Assorted reminders

A few reminders for GiveWell fans and followers:

  • Please let us know if you’ve donated based on our research. We track our impact on donations. If you’ve given directly to one of our top charities (i.e., via their website or via a check sent directly to them) as a result of our recommendation, please let us know so we can include you in our figures.
  • We post summaries from conversations we have as part of our research. Conversations with subject matter experts, staff at potential top charities, and funders are a major part of what we do. We have a process for publishing summaries of all conversations we have (when we have permission to do so). All of our past conversations are on our conversations page. We post each new conversation to our newly published materials list, which you can follow via email, RSS, or online. Examples of recent conversations include speaking with Paul Niehaus, Director at GiveDirectly on challenges GiveDirectly may face as it scales up; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s malaria team on their strategy and timeline for malaria eradication; and Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute on philanthropic opportunities in macroeconomic policy.
  • There are various ways to stay updated on our work:
    • We send out monthly email updates with highlights of our recent work. You can sign up to receive these here.
    • We update this blog ~weekly, and you can follow it via RSS or email.
    • You can also follow our newly published materials list via email, RSS or Twitter.
    • For those who prefer it, you can follow us on Twitter or Facebook.
    • Details on all of these options are available on our stay updated page.
    • We hold periodic, in-person research discussions in our office in San Francisco and in New York City. Please let us know if you live nearby and would be interested in attending one of these events; space is limited but we will try to accommodate you if we can. Transcripts and recordings from previous events are available on our website.
  • We are happy to respond to questions from donors, so please don’t hesitate to contact us with questions. We often communicate directly with potential donors — via phone, email or in person — to discuss questions they have about our work.
  • If there’s anything we could do to serve you better, please let us know. We value feedback from our audience.

General plans for GiveWell as an organization in 2014

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

Previous posts have discussed our 2013 progress on, and 2014 plans for,

This post outlines our plans and thoughts on issues that cut across these two projects, and pertain to GiveWell the organization as a whole.

  • We tentatively envision GiveWell Labs becoming a separate organization, with a separate name, eventually. Our impression is that GiveWell has built a strong and valuable brand around being extremely thorough in its investigations and backing its recommendations with copious evidence. We envision a very different set of strengths and weaknesses for GiveWell Labs: we hope GiveWell Labs will identify high-risk, high-reward giving opportunities, suitable for ambitious major philanthropists, and be notable for its boldness – a goal inconsistent with producing copious evidence for all recommendations, and inconsistent with shying away from issues with high potential for controversy. We believe that the two will likely appeal to very different audiences: GiveWell Labs will be a valuable resource for highly engaged and ambitious givers (or people with a great deal of trust in and alignment with the individuals producing GiveWell Labs recommendations), while our traditional work will be more suitable for individual donors who have less capacity (time, staff) for processing “soft” arguments and more need for high thresholds of evidence.


    For the founders of GiveWell, the most important vision has always been of finding the best giving opportunities possible and being highly transparent about our process for doing so, thus generating better public dialogue around how to give well. This vision is common to our traditional work and GiveWell Labs. Our mission statement reflects this, stating, “GiveWell is a nonprofit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities and publishing the full details of our analysis to help donors decide where to give” (it does not emphasize high standards of evidential support). However, in reflecting on the media coverage we’ve had, we believe it is likely that a bold, high-risk, controversial GiveWell Labs could endanger the “trustworthy, evidence-backed” brand of our traditional work if the two are not clearly separated, and people who support one project financially will not necessarily wish to support the other.

    Ultimately, we feel that separation is reasonably likely to involve separate budgets and separate staffs as well as separate organizations and brands. (This does not mean there will be no overlap: some staff may work part-time for each, for example.)

