September 2015 Open Thread

Following up on our open thread in April, we wanted to have another one.

Our goal 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 if there’s feedback or questions you’d prefer to discuss privately. We’ll try to respond promptly to questions or comments.

Update on GiveWell’s web traffic / money moved: Q2 2015

In addition to evaluations of other charities, GiveWell publishes substantial evaluation of itself, from the quality of its research to its impact on donations. We publish quarterly updates regarding two key metrics: (a) donations to top charities and (b) web traffic.

The tables and chart below present basic information about our growth in money moved and web traffic in the first two quarters of 2015 compared to the previous two years (note 1).

Money moved and donors: first two quarters


Money moved by donors who have never given more than $5,000 in a year increased about 80% to $1.54 million. The total number of donors in the first two quarters increased 94% to about 6,000 (note 2).

Most of our money moved is donated near the end of the year (we tracked about 70% of the total in the fourth quarter each of the last two years) and is driven by a relatively small number of large donors. Because of this, we don’t think we can reliably predict our growth and think that our year-to-date total money moved provides relatively limited information about what our year-end money moved is likely to be (note 3). We therefore look at the data above as an indication of growth in our audience.


A tax-deductible top charity for Australians

For many years we’ve received emails from donors asking whether donations to any of our top charities were tax-deductible in Australia and we’ve had to tell them that we did not have a tax-deductible option to offer them. So, we’re happy to share the news that the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) has just received Deductible Gift Recipient status in Australia, which means that donations to AMF (Australia) are now tax-deductible. You can read AMF’s announcement here.

AMF has been seeking this status since 2009 and we are glad that its efforts have paid off. Of GiveWell’s top charities, AMF is the only one to have tax-deductible status in Australia at this point in time. More information on the tax-deductibility of donations to our top charities in various countries is available here.

AMF has told us it is happy to share information about its experience with the application process with other organizations that are considering applying for Deductible Gift Recipient status in Australia. It has posted information about the process, including some of its application materials, here.

The process of hiring our first cause-specific Program Officer

Earlier this year, we announced Chloe Cockburn as our incoming Program Officer for criminal justice reform. Chloe started her new role at the end of August.

This hire was the top priority we set in our March update on U.S. policy. It represents the first time we’ve hired someone for a senior, cause-specific role. Chloe will be the primary person responsible for recommending $5+ million a year of grants in this space. As such, hiring Chloe is one of the highest-stakes decisions we’ve made yet for the Open Philanthropy Project, certainly higher-stakes than any particular grant to date. As such, we are writing up a summary of our thinking (including reservations), and the process we ran for this job search.

We also see this blog post as a major part of the case for future grants we make in criminal justice reform. Part of the goal of this process was to hire a person with context, experience, and relationships that go well beyond what it would be realistic to put in a writeup. We expect that future criminal justice reform grants will be subject to a good deal of critical discussion, and accompanied by writeups; at the same time, for readers who want to fully understand the thinking behind our grants, it is important to note that our bigger-picture bet on Chloe’s judgment will be a major input into each grant recommendation in this area.

Note that Chloe reviewed this post.

Table of contents:


History of philanthropy case study: the impact of philanthropy on the passage of the Affordable Care Act

Benjamin Soskis, who has been working for us on our history of philanthropy project, has completed a case study of philanthropy’s impact on the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The case study focuses first on the Atlantic Philanthropies’ funding of Health Care for America Now! (HCAN), as well as on HCAN’s activities and impact. The second part of the study surveys the activities of other funders involved in health care reform, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Commonwealth Fund.

The case study concludes that, as a whole, philanthropic spending had a critical, though not necessarily easily quantifiable, role in the passage of the ACA. In the following passage, Dr. Soskis quotes HCAN’s Doneg McDonough:

“There’s just no way health reform would have passed without the [philanthropically funded] outside efforts going on. No question about it. Beyond that, it gets a little fuzzy. How much of an impact did [any particular intervention] have and which things actually were critical to making the ACA happen?”

This last statement, with its combination of broadly conceived certitude and localized indeterminacy, epitomizes one of this report’s central findings regarding the claims of philanthropic impact. (Case Study, Pg. 4)

Dr. Soskis’s study also examines the difficulty of disentangling the impact of any one funder from the impact of philanthropy as a whole. He writes:

In fact, disaggregating the specific contributions of particular philanthropic funders and determining how to weigh them against each other proved one of the most significant challenges of this project. This would be an issue for any major policy initiative, but for national [health care reform], given the large number of funders involved and the efforts to coordinate activities between them, it proved even more challenging. This suggests one of the main paradoxes of evaluating the impact of philanthropy on the passage of health care reform legislation. Precisely those features which many considered essential to the passage of the ACA – the breadth, variety, and scale of philanthropic initiatives – also made it especially difficult to evaluate the contributions of any particular intervention. And the report highlights another paradox as well, one which presides over the entire study of policy impact evaluation: the more significant the legislative achievement, and the greater the impulse for various stakeholders involved to claim a definite degree of impact, the less likely it is that any determination of clear causal agency is actually possible. (Case Study, Pg. 4)

Read the full case study here (.pdf)

Coming down to earth: What if a big geomagnetic storm does hit?

This is the fourth post in a series about geomagnetic storms as a global catastrophic risk. A paper covering the material in this series was recently released.

I devoted the first three posts in this series to describing geomagnetic storms and assessing the odds that a Big One is coming. I concluded that the iconic Carrington superstorm of 1859 was neither as intense nor as overdue for an encore as some prominent analysts have suggested. (I suppose that’s unsurprising: those who say more-alarming things get more attention.) But my analysis is not certain. To paraphrase Churchill, the sun is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a corona. And great harm would flow from what I cannot rule out: a blackout spanning states and lasting months.

I shift in this post from whether the Big One is coming to what will happen if it does. And here, unfortunately, my facility with statistics does less good, for the top questions are now about power engineering: how grids and high-voltage transformers respond to planetary magnetic concussions.

One reason for my incomplete understanding of power engineering is that the stuff is complicated. Another is the upshot of this post: I dug far enough to conclude that more research is needed. That phrase is a deadened cliche, but I mean it. We need to learn more! Considering the potential stakes, the effects of magnetic storms on grids are too poorly studied. Seven-figure expenditures on research might stave off 12-figure damages (as in trillions). For an employee of a philanthropy, that’s a bottom line. And the practical conclusion being reached, and my time being tight, it seemed efficient to stop there.

I’ll explain that conclusion just below. But first I stress that my view on the potential value of funding in this area is attributable only to me. The Open Philanthropy Project will weigh this cause against other possible focus areas.

I’ll touch on four lines of evidence:

  • Case studies of failed transformers
  • Statistical correlations between storm activity and transformer failures
  • Field tests
  • Mathematical modeling