Our Progress in 2015 and Plans for 2016

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

This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year. In brief:

  • Our 2015 goals revolved mostly around building our staff capacity, and particularly around hiring. Broadly speaking, we mostly accomplished our goals, though we significantly scaled back our goals for scientific research at mid-year.
  • Our team has roughly doubled in size compared to a year ago. We’re now in a much better position to recommend a significant amount of grantmaking. We also feel much better positioned to identify outstanding causes.
  • This year, we have a general goal of focusing on making grants in the most outstanding causes we’ve found. This is a departure from past years’ goals, which revolved around building knowledge and staff capacity. We expect to prioritize building knowledge and staff capacity again in the future, but we think this is a good year to focus on increasing our grantmaking. We currently are bottlenecked in terms of management capacity, and we believe that focusing on grantmaking will likely lead to a lot of learning that will inform future hiring and capacity building.
  • Potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence will be a major priority for 2016. Not only will Daniel Dewey be working on this cause full-time, but Nick Beckstead and I will both be putting significant time into it as well. Some other staff will be contributing smaller amounts of time as appropriate.
  • Other major focus areas where we expect significant grantmaking include criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, and biosecurity. We expect to recommend at least $10 million in grants in each of these areas.
  • We have a variety of other goals, including completing the separation of the Open Philanthropy Project as an independent organization from GiveWell, with its own employees and financials, though some individuals will continue to do work for both organizations.

Progress in 2015

In 2015, our goals were set out in several posts, and we set 6- rather than 12-month goals (with an update about 6 months in). Below is a summary, based on four posts.[1] Footnotes provide quotes from these posts supporting the summary.

US policy: Our top priority was hiring and, later, onboarding full-time staff. We surpassed our 6-month goal (making two hires rather than the one we had aimed for), and then focused on working with the hires – Chloe Cockburn and Lewis Bollard – to get in sync about goals and plans. A secondary priority was to explore giving opportunities in immigration policy, land use reform and macroeconomic stabilization policy.[2]

While we ended up making a small number of immigration policy grants and land use reform grants, we chose to focus more on macroeconomic stabilization policy because we saw a clear set of funding opportunities that seemed timely and high-potential. (Investigations for these are still ongoing.)

Global catastrophic risks: One of our top goals throughout the year was to make a full-time hire for working on biosecurity. We recently had an offer accepted for the biosecurity role, which concludes that several-months-long search.

The other top goal evolved. Initially, we planned to explore giving opportunities in several other areas. We then put significant time into a $1.2 million grant in the cause of potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence. We came to believe this cause could be suitable for a full-time hire, and began working on a trial basis with Daniel Dewey to explore it further.[3]

Since then, we completed a basic landscape of this cause (forthcoming) and hired Daniel as a full-time employee to focus on it.

Scientific research: We initially hoped to form clear priorities within scientific research funding by the end of 2015, comparable to where we then stood on U.S. policy and global catastrophic risks, though we recognized this was a stretch goal. By mid-year, it had become clear that we needed more scientific advisory capacity than we had. We wrote that we did not expect to accomplish this goal and shifted our focus to building advisory capacity. We also began preliminary exploration of possibilities in the social sciences.[4]

Since then, we have made substantial progress in scientific advisory hiring: Daniel Martin-Alarcon will be joining us in June as a full-time Scientific Advisor, and Chris Somerville, who is currently working with us part-time, is planning to join us later in the year (after he finishes some other projects) as a full-time Senior Scientific Advisor. We have an offer out that, if accepted, would result in a third full-time scientific advisory hire.

We have made partial progress on a number of investigations of neglected goals, including malaria, tuberculosis, life extension, finding new uses for off-patent drugs, and animal product alternatives. Only the last of these has progressed to a public writeup, and much of this work was done as trial assignments with potential advisors (not all of whom ended up working with us long-term), so some of these investigations could still be a long way from public writeups.

Other: We aimed to create an Open Philanthropy Project website and transfer our content from the GiveWell website to it. We also fell behind on putting out public content, and hoped to improve our processes around this.[5]

Since then, we launched the website and substantially improved our processes around writeups. There are still some cause investigations that we never finished or published, but we are now fairly consistently publishing grant writeups a few months after recommending grants. Another notable event of 2015 was our partnership with Kaitlyn and Mike Krieger.