  • However, we are taking only very minor steps toward this separation in the near term. Over the coming year we will remain one organization and allocate staff flexibly between the two projects. We don’t believe that we have sufficiently developed organizational capacity to manage this sort of split in the near term. We see a lot of value in being able to allocate current staff flexibly, given that the needs of the two projects – and question of where current staff members fit best – are not yet very predictable.
  • We would like to rename GiveWell Labs in order to begin separating its brand from our traditional work and improving our ability to partner with major philanthropists (including Good Ventures) without causing confusion. Currently, we find it hard to communicate that GiveWell and Good Ventures are equal partners working jointly on the agenda of GiveWell Labs. We believe that renaming GiveWell Labs to something more neutral (i.e., without the word “GiveWell”) will make it easier to get this across, and may also make it easier to pitch other major philanthropists on partnering with us on this work. It will also be a first step in the direction of separating the two projects, as discussed above.
  • Fundraising remains a priority. We are currently fundraising for unrestricted support, supporting a team that is allocated flexibly between GiveWell Labs and our more traditional work. The basic framework for fundraising remains the same as what we laid out in our October post on the subject: donations have the advantage of diversifying our funding base and ensuring that we do not rely on a single source for too much of our funding. In addition,
    • We intend to begin asking our major supporters whether they would prefer to support GiveWell Labs or our traditional work; we are not yet committing to use funds according to such preferences, but we think this information is worth collecting, and doing so is another small step in the direction of eventually separating the two projects. If we see very little support tied to a preference for our traditional work, we may de-prioritize traditional work more than we currently plan to.
    • We are likely to start asking individual donors to give a portion of their donation (10-15%) to supporting GiveWell as an organization. This request will be on an opt-in basis. We haven’t previously taken this step because it would have been technically somewhat challenging, and would have had little upside since most of our money moved was coming from major donors that we could speak with individually. However, we now have improved technical capability for this feature, and our money moved from small donors (under $5k) has become substantial (more in our upcoming metrics report). We see little harm in adding this request to our website, but we will reconsider if we see much pushback.
  • In both GiveWell Labs and our traditional work, we plan to prioritize research (i.e., identifying outstanding giving opportunities and building the capacity to do so in the future) over outreach (i.e., trying to increase the number of donors or amount of money directed to our recommendations). As in previous years, we believe that the greatest challenge we face continues to be research, not outreach. Our growth remains strong: web traffic, number of donors, and total donations continued to grow in 2013. We also believe that Good Ventures and some others would give significantly more were we to identify sufficiently promising opportunities. We believe that the quality of our research and the giving opportunities we can recommend will be the most important determinant of our money moved going forward.
  • Another 2013 development was relocating GiveWell from New York to San Francisco. The move has successfully contributed to the strengthening of our relationship with Good Ventures. We have yet to make a concerted outreach effort in the San Francisco area; we will consider doing this once we have made more progress on GiveWell Labs and have specific opportunities to present to potential donors. We have made some preliminary efforts, which we have reinforced our feeling that progress on GiveWell Labs research will be a key factor in our outreach success.
  • We don’t see other major issues (in the “cross-cutting between GiveWell Labs and traditional work” category) that need addressing in 2014. In particular, we believe that our Board of Directors and our general procedures and official records are in good shape.

GiveWell Labs – Progress in 2013 and Plans for 2014

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.

2014 plan for GiveWell’s traditional (“top charities”) work

As discussed in our previous post, in 2013, we hoped to maintain the quality of our traditional research and recommendations while spending limited senior staff time (note 1) on our traditional work. This year, we plan to put significantly more total staff time (though roughly the same amount of senior staff time) into this work.

Beyond the additional research we do, an overarching goal remains building capacity for our traditional research and recommendations. Last year, we reduced the amount of senior staff time necessary for GiveWell’s traditional work, and we hope to reduce it further this year by continuing to train staff to take over the roles filled by senior staff in the past.

In addition to the new charities and interventions we plan to consider (discussed below), we will also continue to publish updates on our past top charities: GiveDirectly, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, the Deworm the World Initiative (led by Evidence Action), and the Against Malaria Foundation. We will also maintain our “open-door policy” so that any organization that believes it is a strong contender for our recommendations can apply via our application page.

Given our current capacity, we anticipate being able to consider 5 or more potential top charities and 5-10 additional interventions. We are also undertaking more experimental work that might lead to additional GiveWell top charities in the future.

Our plan for our traditional work is substantially more ambitious than what we planned last year (and than what we did – evaluate 1 new top charity and a few additional interventions, most of which we hope to publish material on shortly). This reflects our substantially increased staff, discussed in the previous post.

Research priorities
Below, we list our preliminary choices for charities and interventions to prioritize.

Priority charities

While maintaining our “open door” policy, we also plan to actively pursue investigations of several particularly promising charities. We believe that, due to our growing influence and improved processes, we will be able to get a greater level of engagement from charities we actively prioritize than we have in the past.

We chose charities primarily based on our best guess at the likelihood of eventually becoming a top-rated organization (often informed by our past interactions with the charity in question). We also gave additional weight to organizations that we guessed could plausibly be significantly better than our current top charities.

To arrive at this list, we (a) reviewed our full list of eligible organizations (i.e., charities running priority programs; (b) searched the Gates Foundation (the primary major funder focused on global health) grants database; (c) conducted Google searches for organizations working on our priority interventions (listed below).

