Should the Open Philanthropy Project be Recommending More/Larger Grants?

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

The Open Philanthropy Project has ambitions of influencing very large amounts of giving in the future (hundreds of millions of dollars a year or more). To date, we haven't made nearly enough recommendations to reach this level of giving, and this is not ideal. In a perfect world, we'd be recommending far more giving.

However, our approach is deliberate: we have chosen to prioritize capacity-building (choosing focus areas and hiring/onboarding program staff, in order to lay the groundwork for future grantmaking) over near-term grantmaking. This post discusses the reasons we've done this so far, as well as outlining our plans for ramping up giving in the future.


The case for focusing on grantmaking

Good Ventures hopes to give away several billion dollars over the coming decades, which – when accounting for likely investment returns – would imply hundreds of millions of dollars per year in grants for an extended period of time at peak giving. In 2014, Good Ventures gave ~$15 million to GiveWell's top charities and an additional ~$8 million based on Open Philanthropy Project recommendations. In other words, their current level of giving is nowhere near where they hope it will eventually be.

Furthermore, the Open Philanthropy Project hopes eventually to influence many other major donors, which would mean both (a) that we eventually hope to make recommendations summing to an even higher figure than what the previous paragraph implies; (b) that there is an argument for Good Ventures to front-load its giving, in order to help the Open Philanthropy Project establish itself while many of the donors we hope to influence aren't giving at scale yet.

Thus, we (the Open Philanthropy Project) could be recommending far more/larger grants than we currently are, without significantly lowering the amount available for giving in the future. There are a few arguments for doing so:

The bottom line is that the amount of giving we're recommending is much lower than we'd ideally like it to be. With a fairly small number of staff, we wouldn't be able to recommend much more at our current level of due diligence, but we could recommend a lot more if we made a concerted effort to do so – for example by lowering our standards for due diligence, or by seeking out people and organizations we could ask to regrant funds. We have had many conversations about whether we ought to move in this direction, and we think some of the above arguments present a strong force in favor of doing so.

At some point in the future, we probably will put a concerted effort into increasing the amount of giving we recommend. But we aren't at that point yet, because we think we have a more pressing priority: building capacity.

The case for focusing on capacity-building

For the last couple of years, we've had no target amount of giving at all. Our goals, and our efforts, have revolved around (a) selecting focus areas; (b) hiring people to lead our work in these areas (see our most recent update); (c) most recently, working intensively with new hires and trial hires on their early proposed grant recommendations.

Collectively, we think of these activities as capacity building. If we succeed, the end result will be an expanded team of people who are (a) working on well-chosen focus areas; (b) invested (justifiably) with a great deal of trust and autonomy; (c) capable of finding many great giving opportunities in the areas they're working on.

Ultimately, we think expanding capacity is the best way to dramatically increase the amount of giving we recommend over the long run, while dramatically improving the degree to which that giving is well-informed. A program staffer we're confident in – meaning they share our values and goals for the cause they're working on, and use reasoning we think is sound to make grant recommendations – could give their full attention to a particular focus area and recommend a large amount of giving, while requiring relatively little oversight. As an early sign that this is the case, Chloe Cockburn – our first cause-specific hire – believes she could fairly easily identify tens of millions of dollars' worth of strong giving opportunities in criminal justice reform. Each of these giving opportunities would likely be based on knowledge that dwarfs my own, yet I'll be able to be confident in these recommendations – despite knowing comparatively little about them – if I am confident in Chloe.

Capacity-building is a project with long time horizons and high stakes. In order to attract the sort of program staffers we've been seeking, we've committed to spend multiple years and many millions of dollars in the focus areas we're recruiting for. If we're too quick to hire and too quick to give trust and autonomy, we could end up working for a long time (and recommending a lot of grants) with someone who's ineffective and/or misaligned with our values. That's why we've been choosing to put a lot of up-front effort into selecting focus areas, running job searches, and working intensively with new hires and trial hires. Our hope is to be very thoughtful and careful with our choices on this front, so that we can give program staffers a great deal of autonomy – and the ability to recommend a lot of giving – down the line.

The reason we haven't put much effort into ramping up the amount of giving we recommend is simply that we've preferred to focus our effort on capacity building.

The grantmaking we have done has largely been done with learning and capacity building in mind, which is why we've tended to err on the side – so far – of deeper due diligence on grant recommendations, even though we know that we will eventually need to invest less time per grant recommendation. This has been especially true of early recommendations from new hires and trial hires.

The main reason we feel good about this approach is because we believe capacity-building will ultimately lead to dramatically more and better giving than we could do today (no matter how we tried to do it). Some additional points in favor of this approach:

Could we do both?

In theory, we could give the bulk of our time and effort to capacity building, while still ramping up near-term grant recommendations by simply lowering our level of due diligence. If we recommended grants based largely on gut feelings (and with little discussion and writing), we might be able to help accomplish a lot of near-term good with fairly little time.

We've discussed this possibility a fair amount, and we aren't sure it's a bad idea. At the moment, however, our thinking is:

I have a general heuristic of "when in doubt, say no to everything that isn't a core priority." Right now, our core priority is capacity building, and I have doubts about trying to ramp up our giving recommendations in a way that doesn't contribute to that.

The plan from here

By early 2016, we will have been working intensively with at least three cause-specific program staff for several months. That will probably be a good time to start moving in the direction of giving more autonomy to those we've built confidence in – and along with that, to put more time into thinking about the total grantmaking we'd like them to be responsible for recommending. At that time, I hope to step back and review a variety of ideas we've had for how we might ramp up the amount of giving we recommend. I expect giving recommendations in the relevant areas to go up substantially following this (so in mid- to late-2016), even as we continue to focus on building capacity in some areas where our work is less developed (e.g. scientific research).

I believe that the relatively low amounts of giving we've recommended so far are deceptive, and I expect these amounts to rise sharply in the next year or two. If that doesn't happen, we will rethink the views expressed here.

In the long run, I'm not sure how things will look, but I can imagine some possibilities that suggest it will not be terribly difficult to reach our "peak giving" target. For example:

All things considered, I have an easy time imagining future recommendations in excess of $1 billion per year, while still feeling that we have a reasonably sized staff, that we are working only on outstanding causes, and that every program staffer has a reasonably strong understanding of every grant they're recommending and is making hard choices between outstanding options. This is far beyond what we're able to do today, though, which is why capacity building is the top priority.