The GiveWell Blog

Mid-year update on GiveWell’s progress

This post will provide a brief overview of GiveWell’s progress in a number of areas so far this year. In summary,

  1. Research: We are making progress on reaching charities that might be a good fit for a GiveWell recommendation and asking them to apply. We are also moving forward with GiveWell’s intervention prioritization goals.
  2. Operations: The separation of GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project was a major organizational priority in the first half of the year and was finalized on June 1. We’ve also increased the specialization on the operations team and outsourced some of GiveWell’s operations work.
  3. Outreach: Outreach is now a major organizational priority. We hope to develop a strategy for significantly increasing money moved to our recommended charities by September.

We hope you will let us know if you have any questions about our work this year in the comments.

Research

Our work on research now falls into two primary categories: Traditional top charities work, consisting of research into promising programs and evaluations of charities implementing them as potential GiveWell top charities, and GiveWell Incubation Grants, our work to grow the pipeline of potential top charities and improve our understanding of our current recommended charities.

Top charities

  • Encouraging charities to apply for a GiveWell recommendation. In recent years, we were surprised by how few charities reached out to GiveWell to apply for a recommendation. We guessed that some part of this may be driven by (a) a lack of understanding of GiveWell’s research priorities and which organizations we might be interested in recommending, and (b) a lack of understanding or misconceptions about GiveWell’s charity review process or the value added of a GiveWell recommendation in increasing a charity’s funding.

    We took two steps to address this problem in 2017. First, GiveWell Research Analyst Chelsea Tabart is now serving as GiveWell’s “charity liaison.” In this role, Chelsea connects with groups that may be a good fit for a GiveWell recommendation to learn more about their work and to encourage them to apply if a fit seems promising, and to explain GiveWell’s review process and value added. Second, we published a blog post on why we think more charities should consider applying for a GiveWell recommendation. We are now considering a number of charities as potential top-charity contenders and attribute this in part to taking the steps described above.

  • Intervention prioritization. A major goal this year is to assess a large number of interventions as potential GiveWell priority programs. This “intervention prioritization” work involves surveying the literature for a variety of interventions to identify the most cost-effective and evidence-backed programs.

    We have made good progress on intervention research in 2017. (We plan to write about our progress in more detail in a future post.) We completed 50 quick evidence assessments in the first half of the year and published interim intervention reports on:

    We also published an intervention report on surgery to repair obstetric fistula.

GiveWell Incubation Grants

We continue to expand our work on GiveWell’s Incubation Grants program:

Recruiting

We hired Caitlin McGugan as a Senior Fellow and James Snowden started working with us as a research consultant. We hope they will increase GiveWell’s output of intervention reports. We also have one summer research analyst, Scott Weathers, working with us.

Operations

The separation of GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project was a major priority for GiveWell’s operations team in the first half of 2017. The separation was finalized on June 1.

The operations team continues to increase in specialization (historically, GiveWell operations work has been done by generalists on staff). We hired Maryana Pinchuk to serve as a Donations Manager and Erin Wolff as a Donations Relations Assistant; a search for a Controller to manage our finance and accounting is underway. We have also started to work with new vendors to outsource some operations work, which we hope will increase our available staff capacity and improve the quality of our operations.

Outreach

Outreach is now a major organizational priority for GiveWell. In the past, we focused very little on efforts to reach new potential donors with GiveWell’s work. Now, we think outreach is more of a limiting factor than research—the high-value funding gaps we’ve identified exceed the amount of donations we expect to direct to those gaps.

We have developed a list of ideas for how to significantly increase the money GiveWell directs to our recommended charities, and are planning to work on the most promising ideas over the next few months. For example, we think there may be relatively low-intensity steps to take in areas like podcast advertising; in February, we advertised on a small number of podcasts and plan to do so again based on the cost of running advertisements and the additional donations to top charities we tracked as a direct result of those ads.

We are also trying to hire another Research Analyst, Outreach Focus to expand our capacity to communicate with donors and other individuals who rely on GiveWell’s research.

Comments

  • Chris on July 15, 2017 at 3:26 pm said:

    Keep up the great work! Will be interested to hear what outreach methods you go with, and overall just excited to hear that more organizations are applying to be a top charity!

