The GiveWell Blog

Update on Open Philanthropy Project

Our last major public updates on the Open Philanthropy Project were our May and June posts on global catastrophic risks and U.S. policy. This post summarizes our progress since then and where we currently stand on our goal of committing to causes.

Summary of currently ongoing activities

  • Deep dives on priority causes for U.S. policy. In June, we hired Shayna Strom as our Director of U.S. Policy. Shayna comes to GiveWell from the White House, where she was the Chief of Staff and Senior Counselor at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. She is based on Washington, D.C., and she is investigating our two leading contenders for priority causes in U.S. policy – labor mobility and criminal justice reform – at a higher level of depth than any cause investigation we’ve done so far, aiming to get a full lay of the land and develop a preliminary strategy for where we expect to concentrate our grantmaking. She is also aiming to surface more potentially promising causes.
  • Shallow- and medium-depth investigations for U.S. policy. Alexander Berger, who previously was conducting shallow and medium investigations within both U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks, is now focused on U.S. policy. He has conducted shallow investigations on several causes (not yet written up) and is currently exploring the spaces of health care policy and U.S. poverty & inequality.
  • Global catastrophic risks. Howie Lempel, who previously was focused on investigating and writing about the Pew Charitable Trusts, has been transitioning to a role in which his main responsibility is leading our work on global catastrophic risks. Howie’s main responsibility at the moment is conducting relatively high-depth investigations, including some preliminary grantmaking if warranted, of biosecurity and geoengineering. He also is conducting or managing lower-depth investigations on several other causes, including risks associated with artificial intelligence. In addition, Nick Beckstead, currently at Future of Humanity Institute, is working on a contract basis to conduct shallow investigations of further possible global catastrophic risk areas. Nick will be joining us as a full-time employee in December.
  • Critical evidence reviews. We are now working with David Roodman as a contractor focused on critical evidence reviews relevant to the Open Philanthropy Project. He recently completed a draft writeup on immigration and current residents’ wages and is now working on a writeup attempting to quantify the risks of geomagnetic storms.
  • Preliminary work on scientific research funding. We have assembled a small team of junior scientific advisors that works with me on preliminary explorations of scientific research funding. Our last update on this front was in 2013, and more updates are forthcoming.
  • Other work. In light of our enlarged team, we have spent substantial time improving our procedures for efficiently coordinating on investigations (and particularly grant decisions). We recently finalized another grant that has come out of our (now de-prioritized) co-funding work. We have continued work on our history of philanthropy project and have two case studies pending publication.

Our current plans
Our current focus is on committing to causes within the broad categories of U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks. We’ve published a spreadsheet summary of our current stances on the causes we’ve investigated, and which ones we consider to be the strongest contenders based on what we know today. In brief:

  • Within U.S. policy, our top contenders for priority causes are labor mobility and criminal justice reform. We have also done substantial work (including some preliminary grants) on macroeconomic policy.
  • Within global catastrophic risks, our top contenders for priority causes are biosecurity and geoengineering, though there are several causes that we see as potential contenders and are still working on investigating, including risks associated with artificial intelligence.

Before committing to causes, we are hoping to:

  • Investigate more potential causes at shallow and/or medium depth.
  • Do relatively deep investigations of the top contenders, and gain a more tangible sense of what our strategy and grantmaking would likely look like if we committed to these causes.
  • Hold convenings in which a small number of people with relevant experience provides feedback on our thinking. We are planning a convening for November in Washington, D.C. on the subject of our priorities within U.S. policy. We are still deciding whether and how to conduct a convening around global catastrophic risks (currently leaning against doing so).
  • Put more thought into how many, and what level, of “commitments to causes” we should make given our current capacity.

We are still hoping to commit to causes in these categories by the end of the calendar year, though we still see this as a stretch goal and see a reasonable probability that we’ll delay by a couple of months. As a lower priority, I am working on investigating possible approaches to scientific research funding, and hope to provide more updates on this front fairly soon.

Good Ventures has made a number of grants within potential priority causes, largely as a way of exploring what giving opportunities in these causes might look like (more on this idea at a previous post). These grants have been in top contender areas for U.S. policy (labor mobility, criminal justice reform and macroeconomic policy); there are likely to be some grants within some global catastrophic risk areas as well in the near future. A list of grants to date is available here.


