Open Philanthropy Project: Progress in 2014 and Plans for 2015

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

We’re in the midst of finalizing detailed updates on Open Philanthropy Project progress and plans. This post gives a high-level summary, comparing our progress and stage of development with what we hoped for as of a year ago. In brief:

  • We made substantial progress on our main priorities: U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks. The precise nature of our goal (“commitments” to causes) shifted, but we have completed a substantial number of high-level cause investigations and decided on our working cause priorities. We are now shifting our focus from cause investigations to aiming for major grants and/or hires. Within the next six months, we hope to make at least one major grant and/or specialized hire in each of (a) U.S. policy and (b) global catastrophic risks; we consider this a “stretch goal” (substantial probability we will fail to hit it), and we plan another high-level check-in around 6 months from now.
  • We made less progress than hoped on other cause categories: scientific research funding and global health and development. We put substantial time into scientific research funding, but have found it to be probably the most complex and challenging of the broad categories. Our main goal for 2015 is to form clear priorities within scientific research funding, comparable to where we currently stand on U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks. This is a stretch goal. We don’t plan to work on global health and development this year for the Open Philanthropy Project.
  • We made some progress in separating the Open Philanthropy Project brand from the GiveWell brand, including a renaming (the Open Philanthropy Project was known as GiveWell Labs until last August). In the coming year, we plan to launch a more substantial website for the Open Philanthropy Project, continuing the process of separation.

U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks

We covered recent progress in these areas, and compared it to goals set last year, in previous posts (U.S. policyglobal catastrophic risks). This section gives a summary of that progress; those who have read the previous two posts may wish to skip it.

Last year, we wrote:

…our top goal for 2014 is a stretch goal (substantial probability we will fail to hit it): making substantial commitments to causes within these two categories. We aren’t sure yet how many causes this will involve; it will depend partly on our ability to find suitable hires. We also haven’t fully formalized the notion of a “substantial commitment to cause X,” but it will likely involve having at least one staff member spending a substantial part of their time on cause X, planning to do so for multiple years, and being ready to commit $5-30 million per year in funding. Given this level of commitment, it is likely that we will not be able to commit to more than 1-3 causes for each broad category (“global catastrophic risks” and “US policy issues” are instances of “broad categories”) in the coming year. Sub-goals of this goal are:

  • Completing enough shallow- and medium-depth investigations to feel that we’ve looked near-comprehensively at potential focus causes in these two categories, and writing up our reasons for narrowing the field to a smaller set of “contender causes.”
  • Deeply investigating “contender causes” – possibly including some amount of preliminary grantmaking – and prioritizing these “contender causes” relative to each other (and discussing our reasons for such prioritization).
  • Recruiting people to focus primarily or exclusively on finding giving opportunities within the causes we select.

We see this as an extremely challenging goal for the coming year, given our current status in these areas. There is no precision to estimating that one year is roughly sufficient, and the project of prioritizing causes in these categories could easily stretch into 2015. With that said, this prioritization is our top priority for 2014, and we think we have a chance to accomplish it. If we do so, we believe that GiveWell Labs [now Open Philanthropy Project] will become a much easier product to understand, discuss and critique, and we will reach the sort of crucial juncture for GiveWell Labs [now Open Philanthropy Project] that we reached for our traditional work around the end of 2009: having concrete recommendations that we can promote and defend, leading to much better engagement with and appeal to donors.

We have not delivered on this goal as initially envisioned. This is mostly because our thinking on how, and how much, to “commit” to causes has evolved. Rather than commit major time and funding up front to a small number of causes, we are going with a longer list of prioritized causes, and we’re looking for a good combination of “high-priority cause” with “strong specific giving and/or hiring opportunity.” The evolution of our thinking on this front is documented in several previous posts: Expert philanthropy vs. broad philanthropyThoughts on the Sandler Foundation, and our most recent update on our priorities for U.S. policy causes (similar reasoning applies to our work on global catastrophic risks).

With that said, we’ve done a large number of shallow- and medium-depth cause investigations, and as of the end of January 2015 (a little less than a month behind the schedule implied above), we were transferring the bulk of our energy from these sorts of investigations to seeking out hires and grants in the causes we’ve prioritized.

We haven’t yet made specialized hires, and we feel that the progress we had hoped for on making the Open Philanthropy Project “more concrete” has been partially but not fully realized.

Within the next six months, we hope to make at least one major grant and/or specialized hire in each of (a) U.S. policy and (b) global catastrophic risks; we consider this a “stretch goal” (substantial probability we will fail to hit it). We plan another high-level check-in around 6 months from now.

