The GiveWell Blog

GiveWell research plans for 2016

Over the past couple of years, we’ve put a lot of effort into hiring and training staff and we now have significantly more capacity to do research than we have in past years. Some of our increased capacity will support the Open Philanthropy Project, which we hope will be a separate organization by the end of 2016; its plans for the year will be discussed on the new Open Philanthropy Project blog. We also expect to have more capacity for GiveWell’s work of finding outstanding evidence-based charities.

At the same time, we have come to believe that the kind of work we’ve recently been doing to find top charities – deeply investigating the most promising-seeming charities we know of, based largely on which interventions they carry out – has limited promise. In past years – and at the beginning of this year – we hoped that these investigations would lead relatively quickly to new top charities. Now, we believe that we’ve already (previously) identified most of the strongest charities by our criteria, and there aren’t many strong candidates left (though there are a few that we continue to investigate, and we remain willing and eager to investigate further promising groups if we come across them). With that in mind, we have begun seeing more potential in other research priorities, such as supporting the development of new organizations and new evidence bases.

A future post will elaborate on why we’ve formed this view. This post focuses on laying out our plans for GiveWell’s research work in 2016, taking this view into account.

In brief, in 2016:

  • We plan to focus much of our capacity on a small number of initiatives that are unlikely to result in new top charities in 2016, but which we hope will lead to new top charities that are competitive with our current top charities in 2017 or 2018.
  • We plan to intensify our work following our current top charities and are tentatively planning to make site visits to distributions funded by the Against Malaria Foundation and work supported by Evidence Action’s Deworm the World Initiative.
  • We are also planning a substantial project focused on the question of whether or not we should recommend that Good Ventures give significantly more than it has in the past to support insecticide-treated nets, arguably the most promising area we know of for substantial additional funding.
  • We also hope to take on additional work (described in detail below) but plan to prioritize this work below the items listed above.
  • We plan to put more staff time into donor outreach than we have in the past and discuss our priorities for that work below.

This plan represents a significant shift from previous years, when our primary goal was improving the list of top charities we published at the end of each year. We plan to write more about the reasoning behind this shift in a future post.

What we’ve done so far this year

In January and February 2016 we:

  • Put significantly more effort into getting input on our plans from non-senior staff than we have in past years. To start, we asked staff and a small number of GiveWell followers to make probabilistic predictions about which charities would become top charities if we investigated them this year. The results of this exercise led to this initial list of possible priorities (listed in no particular order). This list represents the organizations that we would guess are most likely to become top charities at the end of 2016. When we later revised our plan, we held a series of staff meetings to discuss details of the plan and what the new plan might be missing.
  • Had exploratory conversations with several charities on that list and others in the field of global health and development. The goal of conversations with charities was to explain our application process and ask them basic questions about their programs, monitoring and evaluation, and need for additional funding. The goal of conversations with others working in global health and development was to generate a list of additional organizations to contact.

Ultimately, this work made us more pessimistic that prioritizing work on all the organizations listed above would lead to new top charities by the end of 2016, as discussed in the introduction of this post, and we refined our plans for the year as a result. A future post will elaborate on this development.

Top priorities for research

Our top priorities are:

