacy, operational research).
  • Transparency and participation in our process. From 2009 (when we first made contact with SCI) through mid-2013, we struggled to communicate well with SCI. Since August 2013, our communication with has SCI has improved substantially. We still do not feel that we have the same level of visibility into SCI’s operations as we do into those of our other top charities, and this is a major factor in the relatively lower “minimum target” we have set for SCI as opposed to other top charities, though we are optimistic that this will change in the next year.
  • Scale. Were SCI to receive $5 million, it would represent an increase in the amount of funding it processes. SCI has spent (or committed) approximately $2 million in unrestricted funds in each of the past two years and is currently primarily funded by a 5-year, ~$15 million grant from DFID. It is currently under consideration for a 4-year, $15-18 million grant from DFID. In sum, SCI has been operating at a level of approximately $6 million/year and may soon be operating at a level of approximately $10 million/year (due to the DFID grant). An additional $5-10 million would increase its scale further.

Full SCI review

Deworm the World Initiative, led by Evidence Action (DtWI)

Funding gap

DtWI has told us that it would like to receive $2-3 million to give it the flexibility to pursue opportunities that are not directly funded by other donors. It has also told us that Evidence Action, its parent organization, has a funding gap over the next 2 years of $5-7 million.

Because our analysis has focused on DtWI, we have focused on its funding gap.

We would like to see DtWI close much or all of its gap so that it can have an adequate supply of unrestricted funding, and we have set a minimum target of $2 million. We see significantly less value in funds beyond that point, and particularly past the $3 million mark.

Details of DtWI’s room for more funding

Strengths and weaknesses

  • Program impact and cost-effectiveness. In isolation, our best guess is that DtWI’s deworming program is likely less cost effective than SCI’s (about 50-100% as cost effective) and GiveWell staff differ about its cost-effectiveness relative to cash transfers (1.5-3x as cost effective). This is because worm infections appear less prevalent and (particularly) less intense where DtWI works than where SCI works. However, DtWI focuses on influencing government spending rather than covering all costs with its own funds, and we think it is therefore appropriate to give it some degree of credit for “leverage” – making your dollars go further than they otherwise would. Estimating the degree of “leverage” is highly subjective; our best guess is that it should add a multiplier of about 3 to the cost-effectiveness, making DtWI more than competitive with other top charities on this front. Details at our updated cost-effectiveness spreadsheet.
  • Monitoring and evaluation. We believe DtWI’s self-evaluation to have been less rigorous than that of GiveDirectly, though we are hopeful that it will improve going forward. (As noted above, we are currently revisiting the quality of SCI’s self-evaluation.)
  • Directness and robustness of the case for impact. DtWI is a technical assistance/advocacy organization, and therefore the chain from donation to person helped is the least direct of any of our top charities. This is the flip side of DtWI’s potential “leverage” – because it focuses on influencing and assisting other players rather than on direct implementation, its value-added per dollar spent is quite plausibly higher but also harder to pin down.
  • Quality of communication. From 2009 (when we first made contact) through early 2013, we struggled to communicate well with DtWI. Since early 2013 (which coincided with DtWI changing its leadership), our ability to communicate with DtWI improved substantially. We now feel that we have as much visibility into DtWI’s operations as we do any of our other top charities.
  • Scale. Our understanding is that $2-3 million in unrestricted funds will provide DtWI with flexibility that will be helpful as it grows. Because DtWI requests $2-3 million, we would expect that any funds it receives above $2-3 million would likely effectively support Evidence Action more broadly (e.g., its Dispensers for Safe Water program, which we have not examined although we have published a report on water quality interventions, and potentially other initiatives that it might launch).
  • Fungibility. DtWI is an initiative led by its parent organization, Evidence Action. There is some possibility that funds given due to this recommendation effectively support Evidence Action and its Dispensers for Safe Water program (or future initiatives) rather than DtWI. If donors are particularly concerned about this, they should carefully consider their support of DtWI.

Full DtWI review

A note on Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)
As discussed in this blog post, we are not recommending AMF to donors this year due to lack of short-term room for more funding. AMF currently has access to approximately $12 million that it has yet to commit to funding distributions.

We believe that it is not unlikely that AMF will reach an agreement to use the bulk of its funds in the next 6 months, and therefore would not be surprised if donors choose to continue supporting it.

