GiveWell summer fellowship

We’re planning to host a one week fellowship this summer at our office in San Francisco for students more than a year away from graduation (e.g., first years or sophomores in college), who would be ineligible for our Summer Research Analyst position.

We expect to have 4-8 fellows, who will spend a week doing standard GiveWell work, getting to know staff, and getting a feel for GiveWell and Open Philanthropy research.

For more, see our page with details and application instructions.

History of philanthropy case study: Pew and drug safety legislation

Tamara Mann Tweel, who has been working for us on our history of philanthropy project, has completed a case study of a Pew Charitable Trusts (“Pew”) program focused on drug supply chain safety legislation in 2012.

The report concludes:

Pew put drug supply chain safety concerns on the legislative agenda in 2011 and actively built the coalition that ensured its passage in 2012. The team also assisted with and vetted the language of the 2012 bill and made sure that weak policy proposals did not supplant strong ones. Pew accomplished these goals largely by capitalizing on their expertise and by deploying the multi-pronged strategy [explained in this report]. Pew did not act alone. It had the assistance of strong industry partners, FDA officials, and key congressmen and senators… [Pew] became the single most important non-government and non-industry player in the field. They brought the stakeholders together, gave them the necessary information to pursue the topic, and demonstrated the viability of actual policy.

The full case study is available here.

Our impression is that Pew has had fairly concrete impact on policy in a variety of areas (note that we’ve separately investigated its work on public safety performance, in the context of a $3 million grant we made to Pew). While its model is not the only or necessarily best one for policy-oriented philanthropy, we believe it is one example of a generally well-executed and impactful model, and that Pew is a group we can learn from. We chose to do a case study on its work in order to examine our beliefs on this point, and we believe that the case study has generally been consistent with our views on Pew’s work.

Read the full case study here

Funder-initiated startups

We’ve come across many cases where a funder took a leading role in creating a now-major nonprofit. This has been surprising to us: it intuitively seems that the people best suited to initiate new organizations are the people who can work full-time on conceiving an organization, fundraising for it, and doing the legwork to create it. Most successful companies seem to have been created by entrepreneurs rather than investors, and the idea that a philanthropist can “create” a successful organization (largely through concept development, recruiting and funding, without full-time operational involvement) seems strange. Yet we’ve seen many strong examples:

This is not anything approaching a comprehensive list. It’s a set of organizations we’ve come across in our work, many of which we perceive as prominent and important. I would struggle to think of many analogous cases of for-profit companies for which the original concept, recruitment, etc. came from investors rather than full-time founding employees.

Assuming this difference is real, what might explain it? While I’m not sure, I’ll list a few speculative possibilities:

  • A nonprofit startup must raise funds from a relatively thin and fragmented market. Investors ultimately all want the same thing (returns); philanthropists want very different things, and a nonprofit won’t be able to get off the ground if it can’t find a match. One symptom of “philanthropists want different things” is that nonprofit proposals are generally highly tailored to the values of funders. Thus, people with ideas may choose not to write up and shop proposals until they’ve identified a highly interested funder.
  • A nonprofit startup also doesn’t have an analogous option to bootstrapping to prove its value and raise its negotiating power. It can hope eventually to reach the point where its donor base is highly diversified, but early on nonprofits will very often live or die by major funders’ preferences.
  • Starting a new company is generally associated with high (financial) risk and high potential reward. But without a solid source of funding, starting a nonprofit means taking high financial risk without high potential reward. Furthermore, some nonprofits (like some for-profits) are best suited to be started by people relatively late in their careers; the difference is that late-career people in the for-profit sector seem more likely to have built up significant savings that they can use as a cushion. This is another reason that funder interest can be the key factor in what nonprofits get started.
  • The dynamics of competition may be different. If someone sees a for-profit with a good concept and poor execution, s/he might start a competitor. Someone who sees a nonprofit with a good concept and poor execution (and a solid funding situation) might be more likely to try to improve the nonprofit, e.g. by working for it. If true, this might make funder-initiated organizations – which, it seems, would be hard to find the right leadership match for – more viable on the nonprofit side than the for-profit side.

