The GiveWell Blog

Near-term grantmaking

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

As stated previously, we expect that it will take quite a long time for us to reach the point of issuing major recommendations based on our GiveWell Labs work. That said, there have been – and will be – situations in which making a grant is appropriate and helpful. Since we are working closely with Good Ventures on Labs, our default approach has been – and will be – to jointly assess situations in which a grant may be called for, with the final call (and any grant) being made by Good Ventures. (If we encounter a point of disagreement, in which we feel it is important to make a grant and Good Ventures does not, we may approach other donors.) This post lays out the basic principles by which we (GiveWell and Good Ventures) decide when to make a grant.

Note that these grants are importantly different from our official recommendations. There is much less emphasis on thorough investigation and maximizing good accomplished per dollar (though the latter is a consideration), and much more weight placed on practical value to our agenda (particularly learning opportunities).

1. Giving to learn

We’ve written before about the concept of “giving to learn,” stating that “gaining information from an organization … is much easier to obtain as a ‘supporter’ (someone who has helped get funding to an organization in the past) than simply as an evaluator (someone who might help get funding to an organization in the future).”

To elaborate a bit on this idea, there are multiple forms that “giving to learn” can take:

  • A grant can improve our access to an organization that we want to learn more about, or an organization whose personnel are good sources of information. The work we’ve done on co-funding generally goes in this category.
  • A grant may directly pay for work that generates useful information, or may help us influence the direction that such work takes. Potential examples include any grants from our history of philanthropy project, including the recent $50,000 grant to the Millions Saved project.
  • In some cases a grant can be viewed as an “experiment” – a way to test a theory that a particular project will have a particular result, or will more generally be a worthwhile investment.In general, we believe that “betting on one’s beliefs, and seeing what happens” is a good way to learn about the world, though we also think that this approach has major and unusual limitations when it comes to philanthropy. In our experience, understanding the outcomes/results of a given philanthropic project is usually a major undertaking, and it’s easy to learn nothing from a grant if one does not commit to such an undertaking. Therefore, we try to pick “learning grants” of this type carefully. The giving that fits best into this category so far is the money we’ve moved to our top charities, which we believe to be excellent giving opportunities that we can follow and adjust our views of over time.

2. Strong giving opportunities

Because we believe that good accomplished compounds over time, we want to take advantage of unusually strong giving opportunities when we come across them. Doing so will sometimes have the added benefit of providing further “experiments” to learn from in line with the previous section.

We believe that it is usually difficult to assess the quality of a giving opportunity without having strong cause-level knowledge. As such, we expect to make fairly few grants in this category in the near future, though as we expand the set of causes we understand well, we expect to make more over time.

3. Good citizenship

We are just getting started in exploring many relevant areas; our reputation and relationships are important. Therefore, we think it is important to generally behave as “good citizens” when it comes to grantmaking. The idea of being a “good citizen” is a vague one that we’re still fleshing out, but it includes things like

  • Being direct and open with potential funding partners and grantees, and not withholding information for the sake of saving money.
  • Not behaving in ways that “reward” potential funding partners/grantees for being less than direct and open with us, or “punish” potential funding partners/grantees for being direct and open with us.

Imagine that both we and another funder are considering making the same grant, and we have the feeling that the other funder might make the grant if we did not. In such a case, we could hold back and disguise our interest for the purpose of saving money, but we feel such an action would fail the “good citizenship” test. Rather, we intend to err on the side of making grants that we would have been willing to make under slightly different circumstances (concerning funding partners’ and potential grantees’ plans and preferences). If we value an organization’s help enough that we would be willing to make a “learning grant” to gain better access to it, we will err on the side of making such a grant even if we happen to believe that we could gain such access without a grant. If we are interested enough in a project that we would be willing to fund it if a potential partner weren’t, we will err on the side of contributing to funding even if we feel that the potential partner doesn’t need our help.

Weighing factors and making decisions

We plan to make grants when some combination of the above factors calls for doing so.

For any given grant, we will need to determine the appropriate level of investigation, as well as the appropriate level of followup and public discussion. In all cases, we will announce grants and give at least a basic characterization of the thinking behind them. But we also will be trying to make the level of investigation, followup and public discussion conceptually “proportional” to the size of the grant. The $50,000 grant to Millions Saved is simply too small – in the scope of the amount of funding we hope eventually to direct – to justify the sort of intensive investigation and followup we’ve done of our top charities. On the flip side, if we were contemplating a very large grant (in the millions of dollars), we would generally plan on serious investigation, and accordingly we would have a much higher bar that the grant would have to clear regarding the above criteria. We wouldn’t undertake a major investigation and major grant unless we felt an opportunity was highly outstanding (and/or in line with our learning agenda).

Over the coming months, GiveWell and Good Ventures expect to announce a reasonable number of grants. Such grants will not always be accompanied by exhaustive research or explicit cost-effectiveness analysis, but they will be carefully selected to fulfill the above criteria and further our mission of finding and funding the most outstanding giving opportunities possible.