Narrowing Down U.S. Policy Areas

Throughout the post, “we” refers to GiveWell and Good Ventures, who work as partners on the Open Philanthropy Project, previously known as GiveWell Labs.

As part of our work on GiveWell Labs, we’ve been exploring the possibility of getting involved in policy-oriented philanthropy (see our previous posts on this subject). At this point, we feel that:

Because of this, we are now laying out the causes we tentatively feel most likely to commit to, and doing substantial investigation (including some grantmaking) in these areas. We aren’t yet committing to these causes, but we think that laying out our current thinking and reasoning will help surface important questions and intensify the period of reflection leading up to a decision.

We previously wrote about the importance of committing to causes.

Why commit to causes in U.S. policy?

We believe that policy-oriented philanthropy is an extremely important type of philanthropy to be familiar and experienced with. The potential leverage of influencing governments (whose budgets and other powers generally dwarf what philanthropists can provide) means that policy-oriented philanthropy on a broad range of causes could potentially be competitive (in terms of “good accomplished per dollar”) with even the most effective direct aid programs. For the moment, we are focused on the U.S., because:

We believe that making commitments to causes (intending to allocate a substantial number of person-hours to them for the next several years, accompanied by substantial potential budgets) would dramatically improve our ability to learn about these causes, and to learn more generally about how to engage in policy-oriented philanthropy. It would also make it easier for us to make plans around hiring and developing policy-focused staff.

With the level of investigation we’ve done so far, we feel we’re hitting diminishing returns on our ability to distinguish between different causes; however, gaining more in-depth experience with the ones that currently seem most promising — including identifying more giving opportunities, following grants, developing more relationships and putting in more time and thought — could improve our ability to think intelligently about what constitutes a promising cause.

By the end of this calendar year, we hope to make substantial commitments to several (probably 1-3) causes in the category of policy-oriented philanthropy.

What we’ve done to investigate policy-oriented philanthropy

We wrote previously about the work we’ve done to gain basic context in policy-oriented philanthropy. Since then, we have done the following.

Conversations with “generalists” who can speak to a variety of different political causes. We previously mentioned speaking with Dylan MatthewsFrank BaumgartnerSteven TelesMark SchmittGara LaMarche, and the heads of the Center for Global Development and Brookings Institution. Since then, we have:

Shallow investigations.

Medium-depth investigations. We have done deeper investigations on criminal justice reform and macroeconomic policy, and we have explored giving opportunities in labor mobility. We have also gained relatively deep familiarity with drug policy (this is a Good Ventures interest, with GiveWell providing support consistent with our policy on general support) and with organ transplant supply policy (via Alexander Berger’s personal interests and networking on this topic).

Finally, we have made a general informal effort to be more attentive to news and debates relating to U.S. policy, including regularly reading Wonkblog and now Vox (which we have found particularly helpful).

Our investigations have been far from comprehensive; we’ve prioritized causes we’ve had some reason to think were particularly promising, often because we suspected a relative lack of interest from other philanthropists relative to the causes’ humanitarian importance or because we encountered a specific idea from someone in our network. With that said, at this point we have put a great deal of work into discussing and investigating different possible ways of engaging with U.S. policy, and have put at least some consideration (not always including a formal investigation) into every potential cause we can identify. We’ve also tried to expand the horizons of the causes we’re considering via activities like scanning the publication lists of major think tanks, scanning summaries of the U.S. budget and scanning the list of federal agencies.

General patterns in what causes we find promising

At any given time, we have both a working theory of what our criteria should be (what makes a cause promising, and hence what we should focus our information-gathering efforts on for a given cause) and of what the most promising causes are (considered holistically, without necessarily relying on our existing criteria). Reflecting on the latter (what causes seem most promising to us) often causes us to modify the former (what our list of criteria looks like), while collecting information using the rubric provided by our criteria often causes us to update our views of what the most promising causes are.

So far, it seems to us that the most important broad qualities that make a political area seem promising are:

Speaking generally (more details in the next post), we’ve been able to assess these aspects of a cause only at fairly low resolution, and we haven’t fully explored their interrelations.

Given the generally low level of resolution at which we understand all three of these factors, we have become most interested in causes that seem to clearly stand out on at least one dimension while performing relatively well (compared to other standout causes on the same dimension) on other dimensions. In other words, we are interested in causes that seem to have enormous importance, while being at least as tractable and uncrowded as similarly important causes; causes that seem to have unusual “windows of opportunity,” while being at least as important and uncrowded as similarly tractable causes; and causes that seem to be extremely uncrowded/neglected, while being at least as important and tractable as similarly uncrowded causes. We could imagine that any of these three profiles could turn out to be optimal for a philanthropist, since we could imagine that any one of these three criteria turns out to be more robustly detectable than the others.

In the next post, we will discuss specifics of what causes we feel stand out on each dimension, and which causes we believe we are most likely to commit to (and are accordingly investigating deeply at the moment).