We are not health experts, education experts, or social science experts, and we don’t pretend to be. We are donors, working through – and communicating about – the decisions all donors must work through. We do not see our role as designing, managing, improving, or measuring charitable programs; we see our role as understanding these programs as well as non-experts can, with whatever help and testimony from experts is necessary to do so, and sharing our understanding with other non-experts.
We are statistically literate and analytically strong, and we are good at attacking problems with complex and incomplete information; the people who have worked with us in the context of highly competitive and selective environments will attest to that.
But we are not experts. So why should you trust us?
You shouldn’t. You shouldn’t trust anyone to tell you what the best charities are. To a large extent, that’s why our project exists.
When we were trying to figure out where to donate, we had no trouble finding opinions, and recommendations, from experts of many kinds – ranging from foundations to famous economists to watchdogs. Of course, practically every charity we talked to had some form of expert endorsement of their own. The qualifications of these experts are impressive in all kinds of different ways.
But these recommendations didn’t help us. When we were able to scrutinize them, we found reasoning that was sometimes superficial and sometimes just plain didn’t make sense – but the most common problem, by far, was that there was simply no reasoning to be found. These kinds of recommendations don’t cut it, regardless of the resumes that back them.
As I’ve written before (recently), there is no way to evaluate charities with perfect – or even very much – certainty, safety, or precision. This much, the experts can agree on (and they do, from the little we’ve seen – much of it nonpublic – on the development of charity metrics). Intuition, judgment calls, and even philosophy are inextricable parts of every giving decision.
That’s why you can’t trust a person’s conclusion without following their reasoning – no matter who they are. And that’s why expertise in any particular area is so much less important than a commitment to true transparency, and thus to dialogue with anyone in the world – from policy professionals to philosophy Ph.D.’s to ordinary people with great ideas – who cares to participate. GiveWell has already demonstrated that commitment, to a degree we haven’t seen anywhere else.