The GiveWell Blog

Reinventing the wheel

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.


  • somebody on March 15, 2008 at 1:53 am said:

    The problem is there is no there there. Foundations do the research but Givewell is willing to share…What exactly are you willing to share? Conjecture? Rapidly shifting thoughts about what’s effective?

    Like it or not, it is not the primary goal of Foundations to share their research. As Givewell knows, the overhead for that is quiet high.

    If, as a donor, you want to know which charities a specific foundation believes is most effective, read an annual report. Foundation’s communicate their choices by who they give money to.

    Or here is another idea, perhaps Givewell should skip talking to the nonprofits at all and visit with their clients. A little exposure to those directly impacted by the nonprofits might give you a picture of the impact of the work and would certainly give you some valuable life experiences.

  • I know it’s old news (sort of) and relatively unrelated to this specific post, but…

    I used to be a very big fan of your demands for simple transparency in and rigorous evaluation of non-profits. And I was an even bigger fan of your straightforwardness in addressing some of the biggest problems in non-profit efficiency. When I read you December 27, 2007 post entitled “Transparency, measurement, humility,” I thought, “This kid is a little presumptuous and a little naive, but he really has some hard-hitting commentary and some really great ideas.”

    I was willing to set aside your tone to really think about the transparency and measurement you preached. And I’ve been really trying to do the same thing since your little scandal–trying to think about what you’re actually saying without thinking about your own hypocritical transgressions against what you preached. I tried to convince myself that the ideas are, in themselves, valid and revolutionary.

    But most of us, including me, are in the non-profit world because of our commitment to our principles and to our desire to make the world better, even at the sacrifice of a bigger salary and less hours. We work out of a sincere effort to do our jobs with passion and dignity.

    With that in mind, I’ve realized that I just can’t take anything you say seriously anymore. I still admire what GiveWell is trying to do, but I see your posts in my Reader and I just skip over them because I don’t see any real integrity in your ideas.

    To me, an idea is nothing without integrity.

  • michael vassar on March 21, 2008 at 11:14 pm said:

    What on Earth can you mean? Should we reject Jefferson’s advocacy of emancipation because he kept slaves!?

    Also, how would you possibly get the idea that Holden etc *didn’t* sacrifice bigger salaries and less hours in leaving their hedge fund jobs and starting Give Well? Holden’s passion might be mixed with some anger, but it’s certainly intense and sincere. As for dignity, where’s the dignity in non-profit work or fund-raising for any cause that one hasn’t investigated carefully and determined to be optimal. Even if you are successful you are crowding out potentially more socially beneficial giving. “Give to ME ME ME because I say so… and PUPPIES… and THINK OF THE CHILDREN…”. To me, that’s what lacks dignity, the normal non-profit world.

  • Andrea on March 23, 2008 at 11:24 am said:

    MV, you have made assumptions about Sara’s post that display as much arrogance on your part as she’s accusing Holden of having. At no point did she say Holden did not sacrifice a big salary (although most people working in nonprofits in their early careers make no where near $65K–that’s hardly a sacrifice), nor did she say that giving to a non profit without knowing how effective it is, or how comparatively effective, is the best way to give. She is commenting on Holden’s history of lying and what that might reveal about his character and therefore his ability do carry out the mission of Givewell.

    Your response to her has the smell of intimidation, not of rational argument. Don’t you see that? This is a clear mark of immaturity.

    And the comparison with Jefferson is grandiose. It made me chuckle.

  • GiveWell is attempting to take the right approach: Where do you start, if you want to do the most good? This is a difficult, and perhaps impossible question to answer. But GiveWell is attempting to approach it in a rational manner. Perhaps the Gates Foundation is doing much the same thing–I certainly hope so. If so, it would be nice if they would share some of their expertise with GiveWell. Regardless, the Gates Foundation makes up only a tiny part of total U.S. charitable giving. GiveWell’s purpose is to encourage giving which does more good with the other 99% of the dollars.

    One suggestion I’d make is that GiveWell attempt to duplicate the approach the the World Health Organization and the Disease Control Priorities Project is taking. DALYs (Disability-Ajusted Life-Years) is a rational, comprehensive measure, and an improvement over “significant life changes.” DALYs are not above criticism, but that need not be the only measure GiveWell uses. Analyses could be done many different ways, with donors left to decide which they preferred. But it would be foolish not to include measurement from the DALYs perspective.

  • michael vassar on March 25, 2008 at 5:08 pm said:

    I would second Ron’s vote for DALY estimates, at least as a dimension of analysis.

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