Notable Lessons from the Open Philanthropy Project

In the fall of 2011, we started working with GiveWell to explore the question, "as a major philanthropist, how can we give as well as possible?" That undertaking, which we now call the Open Philanthropy Project, is still in its early stages. But we've learned several notable lessons along the way.

This blog post is a compilation of those lessons, with links to read more, for people who are new to following our work and want to quickly absorb what we've learned. (Note: We updated this post in August 2015 with additional content.)

Philanthropy's success stories

We summarize and reflect on the “100 of the highest-achieving foundation initiatives” since 1900, as described in the Casebook for The Foundation: A Great American Secret. Overall, we wish there were more to read about the history of philanthropy, and we're trying to support more such work via our History of Philanthropy initiative.

Strategic cause selection

Many funders choose causes to focus on based on pre-existing personal passions. They often become more analytical when determining which strategies to pursue within those causes. However, we believe that the first step — choosing causes — may well be the most important, and deserves a strategic approach. We lay out a basic framework for evaluating causes based on the potential for positive impact.

What large-scale philanthropy focuses on today

We summarize the causes that foundations tend to focus on today using two data sets, which we share in the post.

Challenges of passive funding

We spend a lot of time thinking about the spectrum from “passive funding” to “active funding.” “Passive funding” refers to a dynamic in which the funder’s role is to review others’ proposals, ideas and arguments and choose which ones to support. Meanwhile, "active funding" refers to a dynamic in which the funder’s role is to participate in — or lead — the development of a strategy, and find partners to “implement” it. Active funders, in other words, aim to influence partner organizations at some level, whereas passive funders merely choose between plans that other nonprofits have already devised.

We see major advantages to being as “passive” as possible. A good partner organization will know their field better than we will, and they’ll be better positioned to design strategy. Plus, we’d expect a project to go better when its implementer has fully bought into the plan, as opposed to carrying out the wishes of a funder. However, most major funders appear highly “active.” In trying to understand why, we've learned about some major challenges to passive funding. In the nonprofit sector, funder interest is a major driver of what gets proposed and fleshed out. Partly because of that, we've come to believe that a degree of active strategy setting is important.

The role of philanthropic funding in politics

We list many ways in which a funder might work to improve policy. We’ve found this list to be a helpful guide when thinking about which policy issues are "crowded" — where funders are already pursuing most viable strategies for influencing policy — and which are "uncrowded," where there’s space for a great deal more work. Many people associate "policy-oriented giving" with funding lobbying and elections, but these are not the only or necessarily best ways to have an impact.

The track record of policy-oriented philanthropy

Is it worthwhile for a philanthropist to try to influence policy? Do such attempts have a history of working often enough and significantly enough to make up for the failed attempts? This post reviews what we know about the “ROI” (or “good accomplished per dollar”) of policy-oriented philanthropy. The final section gives one reason to think that policy-oriented philanthropy is promising: significantly less money appears to be spent on policy-oriented work compared with scientific research and global health aid.

Returns to life sciences funding

How does the ROI of scientific research funding compare to that of other ways of giving? This post reviews what we know about the question.

The importance of committing to causes

We’ve consistently found that the level of interest we show in a cause — including our willingness to provide funding — is a major driver of what sorts of giving opportunities we’re able to find. This is one argument for the importance of "giving to learn." Sometimes it's necessary to make grants in order to find out what kinds of giving opportunities are available.

Challenges of transparency

We used to wonder why major foundations didn’t write more about the thinking behind (and results of) their giving, in order to share their knowledge and influence others. In trying to be a highly transparent funder, we’ve learned a lot about why transparency is so difficult in philanthropy, and we no longer find it mysterious that transparency is so rare. This post describes what we see as the biggest challenges of being public and open about giving decisions.

Expert philanthropy vs. broad philanthropy

The most common model in philanthropy — seen at nearly every major staffed foundation — is to hire people who specialize in a particular cause (for example, criminal justice policy). Often, they focus their time exclusively on one cause, to the point of becoming an expert in it, if they weren’t already.

There are strong advantages of this model, but we also see some drawbacks. Deep expertise in one area comes at the price of breadth, or the ability to consider opportunities across many areas. This post explores the question of whether there’s a way to be involved in a broad set of causes at a low level of depth, looking for the most outstanding giving opportunities to come along. Another post examines one foundation that seems to have accomplished a lot with a breadth-oriented approach.

The path to biomedical progress

We lay out a basic guide to different types of biomedical research: improving tools and techniques, studying healthy biological processes, studying diseases and conditions of interest, generating possible treatments, evaluating possible treatments, and clinical trials. We use the example of the cancer drug Herceptin to demonstrate how these different types of research interact. Finally, we discuss some common misconceptions that stem from too much focus on a particular kind of research, rather than on the complementary roles of many kinds of research.

Breakthrough fundamental science

In the context of life sciences, “breakthrough fundamental science” refers to research that achieves important, broadly applicable insights about biological processes. Such insights can bring about many new promising directions for research. However, at the outset, it’s often difficult to anticipate all the specific ways in which the insights will be applied, and thus to be assured of “results” in the sense of new clinical applications. We've heard repeatedly that it’s difficult to secure support for breakthrough fundamental science in the existing funding environment, and that this may present an opportunity for private philanthropy.

For more on potential funding opportunities in science, see our posts on translational science and science policy and infrastructure.

Funder-initiated startups

We’ve come across many cases where a funder took a leading role in creating a now-major nonprofit. This seems like a notable potential difference between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. We give examples of funder-initiated startups and possible explanations for the difference.

Key questions about philanthropy

A three-part series on fundamental questions about philanthropy that we’ve grappled with in starting a grantmaking organization: