Suggestions for Individual Donors from Open Philanthropy Project Staff

The Open Philanthropy Project looks for outstanding giving opportunities, but its target audience is large institutional donors – unlike GiveWell's top charities work, which targets individual donors. Some individuals have expressed interest in hearing whether there are any organizations we've come across, in our work on the Open Philanthropy Project, that they might consider donating to.

For this post, I polled the Open Philanthropy Project team and asked whether there are any organizations they think are reasonably strong options for individual donors, based on their Open Philanthropy Project work. The recommendations are listed below, along with some brief reasoning and information about how to donate.

Some caveats to these recommendations:

  • These are reasonably strong options in causes of interest, and shouldn't be taken as outright recommendations (i.e., it isn't necessarily the case that the recommender thinks they're the best option available across all causes). For example, Alexander suggests two groups in causes he's worked on, but he personally gave to top charities this year (as did I).
  • In many cases, we find a funding gap we'd like to fill, and then we recommend filling the entire funding gap with a single grant. That doesn't leave much scope for making a recommendation to individuals. The cases listed below, then, are the cases where, for one reason or another, we haven't decided to recommend filling an organization's full funding gap, and we believe it could make use of fairly arbitrary amounts of donations from individuals. (These tend to be larger organizations.)
  • In the cases below, we don't yet have a public writeup making the case for these organizations. Unlike with GiveWell top charities, we don't prioritize having writeups completed by the holiday season. As a result, our explanations for why these are strong giving opportunities are very brief and informal, and we don't expect individuals to put weight on them unless they trust the judgment of the person making the recommendation.

Summary of the recommendations:

If you decide to support one of these organizations based on our recommendations, please let us know.

Criminal Justice Reform – recommendations by Chloe Cockburn

Alliance for Safety and Justice

What is it? The Alliance for Safety and Justice is a new national organization that aims to reduce incarceration and racial disparities in incarceration in states across the country, and replace mass incarceration with new safety priorities that prioritize prevention and protect low-income communities of color. ASJ aims to build on the successful strategies of Californians for Safety and Justice and its sister organization, Vote Safe, the 501c4 that launched and ran the successful Proposition 47 campaign in 2014. Californians for Safety and Justice’s leadership, Ms. Lenore Anderson and Mr. Robert Rooks, are launching Alliance for Safety and Justice, to take the best of what they’ve achieved in California and support other state advocates in winning substantial reductions in state incarceration. Alliance for Safety and Justice will aim to build durable capacity in partner states for sentencing reform; develop a national networking center of gravity to strengthen reform efforts in as many states as possible across the country; and popularize new safety priorities through crime survivor organizing and strategic communications. Note that ASJ does not yet have a public website.

Why I recommend it: We have new and unprecedented national attention to justice reform, yet we have seen only slight decreases in incarceration in the states (CA and NY aside, and racial disparities and spending are still extreme). The failure to convert attention to wins is due in part to the very limited capacity at the state level to get durable wins – most states don't have an organization on the ground focused on reducing incarceration at all, let alone one with the capacity to successfully win and sustain reforms. There is almost no civic engagement capacity built on this issue, there are limited mainstream partnerships, and limited political influence (no organized candidate and campaign influencers). ASJ is an ambitious, large-scale effort to address exactly these problems, with the best possible leadership for the job. Lenore's and Robert's work on the successful California Proposition 47 campaign was impressive.

Why we haven't fully funded it: ASJ is seeking to raise upwards of $10 million in the coming year, and the Open Philanthropy Project is limiting the amount we grant on criminal justice reform for the time being as we get to know the space better. I have recommended a grant of $1.75 million from Open Philanthropy along with a $250,000 individual gift from Cari Tuna. If it weren't for limits to our grantmaking on criminal justice reform, I would have recommended $5 million, and even then I'd want to leave room for other donors. In addition, I think having a diversified donor base would be good for ASJ, so at this point $X from an individual probably helps them more than an additional $X from us.

