The GiveWell Blog

What large-scale philanthropy focuses on today

[Added August 27, 2014: GiveWell Labs is now known as the Open Philanthropy Project.]

We think there are two key questions for someone trying to do strategic cause selection: (1) What is the history of philanthropy – what’s worked and what hasn’t? (2) What is the current state of philanthropy – what are philanthropists focused on and what might they be overlooking?

We started to answer (1) in our discussion of foundation “success stories.” This post addresses (2). We first discuss the data sets we have used, which we are making publicly available and linking from this post. We then make some observations from these data sets.

The data sets we’ve used

  • Dollar allocation data. The Foundation Center maintains a database of grant amounts, dates, descriptions and more for over 100,000 foundations (over 2.4 million grants). It also tags these grants by category in ways that we’ve found helpful. The Foundation Center provided us with a breakdown by category of 2009-2010 grants that it had selected as an efficient representative sample, totaling about $20 billion, which would be equivalent to about half of 2010 foundation giving according to the Foundation Center). We went through the 923 categories provided by the Foundation Center and applied our own tags to these categories, resulting in a breakdown of spending by 33 “GiveWell categories” (106 total subcategories). When we were unclear on the nature of a Foundation Center category (or simply found one interesting), we pulled the top 100 grants for that category using our paid subscription to Foundation Directory Online.”GiveWell categories” simply refers to a set of tags we created, because we found it to be helpful in thinking about the breakdown of giving from our perspective. When we discuss dollar allocations to different categories in this post, we are referring to “GiveWell categories” and not to the categories maintained by the Foundation Center. There may be some cases in which GiveWell defines a term differently from the Foundation Center, meaning that our figure for that term will be different from what the Foundation Center publishes (for example, we break out “museums” as a separate category from “arts and culture,” so the figure we would give for foundation spending on “arts and culture” is different from the figure the Foundation Center would give). This does not mean that there is actually a contradiction between our data and Foundation Center’s; we are using Foundation Center’s data and consider their reported funding allocations to be correct according to their term definitions.

    We provide a spreadsheet that includes both the data provided directly to us by Foundation Center (“FDO categories”) and the breakdown according to our own category definitions (“GiveWell categories”). It also makes it possible to see exactly how we defined “GiveWell categories” and thus how these might be different from “FDO categories.”

    Dollar allocation data (XLS)
  • Data from the top 100 foundations’ websites, compiled by Victoria Dimond (GiveWell volunteer) and Good Ventures, which has been working closely with GiveWell on GiveWell Labs. Victoria and Good Ventures visited the websites of the top 100 independent foundations in the U.S. (we generated this list using Foundation Center data; we found sufficiently informative websites for 82 of the 100) and created a spreadsheet with the names and descriptions of their program areas and sub-program areas. We then created summary sheets that rank program area types based on how many foundations work on them, and rank foundations by their “unusualness” (the extent to which they work on program areas that few other foundations work on).
    Program Areas for Top 100 U.S. Foundations (XLS)

In categorizing giving for both of these, we deliberately used categories tailored to our own interests (rather than trying to come up with a universally useful taxonomy). For example, since we have pretty well-defined views on the best ways to help the disadvantaged, we tended to lump many different things together under headings such as “Helping the disadvantaged” or “U.S. poverty” (this includes human services, youth development services, and more). By contrast, we tended to separate out any kind of work we found particularly interesting. So if you are seeking a picture of how foundations give for your own purposes, you may consider going back to the raw data (which we provide in the files linked above) and creating your own categories.

Our observations
Popular areas (according to GiveWell’s taxonomy)

Highly popular areas include:

  • U.S. education (K12/preschool) – 46 of 82 foundations in the “top 100 foundations” set list this as a program area; it accounts for over 7% of giving (in dollar terms) according to dollar allocation data.
  • U.S. higher education (scholarships, increasing access to higher education, or general/capital support) – 25 of 82 foundations, around 8% of giving according to dollar allocation data (the latter is harder to interpret on this point since it may include other activities within higher education).
  • U.S. poverty alleviation – 42 of 82 foundations, ~ 5% of giving according to dollar allocation data (this figure was obtained by adding human services and youth development, both of which appear primarily focused on the U.S.; other areas should also be partially counted, but they are a mix of international and U.S. giving) according to dollar allocation data.
  • Arts & culture: 30 of 82 foundations; ~5% of total giving according to dollar allocation data.
  • Environment (conservation): 25 of 82 foundations, ~4% of total giving according to dollar allocation data.
  • Health care and biomedical research funding (including support of hospitals): 17 of 82 foundations work on health care delivery and 14 of 82 work on biomedical research. This category (in which research and delivery can be difficult to separate) accounts for ~20% of total giving according to dollar allocation data.
  • Climate change and/or energy: 14 of 82 foundations work in these areas, though they account for only ~1% of total giving according to dollar allocation data.