We also plan to conduct the following charity-related research:

All of our current top charities are relatively small (annual budgets of up to approximately $10 million) and – with the exception of Evidence Action – focus on only one program. With the exception of the Against Malaria Foundation, all of the charities we have recommended since 2011 have been run by people with academic backgrounds.

These characteristics are not strict criteria of ours, but recognition of the fact that they are shared by our current top charities leads us to believe that (a) these characteristics are a reasonable way to prioritize organizations and (b) working with organizations that don’t match these characteristics will likely be more time consuming. Our 2014 plans reflect this judgment. Most simply, we have prioritized organizations that pattern match our current top charities (i.e., ICCIDD and CNTD).

Priority intervention reports

We are currently near publication of a number of reports:

  • Supplemental maternal and neonatal tetanus immunization campaigns
  • Salt iodization
  • Vitamin A supplementation
  • Polio eradication

In 2014, we aim to complete 5-10 additional reports, roughly prioritized in the order below. We prioritized programs based on a combination of (a) our best guess at their cost-effectiveness and (b) the likelihood that, if we were to determine that an intervention is particularly promising, we could then find a charity implementing it to review and recommend.

To create this list, we aimed to cast a wide net, reviewing the interventions listed in (a) the Disease Control Priorities Report, (b) WHO-Choice, (c) the Copenhagen Consensus, and (d) the Lancet series on nutrition. An excel file with all interventions listed is available here.

  • Nutrition programs
    • Iron fortification/supplementation
    • Folate fortification/supplementation
    • Zinc fortification/supplementation
    • Multi-vitamin fortification/supplementation (e.g., Sprinkles)
    • Others including maternal multiple micronutrient for pregnant/fertile women and calcium for pregnant/fertile women
  • Behavior change:
    • Community-led total sanitation
    • Handwashing promotion
    • Condom promotion
    • Breastfeeding promotion
  • Prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT)
  • Oral rehydration therapy (with or without zinc)
  • Treatments for HIV/AIDS, malaria, or pneumonia
  • Intermittent preventive treatment of malaria for pregnant women (IPTp)

Experimental work to “seed” potential additional top charities

A major obstacle we face in our traditional work is the lack of charities that will likely be able to meet our criteria.

In light of this, we are working on several projects this year that are relatively experimental and may eventually lead to new top charities.

In January 2014, Good Ventures made a $100,000 grant to New Incentives, an organization focused on conditional cash transfers. New Incentives is a startup organization and does not currently quality as a potential GiveWell top charity, but because it (a) runs a program that has significant evidence supporting it and (b) we believe that its founder, Svetha Janumpalli, is committed allowing us to thoroughly vet her activities, we believe it is plausible that New Incentives will eventually become a GiveWell top charity. We are open to recommending other grants to other groups meeting similar criteria, if we come across them.

We would also guess that there are interventions that (a) could be considered priority programs if they had additional evidence supporting them and (b) could be scaled with additional funding. We intend to speak with organizations that conduct research (including Innovations for Poverty Action, among others) as well as Evidence Action (whose mission is to scale up evidence-based programs) to determine whether there are any interventions for which this is the case. If we identify strong contenders, we (in partnership with Good Ventures) will consider funding this research.

Finally, aside from the charities listed above, we know of no organizations focused on implementing priority programs. Engaging with large “mega-charities” has always posed a challenge for us for two reasons: (a) they tend to have large public relations and fundraising departments from which we have struggled to get helpful programmatic information and (b) because they run so many programs, we have struggled to feel confident that a donation restricted to “Program X” would in fact lead to more of Program X being implemented. On the other hand, we recognize that many major funders work directly with these large entities to implement programs, and while we know that such an investigation would be time consuming, we may now be at the point in our development where it is worthwhile.

We have not yet decided to move forward with engaging with a mega-charity; our plan is to first complete the necessary intervention reports and then assess whether any interventions/mega-charities appear to be sufficiently promising to be worth addressing the inherent challenges of this investigation.


Note 1: In this post, senior staff refers to Elie, Holden, and Alexander.

2013 Progress on GiveWell’s traditional (“top charities”) work

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

This post reviews last year’s progress on our traditional work of finding and recommending evidence-based, thoroughly vetted charities that serve the global poor. It has two parts. First, we look back at the plans we laid out in early 2013 and compare our progress against them. Then, we reflect on the state of our traditional work and what we learned about it in 2013.

Note: in past years, we answered a series of questions about GiveWell’s progress as a donor resource and as a project. Considering that template this year, we feel that those questions (which we first used in our 2009 annual review) have become stale and no longer represent the best approach to evaluating our progress. Instead, we quote from last year’s writeup on plans and goals for the year, and compare to our actual progress during the year.