Writeup forthcoming? Yes

How to donate: Click here, choose "Californians for Safety and Justice" from the drop-down, and put "Alliance for Safety and Justice" in the field following "I want my donation to be dedicated:"

Bronx Freedom Fund

What is it? The Bronx Freedom Fund posts bail for people charged with low-level offenses in the Bronx who can't afford to pay and who would otherwise be forced to await trial in jail. Bronx defendants who qualify for the Fund can have their bail posted with no contribution from them and spend that time before trial home with their families. Defendants released pretrial are far more likely to have positive resolutions to their cases (those who can’t post bond often end up pleading guilty just to get out of jail), so the benefits include not only less incarceration, but also fewer convictions. The Bronx Freedom Fund discusses the impact of its work here.

Why I recommend it: This is an excellent option for individuals looking to immediately impact incarceration in a relatively concrete and linear way. The Bronx Freedom Fund keeps approximately 150 people out of jail per year with about $90,000 out at a time in bails posted. They could do more with more, including expanding their assistance to other boroughs. The Fund provides an unusually cost-effective model: when defendants make all of their court appearances, bail is returned which means the vast majority (the Fund has a 97% appearance rate) of dollars donated revolves to help multiple cases and lives. The Bronx Freedom Fund also provides assistance to other cities working to start up bail funds. Finally, the benefits aren't just immediate – the Bronx Freedom Fund has helped lay the groundwork for systemic bail reform, since the high reappearance rates for people released through the Fund demonstrate that money bail, which provides freedom only to those who can afford it, is not necessary to ensure court appearance.

Why we haven't fully funded it: So far I have prioritized other grants, which I think are a more pressing use of our funds and less of a fit for other donors. I think the Bronx Freedom Fund is an excellent choice, though if I had to choose between it and ASJ, I'd choose ASJ.

Writeup forthcoming? No

How to donate: donate here.

Farm Animal Welfare – recommendations by Lewis Bollard

The Humane League

What is it? The Humane League seeks to reduce the suffering of the billions of farm animals confined, mutilated, and inhumanely slaughtered around the world. It has three main programs: institutional cage-free and meat reduction campaigns, online ads to raise awareness of farm animal suffering, and grassroots organizing to build a national movement.

Why I recommend it: As a lean organization that achieves a large amount on a small budget, The Humane League is a good bet for a small donor. I’m impressed by its pragmatic approach: it seems genuinely interested in sparing the most animals from the most suffering per dollar spent. Its corporate cage-free campaigns seem to be particularly cost-effective – generating pledges that will spare millions of hens from extreme confinement for small sums spent – and it's our priority to support these, though I think the other activities are valuable as well. I believe The Humane League has played an important role in the successful campaigns to date and is positioned to play a major role in more going forward, and can use additional funding productively.

Why we haven't fully funded it: We're currently working toward a decision on a grant, but the decision hasn't been made yet. If we did recommend a grant, it would be to meet THL's needs for corporate campaigns (what we consider its most effective activities), not its full organization-wide funding gap.

Writeup forthcoming? Yes

How to donate: via Network for Good.

The Humane Society of the United States Farm Animal Protection campaign

What is it? The Farm Animal Protection campaign of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) drives corporate farm animal welfare reforms, institutional meat reduction pledges, and increased public attention to farm animal suffering. It also conducts undercover investigations, lobbies for state laws and federal regulations to protect farm animals, and campaigns for ballot measures to outlaw the cruelest confinement systems in factory farming. (Disclosure: I previously worked at HSUS, and am friends with the leaders of the Farm Animal Protection campaign.)

Why I recommend it: The HSUS Farm Animal Protection campaign has been the key player in driving major animal welfare pledges from U.S. corporate giants. In particular, it has helped secure pledges from over 100 corporations – from Aramark to Dunkin’ Donuts – to ditch gestation crates, battery cages for hens, or both. These reforms have already reduced the suffering of millions of animals, and are on track to reduce the suffering of millions more. Its Meatless Monday campaigns and undercover investigations are raising awareness of factory farming and reducing the number of animals forced to endure it.

Why we haven't fully funded it: We're currently working toward a decision on a grant, but the decision hasn't been made yet. If we did recommend a grant, it would be to meet HSUS's needs for corporate campaigns (what we consider its most effective activities), not its full funding gap

Writeup forthcoming? Yes

How to donate: you can donate online here.

Other policy causes – recommendations by Alexander Berger

Center for Global Development

What is it? The Center for Global Development (CGD) is a think tank based in Washington, D.C. that conducts research on and promotes improvements to rich-world policies that affect the global poor.