Takeaways from 2015

We've expanded the team significantly and plan to slow the pace of hiring at this point. At the beginning of the year, the people spending significant (>50%) time on the Open Philanthropy Project were:

  • Alexander Berger and Howie Lempel, who were primarily focused on hiring and/or cause selection, and recommended a limited number of grants.
  • David Roodman, who focused on in-depth literature reviews that aided our cause selection.
  • Nick Beckstead, whom we had just hired and begun onboarding.
  • Cari Tuna and myself, focused on cause selection and oversight.

Since then, the team has roughly doubled in size. Specifically:

  • We've brought on three cause-specific Program Officers: Chloe Cockburn (criminal justice reform), Lewis Bollard (farm animal welfare), and Daniel Dewey (potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence). A fourth cause-specific Program Officer will be starting soon to work on biosecurity.
  • We've improved our processes and significantly increased our capacity for recommending grants and producing grant writeups. Helen Toner and Nicole Ross lead this work.
  • Nick Beckstead (new at the beginning of 2015) and Luke Muehlhauser (hired during 2015) now work on a variety of things, including helping with cause selection for life sciences (Nick) and social sciences (Luke).
  • With two offers accepted and a third outstanding, we expect to have significant scientific advisory capacity by the end of 2016.

Hiring was our main priority on nearly every front in 2015, and this growth in capacity was our main output for the year.

We're now in much better position to do a significant amount of grantmaking. For 2016, we plan to focus significantly more on grantmaking, because:

  • We haven't focused intensively on grantmaking before. Doing so now is likely to lead to a lot of learning that will inform future hiring and capacity building.
  • Many of our teammates are still relatively new. In general, we expect to work intensively with new staff, and see them gradually take on more autonomy, freeing up managers’ capacity for further hiring and onboarding. Our management capacity is constrained now, and it would be difficult to do more hiring, but I expect this to change in the future.
  • As discussed immediately below, we see some compelling philanthropic opportunities that we'd like to pursue as quickly as we can.

We now feel that we have reasonably good context for identifying the causes that best fit our criteria.

  • We've put serious thought and discussion into all four of the major categories of potential focus areas that we've identified as potential priorities. US policy and global catastrophic risks are categories that we've investigated to the point of picking initial focus areas and starting to make grants. We've looked into several causes in the life sciences (and to a lesser extent in the social sciences) and had many discussions with scientific advisors about which ones seem most promising. And through our experience with GiveWell and discussions with the Center for Global Development, we have at least a preliminary sense of what focus areas we might find promising within global health and development.
  • We've also been putting more effort into the kinds of cost-effectiveness calculations that can start to give us an idea of how to compare opportunities across causes. We've done very rough estimates of the good accomplished per dollar for grants where this seemed worth doing; see examples from criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, and global development policy. We've also started thinking about how to compare these opportunities to GiveWell’s top charities, and about the more general issue of what the threshold should be for "good enough to fund now rather than saving the money for later" (see this post). We're still a long way away from having a systematic take on these issues, but we're starting to build our intuition about what sorts of giving opportunities are good, very good and outstanding by our criteria. We see some outstanding causes that we feel ready to work on now; we think doing so soon would be much better than doing so later, especially since we generally expect there to be more philanthropy following similar approaches to ours in the future (which would make our counterfactual impact smaller).

With all of the above considerations in mind, we have a general goal this year of focusing on making grants in the most outstanding causes we’ve found.

This is a departure from past years’ goals, which revolved around building knowledge and staff capacity. It is also distinct from a goal we may have in the future: maximizing our “money moved” by, for instance, looking for giving opportunities where we could recommend a large amount of grantmaking while spending relatively little time. By contrast, focusing on the most outstanding causes we’ve found could involve spending significant time per dollar of grantmaking and recommending a limited amount of grantmaking overall.

Plans for 2016

Potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence will be a major priority for 2016. Based on our investigations over the last few months, we believe that:

  • This cause stands out unusually strongly on our criteria of importance, neglectedness and tractability.
  • Doing good work in this cause is likely to require a major time investment, beyond what we can expect from one cause-specific staffer alone. We aren't sure whether this will be true over the long run, but it seems likely to be true of our first year working intensively in this area.

