I think the following comment, from Andrea, is broadly representative of a common criticism we receive.
One thing Givewell is missing, and has been criticized for in the past, is that people are already working on these issues, and that one small organization like Givewell can’t solve this “problem” where all others have failed. For example, Holden’s point that he thinks global health is a cause ripe for funding has obviously already been discovered by none other than Bill Gates, employs many staff who research causes in the way Givewell proposes, but along the well-tested model Sean describes. Again, this points to the naive quality of the entire Givewell enterprise.
We believe that GiveWell has something unique to offer – but this something is not our analytical abilities, or our research process, or our “focus on results.” We believe that many grantmakers, including the Gates Foundation, may be conducting more thorough research and analysis than we can; we have believed this since the very beginning of our project; and to my knowledge, we haven’t implied otherwise at any point. (If you believe there are instances where we – GiveWell, not others writing about GiveWell – have implied otherwise, please point me to them.)
We don’t think we’re inventing the wheel; but we’re reinventing it, out of necessity, because no one else will share their blueprint. Back in August of 2006, when we were first putting serious effort into figuring out where to give, we started by calling foundations and asking them to share their research; as detailed in Appendix D of our business plan from March 2007, the consistent answer we got was that specific information on grantee results – beyond the highly general, selected parts that foundations choose to share – is confidential.
We believe that information about how to help people should never be secret. GiveWell’s uniqueness is not in its ability to conduct thorough research, but in its willingness to share it.