Are GiveWell’s top charities the best option for every donor?

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We’re sometimes asked whether we think GiveWell’s top charities are the “best,” in some absolute sense of the word, or whether we’d ever advise that a donor give to an opportunity outside of our recommendations. This post aims to clarify how GiveWell thinks about different giving options and their suitability for different types of donors.

We believe that GiveWell’s top charities offer donors an outstanding opportunity to do a lot of good and are the best option for most donors. However, some donors—those with a very high degree of trust in a particular individual or organization to make this decision, donors with lots of time (in excess of 50 hours per year, and likely more) to consider their giving decision, or donors whose values point strongly toward a particular cause outside of the ones GiveWell covers—may find opportunities to have a greater impact per dollar than GiveWell’s top charities. Note that we think these characteristics are likely to be necessary, but not sufficient, for finding these types of opportunities; we still expect good giving to be hard, and spending, for example, 50 hours per year on research isn’t necessarily going to yield better opportunities.

In this post, we describe relevant considerations for donors in greater detail.

Giving to GiveWell’s top charities

GiveWell was founded to serve donors with limited amounts of time to make giving decisions. GiveWell’s co-founders, Elie Hassenfeld and Holden Karnofsky, were in this situation when they started GiveWell as a side project in 2006. They found that determining where to give effectively was a full-time project and quit their jobs to start GiveWell in 2007.

GiveWell’s top charity recommendations serve all donors. We rely on evidence and detail our rationale for making a recommendation publicly, so donors can vet our work; a strength of our recommendations is their falsifiability. We believe our top charity recommendations serve donors who want to give as effectively as possible and have only limited time to determine where to donate, and (prior to GiveWell) no trusted person or entity to outsource their thinking to, particularly well. Our criteria and recommendations were designed with this type of donor in mind:

  • Our top charities are largely uncontroversial and relatively straightforward ways to do a lot of good—for example, by providing direct aid such as insecticide-treated nets to prevent malaria and cash transfers to very poor households. There is room for debate on the evidence behind these interventions and their cost-effectiveness, but the basic case for them—and the fact that they are likely to do more good than harm—is subject to little debate, so a donor can feel fairly confident in these basics without needing to do their own research.
  • GiveWell publishes the full details of our charity analyses so that donors can review and vet our work, and so that donors with very limited time can trust that any major problems would likely be caught by others (with more time).
  • Because we lay out the entire case for the charities online, donors can spot-check any particular part of it to get a sense of whether we’re thinking reasonably about the issues that seem most salient to them.
  • Our top charities have room for more funding. In other words, we believe additional marginal donations to these organizations enable them to do more good.

Our guess is that most donors that use GiveWell fit this profile (want to give as effectively as possible and have only limited time to determine where to donate, and no other trusted person or entity to outsource their thinking to).

Below, we discuss alternative donor profiles:

(1) Donors with limited time and a high amount of trust in a person or organization to inform their giving decisions

This group of donors has limited time to spend on making a giving decision and has an organization or person (other than GiveWell or GiveWell staff) they personally trust to make or inform this decision. In this case, they may defer to that person or organization’s recommendations.

(2) Donors with lots of time

Donors with a lot of time to spend on giving decisions (50+ hours per year) may be able to find opportunities that GiveWell hasn’t. For example, a donor might know someone who is starting a charity and feel, based on their research, that supporting their project at an early stage might be a particularly leveraged way to do good. A donor with lots of time may also be very familiar with a particular cause and feel highly confident in a particular organization and its need for funding. These donors may want to compare alternative opportunities to GiveWell’s top charities. They may also want to actively vet GiveWell’s recommendations as part of their research process.

Donors with lots of time may also wish to apply a different strategy to their giving. GiveWell largely recommends charities where sufficient evidence exists to make a fairly robust estimate of the expected value of a donation. Donors with much more time to spend (maybe even significantly more than 50 hours per year) thinking about where to give may want to take a “hits-based giving” approach—having a high tolerance for philanthropic risk, so long as the overall expected value is sufficiently high. This is the approach the Open Philanthropy Project, which was incubated at GiveWell, has taken, and we believe doing this well requires a lot of work, as the Open Philanthropy Project discussed in a blog post last year (emphasis original):

Aim for deep understanding of the key issues, literatures, organizations, and people around a cause, either by putting in a great deal of work or by forming a high-trust relationship with someone else who can. If we [the Open Philanthropy Project] support projects that seem exciting and high-impact based on superficial understanding, we’re at high risk of being redundant with other funders. If we support projects that seem superficially exciting and high-impact, but aren’t being supported by others, then we risk being systematically biased toward projects that others have chosen not to support for good reasons. By contrast, we generally aim to support projects based on the excitement of trusted people who are at a world-class level of being well-informed, well-connected, and thoughtful in relevant ways.

Achieving this is challenging. It means finding people who are (or can be) maximally well-informed about issues we’ll never have the time to engage with fully, and finding ways to form high-trust relationships with them. As with many other philanthropists, our basic framework for doing this is to choose focus areas and hire staff around those focus areas. In some cases, rather than hiring someone to specialize in a particular cause, we try to ensure that we have a generalist who puts a great deal of time and thought into an area. Either way, our staff aim to become well-networked and form their own high-trust relationships with the best-informed people in the field.

I [Open Philanthropy Project Executive Director Holden Karnofsky] believe that the payoff of all of this work is the ability to identify ideas that are exciting for reasons that require unusual amounts of thought and knowledge to truly appreciate.

(3) Donors with values that differ from GiveWell staff

Donors who hold different values than the majority of GiveWell staff, or who place more weight on a particular cause outside of the causes covered by GiveWell, may find other giving opportunities to be more attractive for reasons beyond the time/trust framework articulated earlier in this post. For example, individuals who place a very high value on farm animal welfare may wish to give a large proportion of their donation, if not all of their donation, to organizations working in that cause.

We’re happy to speak with you about giving decisions.

If you’re not sure which considerations apply to you, please reach out. We’re always happy to talk through giving decisions.

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