We will continue to follow AMF’s progress and reconsider its recommendation status if/when it finalizes a distribution.

Full AMF review

Comments

GiveWell’s Top Charities for Giving Season 2013 — 26 Comments

  1. I’m in a different place than much of GiveWell staff re: SCI’s relative cost-effectiveness. I don’t think our deworming cost-effectiveness estimates are sufficiently robust to deserve substantial weight in one’s decision about where to give. In our cost-effectiveness spreadsheet, I input two sets of values in our cost-effectiveness model: one set that is optimistic to deworming and pessimistic to cash and one set that’s pessimistic about deworming and optimistic about cash. My cost-effectiveness estimates for deworming range by a factor of ~300 for DtWI and 20 for SCI.

    I think all of the values inputted are reasonable, and Alexander, the GiveWell staffer who led our work on these figures this year, agrees (though our spreadsheet also contains his best guesses about the appropriate values and these differ from mine). Given these wide ranges, I’m not relying on the cost-effectiveness of deworming in my personal analysis of where to give.

  2. Will you have a way to let us watch funds moved through GiveWell to your top three charities? And approximations (perhaps by communication with the organizations) of funds moved not through GiveWell? Or is minimum-target just for future reference and very large donors?

  3. I second the interest in tax-deductibility and suggest this information is collected somewhere centrally.

    I also second Guy’s suggestion that it would be useful to have access to target & status information (e.g. something like http://goo.gl/jtOu6T) on funds raised with respect to the targets outlined above – not least because this may be an attractive marketing tool for supporters of GiveWell.

  4. Elie, in the spreadsheet you linked to, what are the meaning of Alexander, Elie etc.? These are assumptions made by different people? Are any more data available? I would like some access to make some visualisations.

    It looks like your parameters put DtW way in front of Sci. What’s the issue here? Are you skeptical about deworming in general, or is it just the rankings that concern you?

    Rory

  5. Are you able to provide any commentary on charities that were finalists for a recommendation, but weren’t selected? Knowing who the recommended charities beat and why would provide helpful context for the recommendations.

    In particular, I’m interested in other organizations that focus on insecticide treated bed nets, like the Against Malaria Foundation does. Last year AMF was GiveWell’s top recommendation, and given the reasoning for why AMF dropped off the list, it seems that charities pursuing the same solution might be a reasonable contender for a recommendation. It would be interesting to know why none made the recommendation list.

  6. Note: I formerly worked as a research analyst at GiveWell.

    As usual, I’m impressed by the quality of thought that’s gone into GiveWell’s recommendations.

    Something that stood out to me reading over the post is that 2 of the 3 recommendations (SCI and DtW) are the same as Giving What We Can’s top recommendations in 2010. The process that led to GiveWell’s recommendations is in many respects very different from the process that led to GWWC’s recommendations, and in light of this, it’s surprising that there’s so much overlap. (I recognize that the giving opportunities available prior to this year are different from the giving opportunities available this year, but the degree of overlap is still surprising to me.) I’d be interested in hearing any of your thoughts on why such apparently different processes converged on the same charities.

    A closely related question is that of how much value is added by deep diving philanthropic opportunities, as opposed to making decisions based on surface considerations. When one is moving a lot of money, one doesn’t need to increase efficacy of donations by 2x or more in order for research to have high value, but the size of the multiplier is still decision relevant

  7. Just thought I’d post the result of my quick internet search on whether donations to each charity are tax-deductible (when giving directly to the charity) — please correct me if you find any mistakes!

    Give Directly: US only

    SCI: UK only

    DtWI: US only

    Against Malaria Foundation (Top Charity in 2012): US, UK, Canada, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa

    Sources:
    https://www.givedirectly.org/give.php
    http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/schisto/aboutus
    http://www.dewormtheworld.org/donate-now
    http://www.againstmalaria.com/CharityStatus.aspx

    Note for Canadians:
    Canadians can quickly find which charities are registered under the Income Tax Act here: http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/chrts-gvng/lstngs/menu-eng.html

  8. These recommendations are great, and I appreciate the high quality of thought that went into them. I am, however, like Jonas, interested in how they came to overlap so much with Giving What We Can’s recommendations (despite having significantly more depth) and wonder if this means GiveWell is over-investing in depth.

