The GiveWell Blog

Selecting program-based health interventions

We are doing both region-based and program-based research on developing-world health. First I will discuss our program-based research, which will focus on (a) finding particular interventions (and/or clusters of interventions) that appeal to us; (b) finding organizations that implement these interventions “vertically,” i.e., replicating the same basic program across a variety of regions.

For these purposes, we particularly value interventions that are proven, scalable, and cost-effective.

Unlike most foundations, we are seeking explicitly to serve individual donors – donors who don’t have personal connections to particular organizations or expertise in the issues, and who therefore are better suited to expanding what already works (i.e., interventions that are proven and scalable) than to exploring unproven innovations. More on this idea at our FAQ, as well as in this blog post.

We think of an intervention as proven when:

  • It has been previously carried out and carefully, publicly evaluated (often through academic research) in a way that provides strong empirical evidence for its positive impact on people’s lives. (A future post will further discuss our position on the “evaluation hierarchy” and what sorts of evidence we think are necessary under different circumstances.)
  • The conditions under which it has been evaluated match the conditions under which it is likely to be carried out again, in as many relevant ways as possible.

We think of an intervention as scalable when:

  • There is a significant amount of unmet “need” for the intervention, i.e., conditions under which the intervention would be helpful but has not yet been funded.
  • Donations can be used to replicate the intervention in a variety of areas, while recording enough information about its execution to be reasonably confident that it is working as intended.

Defining “cost-effectiveness” is significantly more complex, and will be discussed in the next post.