The GiveWell Blog

2014 plan for GiveWell’s traditional (“top charities”) work

As discussed in our previous post, in 2013, we hoped to maintain the quality of our traditional research and recommendations while spending limited senior staff time (note 1) on our traditional work. This year, we plan to put significantly more total staff time (though roughly the same amount of senior staff time) into this work.

Beyond the additional research we do, an overarching goal remains building capacity for our traditional research and recommendations. Last year, we reduced the amount of senior staff time necessary for GiveWell’s traditional work, and we hope to reduce it further this year by continuing to train staff to take over the roles filled by senior staff in the past.

In addition to the new charities and interventions we plan to consider (discussed below), we will also continue to publish updates on our past top charities: GiveDirectly, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, the Deworm the World Initiative (led by Evidence Action), and the Against Malaria Foundation. We will also maintain our “open-door policy” so that any organization that believes it is a strong contender for our recommendations can apply via our application page.

Given our current capacity, we anticipate being able to consider 5 or more potential top charities and 5-10 additional interventions. We are also undertaking more experimental work that might lead to additional GiveWell top charities in the future.

Our plan for our traditional work is substantially more ambitious than what we planned last year (and than what we did – evaluate 1 new top charity and a few additional interventions, most of which we hope to publish material on shortly). This reflects our substantially increased staff, discussed in the previous post.

Research priorities
Below, we list our preliminary choices for charities and interventions to prioritize.

Priority charities

While maintaining our “open door” policy, we also plan to actively pursue investigations of several particularly promising charities. We believe that, due to our growing influence and improved processes, we will be able to get a greater level of engagement from charities we actively prioritize than we have in the past.

We chose charities primarily based on our best guess at the likelihood of eventually becoming a top-rated organization (often informed by our past interactions with the charity in question). We also gave additional weight to organizations that we guessed could plausibly be significantly better than our current top charities.

To arrive at this list, we (a) reviewed our full list of eligible organizations (i.e., charities running priority programs; (b) searched the Gates Foundation (the primary major funder focused on global health) grants database; (c) conducted Google searches for organizations working on our priority interventions (listed below).

We also plan to conduct the following charity-related research:

All of our current top charities are relatively small (annual budgets of up to approximately $10 million) and – with the exception of Evidence Action – focus on only one program. With the exception of the Against Malaria Foundation, all of the charities we have recommended since 2011 have been run by people with academic backgrounds.

These characteristics are not strict criteria of ours, but recognition of the fact that they are shared by our current top charities leads us to believe that (a) these characteristics are a reasonable way to prioritize organizations and (b) working with organizations that don’t match these characteristics will likely be more time consuming. Our 2014 plans reflect this judgment. Most simply, we have prioritized organizations that pattern match our current top charities (i.e., ICCIDD and CNTD).

Priority intervention reports

We are currently near publication of a number of reports:

  • Supplemental maternal and neonatal tetanus immunization campaigns
  • Salt iodization
  • Vitamin A supplementation
  • Polio eradication

In 2014, we aim to complete 5-10 additional reports, roughly prioritized in the order below. We prioritized programs based on a combination of (a) our best guess at their cost-effectiveness and (b) the likelihood that, if we were to determine that an intervention is particularly promising, we could then find a charity implementing it to review and recommend.

To create this list, we aimed to cast a wide net, reviewing the interventions listed in (a) the Disease Control Priorities Report, (b) WHO-Choice, (c) the Copenhagen Consensus, and (d) the Lancet series on nutrition. An excel file with all interventions listed is available here.

  • Nutrition programs
    • Iron fortification/supplementation
    • Folate fortification/supplementation
    • Zinc fortification/supplementation
    • Multi-vitamin fortification/supplementation (e.g., Sprinkles)
    • Others including maternal multiple micronutrient for pregnant/fertile women and calcium for pregnant/fertile women
  • Behavior change:
    • Community-led total sanitation
    • Handwashing promotion
    • Condom promotion
    • Breastfeeding promotion
  • Prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT)
  • Oral rehydration therapy (with or without zinc)
  • Treatments for HIV/AIDS, malaria, or pneumonia
  • Intermittent preventive treatment of malaria for pregnant women (IPTp)

Experimental work to “seed” potential additional top charities

A major obstacle we face in our traditional work is the lack of charities that will likely be able to meet our criteria.

