The GiveWell Blog

Discretionary grant making and implications for donor agency

A few weeks ago, we wrote:

[…] we are recommending that donors split their gift, with 75% going to [the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)] and 25% going to [the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)], or give to GiveWell for making grants at our discretion and we will use the funds to fill in the next highest priority gaps.

We’ve gotten some questions about what the difference is between giving according to our recommended allocation (75% to AMF and 25% to SCI) and giving to GiveWell for making grants at our discretion. This post explains the difference.

How we will use discretionary grant funds

In the past, we allocated grants to top charities either in line with our most recent recommendation to individual donors or, if we had tracked enough funding to hit the targeted amounts recommended to individual donors, we would allocate grants to top charities where we judged them to be most needed. (See this post for a more in-depth description of this process.)

For the next set of grants we will make with discretionary funds, in February or March 2017, we plan to:

  • Ask top charities for an update on their total revenues from all sources; and
  • Use this information to update our views on which remaining funding gaps are most valuable to fill, and grant the funds to that gap.

AMF currently has our highest-ranked funding gap for individuals, followed by SCI. (We are recommending that individuals give 75% of their donation to AMF and 25% to SCI, instead of 100% to AMF, because we expect donors following our recommendation to give more than it would take to fill AMF’s highest priority gap and it would be difficult for us to coordinate a quick change in our recommended allocation as soon as AMF’s highest-ranked funding gap was filled.)

Note that, using the plan described above, we would likely not allocate exactly 75% of our grant to AMF and 25% to SCI. If the AMF funding gap we are prioritizing is still sufficiently large in February or March when taking all of AMF’s revenues from all sources into account, it’s likely that we would allocate 100% of the grant to AMF. If AMF’s gap were already filled (or could be filled with only part of the grant), we may allocate the funds to SCI or another top charity that we judge to have the most valuable funding gap.

We are uncertain whether we will continue to use this full process for other grants we make in the future. If we decide to not reassess charities’ funding gaps before making a grant, we will plan to allocate the grant according to our last public recommendation to individual donors.

What implications does our approach have for donor agency

It is almost always the case in charitable giving that donors that give after you will be affected, in expectation, by your gift and may reduce their gift to the organization of your choice as a result. There are some specific ways in which that dynamic plays out as a result of the allocation decisions we have made:

  • For donors who give to our top charities, but not the one(s) that we recommend on the margin, those gifts will affect how much funding we expect those organizations to get next year. The funds may also affect how quickly the organization is able to scale in the next year, which could increase how much we think they can use productively in the following year. Both these factors (working in opposite directions) could affect how much funding we recommend donors give to them next year. (See our review of Deworm the World for an example of how we calculate room for more funding based on past revenue.)
  • For donors who give to the charities we recommend on the margin (AMF and SCI currently), their gifts increase the chance that the funding gaps we have prioritized are filled and that we reallocate funds to other charities. The reallocation could happen as soon as February/March, when we plan to make our next round of grants.

We would guess that many of our donors would be happy to learn that these decisions allow us to play a “coordinating” role, in which we direct some additional funding to where we believe it’s needed most. However, donors who disagree with us to some degree may decide to give to top charities we haven’t prioritized on the margin. For example, donors who feel strongly about giving to deworming over malaria prevention (because, say, they disagree with how steeply we’ve discounted the evidence for deworming or because they value lives improved over deaths averted more than we do), may choose to give to the END Fund, whose funding gap is GiveWell’s highest priority deworming gap that is unlikely to be filled, rather than SCI. Donors who feel strongly about supporting malaria prevention over deworming, they may decide to give to Malaria Consortium over AMF, for the same reason.

For a full list of the funding gaps we seek to fill and in what order, see this spreadsheet.

December 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 most recent open thread.

You can view our September 2016 open thread here.

AMF and Population Ethics

If you are concerned your stance on population ethics does not align with the GiveWell median, please download an editable copy of GiveWell’s CEA and input your own values for rows 7, 53, 63, and 64, rather than discounting GiveWell’s bottom-line cost-effectiveness estimate by some factor to account for expected differences in population ethics. We lay out some considerations for how to do that in this blog post, with respect to the Against Malaria Foundation.

Read more

Why I mostly believe in Worms

The following statements are true:

  • GiveWell is a nonprofit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities through in-depth analysis. Thousands of hours of research have gone into finding our top-ratepd charities.”
  • GiveWell recommends four deworming charities as having outstanding expected value. Why? Hundreds of millions of kids harbor parasitic worms in their guts[1]. Treatment is safe, effective, and cheap, so much so that where the worms are common, the World Health Organization recommends administering pills once or twice a year to all children without incurring the cost of determining who is infected.
  • Two respected organizations, Cochrane and the Campbell Collaboration, have systematically reviewed the relevant studies and found little reliable evidence that mass deworming does good.

That list reads like a logic puzzle. GiveWell relies on evidence. GiveWell recommends mass-deworming charities. The evidence says mass deworming doesn’t work. How is that possible? Most studies of mass deworming track impact over a few years. The handful that look longer term find big benefits, including one in Kenya that reports higher earnings in adulthood. So great is that benefit that even when GiveWell discounts it by some 99% out of doubts about generalizability, deworming charities look like promising bets.

Still, as my colleagues have written, the evidence on deworming is complicated and ambiguous. And GiveWell takes seriously the questions raised by the Cochrane and Campbell evidence reviews. Maybe the best discount is not 99% but 100%. That would make all the difference for our assessment. This is why, starting in October, I delved into deworming. In this post and the next, I will share what I learned.

In brief, my confidence rose in that Kenya study’s finding of higher earnings in adulthood. I will explain why below. My confidence fell in the generalizability of that finding to other settings, as discussed in the next post.

As with all the recommendations we make, our calculations may be wrong. But I believe they are reasonable and quite possibly conservative. And notice that they do not imply that the odds are 1 in 100 that deworming does great good everywhere and 99 in 100 that it does no good anywhere. It can instead imply that kids receiving mass deworming today need it less than those in the Kenya study, because today’s children have fewer worms or because they are healthy enough in other respects to thrive despite the worms.

Unsurprisingly, I do not know whether 99% overshoots or undershoots. I wish we had more research on the long-term impacts of deworming in other settings, so that we could generalize with more nuance and confidence.

In this post, I will first orient you with some conceptual and historical background. Then I’ll think through two concerns about the evidence base we’re standing on: that the long-term studies lack design features that would add credibility; and that the key experiment in Kenya was not randomized, as that term is generally understood.