When someone asks me what makes GiveWell different from other third-party charity evaluators, I often answer by listing all the things we’ve done in order to investigate our current top-rated charity, VillageReach.
- We’ve done extensive background research on international aid and argued for key takeaways such as the overall promise of international aid for donors, the particular promise of health aid, and, within health aid, the particular promise of immunization-focused programs (such as VillageReach’s).
- We’ve written up a comprehensive discussion of VillageReach’s different projects, the funders behind them, the funds allocated to them and what we know about their impact.
- We’ve examined VillageReach’s evidence for the effectiveness of its pilot project, listed and examined possible objections to this evidence, discussed these objections with staff and investigated staff’s responses.
- We’ve created multiple estimates of how much VillageReach’s activities cost per life saved.
- We’ve closely tracked VillageReach’s room for more funding and its expansion plan, and continually updated our analysis on these points as its plans and revenues have changed.
- We’ve spent several days with VillageReach staff in Mozambique (the site of its major project) and posted notes, reflections, pictures, and audio recordings of conversations.
- We’ve also visited VillageReach’s U.S. headquarters in Seattle, and we will soon be visiting the other site where VillageReach has a significant field presence, in Malawi.
- We’ve spoken to other funders of VillageReach, and to funders who have considered but ultimately declined funding VillageReach.
- Starting this year (following our moving over $1 million to VillageReach in 2010, most of it in late 2010), we’ve been posting quarterly updates on the progress of VillageReach’s work in Mozambique and the extent to which more donations are needed/warranted. We intend to continue these updates even if we stop recommending donations to VillageReach (which we expect to do shortly given the fact that it does not currently have a short-term funding need), since we want to learn how our recommendation turns out.
All in all, we’ve spent hundreds of hours examining VillageReach – yet we still feel very far from being “settled” on the question of how promising its activities are. Like any outstanding opportunity to do good, VillageReach’s work involves large and complex challenges. We’ll never have 100% of the relevant information or 100% certainty on its merits, but because we’ve recommended VillageReach so highly and moved over $1 million to it, it’s important to us that we do the best we can.
It isn’t realistic to do this kind of in-depth investigation for thousands (or even hundreds) of charities. We have to save our resources for the most promising charities if we want to have a reasonable level of confidence in our top recommendations. That means we take shortcuts on less promising charities, and we don’t put in the work it would take to distinguish between “worst,” “bad,” “mediocre” and “decent” groups – we’re laser-focused on the ones that we consider “best.”
Other independent charity evaluators tend to measure themselves by how many charities they rate. They exist largely for donors who already know where they want to give, and want a basic legitimacy check before they finalize the donation. To accommodate this goal, these other evaluators need to be far less thorough and more simplified than we are. That means – in our view – that they have no realistic chance of ever meaningfully rating impact, i.e., the degree to which a charity is succeeding at its mission.
GiveWell isn’t for everyone. Donors looking to check the charity they already want to give to are better off with other resources. But for donors who don’t already have a charity in mind and are looking to maximize their impact, we don’t know of any other group that provides a comparable product.