  • Supporting the development of potential future GiveWell top charities: making grants to organizations that could become top charity contenders in the future or supporting research that could lead to more organizations that are a strong fit with our criteria. This work is unlikely to result in new top charities in 2016, but we hope it will lead to new top charities that are competitive with our current top charities in 2017 or 2018. This work might include:
    • Providing early stage funding to organizations that aim to scale up programs with strong evidence of effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. (For example, New Incentives or Evidence Action’s No Lean Season program.)
    • Funding research on programs that are candidates to become priority programs. (For example, this grant to support research on an incentives for immunization program.)
    • Funding organizations that run priority programs to increase or improve their monitoring, or funding a third party to do this monitoring.
  • Considering additional funding for insecticide-treated nets: A significant funding gap exists for insecticide-treated nets, and this gap appears to be as cost-effective an opportunity as any other we have found. This project involves determining whether there are high quality opportunities to provide significantly more funding for insecticide-treated nets than we have in the past. It will involve conversations with the major bednet funders (e.g., Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria and the President’s Malaria Initiative) and others familiar with how to identify funding gaps for bednets and what the options are for monitoring distributions. We have also been discussing with the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) what it would take to quickly scale up AMF’s work. The goal of this work is to identify additional funding opportunities for funding insecticide-treated nets in 2016.
  • Intervention prioritization: quick investigations on a large number of interventions with the goal of finding more priority programs. We have looked at many interventions historically, but regularly learn of programs that we do not know very much about.
  • Current top charities: continuing to follow our current top charities and trying to answer our highest priority unanswered questions about these groups. More on this below.
  • New evidence on deworming and bednets. The next round of follow up on a key deworming study is expected to be available later this year and could make a big difference to our view of deworming. We’re also looking more into the degree to which insecticide resistance may be reducing the impact of bednets.

Other research we will undertake if we have the time to do so

  • Micronutrient fortification charities. Last year, we tried but were unable to find compelling evidence that the Iodine Global Network (IGN) or the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) had successfully contributed to the impact of salt iodization programs (write-ups forthcoming). We also began investigating Project Healthy Children. We may continue some of these investigations this year and have also reached out to the Micronutrient Initiative and the Food Fortification Initiative.
  • Neglected tropical disease (NTD) charities. We began investigating Sightsavers and END Fund’s work on deworming last year and may continue with those organizations this year and expand the investigations to cover multiple NTDs. We have reached out to the Carter Center and Helen Keller International (HKI) about their NTD programs. HKI declined to participate at this time.
  • Surgery charities. We have had several conversations with organizations that work on cataract surgery and we may reach out to organizations that work on obstetric fistula surgery. Our initial impression from these conversations is that it will be very challenging to understand the impact that these charities’ programs have. We may also consider other surgical interventions (such as trachoma).
  • Other organizations. If organizations apply for a recommendation and seem sufficiently promising, we will aim to review them.
  • Publishing research we largely completed in 2015: updates on standout charities (GAIN, IGN, and Living Goods), interim reviews of charities we began investigating in 2015 (Sightsavers, END Fund, and Project Healthy Children), and intervention reports (folic acid fortification, surgery for cataracts, trachoma and fistula, measles immunization campaigns, mass drug administration for lymphatic filariasis, and “Targeting the Ultra Poor”).

Research we considered but do not expect to undertake

The following investigations are ones that we considered doing this year but don’t currently expect to get to. This could change if some of the higher priority work turns out to be less promising than expected.

  • Mega-charities. We could try to work with one or more large organizations with very diverse programs to figure out how to scale-up work on one of our priority programs.
  • Charities that work on programs that are probably more cost-effective than cash transfers but not by a large enough margin that it seems worth highly prioritizing work on them.
    • Voluntary medical male circumcision. We are interested in talking to PSI, the only major organization we know of working on this program, but do not plan to prioritize this program beyond that.
    • “Targeting the ultra poor” or “graduation” programs.
    • Lymphatic filariasis.
    • Incentives for immunization. We previously funded research on this program and have been working with IDinsight on a cost-effectiveness analysis.
  • Immunization programs. We have put in a fair amount of work into looking for room for more funding for scaling up immunization programs and have largely failed to find opportunities (2012 write-up; recent example).

More detail on potential further research on current recommended charities

One of our top priorities for 2016 is continuing to follow our current top charities and trying to answer our highest priority unanswered questions about these groups. We moved over $100 million to these groups in 2015 and whether we recommend a similar (or greater) level of support in 2016, and how we recommend allocating funds among them, depends on answering: (1) what is our best estimate of the organization’s impact and cost-effectiveness? and (2) how much room for more funding do they have?

Top charities

In past years, we’ve updated our top charity reviews once a year, in November. This year, we plan to refresh these reviews twice, in June and November. As we have at the end of the year, we expect to reconsider what recommendation we make to donors about how to allocate donations amongst our top charities in June.