    Another aspect I’m slightly concerned about is that, despite GiveWell labs operating for 2+ years and now receiving the majority of GiveWell staff time, there still have been no recommendations made to individual donors on the basis of GiveWell labs research. I certainly don’t think you should rush things, but can you comment on where things are with regard to making a top charity recommendation on the basis of labs research?

  9. Concerning Tax – There are two ways to donate to SCI and still receive tax deductability in USA – The first is to donate to Givewell who will pass the donation through to SCI in UK with no deductions, yet the donation receives tax deduction because it is a donation to Givewell. The second is to donate to Imperial College Foundation, a 501c3 which represents SCI in USA and can accept donations for SCI.

    Checks or wire transfers should show clear designation of the funds for SCI.

    Funds by mail (checks) are processed at the foundation’s PO Box:
    Imperial College Foundation, Inc.
    PO Box 80526,
    Atlanta, GA 30366-0526

    Wire transfers of cash or stock are received as follows;
    Wells Fargo Advisors Command Asset Program
    Account Holder: Imperial College Foundation, Inc.
    Cash Donations: Command Account No. 4802612375 ACH# 121000248
    Stock Transfers: Brokerage Account No. 4899-0429 The clearing number is 0141

  10. Thanks all for the thoughtful responses.

    Guy and Roy: Because of delays in processing checks and other factors, we don’t expect to have public updates to the level of funding that different organizations have received so far before the end of the year. We would guess that all of the organizations will hit the minimum target that we set above, in part because Good Ventures today announced grants equivalent to 75% of the minimum target for each organization, so we would suggest that individual donors allocate their funds in accordance with how they would like the community of individual GiveWell users to do so, with the expectation that the “floors” will be met but the ceilings likely will not be.

    Marika and Roy: We address the tax-deductibility of our top charities in this frequently-asked question.

    Rory: Yes, the names represents different assumptions made by different staff members. All of the publicly available data is included in the spreadsheet in the “Parameters” sheet or linked to from the “Sources referenced” sheet. I’d encourage you to work through the model to get a sense of the details of how it works; it’s only in one of Elie’s (corner) scenarios that DtWI appears to come out far ahead of SCI. In most other staff members’ scenarios, DtWI appears comparable to or worse than SCI. SCI and DtWI work differently (though both focus on deworming), so differences in cost-effectiveness could be quite significant.

    Eric: We are not aware of any other organizations of a reasonable scale that solely focus on conducting bednet distributions and have an established track record and significant commitment to monitoring and transparency. Additionally, we did not recognize the level of risk that AMF would not be ranked as highly again until late in the year, so it was too late to start the process with other organizations. That said, we have engaged with a number of different malaria organizations over the years (e.g. Nothing but Nets, Nets for Life, Malaria no More, Malaria Consortium, UNICEF malaria).

    Jonah and Peter: Holden’s planning to respond on these later today.

  11. Jonah and Peter: that question is a good one, and one that we’ve been thinking a lot about. My current thinking on the matter follows. (We’ll be responding to other comments shortly.)

    For this comment, I focus on Giving What We Can’s process for recommending charities as it existed around 2010. According to this thread, Giving What We Can’s process (around 2010) can be described as “find the interventions with the highest cost-effectiveness in the published literature (DCPP type stuff) and then look for reputable organizations with good surface signs delivering those interventions, bolstered by some willingness to go with prospects that looked like high expected value based on harder-to-quantify factors (like political influence).” This mostly comports with my impression. For simplicity, I stick with the present tense and refer to Giving What We Can’s 2010 process as GWWC-2010.

    Explicit points of overlap between the criteria of GiveWell and GWWC-2010

    There are certain criteria that both GiveWell and GWWC-2010 use that narrow the field of charities considerably, making convergence more likely all else equal.

    • Both groups look for interventions with relatively easy-to-quantify outcomes, which leads mostly to a focus on global health.
    • Both groups look for charities that focus exclusively, or near-exclusively, on such interventions. This filters out a large number of charities that work on a wide variety of programs. It also, I think, narrows the field of possible interventions to something narrower than one might initially guess. Many of the health interventions listed in the DCP2 (which I believe to be one of GWWC-2010′s main sources) are integrated with the health infrastructure in a way that makes it unlikely that a charity would “focus on that intervention.” The list of not-obviously-non-cost-effective candidate interventions is a relatively short one.