Accordingly, we are going to be investing significant capacity in this cause. Daniel Dewey will work on it full-time, and Nick Beckstead and I will both put significant time into it as well. Some other staff will be contributing smaller amounts of time as appropriate. Since Nick and I are both generalists, we expect this plan to have major opportunity costs: it will lower our overall capacity for cause selection and other cross-cutting work, such as refining our approach to cost-effectiveness estimates and improving our process for producing writeups. This is a tradeoff we're comfortable with for 2016, and we’ll revisit the matter in about a year.

We won't necessarily recommend a large amount of grantmaking in this cause, though it's possible that we will. Our main goal is to lay the groundwork for more grantmaking in the future. We will elaborate more on the case that this cause presents an outstanding opportunity in future posts.

Other global catastrophic risks. We hope to recommend at least $10 million worth of grants in the area of biosecurity in the next year. A full-time Program Officer will be starting work in this area soon. We don't plan to prioritize other global catastrophic risks, though it's possible we will make some one-off grants (more on one-off grants below).

U.S. policy. We hope to recommend at least $10 million worth of grants in each of criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare. We have cause-specific staffers leading our work in both areas. (In each case, we'd include grants already made in these areas – since late 2015, when both staffers joined – as part of the $10 million.)

Alexander Berger's top priority continues to be supporting Chloe and Lewis' work (on criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare, respectively). We're less set on what his other priorities will be, but with his remaining time, he is likely to work on some combination of:

I'd guess that his work (aside from supporting Chloe and Lewis) will result in about $10 million worth of grant recommendations in 2016, but with high uncertainty.

Scientific research. We still have a substantial amount of work to do before we'll be ready to set focus areas within scientific research. We don't plan to set a particular goal for 2016, because (a) we are allocating senior generalist time to potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence; and (b) we think time spent on scientific research will be much more productive after our scientific advisors come on board.

Effective altruism. There is a strong possibility that we will make grants aimed at helping grow the effective altruist community in 2016. Nick Beckstead, who has strong connections and context in this community, would lead this work. This would be a change from our previous position on effective altruism funding, and a future post will lay out what has changed.

Other grants. As discussed above, we have significantly better capacity – and context – for evaluating potential grants than we’ve had in the past. As such, we are making a moderate effort to identify potential grants that don't fit neatly into an existing focus area, but that are highly "shovel-ready" (in the sense that we can identify a specific potential grantee) and appear strong overall based on the knowledge we've picked up in the course of our many cause investigations and discussions. We don't expect to make a large number of these grants, but we expect to make some.

Other goals.

  • We hope that by the end of 2016, the Open Philanthropy Project will operate as an independent organization from GiveWell, with its own employees and financials, though some individuals will continue to do work for both organizations.
  • We continue to commission case studies on philanthropy’s past successes as part of our history of philanthropy work. We also continue to collect relevant cases informally. By the end of 2016, we hope to publish a summary of what we’ve learned about the history of philanthropy, which will be a significant update from our 2012 post on the subject.
  • We hope to continue improving cross-cutting aspects of how we work. Our interests include improving our process for producing public writeups, refining our approach to cost-effectiveness estimates and comparing the good accomplished by different grants, refining our thinking about how much giving we should recommend to GiveWell's top charities, and finding ways to improve our general forecasting abilities (since our grantmaking decisions rely on views about what developments are likely in the future). We expect to do some work on all of these fronts, but it will not be a major priority with a concrete goal this year.
  • We still don't have the capacity we'd need to identify focus areas within the category of global health and development – beyond our existing connection to GiveWell's work and our support of the Center for Global Development. We don’t plan to build this capacity in 2016 and expect to revisit this in a future year.
  1. [1] The four posts are: our March update on US policy, March update on global catastrophic risks, March summary of overall goals, and September update.