Why I recommend it: I see CGD as the leading US think tank focused on global development and as being unusually well-aligned with GiveWell's values around the importance of evidence-based policy and cost-effectiveness (as well as the obvious overlap in being concerned about how actions of the global rich can be better channeled to improve the lot of the global poor). Several times during its 15-year history, CGD seems to have a played a causal role in decisions affecting billions of dollars directed towards the global poor, though it is of course very difficult to trace the impact of those decisions through to improved humanitarian outcomes. Despite its apparently strong track record, CGD has less unrestricted support than it would like (<25% currently vs ~1/3 ideally), and its communications and (especially) policy teams seem very small relative to other think tanks.

Why we haven't fully funded it: We're planning to recommend a 3-year grant of $1M/year, which would close much but not all of the gap between CGD's current level of unrestricted funding and where they would like to be. This amount is a bit arbitrary: CGD told us that the most unrestricted funding that it would ideally like to receive from a single source is $2M/year, its current largest unrestricted funder is the Hewlett Foundation, at $1.2M/year, and we asked for projections about how they would spend $200K, $500K, or $1M more per year. With general operating support for a mature institution like CGD, we don't see a particularly obvious point of declining returns, though it is likely that at some point it would begin to save resources for the indefinite future rather than spending more reasonably soon. However, in the long run, we would guess that CGD benefits from having a diverse base of donors, and we would prefer not to provide so much support that CGD might become reliant on us.

Writeup forthcoming? Yes, hopefully within a few weeks. We've also made a previous unrestricted grant to CGD and a grant to support CGD's migration work.

How to donate: Donate here.

Center for Popular Democracy's Fed Up Campaign

What is it? The Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive national advocacy group that works with community groups across the country, is running a campaign (“Fed Up”) that aims to encourage more expansionary monetary policy and greater transparency and public engagement in the governance of the Federal Reserve ("the Fed").

Why I recommend it: I see three basic reasons to support the campaign's goals:

  • I think the Fed is probably going to raise interest rates more than it should. I see the disagreement here as stemming largely from values differences: the Fed currently tends to weigh a point of inflation about the same as a point of unemployment, and I think a humanitarian perspective would weigh the latter more heavily. This may be partially because the Fed is currently more likely to be blamed if inflation moves too high than if unemployment remains higher than necessary or inflation stays below target longer than necessary.
  • It is quite likely that there will be another recession that returns interest rates to the zero lower bound in the next few years, and having an active group pushing the Fed to do more at that point may lead to a more balanced set of political pressures acting on the Fed and give them the political space to do (proportionally) more than they were able to in the Great Recession.
  • The campaign's procedural goals around increasing the transparency and accountability of the Fed, and particularly of the regional Federal Reserve Banks, strike me as worthwhile, though I have no idea how to estimate their humanitarian value.

And while the Federal Reserve is, appropriately, fairly insulated from outside pressure, the campaign has had surprising success during its first ~18 months in drawing press attention and access to policymakers. Overall, I see this as a substantially more complicated and risky case than the vast majority of grants we make, and I readily recognize that I could be mistaken.

Why we haven't fully funded it: We think the humanitarian stakes of monetary policy decisions are very high, and that many more funders would be engaged if the stakes were more widely understood, so part of our goal is to create a field of actors in this area that other funders could eventually support. To increase the incentives for other funders to engage, we’re planning to match contributions to the campaign during the next year, up to $1M.

Writeup: A February 2015 grant writeup is here; we’re planning another writeup in the next couple months.

How to donate: Donate here.

Nuclear Arms as Global Catastrophic Risk – recommendation by Nick Beckstead

Ploughshares Fund

What is it? Ploughshares Fund is a public operating foundation that "seeks to reduce and eventually eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons." Since the U.S. and Russia possess 95% of the world’s nuclear arsenal, Ploughshares Fund has a Washington policy focus. Its annual budget is around $8 million; about $5.5 million is spent on grants, with over $1 million for its own programmatic activity. The organization’s advocacy focuses on global nuclear arms control treaties (including defending existing ones), influencing U.S. nuclear posture, limiting expenditures on nuclear weapons systems, and promoting nuclear arms control champions in the U.S. House and Senate. Ploughshares Fund provides grants for groups and individuals to produce expert reports, articles, op-eds, town hall meetings, briefings for Congress and other advocacy tools.

