The GiveWell Blog

Alternative visions

Last week, I shared my ideal vision for where we’re ultimately headed. Many of GiveWell’s biggest fans and supporters – including Jason – think it’s totally unrealistic. That’s OK. I’d be happy with about a hundred other possible chains of events, including:

  1. Donors give directly to charities rather than through clear funds, but they still pay a lot of attention to what organizations such as ours recommend. Consequently, the GiveWell seal of approval (and others, in other sectors) becomes desirable enough that charities volunteer their information, and our job no longer requires nearly as much money or time. Thus, reviews can continue to happen despite smaller budgets; reviewers that do a bad job get ignored, while reviewers that do a good job have tremendous impact; end result, the question of how to donate is still a public and informed discussion. (Jason outlined something like this in his comment.)
  2. Or, once donors start to demand the level of understanding we do, charities start voluntarily putting it on their own websites. At that point the role of a “watchdog” becomes much easier – verifying the claims that are made, rather than trying to figure out and assess what’s going on in the first place – and since all the information is easily available, all you need to have a dialogue about it is a discussion board. In that case, The Clear Fund would become completely unnecessary and obsolete.
  3. Or, the Clear Fund begins to compete for fundraising dollars with United Ways, philanthropic advisors, and other “charitable money managers.” Once they see that our transparency makes us more trustworthy and thus more appealing, they open their own doors in order to compete. They do it better and blow us out of the water.
  4. Or, existing foundations begin to make grants with the same transparency as The Clear Fund (whether because they realize it makes sense or because they’re pressured by public outrage with their locking their taxpayer-subsidized information behind a vault). They do our job better than we do and we get destroyed.

There are a lot of differences between these scenarios, including the continued role of The Clear Fund: it could become anything from a huge grantmaker to a lean-budget reviewer to a distant memory. That’s OK with me – as my past life decisions have shown, I place no premium on job security, and I’m ready to do whatever makes me most valuable, even if that eventually means bringing Bill Gates coffee.

But what these scenarios have in common is what’s important. Rather than a world in which the flow of money to charities has practically nothing to do with their ability to help people, we have a world in which the best ideas and approaches get the most funding. Rather than a world in which every attempt to make things better has to reinvent the wheel, there is a constant, global dialogue and debate over what works and what should be done next. Rather than throwing money at our problems, we solve them.

We’re not predicting or deciding anything we don’t have to. What we know is how much better the world would be if there were a public, thorough discussion of how to help people as well as possible. The first step in getting there is to find out as much as we can on the subject, and be the first people to share it. The Clear Fund is our best existing tactic for doing this, but the broader purpose of GiveWell is to get the information out in the open however we can, and get others to use it and add to it. That’s the only goal we’re wedded to.