The GiveWell Blog

GiveWell’s plan: Specifics of research

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

In a previous post, we laid out our reasons for focusing on the broad category of “research” over the next year. 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.

After considering the time and resources available to us, we’ve concluded the following:

  • Research vetting will likely involve substantial “down time” (i.e., waiting for responses from the people we’re hoping to get vetting from). Therefore, it will be a major priority of ours but will not account for a huge amount of our time.
  • Re: research maintenance and systemization. Over the next year, we will be pursuing one temporary expansion in capacity via a 5-month contractor (a person who has done substantial volunteer work for us in the past, and whom we feel can add greatly to our research). During that time, there will be four people putting substantial time into research: the two co-founders, our one Research Analyst, and the contractor. It would not make sense to plan more hires at this point, given the relatively small amount of well-defined work we have available and the uncertain time costs of working with both our Research Analyst and our contractor. (More reasoning at our previous post, under the heading of “Is GiveWell’s research process ‘robust’?”)
  • We will be putting significant time – essentially, the time we have left over after dealing with research vetting, research maintenance and systemization, and “low-hanging fruit” in the areas of packaging and marketing – into research on new causes.

The top contenders for new causes are as follows, listed in the order in which we are currently prioritizing them:

  • More sub-causes within international aid – including disaster relief/recovery, charities aiming to help orphans and vulnerable children, and more attempts to find a strong microfinance option. Because we find international aid to be a strong area for a donor, and because we have a strong sense of the major issues within it, this cause is a high priority. We expect much of the work in this area to be done by non-co-founders (i.e., our Research Analyst and/or contractor).
  • U.S. equality of opportunity (early childhood care; education; employment assistance). We have already done substantial work in this area and have a concrete idea of how to create a high-quality report. We expect to be able to outsource much of the work on this report to non-co-founders. Therefore, although we don’t consider this the most worthwhile cause, the “return on investment” for us is very high in terms of what we can produce with a limited amount of work from the co-founders.
  • Disease research funding. Our intuitions suggest that this is a very promising area for a donor, but we have not done any work on it to date, and as a result our research on it will be somewhat like our research on international aid was at first: open-ended, slow, and heavily dependent on co-founders, with the rate and the nature of progress difficult to predict. We hope eventually to understand enough about this area that we can apply a consistent methodology to disease research charities, as we do with our current international aid report.
  • Environmental issues, particularly global warming mitigation. As with disease research, we have little background and expect a slow, open-ended process at first.

We have assembled a work plan with time estimates. Over the next year, we expect to complete research on the first two causes listed and to make some progress (though how much is difficult to predict) on disease research funding.


  • I’ve been impressed by your research so far and I’m happy to see you’ve got a plan for the future. However, I’m concerned that attempting to look at global warming with little or no experience on the topic will only bring politcal drama and distract from the rest of your work.

  • I strongly agree with JS. Yours is a difficult mission already, getting wrapped up in a political hot topic such as climate change will just invite controversy and distract from more important topics. Also, you risk immediately losing the attention of a large segment of the population that might write off your work as soon as they detect political leanings that might differ from their own.

  • Brigid on March 4, 2010 at 1:33 pm said:

    Hey guys, for new research areas, have you considered women’s issues? I know I’ve seen fistula mentioned on your blog before but don’t think you’ve signed off yet on a charity that helps women with this problem. I also understand that micro-finance has helped women (though this may be a donor story, I don’t know the actual numbers of loans to women v. men), but you’ve also laid out pretty good cases for not engaging here (at the moment, anyway).

    Hopefully it will arise somewhat within the broader new areas you’ve set. Could it be a sub-cause of international aid?

    Really rely on you all as resource for choosing my charities, and at the same time helping women is a passion for me, so hoping eventually these things will line up.

    And absolutely willing to volunteer research wise if you need it.


  • Holden on March 8, 2010 at 10:18 am said:

    Brigid, we have published our thoughts on women’s issues. We are interested in doing more work on relevant causes, particularly fistula, but our general attitude is to start with “Who is doing good, demonstrably effective work?” and then ask “And of these, which are best for women’s issues?” rather than going in the reverse order and determining to fund a cause where there may be no good charitable options.

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