Year-End Grants to GiveWell's Top Charities

Even though Good Ventures makes grants year-round, giving season is a particularly exciting time of year for us. Right now, donors all over the country are talking about how to allocate their charity for 2012. That makes it a great time to learn from other people who are thinking hard about giving, and to share where and why we’re giving in turn.

This giving season I’m happy to announce that Good Ventures is awarding $2 million in grants to GiveWell’s “top charities” for 2012, including $1.25 million to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), $500,000 to GiveDirectly and $250,000 to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI).

AMF, GiveDirectly and SCI are three outstanding and particularly transparent charities. They carry out cost-effective programs — bed net distributions, cash transfers and deworming, respectively — that have been proven to save or improve lives. After thousands of hours spent reviewing hundreds of charities, GiveWell recommends these three most highly.

In this post, I’ll briefly discuss why we think these charities represent outstanding giving opportunities. Much more information about them is available at http://www.givewell.org/charities/top-charities.

I’ll also share our reservations about each organization. Discussing reservations is an unusual thing for a funder to do publicly. But philanthropy involves a lot of uncertainty and some level of risk, and we’ve never funded an organization or project about which we didn’t have some reservations. By sharing our reservations in addition to our reasons for supporting these organizations, we hope to help encourage a more open, honest discussion about giving.

Lastly, I’ll discuss why we think that supporting GiveWell’s top charities makes sense for us, even though Good Ventures, as a foundation, falls outside the core audience of GiveWell’s top charity recommendations: individual donors.

Against Malaria Foundation

AMF works with field partners to distribute long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLINs) that protect against malaria in developing countries. Good Ventures is awarding a grant of $1.25 million grant to AMF. This follows a $500,000 grant to AMF that we announced in December 2011.

LLINs are well studied and distributing them is considered among the most cost-effective ways to save lives. AMF has a strong process for distributing LLINs, an outstanding commitment to transparency and self-evaluation, and the ability to spend additional funding to expand its core program.

Our primary reservation about AMF stems from the fact that it was not able to secure as many distribution partners — and therefore was not able to distribute as many nets — as it projected for 2012. As of November 2012, AMF held enough funding to distribute 1 million more LLINs than it had secured distribution partners to deliver.

We’re very encouraged that AMF has been open about this shortcoming and has outlined steps to address it, including pursuing distributions in more places at the same time. As of November 2012, AMF had begun discussions with representatives of seven countries about future net distributions. For most of 2012, AMF had pursued distributions in three countries.

For more information, see GiveWell’s review of AMF and report on LLINs.

GiveDirectly

GiveDirectly transfers cash to extremely poor households in developing countries via a mobile phone-based payment service. It aims to transfer 90 cents for every dollar it receives. Good Ventures is awarding a grant of $500,000 to GiveDirectly. Earlier this year, we awarded a grant of $100,000 to GiveDirectly.

As I’ve written before, we find cash transfers to be intuitively appealing because they empower individuals to decide how to improve their own lives and stimulate rather than undermine local economies. We’re impressed by the quality of GiveDirectly’s team and process and particularly its commitment to transparency, rigorous evaluation and self-reflection. In November I visited GiveDirectly in Kenya to observe its operations firsthand and meet with transfer recipients as well as neighbors who did not receive cash transfers. The trip reinforced my positive view of GiveDirectly’s team and process and served to improve my understanding of rural poverty in the developing world. (More on this trip in future posts.)

Additionally, we see a lot of potential upside in helping a new and promising organization such as GiveDirectly scale and establish unconditional cash transfers as a tool for development. In the long run, we’re interested in the possibility of using cash transfers as a baseline for comparison for other poverty alleviation interventions. Our primary reason for making a larger grant to AMF is that we find distributing LLINs to be significantly more cost-effective than cash transfers. (That said, our intuition is that cash transfers are more cost-effective than many other development programs, all costs included.)

For more information, see GiveWell’s review of GiveDirectly and report on cash transfers.

Schistosomiasis Control Initiative

SCI works with governments in sub-Saharan Africa to create or scale up mass drug administration programs for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), particularly schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths (STHs), in school-aged children and other high-risk groups. Good Ventures is awarding a grant of $250,000 to SCI. This follows a $250,000 grant that we announced in December 2011.

Deworming is a very cheap, relatively well-studied intervention. There’s a strong case that deworming reduces infections. The extent to which it improves quality of life is less clear, but there’s a possibility that deworming is highly beneficial. SCI has successfully helped reduce the prevalence of worm infections previously and is aiming to use additional funds to expand its core program.

Our reservations about this giving opportunity are twofold. Firstly, the evidence regarding the benefits of deworming is not as strong as the evidence regarding the benefits of distributing bed nets. There are two prominent studies arguing that reducing worm infection loads during childhood can have a significant later impact on income. GiveWell relies on these studies but has lingering questions about their reliability and representativeness.

Secondly, we are less confident in SCI as an organization as we are in AMF and GiveDirectly. In particular, we are less confident in SCI’s ability to communicate the details of its activities, meaning that the opportunity for learning from this grant could be lower. That said, in the world of all charities, we still think SCI is outstanding in terms of its effectiveness and transparency.

For more information, see GiveWell’s review of SCI and report on deworming.

Why GiveWell’s top charities?

We think supporting GiveWell’s top charities makes a lot of sense for individual donors, particularly people who want their charitable dollars to go as far as possible and don’t have time to research charities on their own. But does it make sense for Good Ventures, a staffed foundation with significant resources, to support GiveWell’s top charities? Shouldn’t we be funding projects that are higher risk with a higher potential reward — the kind of work that most individual donors don’t have the time, expertise or scale to undertake?

Yes, we should, and we’re actively pursuing such giving opportunities by researching causes we find promising, co-funding projects with major foundations, and other grantmaking aimed at learning. At the same time, we think there are great reasons for Good Ventures to support GiveWell’s top charities. We care about getting funding into the hands of highly effective organizations now because we believe the good we do through giving today will compound over time. We think it’s likely that AMF, GiveDirectly and SCI are doing a lot of good, perhaps more good per dollar donated than the higher-risk projects that we, as a new foundation with a lot to learn, are funding today.

Additionally, we think GiveWell’s approach to researching giving opportunities is unique and valuable. Our grants will help GiveWell in multiple ways, by:

We hope you'll consider joining us in supporting GiveWell's top charities this giving season and discussing your reasons for — and reservations about — your giving decisions with friends and family. Together, we can transform the culture around giving to be more open and impactful.