Scientific research funding and global health and development

Last year, we wrote:

We feel that we are at an earlier stage with two other broad categories of philanthropic causes: scientific research funding and foreign aid. In the case of scientific research funding, we have determined that scientific advisors are crucial, and we have recently recruited several such advisors and started working with them on a trial basis. In the case of foreign aid, despite our history of recommending charities that aid the developing world, we have not developed a strong understanding of how to evaluate a broad cause such as “malaria control” or infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa from the perspective of flexible, large-scale philanthropy (as opposed to focusing in specifically on delivery of evidence-backed interventions). We hope that at the beginning of 2015, we will be able to say about these two areas what we currently say about global catastrophic risks and US policy: that we have a general sense of the landscape of causes and of how to investigate and evaluate causes, and can aim to make serious commitments to causes in these categories within a year. This is also an ambitious goal, especially in light of its being a secondary priority to the above goal.

We did not deliver on the above goal.

I put substantial time into working with a team of six junior scientific advisors on a couple of fronts:

  • Having general conversations about philanthropic opportunities around scientific research.
  • Investigating the hypothesis that diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis (which disproportionately affect the global poor) are underfunded, and therefore present strong philanthropic opportunities.

I found this work highly challenging. In many cases, I found that the scientists we most wanted to talk to were reluctant to speak at all and/or reluctant to be candid about strong funding opportunities. This contrasts with our experience investigating U.S. policy areas, where many of the people who are best positioned to answer our questions see educating the public as part of their job. In addition, we struggled to find the right way to approach the second investigation listed above: we weren’t able to find people who could give broad, cross-cutting summaries of what philanthropic opportunities might look like, and struggled to think of how to divide the question into smaller questions for optimal efficiency.

Looking at where we stand today, it seems to me that:

  • We are still struggling to identify the right division of labor between full-time employees and scientific advisors when investigating a question of interest. We recently transitioned from working with a team of six advisors on fairly broad questions to working more intensively with individual advisors on investigating opportunities around specific diseases. We expect our thinking on this point to evolve further.
  • I am well behind where I’d like to be in terms of having basic background knowledge about scientific research. Obviously, I will never be an expert in any particular scientific field, so I need to be thoughtful about what a realistic level of background knowledge is, but I would like to improve significantly more before stepping up our efforts to investigate specific causes within scientific research.
  • Between the above two points, we still aren’t yet at the point where we can be working on large numbers of shallow- and medium-depth investigations of scientific research causes.
  • All of the above pertains only to biomedical sciences. We haven’t even begun exploring other scientific fields, including social sciences, energy, and computer science and machine learning.

In light of this situation, we are planning to free up some capacity by postponing Open Philanthropy Project work on global health and development until we’ve made significantly more progress on exploring scientific research. We feel that GiveWell’s top charities represent outstanding giving opportunities for people whose main concern is global health and development – in fact, we are not highly confident that we will find better ones for this particular goal through Open Philanthropy Project. We see improving our understanding of scientific research as the more daunting and pressing goal.

Our main goal for 2015 is to form clear priorities within scientific research funding, comparable to where we currently stand on U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks. This is a stretch goal.

We’ll be writing more about the specifics of our findings and views on biomedical sciences in the coming weeks.

Other progress and plans for Open Philanthropy Project

  • We have recently been prioritizing investigation over public writeups, and our public content is running well behind our private investigations. We are experimenting with different processes for writing up completed investigations – in particular, trying to assign more of the work to more junior staff. If we could do this, it would make a major difference to our capacity, since senior staff already have a substantial challenge keeping up with all of our priority causes. By the end of 2015, we hope that our public content will be no further behind our private investigations than it is at the moment.
  • In 2014, we created the “Open Philanthropy Project” name – replacing GiveWell Labs – and created a preliminary website. In the coming year, we plan to launch a more substantial website for the Open Philanthropy Project, and to look further into the idea of creating a separate organization (which we see as highly likely to happen in the long run).
  • We continued work on our History of Philanthropy project; we put out the first public case study, completed two more that are not yet public, and funded a conference on History of Philanthropy at the Rockefeller Archive Center. We plan to continue work on case studies with our existing consultants, and take new opportunities that come up to make grants and/or bring on new consultants. However, we have no specific goals for the year on this front.
  • We are continuing to network with people at major foundations and people who may become major funders in the future. We do not have specific goals on this front for 2015.
  • We are in the process of considering two grants to major U.S. think tanks trying to build their presence in India and/or China. We feel that we will eventually find it important to be able to work in other countries, particularly countries as important to the future global economy as India and China. However, we expect doing so to be extremely challenging, due largely to the difficulty of forming good relationships and having background context. We see these grants as a small step that will better position us to learn, over time, about the challenges of working overseas. This is not a major priority for 2015.