The GiveWell Blog

GiveWell’s plan: Top-level priorities

This is the third post (of four) we’re planning to make focused on our self-evaluation and future plans. The first post is here, and the second post is here.

In previous posts, we discussed the progress we’ve made, where we stand, and how we can improve in core areas. This post focuses on the latter, and lays out our top-level strategic choice for the next year.

Broadly, we see the key aspects of GiveWell – the areas in which we can improve – as

Research, i.e., creating and maintaining useful information for impact-focused donors. This includes

  • Research vetting: subjecting our existing research to strong, critical scrutiny from people with substantial relevant experience and credentials.
  • Research on new causes such as U.S. equality of opportunity, disease research funding, and environmental issues (particularly global warming mitigation).
  • Research maintenance and systemization: formalizing our process to the point where it can be maintained with as little input as possible needed from the co-founders.

Packaging, i.e., presenting our research in a way that is likely to be persuasive and impactful. This includes

  • Consolidating/writing up/improving the case for our research’s credibility.
  • Improving our website so that it is clearer and easier to use.
  • Finding new ways to express the output of our research in ways that are more emotionally/intellectually compelling.

Marketing, i.e., increasing the number of potential “customers” we reach. This includes.

  • Improving the persuasiveness and clarity of our research.
  • Pursuing partnerships with other donor/consumer resources.
  • Pursuing partnerships with donor-advised funds and wealth advisors, which might connect us to wealthy individuals seeking help with their giving decisions.
  • Pursuing partnerships with people and organizations that focus on fundraising for particular causes, rather than particular organizations. GiveWell’s research could help such organizations fundraise for outstanding organizations within their causes (and outsource responsibility for finding such organizations and justifying their choices).
  • Pursuing partnerships with corporate giving programs.
  • Advertising.
  • Concerted efforts at “earned media,” i.e., focusing our research on issues that are likely to interest the media (which are frequently the opposite of the issues we find most interesting and important) and engaging in concerted public relations efforts around these issues.

Research vs. packaging/marketing

One of the core debates that comes up repeatedly among GiveWell stakeholders is whether we should focus on research or packaging marketing.

In brief, the “focus on packaging/marketing” view is that:

  • Our research is already more useful, for impact-focused donors, than other available resources.
  • Our reach, and impact, leave much to be desired.
  • Therefore, we should focus on reaching more people. Doing so will lead to quicker learning about the odds of GiveWell’s ultimately succeeding, as well as quicker learning about what our potential “customers” want from our research.

The “focus on research” view is that:

  • We have substantial room for improvement in the credibility of our research (who endorses it), the breadth of our research (how many causes we’ve covered), and the robustness of our research (how dependent our process is on the co-founders).
  • Improving these areas could be very important to later packaging/marketing efforts. (Having knowledge of more causes could substantially affect our strategy for “packaging” our research in ways that people are likely to find interesting. Both the number of causes and the overall credibility could be important to many of the potential partners mentioned under our marketing options.)
  • Many of the most promising marketing strategies can be expected to benefit from the simple passage of time. We are interested in partnering with organizations that take a long time to make decisions and prefer that their partners have significant track records / be relatively established.
  • While our research, as well as the passage of time, could substantially affect the way we package/market, the results of packaging/marketing (and the passage of time) are unlikely to have much effect on how we do our research. It therefore makes sense to work more on research before focusing on packaging/marketing.
  • We believe that we are only ~2 years away from having broad, robust, credible research that could then be maintained at a relatively low cost (both in terms of funds and human resources). Therefore, we think it is practical and desirable to reach this point before focusing on packaging/marketing.
  • Research is our core competency. The content we created for impact-focused donors is what makes us unique and it’s what we feel we do best. By contrast, we don’t consider ourselves particularly good at packaging or marketing. By focusing on research and making all of our output public and free, we enable others (who may be much better at packaging/marketing) to use and adapt it. (Peter Singer is an example of someone who has marketed our research better than we could.)

We have had many internal discussions on these issues. At this point, all members of GiveWell’s Board and staff feel that the “focus on research” view is stronger.

Therefore, we intend to focus on research over the next year, while allocating some time to the “lowest-hanging fruit” within packaging/marketing.

A future post will discuss the specifics of how we’re prioritizing the different aspects of “research.”


  • Anonymous on February 17, 2010 at 7:56 am said:

    You could try using fake names on message boards to steer people to your website. I feel like there’s some real low hanging fruit there.

  • michael vassar on February 17, 2010 at 5:06 pm said:

    To me, research on disease funding seems highest value, simply working on the heuristic that efforts to discover information which is currently highly uncertain are of high expected value. Also, huge amounts of money by seemingly well intentioned people who share your values ride on this analysis, yet the analysis used to generate the decisions in allocating seems likely to be biased.

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