Summary of our research plans for each of our top charities (note that the strategy documents were written in February):

  • Against Malaria Foundation (AMF). We plan to follow AMF’s progress closely in 2016. Key questions include (a) how quickly is AMF committing funding to new distributions, and (b) can we get a more detailed understanding of how data is collected in pre- and post-distribution surveys. More details here.
  • Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI). The amount of time we spend on SCI this year depends on whether we see a significant improvement in the quality of SCI’s financial information (how it has spent funds, how much funding it holds, and projected expenses). If it does not improve, we will likely deprioritize much additional work on SCI. If it does, we would be interested in exploring the research questions detailed here.
  • Deworm the World Initiative. Of our top charities, we feel that there is the largest gap between what we could know and what we do know for Deworm the World. In particular, we’ve focused on Deworm the World’s work in India, because in the past most unrestricted funds were used in India. Going forward, unrestricted funds will largely be used in new programs. We aim to follow Deworm the World’s progress in new countries closely and to better understand its past work by learning more about its program in Kenya. Details here.
  • GiveDirectly. Our main goals from following GiveDirectly are to see if the quality of monitoring remains high, it is able to enroll new recipients quickly, and we can learn more about the impact of its work with partners to make cash a baseline against which other development programs are judged. Details here.

Standout charities

  • Development Media International. We’re not planning to consider DMI as a possible top charity in 2016. The results from a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of its program that DMI shared last year were not in line with what we would have wanted to see for DMI to become a top charity. More recently, DMI shared some additional results from the RCT (which are not yet public). We believe that taken together these results provide conflicting evidence for DMI’s impact. DMI stands out for its commitment to transparency and rigorous evaluation and we will consider working with DMI to continue to build the evidence base around behavior change through mass media. We see this as a long-term project that is unlikely to result in DMI’s being a top charity in 2016.
  • Iodine Global Network. We are planning to follow up with IGN about a few case studies that IGN thought might provide additional evidence of its impact.
  • The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) – Universal Salt Iodization (USI) program. We’re not planning to consider GAIN’s USI program as a possible top charity in 2016. We have not been able to establish clear evidence of GAIN successfully contributing to the impact of iodization programs, and think it is unlikely that more work on this will be useful.
  • Living Goods. It’s fairly unlikely that we will consider Living Goods as a possible top charity in 2016. We would revisit this if we were to see significant improvements in the rigor of Living Goods’ monitoring or if we significantly changed our cost-effectiveness estimate for its work.

Plans for donor outreach

We have not historically prioritized outreach at GiveWell, instead choosing to devote staff capacity primarily to our research work. Now, with the addition of new research staff as well as the continued growth of GiveWell’s donor base, we feel it is appropriate to dedicate more capacity to outreach for GiveWell in service of our mission to make our research available to help individuals decide where to give.

In 2016, we plan to have 1.5 staff members devoted to outreach related to GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project. Due to this being early on in our outreach work, we’re tentatively planning to reassess our priorities every month for the first half of the year, and then every quarter. As of the publication of this blog post, we expect the following to be top priorities for GiveWell outreach in 2016:

  • Donor calls and meetings. We expect that connecting with individuals who have donated to GiveWell will be an important part of our outreach going forward, although as we’re relatively new to prioritizing this, we plan to survey donors about whether this is something that they find useful. We’re hoping to learn more about the donors who use our work and any questions or feedback they have, as well as to offer an opportunity for donors to stay up to date on GiveWell’s work. More here.
  • Launching a redesigned website. The redesign will largely improve the look and feel of the site with some minor improvements in navigation and content organization.
  • Improving GiveWell’s written communications. This includes:
    • Revisiting and refreshing content on our website (e.g., a recent update to our criteria page) to ensure it’s up-to-date and clearly presented, particularly for individuals who aren’t familiar with our research.
    • Publishing content to our blog, in the hopes of highlighting research and providing additional insight into our values, process, and findings. We will need to put more effort into writing blog posts in order to maintain our previous pace of about one blog post per week, since many types of blog posts that previously appeared here will now be appearing on the Open Philanthropy Blog.


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