In light of this, we are working on several projects this year that are relatively experimental and may eventually lead to new top charities.

In January 2014, Good Ventures made a $100,000 grant to New Incentives, an organization focused on conditional cash transfers. New Incentives is a startup organization and does not currently qualify as a potential GiveWell top charity, but because it (a) runs a program that has significant evidence supporting it and (b) we believe that its founder, Svetha Janumpalli, is committed to allowing us to thoroughly vet her activities, we believe it is plausible that New Incentives will eventually become a GiveWell top charity. We are open to recommending other grants to other groups meeting similar criteria, if we come across them.

We would also guess that there are interventions that (a) could be considered priority programs if they had additional evidence supporting them and (b) could be scaled with additional funding. We intend to speak with organizations that conduct research (including Innovations for Poverty Action, among others) as well as Evidence Action (whose mission is to scale up evidence-based programs) to determine whether there are any interventions for which this is the case. If we identify strong contenders, we (in partnership with Good Ventures) will consider funding this research.

Finally, aside from the charities listed above, we know of no organizations focused on implementing priority programs. Engaging with large “mega-charities” has always posed a challenge for us for two reasons: (a) they tend to have large public relations and fundraising departments from which we have struggled to get helpful programmatic information and (b) because they run so many programs, we have struggled to feel confident that a donation restricted to “Program X” would in fact lead to more of Program X being implemented. On the other hand, we recognize that many major funders work directly with these large entities to implement programs, and while we know that such an investigation would be time consuming, we may now be at the point in our development where it is worthwhile.

We have not yet decided to move forward with engaging with a mega-charity; our plan is to first complete the necessary intervention reports and then assess whether any interventions/mega-charities appear to be sufficiently promising to be worth addressing the inherent challenges of this investigation.

Note 1: In this post, senior staff refers to Elie, Holden, and Alexander.


  • Taymon A. Beal on February 26, 2014 at 3:15 pm said:

    Did this post go up just now? It has a January 30 date on it.

  • Yes, it did. Sorry about that — problem fixed.

  • Ian Turner on March 5, 2014 at 9:44 pm said:

    It seems a bit odd to me that you would rely on the properties of charity size and whether or not the charity is run by an academic based solely on the fact that these properties are shared by your current top charities, especially given such a small sample size.

    Regarding the charity budget, to me this seems very likely to be related to the amount of money Givewell has available to move, and as you have more money moved you may be able to attract the attention of somewhat larger organizations. Since you do expect your money moved to grow exponentially, it seems to me like you should be willing to go at least an order of magnitude larger on charity size, if you are going to use it as a heuristic.

    Regarding whether the charity is run by an academic, the connection seems rather tenuous to me, given the small sample size (n=4) and even at that size there are exceptions. This could easily be due to chance, or due to confounding (for example, maybe academics are more similar to Givewell in communication style than others).

    Do you have a more elaborate rationale for these criteria which you excluded from this post for brevity?

  • Alexander on March 14, 2014 at 6:27 pm said:

    Ian, sorry for the slow reply on this.

    First, I just want to note that Elie meant “prioritized” in a pretty weak way in the statement “Most simply, we have prioritized organizations that pattern match our current top charities (i.e., ICCIDD and CNTD).” The two other organizations that he listed as priorities for this year are Nothing but Nets (a project of the UN Foundation) and UNICEF, which don’t pattern match in the same way – both are much larger and not run by academics. So, just to be clear, it’s not the case that we’re exclusively or narrowly focused on organizations that fit the profile of the small number we’ve recommended before.

    Second, in terms of substantive rationale, I don’t think there’s too much over and above what Elie said. While we do expect to continue to have more influence, and therefore to be more appealing for larger charities to be evaluated by, we still see a lot of value from working with smaller organizations. On the academic side, I agree that part of our affinity for charities run by academics comes from our ability to communicate more clearly with them, but I think that’s not a mistake – clear communication is really crucial to our evaluation process. More fundamentally, given our focus on rigorous evaluation, I don’t think we’re particularly overfitting by saying that organizations with a major academic emphasis might be a good place to look for potential grantees.

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