The GiveWell Blog

Our 2018 plans for research

This is the second of three posts that form our annual review and plan for the following year. The first post reviewed our progress in 2017. The following post will cover GiveWell’s progress and plans as an organization. We aim to release our metrics on our influence on donations in 2017 by the end of June 2018.

Summary

Our primary research goals for 2018 are to:

  1. Explore areas that may be more cost-effective than our current recommendations but don’t fit neatly into our current criteria by investigating (i) interventions aimed at influencing policy in low- and middle-income countries and (ii) opportunities to influence major aid agencies.
  2. Find new top charities that meet our current criteria by (i) completing intervention reports for at least two interventions we think are likely to result in GiveWell top charities by the end of 2019, (ii) considering renewal of GiveWell Incubation Grants to current grantee organizations that may become top charities in the future and making new Incubation Grants, and (iii) developing and maintaining high-quality relationships with charities, funders, and influencers in the global health and development community.
  3. Improve our internal processes to support the above goals. We plan to continue to delegate significant parts of our top charity update process to non-management staff and to improve our year-end process for making recommendations.
  4. Continue following our top charities and address priority questions. We are devoting fewer resources than we have in the past to top charity updates. We plan to continue gathering up-to-date information to allow us to make high-quality allocation decisions for giving season, and to answer a small number of high-priority questions.

Our secondary goals (which we hope to achieve, but are lower priority than the goals above) are to:

  1. Improve the quality of our decisions and transparency about our decision-making process.
  2. Hire more flexible research capacity to increase our output.
  3. Complete reviews of two new potential top charities.

We discuss each of these goals in greater depth below.

Goal 1: Explore areas that may be more cost-effective than our current recommendations

We’ve added five new top charities in the last two years. We now believe that our current top charities have more room for more funding than we are able to fill. This increases the relative value of identifying giving opportunities that are substantially more cost-effective than our current top charities (because identifying similarly cost-effective opportunities will crowd out marginal funding for our current top charities), even if we believe we have a lower chance of success of identifying these opportunities.

We’re therefore prioritizing investigating the areas we believe have the highest chance of containing opportunities that are substantially more cost-effective than our current top charities.

The primary staff working on this are James Snowden (Research Consultant) and Josh Rosenberg (Senior Research Analyst).

Sub-goal 1.1: Assess interventions to influence policy in low- and middle-income countries

Our current top charities all implement direct-delivery interventions (although we believe that some leverage substantial domestic government funding). We think there’s a reasonable, intuitive case that philanthropists may, in some cases, have a greater impact by influencing government policy because (i) governments have access to regulatory interventions that are unavailable to philanthropists and (ii) there may be opportunities to help improve the allocation of large pools of funds. We’ve started work investigating advocacy for tobacco control (notes 1, 2, 3), lead paint regulation (1, 2, 3), and J-PAL’s Government Partnership Initiative (1, 2). More about why we’re prioritizing this area here.

What does success look like? We publish at least five reports on interventions to influence policy in low- and middle-income countries and prioritize one to three for deeper assessment.

Sub-goal 1.2: Improve our understanding of aid agencies

We believe there may be opportunities for GiveWell (or potential GiveWell grantees) to help improve the allocation of spending by aid agencies. We want to improve our understanding of what aid agencies spend their funds on, whether there are opportunities to improve this allocation, and whether GiveWell (or potential grantees) would be in a good position to assist.

What does success look like? As this project is at an early stage, we don’t yet have specific metrics to assess success.

Goal 2: Find new top charities that meet our current criteria

One of our most important long-term goals is to identify all charities that should be top charities under our current criteria. We are uncertain whether we will be able to identify organizations outside of our current scope of work that we believe are substantially better giving opportunities than our current top charities (Goal 1) and we want to ensure we’re recommending the best giving opportunities, even if we believe they’re similarly cost-effective to our current top charities.

The primary staff working on this are Caitlin McGugan (Senior Fellow), Andrew Martin (Research Analyst), Josh Rosenberg (Senior Research Analyst), Stephan Guyenet (Research Consultant), Sophie Monahan (Research Analyst), and Chelsea Tabart (Research Analyst).

Sub-goal 2.1: Produce two intervention reports

Intervention assessments are key to our research process. We generally only consider organizations that are implementing one of our priority programs—so designated upon our completion of an assessment of the intervention—for top charity status (an exception is if an organization has done rigorous evaluation of its own program, though in practice we have found this to be very rare). Last year, we completed two full intervention reports (as opposed to “interim” reports, which are less time-intensive). As we’re allocating a larger proportion of our capacity to Goal 1 than we did last year, we aim to maintain this level of output at two full intervention reports this year.

What does success look like? We complete and publish two full intervention reports on potential new priority programs.

Sub-goal 2.2: Complete grant renewal assessments and new reviews as part of GiveWell Incubation Grants

There are a number of GiveWell Incubation Grantees that we hope will become top charities in the future. We want to ensure we’re making good decisions about the renewals of their grants and to continue to support organizations in developing monitoring and evaluation to the point where they can be considered for top charity status.

In the past, we’ve made GiveWell Incubation Grants to promising opportunities that didn’t fit within our research priorities at the time. We want to remain open to investigating opportunities we’re not yet aware of.

What does success look like? Complete assessments for grant renewals for Results for Development, Charity Science: Health, and a new grant for Evidence Action’s work on iron and folic acid supplementation. Prioritize at least two new Incubation Grants and complete a thorough investigation of each.