  • Austen Forrester on July 23, 2017 at 1:45 am said:

    Regarding distributing eyeglasses, why did you disregard the University of Michigan study which concluded that glasses increase income by one fifth? Did you factor in the employment created for the extreme poor by selling/distributing the eyeglasses, or only consider the economic impact of the users? It may not even be necessary to find studies that LMIC eyeglass distribution increases economic activity. We know glasses fix impaired vision, so you could look at studies on the economic detriment of impaired vision in LMIC and base the economic impact of distributing glasses on that.

    Also, do you consider increased income/economic activity the only benefit eyeglasses can bring? Sight correction improves someone’s quality of life. GBD says severe vision impairment has a 0.19 DALY, with moderate at 0.03. For VisionSpring’s glasses that last for 2 years and use $5 of donations per pair, that is $13 and $83 per QALY, respectively. Is that not competitive with your recommended charities?

    Have you factored in the sustainability of creating bottom of pyramid eyeglasses markets? Eyeglasses can be sold profitably in cities of even the poorest countries. They require subsidies for more rural areas because of the lack of distribution networks, however, once these networks are developed, like they are for Coca-Cola, glasses can be sold profitably. This space, therefore, requires only a finite amount of philanthropic capital to become self-sustaining. The required subsidies in a given location will gradually decrease to zero.

  • James (GiveWell) on July 26, 2017 at 9:45 am said:

    Hi Austen,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    We have seen the claim that a University of Michigan impact assessment of VisionSpring found that eyeglasses increased income by 20%. For our interim intervention reports, we rely on high quality evidence, usually randomized controlled trials (RCTs). We’ve written about our reasons for this approach here. We didn’t prioritize obtaining a version of the study (which doesn’t appear to have been published) because it is not an RCT, and we believe it is unlikely to constitute sufficiently strong evidence for us to prioritize further research.

    We agree that there would be some direct impact of sight correction on quality of life. But we don’t currently have a good sense of the degree to which the average recipient of eyeglasses would be classified as having ‘severe’ or ‘moderate’ visual impairment (as opposed to ‘mild’ visual impairment). We would also guess that a number of other factors (e.g. cost to beneficiaries, a proportion of the distributed eyeglasses not being corrective eyeglasses) may contribute to less favorable cost-effectiveness estimates (although we don’t have a good sense of how much less favorable).

    As this review was limited to the direct evidence for the benefits of distributing eyeglasses, we don’t have a strong view on how to assess the potential benefits of creating sustainable markets for eyeglasses, or whether this is a reasonable expectation.

    We’ve flagged these as relevant questions if we prioritize a deeper assessment of distribution of eyeglasses in the future.

  • Austen Forrester on July 26, 2017 at 5:00 pm said:

    Hi James. Congratulations on your new job.

    It is necessary to know that distribution of visual impairment acuity to people who buy corrective glasses in LMIC to perform a cost effective analysis, you’re right. In https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O1VBLOfeQY Kassalow states that most people use the glasses they buy for the rest of their lives, not just two years, so that would yield radically different QALY costs then I mentioned.

    Depressingly, however, he also stated in that video that it would take $26 billion to correct the eyeglass problem globally, for good. I was thinking it would be like only a billion, but I’m sure the first few hundred million would give the highest ROI.

    Since GiveWell places so much importance on RCTs, I was wondering if it might consider recommending funding to perform RCTs for interventions that it suspects are high impact but for which you don’t feel there is enough evidence yet? Not necessarily for vision correction, but anything. It seems to me that GiveWell/Open Phil are growing and becoming more sophisticated, so it seems like recommending research funding would be a logical next step. I guess it would have to be for foundations, though, because the public doesn’t usually fund that kind of thing. Or GiveWell could act as a consultant to potential funders of development RCTs, like Wellcome Trust. Has Open Phil considered funding RCTs themselves?

  • James (GiveWell) on July 27, 2017 at 10:48 am said:

    Thanks Austen,

    We do recommend funding to gather additional evidence when we believe an organization is particularly promising.

    Our GiveWell Incubation Grants are intended to support the development of future top charities, including running RCTs.

    We recently wrote about our partnership with IDinsight to improve the monitoring and evaluation of potential top charities. Other examples of incubation grants we’ve recommended are to J-PAL and IRD to support RCTs on incentives for immunization, and to Zusha!, for its work on road safety.

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