The GiveWell Blog

GiveWell Labs – progress in 2013 and plans for 2014

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

This is the fourth post (of six) we’re planning to make focused on our self-evaluation and future plans.

Our 2013 plan did not lay out specific goals for GiveWell Labs, other than time allocated (“we expect to be able to raise our allocation to GiveWell Labs, to the point where our staff overall puts more total research time into GiveWell Labs than into our traditional work”). This was by design: as of the beginning of the year we had spent relatively little time on GiveWell Labs, and saw ourselves as still being in a very early exploratory phase. We will have more concrete goals for the coming year, as discussed below.

This post lays out the progress that we did make on GiveWell Labs in 2013, then gives our high-level plan and goals for 2014. Good Ventures has been a crucial partner to us on this work, and “we” refers collectively to GiveWell and Good Ventures throughout the below.

Progress in 2013
Cause selection framework. In May, we wrote at length about our decision to focus on the question, “What are the causes we should make commitments to?” where “cause” was defined as “a particular set of problems, or opportunities, such that the people and organizations working on them are likely to interact with each other, and such that evaluating many of these people and organizations requires knowledge of overlapping subjects.” We laid out a basic framework for evaluating causes, focusing on the questions: “What is the problem?”, “What are possible interventions?” and “Who else is working on it?” (We have since refined, but not fundamentally changed, these key cause-level questions.) This approach and framework were the product of our previous investigations, particularly with regard to active vs. passive funding.

Getting basic context for assessing causes within policy-oriented philanthropy and scientific research funding. These are two areas of philanthropy that are extremely important, but that we’ve previously been very poorly positioned to investigate. As such, we spent several months accumulating basic knowledge, sources and contexts for these fields, and wrote up what we had done and found in seven blog posts:

Shallow- and medium-depth investigations We have 19 shallow investigations and 2 medium-depth investigations, with several more close to publication. Most have been in the category of global catastrophic risks and US policy-relevant issues. For most of the year, our focus was on “learning how to learn,” and we picked issues to investigate partly based on how tractable they seemed to this level of investigation.

Semi-deep dives. In September, we announced plans to investigate some causes more deeply via “learning grants.” We have since done a substantial amount of work on this front, focusing on criminal justice reform and labor mobility, which we will be writing about in the future.

Cross-cutting work.

  • We have continued attempting to get basic familiarity with the work of major foundations, though we have de-emphasized the “co-funding” aspect of this (we are still interested in co-funding within specific areas of interest, but no longer see it as an important ingredient in learning about a particular foundation), and many introductory conversations have been off the record. Our most in-depth conversations over the last year have been with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (see conversations on family planning and climate change), the Pew Charitable Trusts (more forthcoming), Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (though conversations over the past year have been mostly off the record; notes from two conversations are forthcoming).
  • Ben Soskis has continued working on our history of philanthropy project, and is currently finalizing (for publication) a case study on a particular case of claimed philanthropic policy influence. We plan to continue this work, though we are de-emphasizing the related work on “philanthropy journalism” (mentioned in our last update) for the simple reason that we haven’t been able to easily find anyone with the time/inclination to produce substantial content on this front.

A note on staff time. We did not allocate a majority of staff hours to GiveWell Labs, as planned, because (a) hiring exceeded expectations; (b) our work on GiveWell Labs was too exploratory, for the most part, for major participation by more junior employees. However, the specific people we had in mind at the time of setting this goal did allocate a majority of hours to GiveWell Labs.

Plans for 2014
US policy and global catastrophic risks: making serious commitments to causes

There are two types of causes – global catastrophic risks and US policy issues – that we now feel generally familiar with (particularly with the methods of investigation). We also believe it is important for us to pick some causes for serious commitments (multiple years, substantial funding) as soon as feasible, so that we can start to get experienced with the process of building cause-specific capacity and finding substantial numbers of giving opportunities. As such, our top goal for 2014 is a stretch goal (substantial probability we will fail to hit it): making substantial commitments to causes within these two categories. We aren’t sure yet how many causes this will involve; it will depend partly on our ability to find suitable hires. We also haven’t fully formalized the notion of a “substantial commitment to cause X,” but it will likely involve having at least one staff member spending a substantial part of their time on cause X, planning to do so for multiple years, and being ready to commit $5-30 million per year in funding. Given this level of commitment, it is likely that we will not be able to commit to more than 1-3 causes for each broad category (“global catastrophic risks” and “US policy issues” are instances of “broad categories”) in the coming year.

Sub-goals of this goal are:

  • Completing enough shallow- and medium-depth investigations to feel that we’ve looked near-comprehensively at potential focus causes in these two categories, and writing up our reasons for narrowing the field to a smaller set of “contender causes.”
  • Deeply investigating “contender causes” – possibly including some amount of preliminary grantmaking – and prioritizing these “contender causes” relative to each other (and discussing our reasons for such prioritization).
  • Recruiting people to focus primarily or exclusively on finding giving opportunities within the causes we select.

We see this as an extremely challenging goal for the coming year, given our current status in these areas. There is no precision to estimating that one year is roughly sufficient, and the project of prioritizing causes in these categories could easily stretch into 2015. With that said, this prioritization is our top priority for 2014, and we think we have a chance to accomplish it. If we do so, we believe that GiveWell Labs will become a much easier product to understand, discuss and critique, and we will reach the sort of crucial juncture for GiveWell Labs that we reached for our traditional work around the end of 2009: having concrete recommendations that we can promote and defend, leading to much better engagement with and appeal to donors.

Scientific research funding and foreign aid: pacing ourselves to make serious commitments by year-end 2015

We feel that we are at an earlier stage with two other broad categories of philanthropic causes: scientific research funding and foreign aid. In the case of scientific research funding, we have determined that scientific advisors are crucial, and we have recently recruited several such advisors and started working with them on a trial basis. In the case of foreign aid, despite our history of recommending charities that aid the developing world, we have not developed a strong understanding of how to evaluate a broad cause such as “malaria control” or infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa from the perspective of flexible, large-scale philanthropy (as opposed to focusing in specifically on delivery of evidence-backed interventions).

We hope that at the beginning of 2015, we will be able to say about these two areas what we currently say about global catastrophic risks and US policy: that we have a general sense of the landscape of causes and of how to investigate and evaluate causes, and can aim to make serious commitments to causes in these categories within a year. This is also an ambitious goal, especially in light of its being a secondary priority to the above goal.

Other work

We continue to value cross-cutting work such as networking with major foundations, producing history of philanthropy case studies, and other projects that might come up. There are also some other broad categories of causes, aside from the four mentioned above, that we may investigate in an extremely preliminary way. We expect to make progress on these fronts, but prioritize such progress below the above two goals, and have no specific goals on these fronts.


  • Daniel Spohn on March 14, 2014 at 5:59 am said:

    GiveWell has always been looking for the best giving opportunities for a specific cause on a global level. When you refer to „US policies“ as a major focus area of GiveWell Labs, does this mean that for policy oriented philanthropy you would only plan to look into giving opportunities related to the US and would for now discard investigating promising opportunities outside the US?

    I would be very interested in investigations about charities focusing on fighting corruption and improving quality of governance in developing countries. Some charities in this segment had significant impact on policies with limited ressources.

  • Alexander on March 14, 2014 at 6:24 pm said:

    Daniel – thanks for the question. We’re interested in both U.S. policy issues (which is what Holden addressed above) and a variety of development issues (including governance and corruption), but we’re currently prioritizing US policy and GCRs for GiveWell Labs work in 2014. We expect GiveWell Labs to get to a similar point on development issues and scientific research in 2015.

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