Our tentative view is that funders should think of “creating an organization” as a viable possibility, though as something of a last resort, since it is likely to be a much more intensive project than supporting an existing organization.

Our updated agenda for science philanthropy

We’re hoping to set the Open Philanthropy Project’s initial priorities within scientific research this year. That means being in a place roughly comparable to where we currently are on U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks: having a ranked list of focus areas and goals for hiring and grantmaking.

The process is going to have to look very different. For both U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks, we were able to do a relatively large number of “shallow investigations,” in which we quickly got a sense for the importance, tractability, and crowdedness of a cause. By contrast, it seems to us that investigating even a single cause within scientific research – to the level of understanding we achieved with shallow investigations in other areas – is a major project.

Our neglected goal investigations have been proceeding slowly. We’ve been working with scientific advisors who have limited time available, and it’s taken them significant effort to (a) get up to speed on a given area of research (e.g., R&D targeting tuberculosis control); (b) have initial conversations about the most promising paths within the area; (c) begin thinking about how to assess which of these directions seem most promising. One of our major bottlenecks is scientific advisory capacity, and that’s something we hope to change. But even if we did, we wouldn’t anticipate being able to do a large number of shallow investigations of science causes. Meanwhile, investigating other possible approaches to science – such as breakthrough fundamental science or translational science – seems likely to be even more challenging than investigating neglected goals.

Our working plan for the moment aims to set priorities mostly via very high-level, comparative investigations. Our specific goals are as follows:

1. Create a prioritized list of neglected goals via conversations with unusually broad scientists as well as people in the effective altruist community. I have a draft list currently, based on suggestions I’ve picked up over the years. After getting input from 10-15 people – with a mix of junior and senior, science-focused and effective-altruism-focused – I expect to have a reasonable (though far from complete) sense for what is most worth prioritizing. As an aside, I wouldn’t expect this approach to work very well for U.S. policy, where it’s hard to find people who have a good sense both for politics and for our values. But for identifying neglected goals, I believe I can identify people who combine these qualities.

This investigation will not be specific to life sciences. I hope to speak with people who have broad interests and expertise and can identify potential technologies that would be worth more effort to develop than is currently being put in.

We will do as many cause-specific investigations as we can, prioritizing those that rank at the top of our list, in order to further inform our priorities.

For highly prioritized neglected goals, we may (after this year) move toward forming grant advisory committees and providing direct funding of relevant research, or we may think about other ways to raise the profile of the goals in question. My impression is that providing funding for a thin field can create something of a self-reinforcing dynamic, since research often raises new interesting questions and makes it easier and more desirable for other researchers to work on similar issues; I hope to investigate this impression further (more below).

2. Get a sense for potential systemic issues in fields other than life sciences. While “neglected goals” refers to cases where there isn’t enough investment in a particular social problem, “systemic issues” refers to cases where the system for supporting scientific research seems to be falling short on its own terms. I’ve written at length about two potential examples in life sciences: Translational science and the valley of death, Breakthrough fundamental science. (Some other systemic issues are discussed in Science policy and infrastructure as well as previous posts on reproducibility-related issues and open science.)

If we decided to prioritize addressing systemic issues in a particular field, we’re not sure exactly how we’d do it. We might focus on supporting work that directly proposes, and advocates for, improvements to the system rather than on directly funding research that is undervalued due to systemic issues. But both would be strong possibilities.

My understanding of systemic issues in life sciences is high-level and quite limited, but it is sufficient to have a basic sense for the size and shape of potential improvements, and I feel that I hit diminishing returns on understanding these issues after a relatively contained number of conversations. In addition, I felt that the opinions of junior scientists I spoke to early in the process were fairly predictive of what I heard from more prominent scientists later in the process.

