The GiveWell Blog

September 2016 open thread

Our goal with hosting quarterly open threads is to give blog readers an opportunity to publicly raise comments or questions about GiveWell or related topics (in the comments section below). As always, you’re also welcome to email us at info@givewell.org or to request a call with GiveWell staff if you have feedback or questions you’d prefer to discuss privately. We’ll try to respond promptly to questions or comments.

If you have questions related to the Open Philanthropy Project, you can post those in the Open Philanthropy Project’s open thread.

You can view our June 2016 open thread here.

Comments

  • Catherine on September 20, 2016 at 3:24 pm said:

    Please post your questions here!

  • Would you still recommend giving to AMF now as opposed to later in 2016 (say, at the end of the year, as I usually do)? There was a post in June that said it could be more valuable to donate to AMF “in the next couple of months” than in late 2016, so I was wondering whether that window has passed or it would still be better to give a bit earlier.

  • I love effective altruism. It makes a lot of sense. I find it difficult to apply the principles, though, when it comes to humanitarian crises. This is in some ways understandable, with crisis aid often being used poorly.

    I feel I’m not alone in my difficulty applying effective altruism principles to emergency crises. The apprent silence of effective altruism groups when there is an emergency crisis seems to me to speak volumes about an incompatibility of the principles and emergency aid. Additionally, the absence of an “emergency aid” organisation in effective altruism organisations’ top charity recommendations seems to say the same (The Life We Can Save comes the closest with Oxfam).

    My first questions would be, is this a fair assessment/feeling? Are the principles of effective altruism incompatible with emergency aid?

    I believe in some circumstances something must be done, regardless of if it is the most effective thing to be doing. If the principles are at all a little transferrable (perhaps when considering what is the most effective thing we can do in a given situation), how do we know what is the most effective thing we could be doing *in that emergency situation*.

    Finally, in regard to a current emergency crisis, if the principles of effective altruism can be applied even in a limited way, what might you recommend is the most effective way to help in the current migrant crisis?

    Hope those questions are suitable for here. Thanks for your time and help! Keep up the good work!

  • Something I’ve wondered for a while is why GiveWell hasn’t yet convinced a billionaire or government to fully fund all its top charities. After all, the combined room they do have for more funding is pretty minuscule in global terms. It’s only a small fraction of just the UK foreign aid budget alone, for example.

  • Catherine (GiveWell) on September 22, 2016 at 5:21 pm said:

    Hi Leslie—

    We continue to believe that AMF is funding-constrained in the short term (see the mid-year charity review blog post for more details: http://blog.givewell.org/2016/06/23/top-charities-refresh/). All else equal, our guess is that giving sooner is better for AMF than giving later, such that AMF doesn’t need to move more slowly to finalize distributions in the absence of more short-term funding.

    That being said, there are a few considerations to keep in mind:

    (1) We’re planning to update our charity recommendations in November, and our view might change then.
    (2) Our assessment of the global need for bed nets (the bed net gap) is heavily dependent on country government commitments to the Global Fund; these were made at a conference held last week (http://www.theglobalfund.org/en/montreal2016/), and so we expect to have a better estimate of the allocation to bed nets within a month.

    In addition, this week, we published an update on AMF’s transparency and monitoring, in which we discussed the concerns we raised in our mid-year update (http://blog.givewell.org/2016/09/21/updates-amfs-transparency-monitoring/). Even with these concerns—which are a moderate update to our confidence (slightly lowering it), but which we don’t believe outweigh AMF’s strengths as an organization—AMF continues to be our number-one recommendation to donors.

  • Catherine (GiveWell) on September 22, 2016 at 5:28 pm said:

    Hi Luke—

    There’s nothing about emergency aid, specifically, that’s inconsistent with the principles of effective altruism. The question we ask with respect to emergency aid (and any potential funding area) is whether it is as effective in terms of impact per dollar as a donation to one of our top charities.

    We also think there’s a counterintuitive framing here; many people die every day from easily preventable causes in low-income countries and don’t receive any media attention. We would consider this to be an emergency situation.

    That said, we’ve written some about disaster relief in the past, although it’s not a major focus area of ours: http://blog.givewell.org/2013/11/12/6-tips-on-disaster-relief-giving/. Based on our past research into this area, we have a few reasons to guess that disaster relief in general may present a less pressing funding need relative to GiveWell’s top charities.

    We’ve seen that funding isn’t always the bottleneck to action in a disaster-relief scenario. Sometimes, logistical challenges on the ground can be a bigger barrier to relief than a lack of funding (items #2 and #3 in the blog post linked above discuss this). Disasters that receive a lot of media attention may be less likely to need funding than less-publicized daily suffering.

