A conversation with the Pew Charitable Trusts on September 25, 2013


Note: These notes give an overview of the major points made by Susan Urahn and Brian Hill.


Good Ventures and GiveWell spoke with Susan Urahn and Brian Hill of the Pew Charitable Trusts to learn how Pew selects and implements its projects. Conversation topics included: Pew’s process of project selection, several case studies in project selection, project strategy and design, and successful Pew projects.

Projects that Susan Urahn oversees

Ms. Urahn oversees Pew’s Government Performance projects, which include all U.S. policy-related projects, except for those involving environmental policy. The aim of Ms. Urahn's projects is to make government function more effectively and efficiently and more in the public interest. Ms. Urahn’s portfolio is divided into 5 clusters: fiscal and economic policy, state policy and performance, health, family financial security, and food/water. Each cluster is overseen by a senior staff member with expertise in the area. Currently, Ms. Urahn’s portfolio includes projects on corrections, election administration, children’s dental health, public sector benefits, economic policy, food safety, and others. She oversees 200 people across 27 projects of varying sizes.

Project selection

Pew does not have a single, formalized methodology for selecting projects. The assessment of a potential project generally involves a combination of conversations, research, grant-making, polling, and working with consultants.

When Pew assesses an issue for project candidacy, it looks for:

Ideas for new projects and project areas often come to the attention of Pew’s staff via the media, conversations with board members, and conversations with people outside of the organization. Projects given serious consideration usually come to Pew’s attention through multiple channels.

Case studies in project selection

Emerging issues

The Emerging Issues team looks for promising new areas where Pew may want to get involved, such as:

Time horizon

Generally speaking, there are benefits for Pew to be in a given space for a long time, so that it can develop its expertise, credibility, connections, and traction within that space. It can be easier to identify promising opportunities in an area in which it has already invested. When investing in a new area, Ms. Urahn aims for portfolios of multiple 5-7 year projects, all driving toward a larger goal.

Pew sometimes conducts short-term projects, in which it enters and leaves a field within about 3 years. It is hard to find an issue for which Pew can drive meaningful change in a 2-3 year period. Therefore, these projects must be highly targeted and opportunistic to be worthwhile.

For example: in a project on retirement securities, Pew pushed to change the opt-in provision of 401(k) accounts so that participation became the default. The Retirement Security Project was targeted, opportunistic, lasted 5 years, and had a national-level impact on savings behavior.

Project design and implementation

A good project design requires knowledge of the following:

When implementing a project, Pew will use a combination of tools, including:

Name recognition

In addition to using the tools listed above, Pew carefully manages its public reputation, because positive name recognition increases its effectiveness. Publishing research on important issues helps to increase its name recognition and reputation. Name recognition is particularly helpful when moving into new project areas.

Use of internal staff vs. contractors

The components of any given project may be assigned to internal staff or contracted to people outside of the organization. Outside consultants are most helpful when working with well-defined research questions. Decisions about assignment allocation depend on: the degree of control/oversight Pew would like to maintain, the timespan of the assignment, the specificity of the assignment, and the expertise required, among other things. For example, if Pew plans to work in a given space for a sustained amount of time (3+ years), it is often less expensive and more effective to build the capacity to do work internally than to contract it out.

Successful projects

Hiring practices

Pew’s staff is composed of associates, senior associates, managers, and project directors. Among the junior staff, there are associates (1+ years of experience) and senior associates (5+ years of experience). Senior associates are assigned to states, where they develop state-level expertise and help with technical assistance, among other things. Among the senior staff, there are project managers (less senior) and project directors (more senior). Project directors are responsible for many lines of work, including overseeing large projects, working with funders, and dealing with the press.