In addition to ongoing efforts to stop a new nuclear arms race, Ploughshares Fund most recently received attention for its advocacy work on the Iran nuclear deal. It believes its “Iran Campaign” helped create the “political space” required to resolve the nuclear impasse with Iran by convening and funding a network of 85 organizations and 200 experts and advocates. Ploughshares stated to us that this network furnished government officials with expert analysis, produced first-hand reporting on the status of negotiations, provided rapid response fact checks, and mobilized U.S. public support for the final nuclear agreement. For more, see recent articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Currently, Ploughshares Fund is focused on U.S. policy toward Iran and limiting additional expenditures on the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.

Why I recommend it: Advocacy work – in contrast with policy analysis or demonstration projects – appears relatively neglected in the nuclear weapons policy world. I have a limited understanding of the organizations that work on nuclear weapons policy advocacy issues, but Ploughshares Fund seems like a good bet in that area because:

  • Ploughshares Fund is the largest funder in the field focused on advocacy.
  • Ploughshares Fund is seeking additional funding.
  • We found Ploughshares Fund helpful when we spoke to their President and Executive Director in order to get an overview of the field.
  • They are the main grantee of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which is the other major foundation in this space that is focused on advocacy.

Nuclear weapons policy work abroad is arguably more neglected than such work in the U.S., but I have too limited understanding of work going on outside of the U.S. to recommend any individual organization.

Why we haven't fully funded it: We haven't taken the time to investigate how Ploughshares Fund would use additional funding, and nuclear arms risk isn't a focus of ours for the time being: we have prioritized biosecurity and pandemic preparedness and potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence more highly. Writeup forthcoming? No

How to donate: Donate here.

Biosecurity and pandemic preparedness as Global Catastrophic Risk – recommendation by Howie Lempel

UPMC Center for Health Security

What is it? The UPMC Center for Health Security is a think tank that works to protect people’s health from epidemics (caused by natural pathogens or by accidents or deliberate misuse of biotechnology) and other disasters. Their work includes researching these threats and designing policy to address them, informing decisionmakers, and developing the biosecurity community by connecting experts in science, medicine, public health, law, social science, national security, and other fields. Much of this work is targeted toward mitigating potential global catastrophic risks although a substantial portion of it is also targeted toward smaller threats. A few examples of recent work by UPMC scholars that I am aware of are:

  • A Delphi Study that analyzed the biosecurity community’s collective judgment about threats from bioweapons.
  • Several publications (1, 2, 3) related to the current U.S. policy debate on how the federal government should evaluate the risks of funding certain types of “gain of function” research (research that might increase the transmissibility or pathogenicity of influenza, SARS, or MERS).
  • A discussion paper on mitigating risks related to developments in synthetic biology.
  • The Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative, which builds the biosecurity community by identifying, developing, and providing networking opportunities to potential new leaders in the space.
  • Many examples of lending their expertise by speaking and testifying at hearings and meetings.
  • The Center is running a multilateral strategic dialogue on strengthening biosecurity for Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the US, which works to improve prevention and response to deliberate biothreats, epidemic response, and biosafety.

Why I recommend it: We have identified biosecurity and pandemic preparedness as an area receiving relatively significant attention from the public sector but fairly little philanthropic funding. In this situation we believe that think tanks and advocacy groups may have particularly high impact by influencing and improving the use of government funds through policy research and development, acting as an independent source of accountability, and having the flexibility to work on long-run and/or politically controversial issues.

I do not know every organization working in the field but I perceive the UPMC Center for Health Security to be the most influential think tank working on health security issues and to be generally well-respected in the field. They seem to be the go-to source of expertise for many health security issues and are one of a small handful of organizations that combine expertise in science, medicine, public health, and security. I have heard particularly positive reviews of their Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative, which is one of the only institutions I’m aware of that provides multidisciplinary networking and development opportunities for the biosecurity field.

Why we haven't fully funded it: We haven't taken the time to investigate the UPMC Center for Health Security’s track record in detail or how the organization would use additional funding. We’re currently prioritizing hiring over grantmaking when it comes to biosecurity.

Writeup forthcoming? No

How to donate: Write a check to UPMC Center for Health Security and send it to their address at: UPMC Center for Health Security, 621 East Pratt Street, Suite 210, Baltimore, Maryland 21202. The Center also requests that you include a simple explanation of why you decided to contribute.