The GiveWell Blog

Changes to our top charity criteria, and a new giving option

Since 2007, GiveWell has maintained a list of top charities. The organizations and programs on that list have changed over time, but the goal has remained the same: to help donors decide where to give.

In service of that goal, we’ve spent roughly the last year working on a plan to add to and update our criteria for top charities, so that they accurately reflect our prioritization of funding opportunities and are more helpful to donors. The revised criteria emphasize programs from which we expect high impact, with the additional requirement that we have a high degree of confidence in our expectation.

We hope these changes will also draw a brighter line for donors between our top charities and other excellent funding opportunities we support, a distinction that we haven’t always made clear. Recognizing that some donors want to contribute to grants outside our top charities list, we’re also introducing a new giving option: the All Grants Fund. Providing this option as a complement to the Maximum Impact Fund is an important step as grants to programs outside our top charities become a bigger part of our work.

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We aim to cost-effectively direct around $1 billion annually by 2025

A little over a decade ago in 2010, GiveWell directed around $1.5 million to the charities we recommended. In 2021, we expect we’ll raise at least $500 million, and may raise as much as $560 million or more.

We never anticipated that we’d grow this large this quickly. We’ve seen rapid growth from donors of all sizes, the most recent of which is a commitment of $300 million from Open Philanthropy.

While this growth comes with challenges—we’re working hard to hire enough researchers—it’s a testament to our donors’ trust in us and enthusiasm for our mission.

But these big numbers are relatively small in the long-term scope of what GiveWell hopes to achieve. We believe there are billions of dollars’ worth of annual cost-effective giving opportunities that we have yet to identify.

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What are standout charities?

GiveWell’s research process focuses on finding excellent giving opportunities and deeply reviewing them. We currently recommend just eight top charities that have met our high standards.

Although the number of top charities we recommend is small, we review a large number of organizations in our ongoing work to find new top charities. We consider some of these groups to be exceptional relative to the vast majority of organizations, even though they do not meet our top charity standards. We name these organizations standout charities to recognize their exceptional status and to provide an incentive for charities to engage with our intensive review process.

The standout charity designation, though valuable for the reasons mentioned above, has created communication challenges for us. People who rely on our recommendations to make donations have expressed confusion about how our view of standout charities compares to that of top charities.

This blog post will explain why we have standout charities and how they differ from our top charities.

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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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