The GiveWell Blog

GiveWell’s plans for 2020

Each spring, we share our plans for the year. Here, we highlight the work we plan to do in 2020 that is most likely to help us realize our mission of identifying and directing funding to highly cost-effective giving opportunities.1This post does not include a complete accounting of everything we plan to do in 2020. In particular, it does not include work aimed at primarily internal-facing results, such as improvements to internal staff communications. We focus on three projects:

  1. Expanding into new areas of research.
  2. Searching for new, cost-effective funding opportunities in our traditional research areas.
  3. Building our donor community.

Sharing our annual plans and publicly reflecting back on them a year later is our typical practice. This year, of course, is atypical. The plans we laid out internally at the beginning of the year have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The plans we share in this post take the pandemic into account, but we are more uncertain than usual about what will happen in 2020. We expect that much of our work will go forward as anticipated, but we will be flexible if there are unforeseen disruptions or changes to our research agenda that result from the pandemic.

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Reflecting on our progress in 2019

GiveWell grew significantly in 2019. We hired 13 full-time staff members, bringing our total size to 37, and expanded our ability to take on new projects across domains. We feel positioned to do more and better work going forward as a result.

We see a strong indication that the amount of funding we directed to our recommended charities increased last year, too. While we haven’t reconciled all giving from 2019, the value of donations we processed increased by about 30% in 2019.

We’re proud of what we accomplished in 2019. We also fell short of some goals last year. Most notably, we failed to make as much progress as we planned in researching new areas of global health and poverty alleviation.

This blog post provides a brief look at our key successes and failures last year. A more detailed accounting of how our progress in 2019 compared to the goals we set is available on this page.

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Why ongoing assessment of top charities leads to more impact: HKI’s vitamin A supplementation program

Charities must meet rigorous requirements to make our list of top charities. However, a common misconception about our work is that our assessment process ends with the naming of a top charity. Not so! We continually examine our top charities—in fact, four staff members are devoted to ongoing assessment of our top charities. We collect information to update our assessment of our top charities’ track records and to evaluate the effectiveness of their spending plans.

Continuous assessment is critical because we direct donations to our top charities on an ongoing basis. Donors can make a gift anytime throughout the year, and we want to ensure their support is directed to the charity or charities that will best use it. We formally assess where funds can be best used each quarter when we allocate “Grants to recommended charities at GiveWell’s discretion” (discretionary funds).

We allocate discretionary funds based on our understanding of charities’ spending plans and their estimated cost-effectiveness. This is heavily informed by our understanding of the cost-effectiveness of the charities’ past work and track record to date. Although our understanding of charities’ spending plans is a key part of our allocation decision, we don’t restrict discretionary funds to a particular purpose within the program we recommend. Organizations may reallocate GiveWell-directed funding as new information becomes available.

This post will highlight how this combination of continual assessment and flexible funding leads to positive outcomes by sharing the recent example of our work with Helen Keller International (HKI)’s vitamin A supplementation (VAS) program, one of GiveWell’s top charities.

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GiveWell donors supported more than direct delivery: AMF and new net research

Supporters of the Against Malaria Foundation in recent years may have had even more impact than they expected.

The Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) is a GiveWell top charity because we believe its program to distribute insecticide-treated nets prevents people from dying of malaria. AMF-supported net distributions are incredibly cost-effective; we estimate that a $2,000-3,000 donation averts one death.[1] AMF’s work is important in and of itself to fund.

Not all AMF donations, however, just support typical net distributions. In recent years, AMF supported research on a new type of insecticide-treated net, the piperonyl butoxide (PBO) net. This research itself (i.e., researcher time, equipment, and administrative costs) was funded by a small number of AMF donors who explicitly agreed to support it. The research was conducted on nets that were contributed by a broad group of AMF donors.

Preliminary data suggest that PBO nets are more effective at preventing malaria than standard insecticide-treated nets in areas where mosquitoes have developed insecticide resistance. We think it is likely that AMF sped up the completion of a large-scale, high-quality study of these new nets.

We’re thrilled to recommend charities that contribute research in the fields in which they operate. AMF doesn’t just prevent deaths from malaria by distributing nets—it has improved our and others’ understanding of which nets can work best in the future. This post is to share this story with our donors, whose contributions make this work possible.

Summary

In this post, we’ll discuss:

  • Insecticide resistance and the potential of PBO nets. (More)
  • AMF’s role in PBO net research. (More)

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Three grants in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

We began exploring opportunities to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic in March. We are excited to announce that we granted a total of $450,000 to support coronavirus-response projects run by Development Media International (DMI), IDinsight, and Yale professor Mushfiq Mobarak, respectively.

With our grant funding, we expect DMI to run or support mass media campaigns to promote essential health messages. We expect IDinsight and Professor Mobarak to support policymakers responding to the pandemic in low- and middle-income countries through data collection and analysis and by making recommendations.

Our goal at GiveWell is always to direct funding to maximize impact. This typically leads us to conduct thorough, monthslong investigations into potential grantees. However, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we believe we can have more impact by acting quickly to prevent the spread of the disease—even if it means completing only relatively shallow grant investigations.

These three grants may save or improve lives as well as or better than our current top charities. Nevertheless, we are more uncertain about their potential impact, given our brief review. The $450,000 in grants is the full amount we’re comfortable directing to these opportunities at this time; we do not suggest additional donations beyond this amount today.

We remain very worried about the effects of the pandemic on non-coronavirus health programs as the global funding landscape shifts in response to coronavirus. The need for the programs operated by our top charities is already large and we are unsure if our top charities will receive less funding than usual in the coming year. We expect that our top charities will require significant additional resources to continue to carry out their programs.

Our recommendation to individual donors is thus unchanged: our top recommendation is to give to “Grants to recommended charities at GiveWell’s discretion,” which we will allocate quarterly among our recommended charities where we believe it will do the most good. For donors who prefer to give directly to a GiveWell top charity, we recommend Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention program. We do not expect to make coronavirus-specific recommendations for individual donors.

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The impact of COVID-19 on GiveWell’s plans

We hope everyone is staying well during these difficult times. We are publishing this blog post to provide a brief update on how the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic impacts our plans.

We are looking into the impact of the pandemic on the organizations we support as well as opportunities to mitigate its effects. We are in the early stages of this work and will update you as we reach conclusions.

We don’t have a new recommendation for donors: our bottom line continues to be to donate to “Grants to recommended charities at GiveWell’s discretion,” which we allocate quarterly to the highest priority need we see.

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