The GiveWell Blog

GiveWell’s history of philanthropy/philanthropy journalism project

Programs’ track records have always been a major input into our research process. For example, when assessing the case for distributing nets to prevent malaria, we’ve looked for information about the track record of similar programs.

As we begin to research other areas where philanthropy could play a role, we similarly want to learn from history about philanthropy’s track record. We’ve done some minimal work looking for literature, but what we’ve found was either not on the topic we’re most interested in (i.e., what has philanthropy accomplished?) or wasn’t at a sufficient level of depth to adequately answer the question “what role did philanthropy, as opposed to other factors, play in the outcome in question?” (For more, see our 2012 post on the best source we’ve found so far for this sort of information.)

Because we’ve struggled to find relevant literature, we’ve begun a project to investigate the possibility of funding someone to do a more thorough job of synthesizing what already exists – or to create better literature. We think it’s possible that we might seek to fund this type of work in the future. Such funding would be modest in size, at least to start, and would be thought of more as “costs of research” than as “top giving opportunities.” We would view this work, at least in the short term, as a potential way to increase our total “research capacity” by answering questions that we would otherwise try to answer internally.

Some examples of projects we might consider include:

  • An annotated bibliography of what relevant materials already exist – materials written by academics and think tanks as well as materials available in foundation archives (e.g., the Rockefeller Archives house archival information from multiple foundations and make this information available to researchers).
  • Literature reviews of topics covered by existing literature.
  • A list of the 20 most important philanthropic “success stories” (policy changes, scientific/technical contributions, or other) of the last 25 years.
  • A list of 20 major philanthropic failures (e.g., cases in which philanthropists spent large amounts of money with disappointing results).
  • In-depth case studies of the above aiming to questions such as “What role did philanthropy play in this change?”, “What other, non-philanthropic factors played a major role?”, “Who (if anyone) was opposed to the change in question and how did they try to prevent it from occurring?” and “What was the social impact of this change?” These case studies could take the form of ~10,000-word “long-form journalism,” academic papers, or think-tank white papers.
  • We could also imagine supporting work that’s more focused on reporting on events as they develop. For example, we could fund a journalist to visit NGOs and report back, much in the way we’ve done on our site visits to our top charities. Or, we could support a journalist to report on the ongoing way in which philanthropists develop strategies and how those strategies play out.

We’re very early in our investigations. We still aren’t sure whether this work would be best suited to academics, think tanks, journalists, or someone else, and we have little idea of what scope (or how much funding) we will eventually find worthwhile. As always, we plan to be fully transparent with the results of this work, so the output of what we produce will be publicly available.

What we’ve done so far and plans for 2013

Thus far, I’ve spoken with about 15 people including journalists, academics, and people who have worked (or work) at think tanks. The conversations have generally been short and we haven’t produced notes from individual conversations. What we have taken away from these conversations is a broad consensus that (a) there isn’t much information of the type we’re looking for already available and (b) this is an interesting project that people would be excited to participate in. The book that’s been most frequently recommended to me as fitting what we’re looking for is Steven Teles’s The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement.

The people I’ve spoken with (who gave me permission to put their names in this post) are:

While this project may become something much bigger, our goals for 2013 are to undertake several small projects (as a very rough benchmark, we’ve thought of potentially funding up to $250,000 this year) to see if we’re able to produce the type of information we’re looking for.


  • Rachael Barrett on April 9, 2013 at 11:02 am said:

    Hauser Center for nonprofits at Harvard…and Peter Dobkin Hall might be a good source and BC’s Center for Wealth and Philanthropy…and of course, Indiana University’s School of Philanthropy, if you want the academic route?

  • Daniel Gastfriend on April 9, 2013 at 4:00 pm said:

    This seems like something that could be accomplished without much funding–I imagine you might be able to find a fair number of graduate and undergraduate students at schools with strong social science departments who would be interested in doing this kind of research for theses/dissertations, especially if it’s likely to have practical implications for your work. Giving What We Can chapters could probably help look for students who might be interested.

  • Cesy Avon on April 11, 2013 at 8:33 am said:

    This sounds like a worthwhile investigation.

  • Alexander on April 11, 2013 at 1:24 pm said:

    Rachael: Thanks for the suggestions.

    Daniel: We think we’re likely to get higher quality work if we pay for it, and our understanding from discussions with academics is that the expectation is that grad students doing this kind of work be paid.

  • Lorenzo Moreno on April 14, 2013 at 6:49 pm said:

    Many policy research organizations conduct systematic reviews of important programs, models, or interventions. For example, the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences,has invested millions of dollars assessing the effectiveness of thousands of preK-12 programs ( Other organizations, such as 3ie (International Initiative for Impact Evaluation), also conduct systematic reviews of international development projects ( Furthermore, policy analysis and evaluations sponsored by the U.S. Federal government are in the public domain and many of them include highly-relevant systematic reviews and other research, such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation ( or the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality ( In sum, there is already a wealth of information available in the right organizations that could free your resources for something else.

    Personally, I am also interested in making the use of evidence for decision making a participatory process and not just a technocratic elitist activity. If interested, I would be delighted to have a call or email conversation.

  • Peter Singer on April 15, 2013 at 7:37 am said:

    I agree with Daniel Gastfriend that it should be possible to do this without much funding – or at least, without much funding coming from you. It’s the kind of thing that academics get research funding for. So why not try to get research funding directed to a purpose that is of above-average value, and use your own funds to do more good? Get a group of leading academics to be involved – you might start by asking Academics Stand Against Poverty to send around a query as to who may be interested.

  • Alexander on April 15, 2013 at 10:59 pm said:

    Peter, that’s a possibility that we’ll consider, thanks. We have to budget our time as well as our money, though, so we wouldn’t necessarily involve ourselves in a major promotion project in order to avoid recommending grants.

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