The GiveWell Blog

Review of our research in 2017

This is the first of three posts that form our annual review and plan for the following year. This post reviews and evaluates last year’s progress on our work of finding and recommending evidence-based, thoroughly-vetted charities that serve the global poor. The following two posts will cover (i) our plans for GiveWell’s research in 2018 and (ii) 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

We believe that 2017 was a successful year for GiveWell’s research. We met our five primary goals for the year, as articulated in our plan post from the beginning of the year:

Our primary research goals for 2017 are to:

  1. Speed up our output of new intervention assessments, by hiring a Senior Fellow and by improving our process for reviewing interventions at a shallow level.
  2. Increase the number of promising charities that apply for our recommendation. Alternatively, we may learn why we have relatively few strong applicants and decide whether to change our process as a result. Research Analyst Chelsea Tabart will spend most of her time on this project.
  3. Through GiveWell Incubation Grants, fund projects that may lead to more top charity contenders in the future and consider grantees No Lean Season and Zusha! as potential 2017 top charities.
  4. Further improve the robustness and usability of our cost-effectiveness model.
  5. Improve our process for following the progress of current top charities to reduce staff time, while maintaining quality. We also have some specific goals (discussed below) with respect to answering open questions about current top charities.

We achieved our five primary goals for the year:

  1. Our intervention-related output was greater than in any past year, although we still see room for improvement in the pace with which we complete and publish this work (more). We hired a Senior Fellow and published nine full or interim intervention reports in 2017, compared to four in 2016.
  2. We increased the number of promising charities that applied for our recommendation (more).
  3. We added two new top charities: Evidence Action’s No Lean Season (the first top charity to start as a GiveWell Incubation Grant recipient) and Helen Keller International’s vitamin A supplementation program (which joined our list as a result of our charity outreach work). We continued to follow our current Incubation Grant recipients and made several new Incubation Grants to grow the pipeline of new top charities (more).
  4. We made substantial improvements to our cost-effectiveness analysis (more).
  5. We reduced the amount of staff time spent on following our current top charities. We also completed 17 of the 19 activities outlined in last year’s plan (more).

We discuss progress on each of our primary goals below. For each high-level goal, we include (i) the subgoals we set in our last annual review, (ii) an evaluation of whether we met those subgoals, and (iii) a summary of key activities completed last year.

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Allocation of discretionary funds from Q4 2017

In the fourth quarter of 2017, we received $5.6 million in funding for making grants at our discretion. In this post we discuss:

  • The decision to allocate the $5.6 million to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI).
  • Our recommendation that donors give to GiveWell for granting to top charities at our discretion so that we can direct the funding to the top charity or charities with the most pressing funding need. For donors who prefer to give directly to our top charities, we continue to recommend giving 70 percent of your donation to AMF and 30 percent to SCI to maximize your impact.

We noted in November that we would use funds received for making grants at our discretion to fill the next highest priority funding gaps among our top charities. We also noted that our best guess at the time was that we would give 70 percent to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) and 30 percent to SCI.

Based on information received since November, described below, we allocated the $5.6 million to SCI, rather than dividing these funds between AMF and SCI, as previously expected. GiveWell’s Executive Director, Elie Hassenfeld, the fund advisor on the Effective Altruism Fund for Global Health and Development also recommended that the fund grant out the $1.5 million that it held to SCI.

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GiveWell’s money moved and web traffic in 2016

In September 2017, we posted an interim update on GiveWell’s 2016 money moved and web traffic. This post summarizes the key takeaways from our full 2016 money moved and web traffic metrics report. Note that some of the numbers, including the total headline money moved, have changed since our interim report. Since then, we decided to exclude some donations from our headline money moved figure (details in the full report), and we corrected some minor errors.

This report was highly delayed (as discussed in the interim update). We expect to publish our report on GiveWell’s 2017 money moved and web traffic much more quickly; our current expectation is that we will publish that report by the end of June.

GiveWell is dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities and publishing the full details of our analysis. In addition to evaluations of other charities, we publish substantial evaluation of our own work. This post lays out highlights from our 2016 metrics report, which reviews what we know about how our research impacted donors.

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Considering policy advocacy organizations: Why GiveWell made a grant to the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention

In August 2017, GiveWell recommended a grant of $1.3 million to the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention (CPSP). This grant was made as part of GiveWell’s Incubation Grants program to seed the development of potential future GiveWell top charities and to grow the pipeline of organizations we can consider for a recommendation. CPSP implements a different type of program from work GiveWell has funded in the past. Namely, CPSP identifies the pesticides which are most commonly used in suicides and advocates for governments to ban the most lethal pesticides.

Because CPSP’s goal is to encourage governments to enact bans, its work falls into the broader category of policy advocacy, an area we are newly focused on. We plan to investigate or are in the process of investigating several other policy causes, including tobacco control, lead paint regulation, and measures to improve road traffic safety.

Summary

This post will discuss:

  • GiveWell’s interest in researching policy advocacy interventions as possible priority programs. (More)
  • Why CPSP is promising as a policy advocacy organization and Incubation Grant recipient. (More)
  • Our plans for following CPSP’s work going forward. (More)

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March 2018 open thread

Our goal with hosting quarterly open threads is to give blog readers an opportunity to publicly raise comments or questions about GiveWell or related topics (in the comments section below). As always, you’re also welcome to email us at info@givewell.org or to request a call with GiveWell staff if you have feedback or questions you’d prefer to discuss privately. We’ll try to respond promptly to questions or comments.

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Revisiting leverage

Many charities aim to influence how others (other donors, governments, or the private sector) allocate their funds. We call this influence on others “leverage.” Expenditure on a program can also crowd out funding that would otherwise have come from other sources. We call this “funging” (from “fungibility”).

In GiveWell’s early years, we didn’t account for leverage in our cost-effectiveness analysis; we counted all costs of an intervention equally, no matter who paid for them.1For example, see row 3 of our 2013 cost-effectiveness analysis for Against Malaria Foundation. For example, for the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), a charity that treats intestinal parasites (deworming), we counted both drug and delivery costs, even when the drugs were donated. We did this because we felt it was the simplest approach, least prone to significant error or manipulation.

Over the last few years, our approach has evolved, and we made some adjustments for leverage and funging to our cost-effectiveness analyses where we felt they were clearly warranted.

In our top charities update at the end of 2017, we made a major change to how we dealt with the question of leverage by incorporating explicit, formal leverage estimates for every charity we recommend.

This change made our cost-effectiveness estimates of deworming charities (which typically leverage substantial government funding) look more cost-effective than our previous method. For example, our new method makes SCI look 1.2x more cost-effective than in the previous cost-effectiveness update. More details are in the table at the end of this post.

We also think the change makes our reasoning more transparent and more consistent across organizations.

In this post, we:

  • Describe how our treatment of leverage and funging has evolved.
  • Highlight two major limitations of our current approach.
  • Present how much difference leverage and funging make to our cost-effectiveness estimates.

Details follow.

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