We’ve set a goal of coming to a similar level of understanding of systemic issues in fields other than life sciences. Doing so will be a highly informal process, following referrals from contacts I believe understand both science and our values well.

3. Build scientific advisory capacity. We’ve found strong scientific advisors, but their time availability is limited. We’re hoping to find people who can work for us on closer to a full-time basis (ideally full-time). In the short run, such people would help us investigate potential neglected goals. In the long run, they might help us build further capacity after we set our priorities – finding the appropriate hires, constructing the relevant advisory boards, and otherwise finding the best contacts for executing on the science-related objectives we choose.

At this time, we believe our ideal candidate would: (a) have a strong background in life sciences or another scientific area of interest; (b) be available for full-time work; (c) be a generalist, willing and able to put significant effort into networking and recruiting as well as investigation. We are currently informally seeking such people, and may soon develop a job posting and a more formal process.

4. Other projects. We hope to complete a few other cross-cutting projects this year:

  • Investigating the question of “differential technological development”: the question of whether it’s desirable to develop some scientific and technological innovations sooner than others, in light of the fact that many of the most dangerous global catastrophic risks seem to hinge on the develop of new technologies (and may be mitigated by the development of other technologies).
  • Compiling a rough list of major historical breakthroughs in life sciences. We would then investigate the origins of some such breakthroughs, trying to get more basic context on the roles of different kinds of research – and different kinds of funding – in past breakthroughs.
  • Investigating historical cases where a funder took up a “neglected goal” that was getting little attention, and tried to bring it more attention from scientists. This would inform our likely paths forward on top-priority neglected goals.

Giving to support the relief effort for the Nepal earthquake

GiveWell aims to find giving opportunities that allow donors to do as much good as possible with their donations, and our research efforts focus on that goal.

We have not researched giving opportunities related to the relief effort for the Nepal earthquake, specifically. Below, we share our 6 tips on disaster relief giving, a post we first made in November 2013.

6 tips on disaster relief giving

Our general advice on disaster relief giving:

1. Give cash, not clothes (or other goods). Giving away unwanted items makes donors feel good, and relief agencies can be under substantial pressure to accept their gifts-in-kind. But shipping and sorting these gifts can be a substantial expense and hassle, and such gifts can literally get in the way. If you have items you don’t want, consider selling them and donating the proceeds. Gifts-in-kind burden relief organizations with figuring out how to use what they have; cash allows them to quickly get what they need. More

2. Support an organization that will help or get out of the way. Logistics can be a major challenge in disaster situations. For example, when we followed up on the Haiti earthquake relief effort a year after the incident, we found that much of the disaster relief money had still not been spent, and that ~80%+ of the rubble had still not been cleared. A highly professional, experienced organization with a pre-existing presence in the affected country will likely help where it can, and stay out of the way where it can’t. But a less professional organization could easily detract from the relief effort.

3. Give proactively, not reactively. Don’t give to a charity just because it calls you on the phone, advertises on your Google search or otherwise connects with you first. That rewards the most aggressive organizations instead of the most competent and responsible ones. Instead, give not just money but thoughtfulness – take the time to find the best giving option you can.

4. Allow your funds to be used where most needed – even if that means they’re not used during this disaster. Disasters attract a great deal of media attention and money, yet in many cases the biggest challenge is logistics. The result can be that money isn’t the limiting factor in the immediate relief effort. We found evidence of this both for the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2011 Japan tsunami.

That doesn’t mean money isn’t needed. The rebuilding effort can be very expensive. Beyond that, there are many disasters – and cases of everyday suffering – that aid organizations struggle to address, without being able to raise nearly as much funding for them as they can for a media-dominating disaster. It’s common for charities to use a disaster as an opportunity to raise funds for their other work.

We recommend giving to an organization that does outstanding work around the world (not just in the affected area), with no strings attached.

