Open Philanthropy Project Update: U.S. Policy

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

Last year, we set a “stretch goal” for the Open Philanthropy Project:

There are two types of causes – global catastrophic risks and US policy issues – that we now feel generally familiar with (particularly with the methods of investigation). We also believe it is important for us to pick some causes for serious commitments (multiple years, substantial funding) as soon as feasible, so that we can start to get experienced with the process of building cause-specific capacity and finding substantial numbers of giving opportunities. As such, 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.

This post is an update on our plans for U.S. policy; a future post will discuss global catastrophic risks.

In brief:

Below, we go into more detail on:

Progress since our June update

We’ve done internal shallow- and medium-level investigations – most of them not yet written up – on causes including:

We’ve also put significantly more time into exploring causes that were already on our radar:

Finally, we’ve done some cross-cutting work including:

How our thinking and approach have evolved

Through this work, our overall thinking on U.S. policy has shifted in several ways. Most importantly, we see a great deal of variation in how much different causes demand specialized, full-time, hires.

Another general observation from working on U.S. policy is that we believe that the mix of policy priorities that is coming into focus for us does not map neatly onto progressivism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any other platform currently common in the U.S. policy world. This topic was a prominent theme in our recent day-long convening noted above.

This observation has a couple of implications. In the short run, we expect to have more difficulty than most funders with finding organizations that share our positions across a broad range of policy areas; we expect that we will find organizations/partners that share some but not all of our perspectives. For example, the organizations that share our views on land use policy may have a different take on income security. In the long run, we would like to strengthen and support the network of people who broadly share our policy priorities. Both of these are reasons to pursue a relatively broad philanthropic approach, keeping up on a large number of causes rather than specializing in a small number.


While there are many more cause investigations we could do, at this point we think it’s appropriate to shift our priorities in the direction of granting out significant funds in the causes we’ve already identified as promising. At the same time, we’re trying to give ourselves the flexibility to look across multiple possible causes, and only make a “big bet” (a full-time hire or major grant) where we feel the specific opportunity is outstanding. As such, we’ve created a relatively long prioritized list of causes, with goals for each, and our six-month goal is to be in the late stages of making a “big bet” in at least one area. We may continue to make smaller grants, with relatively light investigation, when we see reasonably strong opportunities, but this is not our main goal.

In order to determine which causes are most outstanding, we’re still putting substantial weight on the framework we outlined last June: looking for causes that (a) stand out on one of [importance, tractability or uncrowdedness], while (b) being competitive with other causes on the other two dimensions.

In addition, we’ve started separating issue areas by “need for a specialist,” as discussed above. On issues that demand a specialist, our main goal is to make a full-time hire; on others, our main goal is to wait and see what kinds of opportunities might be available (and potentially have existing generalist staff explore and make a grant if we find a credible opportunity). A third important category of cause is “shovel-ready” causes: causes where we have an unusually concrete sense of what (and in some cases whom) we could fund and the next step is largely deciding whether to do so.

A final note on our ranking of causes is that we’ve started more explicitly thinking of “high-venue” issues (issues where policy at the state and local level, not just the federal level, is relevant) as being both more complex and presenting more possible paths to impact that we can choose between. For this reason, we now list the “venues” for a cause separately in our spreadsheet.

Our highest priority is to hire and increase capacity in areas where we feel prepared to, and accordingly our current policy priorities list puts the causes that we’d be interested in hiring in at the top; they are followed by the strongest issues where we don’t have a good sense of what kinds of additional opportunities we could support, and those in turn are followed by our strongest “shovel-ready” issues. Our highest priority is to make a full-time hire for criminal justice reformfactory 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, areas that we find conceptually very promising but in which we aren’t currently aware of (multiple promising-seeming) potential grant opportunities, and accordingly aren’t ready to make full-time hires in. These priorities are followed by several issues on which we have a relatively specific idea of what we could fund, and the next steps would be to investigate in much greater depth to decide whether the specific potential grants were worth making.

An additional goal for the next several months is to write up the more recent work we’ve done, most of which is not yet public. We are experimenting with different processes for writing up completed investigations – in particular, trying to assign more of the work to more junior staff.

Public summary of our U.S. policy priorities