The Importance of Committing to Causes

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

In our work on GiveWell Labs, we’ve consistently found that the level of interest we show in a cause — including our perceived willingness to provide funding within it — is a major driver of what sorts of giving opportunities we’re able to find.

This dynamic has been one of the major factors in the grants we’ve made so far, and it’s also a major reason that we’re eager to “commit” to causes, as mentioned earlier this year. We believe that there’s a limited amount we can learn about a cause when presenting ourselves as “potentially interested in providing moderate amounts of funding” rather than “strongly interested in providing major funding.”

We’ve come to believe in the importance of committing to causes in order to investigate them, and in the importance of “giving to learn” for GiveWell Labs, via the following process:

This post lays out:

Approaches we’ve taken to finding giving opportunities for GiveWell Labs

Early on in our work on GiveWell Labs, we spoke to a broad array of people and organizations — including academics, funders and nonprofits — and asked them for their opinions on the best giving opportunities, broadly speaking. (We also asked for referrals to other people who might be able to help us with this question.) As noted in a previous post, this approach generally didn’t yield much in the way of actionable ideas (and was often met with responses like “That question is too broad” or “First I need to know what causes you’re passionate about”).

We gravitated toward assessing “causes”, which helped us to ask more focused questions (rather than “What is the best giving opportunity you know about?” we could instead ask something like “What would you do if you were a funder seeking to make progress in solving problem X?”) But as we conducted shallow (and even medium) investigations, we still encountered relatively few “shovel-ready” giving opportunities. We encountered organizations seeking more funding generally, but we didn’t see many cases where we had a clear sense that more funding would play a crucial role in allowing particular promising work to go forward.

At the same time, we were speaking with major foundations and trying to understand how they go about finding giving opportunities. We explored the possibility of co-funding projects with them, and we encountered ideas — such as a project combating malaria drug resistance in Myanmar (with the Gates Foundation) and the Service Delivery Indicators (with the Hewlett Foundation) — that seemed like interesting and relatively tangible (in the sense of understanding what activities were made possible by the funders’ support) giving opportunities.

In addition to these co-funding conversations, we devoted substantial time to exploring the cause of meta-research and observing how funders in that space were finding giving opportunities. We noticed that:

We started to feel that we might need to “invert” our investigative process: rather than (a) first “exploring” a cause, finding potential giving opportunities, and then deciding whether we were interested in providing funding, we should perhaps (b) pick a few causes and definitively express an interest in providing funding, before knowing of any particular giving opportunities. Our initial thinking that led to this idea was outlined in a 2013 post, Challenges of Passive Funding.

This shift led to a noticeable improvement in our ability to source tangible giving opportunities.

Examples of the “giving to learn” dynamic

The first cause we chose for a relatively deep investigation — including some grants — was criminal justice reform. Of the causes we were interested in, it seemed to offer the best odds of quickly finding “shovel-ready” giving opportunities, based on the comments of Steven Teles. We told Prof. Teles that we were interested in making some initial grants in this cause, and he quickly connected us to Mark Kleiman and Angela Hawken, each of whom sought funding. We also informed the relevant team at Pew Charitable Trusts that we were actively looking for giving opportunities, and discovered that this team was seeking funding (something that hadn’t come up in the first conversation we conducted with this team). We have since begun a thorough investigation of this organization’s track record in this space, with their help — something that wouldn’t have been as feasible if we hadn’t seriously been considering providing the requested funding.

Over time, we’ve seen more giving opportunities come up. We’ve been approached by multiple groups with confidential proposals to work toward reducing incarceration. In addition, Prof. Hawken contacted us when her organization, BetaGov, came across a seemingly unique and temporary opportunity to study the impact of changing marijuana policy in the state of Washington (more details forthcoming). These are giving opportunities we’re convinced we couldn’t have come across without expressing strong, credible interest in funding work on criminal justice reform (and in some cases, particularly Prof. Hawken’s, actually providing such funding).

In the meantime, Prof. Teles has continued to think actively about the topic of criminal justice reform, and has come up with multiple new ideas for things a funder might do. We are currently seeking to pause our work in this space, as we try to investigate other causes to a similar level of resolution; however, we’ve now gotten multiple people and organizations to see us as a potential source of funding and to start thinking about more work that would align with the aspects of the space we’re interested in.

Similar dynamics have applied to the other causes we’ve explored:

Why expressing stronger interest can lead to better giving opportunities

Without pretending to know exactly how the dynamics work, it seems to us that:

In theory, it seems possible to have a world in which funding ideas are written up and posted publicly for anyone to browse. In reality, funding ideas are often not even internally fleshed out (much less written up) until specific interest is perceived. Because of this, asking someone for giving opportunities often means asking for substantial amounts of their time and energy, and it can be inappropriate to do so except when one has a high probability of following through with funding.

The approach we’re taking

Our basic heuristics for deciding what and how much to fund has been:

Our priority at the moment is asking what sorts of giving opportunities might exist in different causes (and, along with this, learning about meta-issues such as the “giving to learn” dynamic described in this post). We think of this as an learning/information-gathering agenda, supported by “giving to learn” grants whose informational value comes from (a) following through on initial expressions of interest; (b) signaling our further interests; and (c) giving us opportunities to follow up over time and learn about the relevant people and organizations and their progress.

We’ve seen a few comments that we don’t seem to place much value on “value of information,” since we’re primarily funding direct work of various kinds rather than research projects aiming to identify the best causes. I disagree with comments along these lines. Our work is a research project aiming to identify the best causes, and funding projects in causes of interest is an important tool for carrying this project out. This sort of “giving to learn” provides certain kinds of information (e.g., “what are the giving opportunities in cause X like?”) relatively quickly and efficiently; more broadly, it is a form of “learning by doing” that has already yielded insights about grantmaking (such as how the “giving to learn” dynamic works) that would have been difficult to pick up in any other way. By contrast, funding studies would introduce the management challenge (costly in terms of person-hours, our scarcest resource) of trying to align researchers’ work with our own interests, and could take years to produce actionable information.

The importance of committing to causes

To date, we’ve quite deliberately limited our involvement in — and commitments to — any given cause. We believe that this has placed limits on how well we’re able to get to know the fields in question. If we were to make a substantial “commitment” to a cause — intending to allocate a substantial number of person-hours to it for the next several years, accompanied by a substantial potential budget — we would be able to:

We believe these activities would lead to deeper understanding of the few causes we investigate, which would likely inform how we approach our lower-depth investigations of all causes. Accordingly, we see a great deal of value in making such commitments relatively soon, rather than trying to be comprehensive in doing lower-depth investigations of every possible cause of interest.