    Differences between GiveWell and GWWC-2010

    We conduct an intensive evaluation process that aims to assess organization-specific monitoring and evaluation, room for more funding, specific conditions of the intervention, etc. We only recommend charities if they agree to participate in this intensive process, and we recommend and rank charities based on its outcomes.

    GWWC-2010, as I understand it, recommends and ranks charities based in large part on the estimated cost-effectiveness (according to DCPP and WHO-CHOICE) of the program.

    Thus, GWWC-2010′s reasons for ranking SCI and DtWI highly hinge largely on the DCPP’s cost-effectiveness estimate for deworming. By contrast, our rankings are based on the fact that (a) our own cost-effectiveness estimates (after correcting errors made in the DCPP as well as integrating studies that DCPP had not considered) have deworming as a cost-effective health intervention (though not more so other health interventions such as LLIN distribution); (b) both organizations have engaged thoroughly with our process and made a relatively strong case for their impact and room for more funding.

    Some reasons that convergence is more likely than one might have guessed

    We have de-recommended two charities as a direct result of their getting significant funding via GiveWell’s recommendations. GWWC-2010′s recommendations haven’t (we believe) driven as much funding and thus haven’t led to this issue. At the same time, we and Giving What We Can share quite a bit of information, and in some cases we have sent Giving What We Can information that has led to removal of other charities from its recommendations. I believe GWWC-2010′s recommendations were SCI, DtWI, AMF, GAIN and Stop TB partnership; the latter two were later removed.

    So the dynamic is one in which (a) charities on our list, but not GWWC-2010′s, can receive enough funding to start bringing on scaling issues and thus lead us to de-recommend them; (b) charities on GWWC’s list that don’t meet our criteria eventually leave GWWC’s list. Played out over enough time, this dynamic should (all else equal) lead to some degree of convergence.

    However, the question remains re: what to make of the fact that the two charities recommended most highly by GWWC both eventually engaged with our process and did well in it (while charities ranked lower-down were removed).

    I think a major part of the answer is that deworming is simultaneously:

    • An intervention that does well by GWWC-2010′s criteria. Note that our cost-effectiveness analysis for deworming (correcting errors made in DCPP and making other updates based on literature not considered by DCPP and based on the specific conditions the charities in question work in) still shows it as reasonably strong compared to other interventions, though would not justify ranking it #1 by the logic GWWC-2010 uses. (Simply correcting mistakes in the DCPP would have left deworming with extremely poor cost-effectiveness; we believe that if the DCPP had not made such errors, deworming charities would not have been recommended by GWWC-2010.)
    • An unusually simple intervention (the simplest health intervention we’re aware of), thus lowering the bar to demonstrating impact.
    • An intervention whose evidence base is relatively recent (with major pieces coming out in 2007 and 2011), and thus one with more room for more funding than most other proven cost-effective interventions. We have written about the difficulty of combining “proven cost-effective” with “room for more funding” a bit before and will be writing about it more in the next week or so. Room for more funding likely contributes both to a charity’s (a) likelihood of doing well in our process, which considers this as a criterion; (b) likelihood of engaging in our process.

    As of 2010, we weren’t aware of either of the significance of either of the second two points. In large part, I regard the fact that they turned out to be the case as a coincidence, since I don’t believe either factored into GWWC-2010′s ranking (at least not as a primary factor, as opposed to “sanity check”), and I do believe GWWC-2010 would not have recommended these charities were it not for errors in the DCPP. But the coincidence is much less striking when put as “Within the small set of interventions eligible for both organizations’ recommendations, the one that did best by GWWC-2010′s criteria is also one that has a recent evidence base and unusual simplicity, qualities that make it a strong contender for a GiveWell recommendation,” as opposed to “Within the large number of charities, the two that did best by GWWC-2010′s criteria are also among the three strongest by GiveWell’s.”