This set of areas accounts for about half of all of the giving in the dollar allocation data (and much of what remains is difficult to categorize). It includes every area that is listed by 9 or more of the 82 foundations we examined.

International causes

Causes focused on helping other countries – or international relations – appear less common than the above causes, but are still fairly common. Each of the following are included in the work of 8-9 of the 82 foundations we examined:

  • Developing-world poverty
  • Developing-world health
  • Developing-world transparency/accountability/democracy
  • Foreign policy analysis

Total “international affairs” tagged giving is around 3% of all giving (in dollar terms) according to dollar allocation data, though this includes many international-aid grants that may be tagged as university support (for relevant research), health, agriculture, etc.

While we’ve done substantial investigation into the first two causes listed above, the second two have largely not been on our radar. Some of the largest foundations emphasize their work in these areas.

Less popular causes (according to GiveWell’s taxonomy)

Among the causes that are less popular, we find the following particularly interesting (not necessarily promising, but worth noting for later discussion). Here we focus on the “top 100 foundations” set since less-popular causes like this are difficult to isolate in dollar allocation data.

  • Natural sciences and mathematics, excluding biomedical sciences – 7 of 82 foundations list program areas in this category.
  • Immigration (advocacy and integration) – 4 foundations.
  • Promoting specific topics in higher education – 4 foundations. (We note that many of philanthropy’s putative success stories are in this category.)
  • Developing-world education – 3 foundations.
  • Reproductive health/rights – 3 foundations.
  • Social entrepreneurship – 3 foundations.
  • Mitigation/prevention of global catastrophic risks other than climate change. 2 foundations focus on nuclear nonproliferation, while one focuses on biological threats; the total giving for this category according to dollar allocation data is 0.1% of all giving dollars.
  • Scholarship and open access – 2 foundations.
  • Education and technology – 2 foundations.
  • Information access (cellphones, Internet) – 2 foundations.
  • Social sciences – 2 foundations.
  • Disease surveillance – 1 foundation.


  • Ryan on May 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm said:

    Holden and Team,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and data sources on this.

    I think that your two questions for strategic cause selection are on the right track but are too narrow. To me, they would be:

    1) Where is it possible to have an impact?
    2) Where are others trying to achieve an impact?
    3) Given this, where might I have a unique impact?

    The history of philanthropy is one key factor in identifying what might work, but if you looked only at the history of philanthropy, you would miss emerging needs and opportunities. For example, climate change adaptation would not on the radar if you had done a retrospective examination 20 years ago.

    Once you establish the pool of potential ideas, which of those are getting funding? The key difference between my framing and yours is that I do not limit it to philanthropies — what looks like a strategic gap in philanthropy funding might actually be a cause dominated by government funding. If you are really going to get into the weeds (and it certainly looks like you are) you should also consider government-funded programs.

    Finally, you have a list of high-potential ideas that are under-funded. What are your own “competitive advantages” as a funder that would allow you to bring unique value to those causes? For example, CIFF reportedly takes a far more active role in their investments than many other foundations. This will undoubtedly influence the types of causes and organizations they choose to work with. A foundation engaging in strategic cause selection needs to answer not only why is this cause right, but also why is it right for me?

  • Holden on May 9, 2012 at 1:46 pm said:

    Hi Ryan, thanks for the thoughts. A few points of clarification:

    • The two questions we listed should be thought of as “key specific questions to investigate,” not “key conceptual questions for decisionmaking.” Our framework for identifying a promising cause is similar to yours; see our previous post on the matter.And in fact we do have climate change on our short list of causes, as we wrote today.
    • We thought about trying to include government funding in our “what is under-invested in?” analysis. But government funding is often fundamentally different from philanthropic funding; in fact, the presence of a lot of government funding in an area could be seen as an argument in favor of philanthropic investing in that area, since small contributions by philanthropic funding could lead to big changes in how government funds are spent.

      When investigating a particular cause, we think it’s important to understand the dynamics of government funding, but when trying to get a bird’s-eye view of all causes, we think including government funding would be more likely to muddle the picture than to clarify it (unless a lot of work were done to understand which government funding streams behave more and less like philanthropic funding).

      Bottom line – we agree with you that it’s important to consider government funding, and have left it out of our preliminary bird’s-eye-view investigation for practical reasons.

    • We also agree that considering our own strengths and weaknesses, relative to other funders, is a relevant consideration; but we don’t have much understanding of this consideration yet, aside from the belief that we are relatively strong on transparency (which doesn’t seem to indicate that we should focus on one cause or another).

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