Summary

At the beginning of 2013, we felt that our traditional research and recommendations were relatively strong and would remain a valuable resource with limited effort put into improving them. We therefore aimed to limit senior staff time (note 1) on it to enable progress on GiveWell Labs.

We ultimately spent significantly more senior staff time on our traditional work than we had anticipated, which we felt was necessary to maintain the quality of our research, though we did achieve our big-picture goal of allocating more senior staff time to GiveWell Labs than previously and making more progress on that front.

We kept our research up to date, including major updates on our top charities, and added a new top charity. We also hired 6 additional research analysts, which should enable us to increase the capacity devoted to our traditional work in the future. Growth in web traffic and donations remained strong (details in our forthcoming metrics post).

Media attention to our traditional work has increased, and we now see it as both more important and more challenging to sustain this work in the future. We expect substantially more production next year, due to our increased capacity and better success getting engagement from charities (more in the next post).

Our progress in 2013
In our 2013 plan, we wrote:

The items that we consider essential for our “traditional” work are:

  • Continuing to do charity updates … on our existing top charities.
  • Reviewing any charity we come across that looks like it has a substantial chance of meeting our traditional criteria as well as, or better than, our current #1 charity (which would require not only that the charity itself has outstanding transparency, but also that the intervention it works on has an outstanding academic evidence base). We have created an application page for charities that believe they can meet these criteria.
  • Hiring. As mentioned previously, we believe our process has reached a point where we ought to be able to hire, train and manage people to carry it out with substantially reduced involvement from senior staff. We are currently hiring for the Research Associate role, and if we could find strong Research Associates we would be able to be more thorough in our traditional work at little cost to GiveWell Labs.

Below, we review each, in turn.

  • Charity updates. We had relatively long histories with each of our 3 top charities, and expected that periodic conversations and review of documents by non-senior staff would allow us to stay up to date. These updates became significantly more involved than we anticipated because there were major developments with each of our top 3 charities (we had not expected any developments that would meaningfully affect our rankings), and these took significant senior staff time to investigate and write up.
    • The Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), our #1-ranked charity in 2011 and 2012, did not finalize a distribution to which it could allocate the bulk of funds it had on hand. This led us to remove AMF from our recommended charities list due to lack of room for more funding (details in this post).
    • We learned new information about the monitoring and evaluation that had provided a substantial part of the case for the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), an organization we have recommended since 2011 (details in this post). SCI also significantly improved its communication with us, addressing many of the problems we noted earlier in the year.
    • Researchers released results from a randomized controlled trial of GiveDirectly’s program in late November, providing a key piece of evidence about GiveDirectly’s progarm’s impact (details in this post). This update, while substantial, did not require significant senior staff time.
  • New charity reviews. At the beginning of the year, we did not expect to find new top charities in 2013. In April, we began evaluating the Deworm the World Initiative (led by Evidence Action). Our familiarity with deworming and our existing intervention report on deworming made this investigation easier than it otherwise might have been; the fact that DtWI was the first technical assistance/advocacy organization we had reviewed made this analysis more complicated. In all, this investigation took about as long as we would have expected given that it was a new top charity. This investigation required significant senior staff time, but a substantial portion of that time involved training Timothy Telleen-Lawton, a new hire whom we anticipate requiring reduced oversight in the future. Timothy led the investigation of DtWI and did the bulk of the work on it.
  • Hiring. We made major progress on this goal. In addition to Tim, we hired five new Research Analysts, increasing our capacity for (a) conversation notes processing; (b) “vetting”, i.e., carefully reviewing pages pre-publication to identify any errors; (c) completing intervention reports, something that some of the new hires proved able to do with little involvement from senior staff. We completed new intervention reports on water quality and vitamin A supplementation (forthcoming).
  • Donation processing. While we did not articulate this as a goal for 2013, we significantly improved our donation processing system over the course of the year. Processing donations and metrics from 2012′s giving season had taken approximately 3 full-time months. The improvements we made last year allowed us to process more than twice as many donations using less than half the time we had previously. (We also believe that these changes will scale well as we continue to grow.) These improvements were led by Natalie Crispin and required almost no senior staff time.

The state of our traditional work and major things we learned in 2013
To review, at the beginning of 2013, we felt that our traditional research and recommendations were relatively strong and would remain a valuable resource with limited effort put into improving them. We therefore aimed to limit senior staff time on this work in order to enable progress on GiveWell Labs. We ultimately spent significantly more senior staff time on our traditional work than we had anticipated, which we felt was necessary to maintain the quality of our research, though we did achieve our big-picture goal of allocating more senior staff time to GiveWell Labs and making more progress on that front.

