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:

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:

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:

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