The GiveWell Blog

How GiveWell’s research is evolving

To date, most of GiveWell’s research capacity has focused on finding the most impactful programs among those whose results can be rigorously measured. This work has led us to recommend, and direct several hundred million dollars to, charities improving health, saving lives, and increasing income in low-income countries.

One of the most important reasons we have focused on programs where robust measurement is possible is because this approach largely does not rely on subject-matter expertise. When Holden and I started GiveWell, neither of us had any experience in philanthropy, so we looked for charities that we could evaluate through data and evidence that we could analyze, to make recommendations that we could fully explain. This led us to focus on organizations that had impacts that were relatively easy to measure.

The output of this process is reflected in our current top charities and the programs they run, which are analyzed in our intervention reports.

GiveWell has now been doing research to find the best giving opportunities in global health and development for 11 years, and we plan to increase the scope of giving opportunities we consider. We plan to expand our research team and scope in order to determine whether there are giving opportunities in global health and development that are more cost-effective than those we have identified to date.

We expect this expansion of our work to take us in a number of new directions, some of which we have begun to explore over the past few years. We have considered, in a few cases, the impact our top and standout charities have through providing technical assistance (for example, Deworm the World and Project Healthy Children), supported work to change government policies through our Incubation Grants program (for example, grants to the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention and Innovation in Government Initiative), and begun to explore areas like tobacco policy and lead paint elimination.

Over the next several years, we plan to consider everything that we believe could be among the most cost-effective (broadly defined) giving opportunities in global health and development. This includes more comprehensively reviewing direct interventions in sectors where impacts are more difficult to measure, investigating opportunities to influence government policy, as well as other areas.

Making progress in areas where it is harder to determine causality will be challenging. In my opinion, we are excellent evaluators of empirical research, but we have yet to demonstrate the ability to make good judgments about giving opportunities when less empirical information is available. Our values, intellectual framework, culture, and the quality of our staff make me optimistic about our chances, but all of us at GiveWell recognize the difficulty of the project we are embarking on.

Our staff does not currently have the capacity or the capabilities to make enough progress in this direction, so we are planning to significantly increase the size of our staff. We have a research team of ten people, and we are planning to more than double in size over the next three years. We are planning to add some junior staff but are primarily aiming to hire people with relevant experience who can contribute as researchers and/or managers on our team.

GiveWell’s top charities list is not going to change dramatically in the near future, and it may always include the charities we recommend today. Our top charities achieve outstanding, cost-effective results, and we believe they are some of the best giving opportunities in global health and development. We expect to conclude that many of the opportunities we consider in areas that are new for us are less cost-effective than those we currently recommend, but we also think it is possible that we will identify some opportunities that are much more cost-effective. We believe it is worth a major effort to find out.

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How GiveWell and mainstream policymakers compare the “good” achieved by different programs

In a previous blog post, we described how we use cost-effectiveness analyses when deciding which charities to recommend to donors.

Today, we published a report that discusses how GiveWell and other actors, such as governments and global health organizations, approach one of the most subjective and uncertain inputs into cost-effectiveness analyses: how to morally value different good outcomes.

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Our process: Narrowing the field

One of the aspects of our research process that has generated some objections is our use of “heuristics,” i.e., shortcuts to winnow the field of recommended charities from 300+ to a manageable number for closer investigation. The heuristics we use are described here. A good statement of the objections comes this comment at Hatrack forums:…

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Can donors fund “sustainable” projects?

It’s one thing to pay for children’s immunizations. It would be quite another to pay for a project that increased immunization rates over the long term, without continued donor support (either thanks to improvement in private-sector or government operations). Aiming for the latter – or more broadly, aiming to use donations as “startup funds” for…

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The challenge of local ownership

One of the consistent refrains we’ve seen in aid literature is the importance of local participation/enthusiasm/ownership for aid projects. Many programs have been criticized for being too “top-down” (i.e., imposing outsiders’ designs on local communities), with the implication that more “bottom-up” programs (i.e., getting local people to participate in the design of execution of programs)…

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Qualitative evidence vs. stories

Our reviews have a tendency to discount stories of individuals, in favor of quantitative evidence about measurable outcomes. There is a reason for this, and it’s not that we only value quantitative evidence – it’s that (in our experience) qualitative evidence is almost never provided in a systematic and transparent way. If a charity selected…

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