  2. [2] March update on US policy:

    Our new goal is to be in the late stages of making at least one “big bet” - a major grant ($5+ million) or full-time hire - in the next six months ... Our highest priority is to make a full-time hire on criminal justice reform, factory farming (pending a last bit of cause investigation, focused on the prospects for research on meat alternatives), or macroeconomic policy. Our second-highest priority is to further explore international labor mobility and land use reform, with an eye to either finding more giving opportunities (hopefully including at least one major one) or to developing a full-time job description.
    September update:
    Over the next six months, our top priority will be working with Chloe and Lewis to get in sync about goals and plans for those fields. Over time, we hope that the new program officers will lead this work with less involvement from us, but we believe it is important to invest early on in understanding each other's thinking. We expect that Alexander Berger, who leads our work on U.S. policy, will also have substantial time to pursue giving opportunities in causes that we aren't currently expecting to make full-time hires for - particularly immigration policy and land use reform. We expect to continue working on macroeconomic stabilization policy in some way, but we aren't yet sure whether we will make a full-time hire for this cause. If we do not, it will be one of Alexander's top priorities along with the two causes in the previous paragraph. As a much lower priority, we will continue to conduct investigations on other causes.

  3. [3] March update on global catastrophic risks:

    Our new goal is to be in the late stages of making at least one 'big bet' - a major grant ($5+ million) or full-time hire - in the next six months. We think there is a moderate likelihood that we will hit this goal; if we do not, we will narrow our focus to a smaller number of causes in order to raise our odds. Our highest priority is to make a full-time hire for working on biosecurity. As a second priority, we are spending significant time on various aspects of geoengineering, geomagnetic storms, risks from artificial intelligence, and some issues that cut across different global catastrophic risks.
    September update:
    We decided to prioritize investigating the possibility of helping to support the Future of Life Institute research grants program. We ended up spending a large amount of time investigating this opportunity. It was difficult to tell in advance what the size of our recommendation (if any) would be; we ended up recommending a grant of ~$1.2 million. In some sense, this grant was a 'big bet' given that we saw it as a major opportunity and invested significant time in it, although the grant size we ended up with was below the working definition of a 'big bet' above ... We now have the impression that the field of research on potential risks of advanced artificial intelligence is changing rapidly - in particular, the amount of interest and the number of projects are growing - and if we do prioritize this area it may call for a full-time specialist. (This is a change from our previous position, where we saw the space as quite thin and unlikely to be a fit for a full-time position). Accordingly, we have begun working with a contractor (who could become a Program Officer in the future) to do a more in-depth investigation of the different possible activities in this space ... Over the next six months, our top priorities will be our search for a full-time biosecurity hire and the above-mentioned work on investigating the field around potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence.

  4. [4] March post on overall review and plan:

    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.
    September update:
    Since our last update:
    • We have been working with Lily Kim and Melanie Smith on neglected goal investigations, and hope to publish our first writeup (on animal product alternatives) in the next few months. A major challenge of work in this category is that we haven't identified an effective way to do 'shallow' investigations; investigating any given scientific field takes a large amount of work from both generalist staff and scientific advisors.
    • Lily was previously working for us ~5 hours per week, and is now working ~20 hours per week.
    • We have created a posting for a full-time scientific advisor and put significant effort into the search, but have not made an offer yet.
    • We have lowered the priority of the other work in this category. Unlike with the above two categories, we have not yet set focus areas for scientific research, and we believe that doing so will require a large amount of investigation - preferably with high involvement from scientific advisors. We see our top priority as building scientific advisory capacity, and don't expect to make substantial headway on setting focus areas until we have much more of it.
    • We have started an exploration of social sciences research. We are doing quick skims of the literature on questions that seem to have high potential social value, in order to identify potential important gaps in the literature. We might address such gaps by directly funding research or by working on systemic issues that affect many literatures. This work is quite preliminary, and so far we have been focused on developing a process for surveying the literature on a given question.

  5. [5] March post on overall review and plan:

    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).
    September update:
    We are hoping to launch a website for the Open Philanthropy Project by the end of the year. We believe that the new website will make it much easier to understand our work and current priorities. Creating it has been a significant amount of work, and it remains difficult to forecast exactly when the website will be ready to launch. We're still not where we want to be on public content: we have many writeups still in progress, and our content is not well-organized (largely because it is on the GiveWell website rather than a separate Open Philanthropy Project website). By the end of the year, we hope that the situation will be much better due to launching our new website and publishing most of our still-pending writeups, but we expect that we will still have significant progress to make at that time.