Three major observations from 2013 will inform our plans going forward.

  • Significant growth in attention to/interest in our traditional work. Last year, we saw significant growth in interest in our traditional work from media and donors. At the beginning of last year, we would have guessed that growth would slow, yet we saw significantly more media attention than we had in past years, which contributed to our more than doubling the number of donors giving to our top charities and significant web traffic growth. Both the number of donors (as well as the total amount given by <$5,000 donors) and web traffic grew at a faster rate last year than they had in previous years; growth in donations from larger donors slowed relative to last year’s growth, though this trend is less robust because of the smaller numbers of people involved. (We will share full details on these figures in our forthcoming metrics post.)
  • The challenge of maintaining the quality of our research and recommendations. In early 2013, we expected to spend relatively little time maintaining the quality of our research and recommendations. As discussed above, this did not work out as we had planned, and we no longer believe that we can easily maintain the quality of our research and recommendations without the engagement of highly skilled/trained staff. More broadly, we continued to learn about (and write about) the fundamental difficulty of the “giving as consumption” model underlying our traditional work, and believe that continuing to provide a strong resource using this model could take quite a bit of work and ingenuity going forward.
  • Increased interest from charities in receiving our recommendations. As our money moved has grown, we have seen increased interest from charities in engaging with us and our process. This willingness to engage has grown consistently over the course of GiveWell’s history, but we now believe we have reached a level of money moved where most organizations will seriously consider engaging with us, as opposed to just ignoring us. This should enable us to choose the organizations that we think are most promising; encourage them to apply; and if they choose not to, understand what led them to decline (e.g., insufficient staff time, limited monitoring data, etc.). In the past, charities chose not to participate for reasons we often didn’t fully understand and we hope that this has now changed. This should eventually improve the robustness of our top charities list.

Note 1: In this post, senior staff refers to Elie, Holden, and Alexander.

GiveWell’s Progress in 2013

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

As in past years, we’re going to be posting our annual self-evaluation and plan as a series of blog posts. This post summarizes what changed for GiveWell in 2013 and what it means for the future. Future posts will elaborate.

This year, we are separately reviewing our “traditional work” (recommending top charities that focus on evidence-backed programs serving the global poor) and GiveWell Labs (our newer project, on which we work closely with Good Ventures).

For us, the major developments of 2013 were:

  • We continued to see strong growth in money moved and improved media coverage, though we are still working on assembling the details. There was some extent to which larger donors gave less in 2013 than previously, due to saving for future opportunities (potentially including AMF), so we aren’t yet sure what the final figures for larger donors will be, but the overall picture is one of strong growth.
  • We made major progress on building capacity. We made a total of 6 new hires, and these new hires led work on our new top charity review (more below) and on new reports on priority interventions. We also improved our donation processing system, further improving our forward-looking capacity. As a result, our 2014 plan for our traditional work is substantially more ambitious than our 2013 plan was.
  • We added a new top charity (Deworm the World Initiative) and produced substantial updates on our existing top charities, including suspending one recommendation for room-for-more-funding-related reasons.
  • We spent more senior staff time than anticipated on our traditional work (since there were major new developments concerning each of our top charities) as opposed to GiveWell Labs.
  • We made substantial progress on GiveWell Labs: we refined our basic framework and goals, gained some basic familiarity with two major areas of philanthropy (policy-oriented philanthropy and scientific research funding) that we had had little exposure to previously, and examined multiple potential causes at different levels of depth. We are setting a “stretch goal” for 2014 of making substantial commitments (multiple years, substantial funding) to causes within the broad areas of policy-oriented philanthropy and global catastrophic risks.
  • Our traditional work (“top charities”) seems both more challenging and more important than it was a year ago – the former because of how much senior time it continues to take to respond to new developments, the latter because of the increased media coverage and continuing growth in money moved that we saw. We now see a strong possibility that GiveWell Labs eventually will become a separate organization, though it will remain part of GiveWell in the short term. We plan minor steps to begin moving toward a separation, including potentially renaming GiveWell Labs.
  • Fundraising remains a priority. We are currently fundraising for unrestricted support, supporting a team that is allocated flexibly between GiveWell Labs and our more traditional work.

Overall, we consider 2013 to have been a year of substantial progress on research (both GiveWell Labs and our traditional work), staff capacity, and influence. Our 2014 goals will be more concrete and ambitious than our 2013 goals were.

Of course, we also made some mistakes in 2013, and we’ve recently updated our shortcomings log to reflect them. In particular, we produced public updates on AMF too infrequently.

A series of future posts will go into more detail on the above points.