The GiveWell Blog

Sharing notes from conversations: Case study in pursuing transparency in philanthropy

Early in our history, we got most of our information in the form of documents: grant applications and other documents sent to us by charities, academic literature, etc. Being transparent about why we believe what we believe was thus relatively straightforward: we sought to publish whatever documents we could.

Over time, phone and in-person conversations have become a much larger part of our process. The biggest reason for this is that our “access” – our ability to get people to talk to us – has improved (see our annual review for 2011). Conversations add a lot of value to our process, above and beyond what we could get from documents, but being transparent about this source of information – i.e., publicly sharing what we’ve learned in conversations – has been a challenge.

Below, we outline the trial-and-error by which we arrived at our current process for sharing notes from conversations; lay out what that process is at the moment; and discuss this case as an illustration of a general dynamic that we think applies fairly broadly when it comes to transparency in philanthropy:

  • It is possible to arrive at reasonable processes for conducting philanthropic investigations transparently.
  • But developing these processes can take time and can have significant short-term costs.
  • A funder that holds transparency as a high value can often find ways to fulfill the value. But a funder that has traditionally operated without transparency as a high value will not necessarily have an easy time making the switch.
  • We see ourselves as “trailblazing for transparency”: while being transparent isn’t easy for most philanthropic funders today (and it presents challenges for us), we are developing and writing publicly about our experiences and processes, so that future philanthropists will find it easier to emphasize transparency from day one.

Good Ventures has had a similar goal of sharing notes from conversations, and it has been an active participant in the evolution we describe below.

Early on, when we had a particularly informative conversation, we would often write up a summary (or rough transcript) of it and ask the person we had spoken with what they would think of our publishing it publicly. In all cases, we offered the person the opportunity to make edits to the document beforehand – our intent was not to capture the conversation word for word, but to share the insights and knowledge of the person in question.

There were cases in which this worked out (for example, a 2009 conversation with VisionSpring), but there were also a couple of cases in which the person we spoke with was taken aback at our request. In the latter cases, the problem seemed to stem from the fact that we had asked about publishing notes after the conversation rather than before it (we had been inconsistent on this point): we received complaints along the lines of “I spoke with you frankly because I didn’t know you would be seeking to publish anything publicly; now I feel ambushed.” In response to these cases, we determined that we needed to standardize our process for conducting conversations to ensure that we always raised the possibility of publishing notes before the conversation began. We also sought to clean up our notes before sending them for review, to reduce the editing burden on the person we sent them to and increase the odds of their being approved.

As our volume of conversations increased, taking, cleaning and sending notes for review became a major burden on our capacity, particularly because it was hard to specialize the note-taking role (since notes generally had to be put together by someone who had been present for the conversation).

We discussed the idea of simply recording conversations (with permission) and posting the recordings, but in the few cases where we had raised this as a possibility, it had generally seemed to make people uncomfortable (though there were exceptions, such as a conversation with William Easterly). Instead, we started asking to record the conversations for internal purposes only, and we dedicated one of our staff members to transcribing these conversations after the fact. We settled on relatively standardized language for making our requests (language that Good Ventures helped craft and also uses in its communications), and adopted a procedure of putting this language in pre-conversation emails (usually when finalizing the time/date/venue for a conversation):

A goal of ours is to share as much as possible about our research publicly, so that others can learn from our work. So if you’re up for it, we’d like to take notes on this call for the purpose of posting them on our website later, pending your review and approval.

After the call, we’d run the notes by you, and if there were anything you wanted to keep confidential, or any changes you wanted to make, we’d be happy to do so. If you decided you’d rather we not publish the notes at all, we’d be happy to oblige, because we never want to create a disincentive for people to speak frankly with us. What do you think?

Along the same lines, would it be OK to record the call? The recording would be for our internal use only, so that we can focus on listening rather than on taking notes.

Good Ventures also currently uses (and helped to develop) the language and procedure described above.

We found that implementing this process solved a lot of our former problems: we no longer had cases where people were taken aback at our requests (people who weren’t comfortable with notes or recording could tell us so in advance of the call), and we had a dedicated staff member producing transcripts and saving the rest of staff’s time. The dedicated staff member has, over time, become better at taking notes that concisely hit the main points of the call and are highly likely to get approved with few changes (at one point we experimented with simply producing full transcripts, but these weren’t well received because they required the people we had spoken with to do a lot of reading and editing).

So we now have a process that we feel works fairly well, with the result that the vast majority of our conversations lead to public conversation notes capturing the highlights, and the costs in terms of relationships and our capacity seem quite manageable. But as detailed above, it took a good amount of time, trial and error to get to this point.

Notes from our conversations are available at our conversations page and via our new content feed.


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