    We do suggest that donors interested in supporting disaster relief look for organizations that are transparent about their funding needs and that work on important issues all over the world, such that they can spend the funding raised during a disaster wherever that funding is most needed. We have recommended (with lower confidence than our top-charity recommendations) that donors interested in helping with the Syrian refugee crisis support Doctors Without Borders: http://blog.givewell.org/2015/09/17/donating-to-help-with-the-syrian-refugee-crisis/, due to its above-average transparency and cross-border operations.

  • Catherine (GiveWell) on September 22, 2016 at 8:17 pm said:

    Hi Stephen—

    We think there are separate considerations to take into account when thinking about high net worth individuals and governments who might follow GiveWell’s recommendations.

    High net worth individuals may be considering a variety of other giving opportunities that may be competitive with top charities, but harder to make the case for publicly. We discuss this in the Open Philanthropy Project’s blog post on “hits-based giving”: http://www.openphilanthropy.org/blog/hits-based-giving. The Open Philanthropy Project is a partnership between GiveWell and Good Ventures, a large foundation with which we work closely.

    We annually recommend that Good Ventures make grants in support of GiveWell’s top charities. Although Good Ventures has the capacity to fill the funding gaps of our top charities, our expectation is that this would be sub-optimal in the long run because it would incentivize other donors to avoid the causes we think are most important. An in-depth discussion of our thinking on this, as well as our 2015 recommendation, is here: http://blog.givewell.org/2015/11/25/good-ventures-and-giving-now-vs-later#Coordination.

    Our understanding is that governments set priorities based on many considerations, including political ones. We don’t specialize in reaching government audiences, so we’re unsure which factors are most important to them.

  • Thanks for the reply.

  • Hi, I’ve been a programmer for 10 years and I’m considering changing jobs (or even careers) to maximize net positive impact. I’ve been consuming EA resources for months. I’m curious if you have any intuitions or data on causes that you would like to see EA organizations created for?

  • Catherine (GiveWell) on October 6, 2016 at 12:45 pm said:

    Hi Kevin—

    We published a blog post last year about effective charities we’d like to see created: http://blog.givewell.org/2015/10/15/charities-wed-like-to-see/. Hopefully this helps with your plans!

  • Peter Hurford on October 6, 2016 at 2:57 pm said:

    What is GiveWell’s process for which charities become a standout charity? Why was promoting New Incentives to standout status instead of top charity status not a considered option?

  • Colin Rust on October 6, 2016 at 8:49 pm said:

    A little thing.

    I like the new, cleaner look for the website generally. But I’m not sure it’s an improvement for the blog. In particular, I feel that it might be nice to see more recent comments (currently 3; unless you’re a very frequent visitor you’ll miss some) and perhaps more recent blog posts. IIRC, before the website refresh, the recent comments were to the left of the blog (and the other info to the right). That’s a more cluttered look, but I think maybe that’s OK on the blog.

  • Catherine on October 7, 2016 at 5:22 pm said:

    Hi Colin—

    Thanks for the feedback; it’s helpful to keep in mind as we think about improvements going forward. Appreciate you raising this!

  • Catherine on October 7, 2016 at 6:46 pm said:

    Hi Peter—

    We think about which charities will be designated as standouts during our twice-yearly refreshes of our top charities lists. We will be thinking about how to classify New Incentives when we next update our top charities list, which we plan to do in November.

    Our thinking on what constitutes a ‘standout’ charity continues to evolve. A few years ago, we used ‘standout’ to designate charities that we considered potential future top charities; in 2015, the ‘standout’ category was used for organizations that we thought were excellent, but fell short of the bar for evidence that our top charities have. It’s possible that this year, we may classify charities in another way, and New Incentives’ designation will depend on that choice. Stay tuned!

  • Stephen on October 12, 2016 at 4:43 pm said:

    Thanks for replying Catherine.

    While I realise that there are less well known causes that particular donors may want to fund, my thoughts were more on the lines of a typical wealthy benefactor. There are many thousands of people whose net worth is at least in the tens of millions of dollars. My intuitive guess is that most of them are giving comparatively little, and to relatively ineffective causes on the whole (art galleries, university endowments and so on). I realise that the very rich don’t typically wander about handing out huge checks on a whim, but at the same time, it would take just one person to fully fund all Givewell’s top and outstanding charities. That’s made me wonder why no one yet has, even if it could be considered sub-optimal for them.