    A final note is that we believe the GWWC-2010 recommendation of SCI may have caused SCI to be more interested in engaging in our process, since SCI came to tangibly see the benefits of being recommended and became interested in what it could do to obtain more benefits along these lines. It’s also possible that this dynamic occurred with DtWI, though we don’t think so (we have seen DtWI as a promising organization and been engaging with it for a long time, and its increased engagement in our process coincided with a change in leadership).

    What can we learn?

    I think it’s worth observing that the “reputable organizations with good surface signs” (as identified by GWWC-2010) have turned out to be organizations that did well in our process. It suggests that the former may be a good enough proxy for the latter to save a great deal of time. This is something that we recognized was possible, but weren’t willing to stake our recommendations on at the time.

    With that said, I think this connection is still far from established. As mentioned above, deworming is an unusually simple intervention with unusual (given the evidence base) room for more funding. We wouldn’t be confident extrapolating from reputability/good surface signs to strong and effective execution of a more challenging program (such as one requiring behavior change), and we’d be even less confident assuming room for more funding (we’re confident that at least one of the organizations recommended by GWWC-2010 should have been eliminated on this basis; this organization was also recommended by us in 2010, but it still serves as a counterpoint to the idea that surface signs of reputability are sufficient to assume room for more funding).

    Still, we recognize it as a strong possibility that there are some basic heuristics about an organization that can tell us with reasonable confidence that it will be able to demonstrate a basic validity to its claims. It’s partly in recognition of this possibility that we’re now providing a full list of charities focusing on proven cost-effective programs for donors’ consideration.

    Generally, I would say that GWWC-2010 overestimated how much information can be gained by cost-effectiveness estimates (particularly the opaque and flawed estimates provided by DCPP), and we have in the past overestimated how much information can be gained via a charity’s willingness to engage in our process. This has led to some convergence. With that said, while we are providing a list of non-vetted charities for donors’ consideration, we plan to continue reserving our recommendations for charities that participate in our process, for reasons discussed in the next section.

    Another possible lesson learned here relates to SCI’s growing interest in our recommendation after some initial money moved by Giving What We Can. We are now considering recommending some moderate-sized grants to possible future top charities, in order to create a similar effect.

    On the value of deep dives

    We’ve long recognized the possibility that our full deep-dive process is not needed in order to get the most important information about a charity. We now weigh this possibility more highly than we did previously, and we think it could even be defensible to believe that other reputable organizations can be assumed to be roughly accurate in their claims of impact (though we aren’t ready to stake our recommendations on such an assumption).

    With that said, we feel the benefits of our investigations go well beyond identifying which charities are successfully executing priority programs:

    • They help us to deepen our cost-effectiveness analysis. For example, we believe that the deworming executed by DtWI accomplishes substantially less good per dollar spent than that executing by SCI, though DtWI’s leveraging of government funds may (more than) compensate for this.
    • They help us identify strengths and weaknesses (such as those discussed in this post) that can lead donors to more informed decisions.
    • They help us understand the nature of different charities’ funding gaps, which is particularly important when moving large amounts of money.
    • Being able to write and speak thoroughly and knowledgeably about our top charities appears (intuitively, to us) to be important in mobilizing large amounts of donations.
    • Most importantly, the investigations and updates we do on top charities (both of which require full participation in our process) have led, and (we think) will continue to lead, to a great deal of learning – learning about which aspects of the deep-dive process are most useful and which are questionable, about common obstacles to scale-up and delivery, and more.

    By recommending charities based partly on their participation in our process, we’re trying to create incentives for charities to participate, and thus eventually end up in a place where we have far more access to information than otherwise – information that helps us (in ways that are hard to foresee) to maximize the impact of future giving. We believe that this setup has worked as intended so far: we believe we have far more information about all of our top charities than we ever could have obtained if we had not made our recommendations conditional on deep investigations. This is particularly true of SCI (which initially engaged very little in our process) and of DtWI (which had a leadership transition this year that may have been less likely if we had already been moving it substantial amounts of money).

    As we proceed on GiveWell Labs, we plan to recommend many grants unaccompanied by deep dives. If we came across a charity whose estimated cost-effectiveness was (verifiably, not opaquely) so relatively strong as to outweigh the above considerations, we would likely recommend – or at least highlight – it without requiring a deep investigation. (We would have to be mindful of the implications for our brand, but would likely find a way to manage this.)

