Swinging for the Fences

Note: We're experimenting with writing shorter, more accessible versions of key Open Philanthropy blog posts for the Good Ventures blog. For a more detailed version of this essay, see the original. In this post, "we" refers to Good Ventures and the Open Philanthropy Project, who work as partners.

Depending on the score, sometimes it’s prudent for a baseball player to swing steadily to maximize the chance of contact with the ball. Other times, it’s better to swing hard — "for the fences" — and try to hit a home run, even if that increases the risk of striking out.

Swinging for the fences isn't right for everyone. But we believe it's the right approach for the Open Philanthropy Project (Open Phil) and other large donors who want to maximize their impact. Philanthropists can afford to swing for the fences in a way many others can't. Compared to for-profit businesses and governments, donors are not constrained by the need to make a profit or justify our work to a wide audience. With no quarterly earnings statements or midterm elections, we can take the long view.

At Open Phil, our overarching goal is to do as much good as we can. Generally speaking, we are risk-neutral, meaning we are open to both safe bets, like direct cash transfers to the world’s poorest people, as well as more speculative projects, like minimizing risks from potentially world-changing areas of science and technology.

But we suspect that a small number of enormous successes will account for much of our total impact. That's why one of our core values is to patiently support high-risk-of-failure, high-upside work. We're even open to supporting work that's more than 90% likely to fail, as long as the expected value is high enough.

We believe much of the best philanthropy is likely to fail. This is one of our biggest takeaways from researching the history of philanthropy. We've seen several cases where a philanthropist took a major risk and had enormous impact — enough to make up for many failed projects.

Here are a few particularly vivid examples, many of which we drew from Joel Fleishman's Casebook for The Foundation:

  • The Rockefeller Foundation invested in research to improve farming in the developing world — research which is now credited with catalyzing a "Green Revolution" and saving a billion people from starvation.
  • Philanthropist Katharine McCormick was the sole funder of research that lead to the development of the combined oral contraceptive pill, now one of the most common and convenient methods of birth control.
  • Foundations also are credited with leading the way on building schools and hospitals in America's rural South, piloting the shoulder line on U.S. roads, successfully advocating for health care for the homeless and nuclear non-proliferation, and many major advances in medical research, including the first combination drug therapy for AIDS.

These examples demonstrate the upside of investing in new and unproven ideas that contradict conventional wisdom and could take decades to have an impact. With this in mind, we're willing to strike out many times in order to hit a few home runs.

What does swinging for the fences mean in practice? Sometimes it means supporting work that requires deep knowledge to fully understand and is hard to explain to a wide audience. Though we try to share a lot about our work publicly, we won't always be able to fully justify our decisions in writing.

An example of this dynamic is our support of safety-focused research in machine learning and artificial intelligence. We believe this cause is neglected by other funders specifically because it's difficult to understand and explain. It took our team years to develop a strong enough understanding of machine learning to appreciate and make progress in this cause.

Swinging for the fences also means we won't always require a strong evidence base before funding something, since that would limit us to ideas that have already been thoroughly explored by others. In general, we try to work in causes that have been neglected by other donors because we believe doing so increases the chance of our investments' having a major positive impact.

For example, we think the cause of preparing for a catastrophic pandemic disease (either naturally occurring or deliberately released) has been particularly neglected relative to its importance. So we are prioritizing work to prevent a global pandemic even though it would be impossible to test our chosen tactics using a rigorous study, like a randomized controlled trial. Instead, we're looking for other ways to learn from and improve our work.

Sometimes swinging for the fences means taking on controversial positions or adversarial situations. We think our biggest home runs will come from supporting extremely important ideas where we see potential while most of the world does not. We expect that many these ideas will initially be met with skepticism, perhaps even opposition.

Criminal justice reform with the goal of dramatically reducing incarceration in the United States, particularly among low-income communities and communities of color, is one such idea. We think it's well past due, but it runs counter to the tough-on-crime mentality still prevalent in many places.

Swinging for the fences means accepting these risks and leaning into them. That said, we try to take risks in a principled way with the goal of maximizing the positive impact of our work:

  • We choose our focus areas based on three criteria: importance, neglectedness and tractability.
  • For every grant, we ask, what would success look like, and how could the grant fail? After the grant has concluded, we look back and ask, how did the results compare to our expectations, and what can we learn?
  • We aim for a deep understanding of key issues and strong partnerships with thoughtful experts and other funders.
  • We try to support outstanding leaders with few strings attached.

A final observation is that it's harder to learn from a high-risk approach in which failures are common than a low-risk one in which failures are rare. (When you expect most grants to fail in one of a number of ways, it can be hard to learn much when they do.) That means we must be deeply committed to learning — and humility — by questioning our assumptions, respecting people who disagree with us, and honestly communicating both our excitement and our uncertainty about the grants we make.