    I can see why co-ordination is an on-going issue, particularly with the Good Ventures fund. Personally I don’t feel critical of the choice to leave top charities with funding gaps; the reasons to do so seem sensible. At the same time, it takes some of the oomph out of the drive to give to top charities: they may be underfunded but the reason they’re underfunded has nothing to do with a lack of available resources. And despite the in-depth discussion in the blog post on co-ordination, it’s difficult to believe that the amount of Good Ventures funds allocated to top charities really is completely independent of small donor contributions.

    Out of interest, is there a reason Good Ventures isn’t accepting donations to help it (eventually) support more causes? I also wonder what reasons would be given for an individual donor not to take the same line as Good Ventures, and deliberately leave Givewell’s charities underfunded so they can act as advertising to attract more donors? (For clarity this is not my view.)

    I appreciate governments have political incentives when it comes to spending; the same is true of most individual donors (including the very wealthy). Do you think it could be a good use of time to investigate governments as a potential source of more funding (e.g. by contacting local politicians )?

  • Catherine on October 19, 2016 at 7:34 pm said:

    Hi Stephen—

    One of the reasons we think it may be sub-optimal for a large donor like Good Ventures to fully fill top charities’ funding gaps is the other potential opportunities they may be positioned to support (as discussed in the previous comment). The other—which would be relevant in the scenario you laid out, with another large donor filling the top charities’ funding gaps—is the potential downside for the charity whose gap is fully filled. In the short run, the lack of room for more funding may dissuade individual donors from giving, which could (if we expect our top charities to continue growing in their base of support) result in lower levels of long-term support for the charity.

    You’re correct that the same rationale would apply for an individual donor to leave GiveWell’s charities underfunded as would apply to Good Ventures to do the same: Encouraging others to give and building a long-term, larger base of support. This has to be balanced against the interest in fully funding our top charities; if everyone left the funding gaps underfunded, that would also be sub-optimal in the short run. We think it’s easier to weigh these incentives when making recommendations to a single large donor than a large group of individual donors, but agree that the rationale would be the same.

    Your question may be more centered on why a major donor hasn’t simply filled the top charity gaps, rather than why it may be sub-optimal. We have seen a number of donors with substantial net worth, in the range you describe, support our top charities. However, in order for a single donor to close all of the funding gaps, that donor would likely need the ability to give away hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

    In our experience, the largest donors have tended to find GiveWell via a shared worldview on giving (interested in cost-effective, evidence-backed interventions) that brings them to our research. We’re unsure how successful outreach to convince large donors who have very different areas of interest (such as art funding) would be. Similarly, we’re unsure how likely it is that governments would be interested in supporting GiveWell’s top charities. We would guess that due to governments’ other political considerations, this would be a challenging path for filling GiveWell’s top-charity funding gaps relative to outreach to interested individuals. For most of GiveWell’s history, we’ve focused on developing our research product rather than on conducting outreach; we plan to do more of the latter going forward, and may develop stronger intuitions on the value of pursuing these paths by doing so.

    On giving to Good Ventures directly: It is likely that Good Ventures and/or the Open Philanthropy Project will later set up a system that would allow individuals to donate. We have not yet seen enough interest in doing so to urgently prioritize this.

  • Stephen on November 2, 2016 at 3:36 pm said:

    Thanks for answering again, Catherine. I’ll research this some more and maybe ask some more questions later.

  • I noticed that there aren’t any mistakes from 2015 or 2016 on the Mistakes page (apart from the “Ongoing: Diversity” issue).

    Any plans to add mistakes from 2015 and 2016?

  • Catherine (GiveWell) on November 7, 2016 at 9:28 pm said:

    Hi Milan—We updated the types of mistakes we planned to feature on the page in 2015, noting that we planned from August 2015 on to “[focus] on issues that could affect the impression that people external to the organization have of our work and its reliability,” rather than “missteps whose main cost was to our productivity or our growth.” We do plan to continue updating the mistakes page when appropriate going forward.

  • Catherine (GiveWell) on November 18, 2016 at 2:57 pm said:

    Hi Colin—We’ve updated our blog layout so that more recent comments and posts are visible. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Colin Rust on November 29, 2016 at 11:10 am said:

    Thanks Catherine!

  • Colin Rust on December 4, 2016 at 3:46 pm said:

    It would be nice to include a preview option for blog comments. (He writes, having just messed up someone’s name in a blog comment and immediately noticing it upon posting. 🙂 )

  • Catherine (GiveWell) on December 16, 2016 at 1:56 pm said:

    Hi Colin—

    Thanks for the suggestion! We’re looking into making this happen. Stay tuned!

Comments are closed.