5. Give to organizations that are transparent and accountable. In general, we’ve found that relief organizations disclose very little about what activities they undertake and how they spend relief funds (more at our reports on the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2011 Japan tsunami). In general, when a disaster strikes, the first organizations we turn to are:

  • Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has distinguished itself with well-above-average transparency in both of the cases listed above. In the case of the 2011 Japan tsunami, it straightforwardly disclosed that it was not seeking more funding for use in the relief effort, and was one of the only organizations to do so. We believe it’s worth rewarding MSF for its unusual transparency, and if it doesn’t use your money on this disaster, it will likely use it to address a less-publicized crisis.
  • The local Red Cross. The Red Cross generally takes a leading role in a relief effort and (it seems to us) is assigned credit/blame for how the overall effort goes, to a greater degree than other nonprofits. The American Red Cross will often redirect donations to the local Red Cross, minus a sometimes-substantial fee.

We wrote more about these two options when we made recommendations about how to respond to the 2011 Japan earthquake/tsunami.

6. Think about less-publicized suffering. Every day, people die from preventable and curable diseases, in many cases because they lack access to proven life-savers such as insecticide-treated nets. Their day-to-day suffering isn’t well-suited to making headlines, and they generally don’t attract the attention and dollars that disaster relief victims do – yet we believe that donations targeting these populations do more good than disaster relief donations.

If a recent disaster has given you a strengthened desire to reduce suffering and help others, consider asking whether you might be able to broaden this desire and make it part of your everyday life. Consider joining the community of effective altruists seeking to make their hours and their dollars go as far as possible toward making the world a better place. GiveWell’s role in that community is to put thousands of hours of research into identifying the best giving opportunities possible – not the ones that make the news, but the ones that will make your dollars go the farthest.

For more advice, see:

Co-funding Partnership with Kaitlyn Trigger and Mike Krieger

We are excited to announce a new co-funding partnership with Kaitlyn Trigger and her fiancé Mike Krieger (co-founder of Instagram). They have committed to learning with us and supporting the Open Philanthropy Project’s work over the next two years. It’s an opportunity for us to experiment with a new type of partnership and a lower-volume, higher-intensity way of communicating about our work.

Kaitlyn and Mike have made a financial commitment of $750,000 over the next two years. 10% will go to GiveWell to support operations related to the Open Philanthropy Project. 90% will be allocated to grants identified and recommended through the Open Philanthropy Project process. We expect that the funds will be allocated evenly to all grants, rather than selectively allocated on the basis of individual grants.

We have reserved a desk in the office for Kaitlyn, and she expects to spend around two days a week there. While she also will work on her own projects, she will join team meetings (both regular and impromptu) that are of interest to her, be included in internal correspondence around our process, and do some work (the nature of which we haven’t yet settled on) to help move the project forward. Our goal is to give her an inside look at the Open Philanthropy Project process and generally be a resource to her in learning about how to give as effectively as possible.

To date, we haven’t actively sought partnerships along these lines. Kaitlyn and Mike suggested it, and we thought this would be an excellent opportunity to experiment with a new partnership. We don’t yet know what the long-term model for partnerships looks like. We have limited capacity for such partnerships, so if demand were high, we could imagine needing a process for selecting the most promising ones (promising in terms of furthering our mission by significantly improving the effectiveness of people giving significant amounts) and/or rotating partners over time.

We do think that such partnerships could turn out to be a major long-term part of what the Open Philanthropy Project has to offer. We believe the Open Philanthropy Project process and recommendations are significantly harder to absorb the thinking behind than our top charities process and recommendations, so a low-volume, high-intensity service like this could be very helpful. Partnerships like this one could give us a chance to develop strong relationships with major funders and help them truly follow and engage with our work – as well as spread the word about it effectively – and thus could account for a good deal of our influence. We generally try to communicate openly about our work in a variety of different ways, and this sort of partnership could be an important complement to those.

But for now, we’re just looking forward to getting to know Kaitlyn and Mike better, being a resource to them, and experimenting with what a co-funding partnership looks like. We’ve really enjoyed working with them so far.