    But looking at the full set of charities eligible for our recommendations by our traditional criteria today, we don’t see a compelling case along these lines, and we believe that the incentives we’re creating and the information we’re eliciting ought to be major factors in determining which charities to support.

  12. Peter, on your other question: it could take several years to arrive at concrete recommendations on the Labs side, and it could take less time than that.

    We don’t feel it would be helpful to self-impose a deadline given the size of the challenge and the size of our uncertainty at this time. We feel that that we will maximize the quality of our work if we are patient. Individual donors are free to choose not to support us if they don’t like the progress they are seeing or aren’t comfortable with such an open-ended project.

    If you’re looking for an update on where we stand currently and what we’ve been doing, I’d recommend this update as well as our recent set of posts on policy-oriented philanthropy and our list of shallow investigations.

    To clarify, while Labs is our top priority, that doesn’t mean it’s getting the majority of staff time. Because of how exploratory and speculative it is, we often have only senior people working on it.

  13. Holden, regarding

    > it could take several years to arrive at concrete recommendations on the Labs side [...] We don’t feel it would be helpful to self-impose a deadline given the size of the challenge and the size of our uncertainty at this time. We feel that that we will maximize the quality of our work if we are patient. Individual donors are free to choose not to support us if they don’t like the progress they are seeing or aren’t comfortable with such an open-ended project.

    How do you reconcile holding off on making GiveWell Labs recommendations with the arguments that you’ve made in favor of giving now rather than giving later?

  14. Jonah, we have found a few appealing giving opportunities via our work on GiveWell Labs, and Good Ventures has funded these or is considering funding them (we will be writing more about them later). Those aside, we haven’t found giving opportunities that we think are better than our current top charities, when taking into account our confidence in our understanding of the opportunities, but we expect to. My current (not necessarily stable or confident) view is that the degree of superiority to future giving opportunities will more than compensate for a few years of delay.

  15. hi. can you guys rate the parsemus foundation? they’re working on getting a world-changing male contraceptive (called vasalgel, one-time application, may work for 10+ years and can be easily reversed any time) through FDA approval, but they lack funding. (before vasalgel came on the scene, they gave their money to alzheimer’s and breast cancer research, and other alternative contraceptive options, and now they don’t have enough left for vasalgel. we (the grassroots who wholeheartedly believe in them) are trying to reach out to people, but skepticism is getting in the way. if it were recommended by you guys, that might help so much!

    looking at their 990s, the director doesn’t pay herself anything, in fact she gave a huge portion of the foundation it’s funding from her own money. i feel so bad that they’re not getting any money from big donators. :-( even worse, being underfunded means this world-changing contraceptive is being stalled when it should be fast-tracked. (a version of the same stuff had been studied in india for about 20 years. some men have had it applied for 15 years, so we know it’s effective. it’s the FDA requirements that are holding it back.) it’s so heartbreaking. please help if you can. i would be ever so grateful.

  16. I’ve never seen people complicate the act of giving as much as those middle-men who like to take a huge cut of all donations made. Stop giving and start creating an even playing field so people can have access to adequate resources instead of excluding people from economic options.

    If you want to give, give. All this intellectual masturbation around giving is a waste of time, just as ongoing studies on poverty are a waste. Common sense tells us what needs to be done — stop stacking the decks against poor people, and they will thrive on their own, not needing to rely on charitable handouts. Just do it. Stop being so damn greedy and make it possible for other people to be able to feed their families on family-supporting wages and access to equal opportunity based on people’s skills and education.

  17. @GemGirl: “Start creating an even playing field” – Ok, but exactly how? “Stop stacking the decks against poor people” – Ok, but how? “Make it possible for…” – oh boy…

    We all want want you say we should do. The question is how. GiveWell is trying to answer that question. If you already know it, please share.

  18. Roy wrote: “Start creating an even playing field” – Ok, but exactly how? “Stop stacking the decks against poor people” – Ok, but how? “Make it possible for…” – oh boy…
    We all want want you say we should do. The question is how. GiveWell is trying to answer that question. If you already know it, please share.”

    Roy, there are many legitimate and promising proposals circulating about how to help poor people improve their lives. I can’t go into details here — it would be too lengthy to write online. If you want me to correspond directly, please provide your email address and I will gladly send information to you.