Sub-goal 2.3: Develop and maintain high-quality relationships with charities, funders, and influencers in the global health and development community

We expect good relationships with relevant organizations to help us (i) increase the number and diversity of good-fit charities that express interest in applying for our recommendation, (ii) identify new interventions we should consider as potential GiveWell priority programs, and (iii) clearly communicate our approach to potential top charities, enabling them to determine whether they would be a good fit for our process.

While we feel our relationships with well-regarded global health and development implementers and funders have improved, we continue to feel limited in our ability to understand whether there are funding gaps for evidence-backed, highly cost-effective work within large international NGOs and multilateral aid organizations such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

What does success look like? We have at least one call or meeting with at least 60 different charities that we have not recommended or made an Incubation Grant to (last year, we had 42) and at least 100 such calls or meetings in total. We have at least five multi-program organizations with budgets of more than $50 million annually express interest in being considered for our top charity recommendation for a specific, promising program, if we invite them to apply. We prioritize research work beyond an initial, brief evidence assessment on at least five interventions that we became aware of through professional networks.

Goal 3: Continue to improve our internal processes

We believe there’s room for improvement in a number of research processes to support the above goals, as well as our work following our current top charities. We don’t expect the general public to see clear evidence of progress on these goals, as they largely relate to our internal operations.

The primary staff working on this are Elie Hassenfeld (Executive Director), Josh Rosenberg (Senior Research Analyst), and Natalie Crispin (Senior Research Analyst).

Sub-goal 3.1: Decrease the amount of time senior staff spend on top charity updates this year

In the past, much of the work on top charity updates has been the responsibility of Natalie Crispin (Senior Research Analyst). We plan to move a higher proportion of this work to other research staff to minimize the extent to which our institutional knowledge is dependent on any one individual.

What does success look like? Natalie spends less than 30 percent of her time on top charity updates, and, more subjectively, we believe at the end of 2018 that it would not cause significant disruption to further reduce Natalie’s time on this work (i.e., to 15 percent) in 2019.

Sub-goal 3.2: Improve our process for publishing our year-end recommendations

In 2017, we started finalizing our charity recommendations for giving season later than was optimal. This meant much of the work had to be completed in a short amount of time, and there was insufficient time to solicit feedback and criticism from our top charities. While this was partly a consequence of adding two new top charities, we want to be more disciplined this year about when we start preparation for our giving season recommendations.

What does success look like? With exceptions for cases where we need to wait (i.e., final room for more funding estimates and cost-per-treatment estimates for existing top charities, information related to new top charities, or information that isn’t available until after July 31 and is crucial to our recommendations), finalize underlying research directly relevant to our 2018 recommendations by July 31; finalize all research and pages by November 1 (two-plus weeks before our publication deadline) to allow for (a) charity feedback and (b) internal debate.

Goal 4: Continue following our top charities and address priority questions

We are devoting fewer resources than we have in the past to top charity updates. We plan to continue gathering up-to-date information to allow us to make high-quality allocation decisions for giving season and to answer a small number of high-priority questions:

  • For each top charity, we plan to review spending over the last year and new monitoring and evaluation reports; update our estimate of their cost per deliverable (e.g., deworming treatment, preventative malaria treatment, or loan provided); and complete an analysis of their room for more funding.
  • For Helen Keller International (HKI), we plan to explore three major outstanding questions:
    1. What is HKI’s impact on coverage rates in vitamin A supplementation campaigns? To date, we have only supported HKI’s work to fund campaigns that are unlikely to occur without funding from HKI, and we would like to understand whether we should expand this support to other campaigns that HKI works on.
    2. What other interventions are delivered alongside vitamin A and how does that impact the cost-effectiveness of HKI’s work?
    3. What would it take to gather more data on current levels of vitamin A deficiency in locations where HKI works or may work in the future?
  • We want to increase our confidence in the costs incurred by other actors for net distributions that are supported by the Against Malaria Foundation, one of our current top charities.
  • We plan to speak with each of our standout charities for an update on their work.

The primary staff working on this are Natalie Crispin (Senior Research Analyst), Isabel Arjmand (Research Analyst), Andrew Martin (Research Analyst), Chelsea Tabart (Research Analyst), and Nicole Zok (Research Analyst).

What does success look like? By the end of November 2018, we complete updated reviews of each of our current top charities that include the information listed above. We also publish conversation notes from discussions with each current standout charity.

Goal 5 (Secondary): Improve the quality of our decisions and transparency about our decision-making process

We would like to improve the process by which we set our allocations during giving season. We don’t know yet exactly what this will involve, but we intend to do some initial work to determine ways we can improve the quality of our decisions and transparency about them.

Goal 6 (Secondary): Hire more flexible research capacity to increase our output

We believe our research team is currently capacity constrained. We would like to hire more flexible research generalists at all levels of seniority. We don’t expect to spend more time on this goal than we already are, but we would be excited about hiring the right candidates. If you’re interested in working for GiveWell, you can apply through our jobs page.

Goal 7 (Secondary): Complete reviews of at least two new top charities

We are prioritizing top charity reviews less highly this year than we have in previous years because we currently expect to identify significantly larger funding gaps than we will be able to fill. However, we have a shortlist of potential candidates for top charity status, and if we have the capacity, would like to complete evaluations of one or two of these organizations.

What does success look like? Complete evaluations for one or two new potential top charities.

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