  • Rob Bensinger on October 30, 2014 at 8:06 pm said:

    Your spreadsheet says of “treatment of animals in industrial agriculture” that its “importance depends heavily on values”. This makes it sound like the uncertainty is at the level of whether the true ethical theory says ‘care about animal experience as much as human experience,’ but my understanding is that you actually think the uncertainty concerns ‘whether animal experience is as intense, varied, etc. as human experience’. It’d probably be less confusing to phrase this as “importance depends heavily on unresolved issues in animal cognition and neuroscience”.

  • Holden on October 31, 2014 at 7:06 pm said:

    Thanks, Rob. I’ve changed it to “Importance depends on particularly difficult judgment calls.” In addition to issues in animal cognition and neuroscience, there are likely philosophical questions (even if we perfectly understood what animals’ experiences were like, they wouldn’t be identical to humans’, and the question of how we should relatively value the two would seem to be at least partly philosophical – though we certainly believe that an identical experience category, such as “suffering,” should be valued identically between the two), as well as questions around flow-through effects (flow-through effects questions apply to some degree to all causes, but seem like a particularly big question for thinking about animal welfare vs. human empowerment).

  • Rob Bensinger on November 4, 2014 at 8:42 pm said:

    Thanks, Holden. I agree. If animals are technically unconscious and non-suffering but have something functionally similar to consciousness / suffering, it might be very difficult to determine whether we should extend our moral sphere to them. (Running into an alien civilization would raise very similar problems: identifying consciousness seems hard, as does assigning value to exotic ‘quasi-conscious’ states.)

    If neuroscience someday helps us resolve that question, it might be by helping us model our own moral circuitry, not just by helping us model exotic forms of cognition.

  • Harry Greenwell on November 5, 2014 at 5:48 pm said:

    Hi, I saw Rob’s comment, which prompted me to read your “shallow overview” of treatment of animals in industrial agriculture from Sept 2013. While I laud your thoroughness in this area (as in others), I can’t help but wonder whether you are taking it too far in puzzling over the extent to which farm animals are capable of suffering. My impression was that behavioural, physiological and, where available, neurological evidence all tended to suggest that they are. (I’d also argue that our presumption for farm animals should be pretty similar as for other humans – it looks like they’re suffering so they probably are. The onus is on folks to prove otherwise.) However, even if you had doubts about this evidence/approach, would you be open to making a contingent recommendation along the following lines? “If you believe that farm animals are capable of significant suffering then we recommend Charity X as an effective means of reducing this suffering.”

    More generally, given your summary of the problem (the likelihood that billions of farm animals experience considerable or extreme suffering), I wonder whether the issue merits deeper investigation? I’m a Singerite vegetarian and have long wondered about where to donate to improve farm animal welfare so I would greatly value further research on the effectiveness of different forms of advocacy. I appreciate that you may reach the conclusion that, as a “neglected area”, there may be insufficient evidence or that current advocacy techniques are relatively ineffective. But such conclusions themselves would be useful, if such research fits with everything else you have on the go.

  • Holden on November 6, 2014 at 5:53 pm said:

    Harry – investigating a cause is a large amount of work, so we need to be careful about which ones we devote time to. This one is a possibility down the line.

    My mention of “suffering” was only meant as an illustrative example – I think there is more to the question of how to value different subjective experiences than just whether they involve suffering.

  • Harry Greenwell on November 6, 2014 at 6:19 pm said:

    fair enough & thanks for the response. as i say, i’ll be glad if you can devote more time to it down the line but i fully understand the constraints on your time.

  • Robert Wiblin on November 19, 2014 at 8:18 am said:

    Hi Harry,

    I think the likelihood that most mammals are conscious in a similar to way to humans is very high. But that still leaves open the question of how intense their experiences are relative to humans’. There are good reasons to expect a mouse’s experiences to be less intense and morally important than those of a human. But that case would be much weaker when comparing primates and humans – it is quite imaginable that chimpanzee experience is very similar to human experience.

    You may like to know about the organisation Animal Charity Evaluators (, which is attempting to conduct GiveWell-style analysis on the cause of helping animals, and makes charity recommendations for donors such as yourself. (Note, I am on the board of this organisation.)

    Best wishes,


  • Harry Greenwell on November 21, 2014 at 4:28 am said:

    Thanks Rob, I agree with everything you say. And thanks for the referral to Animal Charity Evaluators – that could be the supplement to GiveWell that I’ve been looking for.


Comments are closed.