2 new organizations make GiveWell's list of top charities

Children receive vitamin A supplementation in Kenya. Photo by: Ric Francis / Helen Keller International

SAN FRANCISCO — Nonprofit GiveWell on Monday announced its top charities for the 2017 giving season, with two new organizations making the list. The annual ranking evaluates charities’ impact in terms of lives saved or improved with each donation.

The new top charities are Evidence Action’s No Lean Season, which provides no interest loans to low-income agricultural workers in Bangladesh to encourage seasonal migration, and Helen Keller International’s vitamin A supplementation program, which focuses on vitamin A deficiency — the number one cause of childhood blindness — in children under 5 and postpartum mothers.

The newcomers join the Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly, Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention program, and four charities that support deworming programs, all of which GiveWell has identified as “evidence-backed, thoroughly vetted, and underfunded." The annual list comes out ahead of Giving Tuesday on Nov. 28, which follows Black Friday and Cyber Monday, asking people to consider opening their wallets to help others.

The GiveWell top charities list, which features organizations that work primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, serves as a sort of seal of approval for philanthropists who follow a philosophy described as effective altruism.

“Evaluating the effectiveness of charities on your own is hard,” said Elie Hassenfeld, co-founder and executive director of GiveWell, in a press release. “Many charities raise money based on their ability to market themselves and fundraise, as opposed to their ability to change lives.”

Hassenfeld started GiveWell with Holden Karnofsky in 2007, after the two friends — both hedge fund analysts — found a dearth of information on impact when they were seeking to donate for good. In the decade since, the charity evaluator has emerged as a highly influential guide for the growing number of people who identify as effective altruists, or EAs, directing more than $260 million to its recommended charities.

An evolving strategy

In 2015, GiveWell tried and failed to identify new charities to join its list of recommendations, which then included only four organizations: Against Malaria Foundation, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, Deworm the World Initiative, and GiveDirectly, the nonprofit organization that provides cash transfers to mobile phones.

As Devex reported, the San Francisco-based charity evaluator rethought its approach and expanded its research priorities, including to support the development of new organizations and evidence bases. While GiveWell’s goal for 2015 was to grow the list of top charities, the goal has since expanded to researching and supporting those initiatives that could become top charities in the next year or two.

An organization that benefitted from this shift is The END Fund, which manages grants, provides technical support, and raises money to control and eliminate neglected tropical diseases, including parasitic worm infections. The End Fund applied to be a GiveWell top charity in 2015, and in 2016, it made the list of top charities, for its work on deworming specifically.

Over the past two years, The End Fund has worked closely with GiveWell, End Fund CEO Ellen Agler told Devex via email.

“We have our missions focused on ensuring the most lives possible are improved by evidence-based interventions, in the most cost effective manner possible,” Agler said. “They have truly helped to push the boundaries forward in the field of data-driven analysis of effective philanthropy and encouraged a whole generation of new philanthropists to think in robust, systematic ways about how they can do the most good. In the field of deworming, this has translated into an enormous positive impact for millions of lives.”

This year, GiveWell was considering adding Zusha! — a road safety campaign that has primarily worked in Kenya, but is expanding to Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development. GiveWell estimated that the cost effectiveness of Zusha! was comparable to the Against Malaria Foundation, and three to four times as cost effective as direct cash transfers, which the organization uses as a baseline for comparing interventions.

Ultimately, the organization did not make this top charities list, but it is one of the recipients of an incubation grant, which supports academic research to evaluate program evidence, monitoring and evaluation for an existing organization, or early stage funding for a promising organization.

Evidence Action’s No Lean Season also received an incubation grant, and Helen Keller International’s vitamin A supplementation program was already on the standout charities list released a few weeks ago. That list identifies organizations that, while not making the top charities benchmark, “stand out from the vast majority of organizations we have considered in terms of the evidence base for the program they support, their transparency, and their potential cost-effectiveness.”

Influential followers

Given the growing number of ultra high net worth individuals who identify as effective altruists — and the influence GiveWell has on that community — this top charities list is sure to direct a growing proportion of year-end giving to this top charities list.

Among the EA community is Peter Singer, an ethicist whose research focuses on what it means to put effectiveness first — for example earning as much money as possible in order to give it away.

Peter Singer, author of The Most Good You Can Do, talks with Devex about the need to think harder about the good you are — or could be — doing.

He previously told Devex that sophisticated donors will understand the value of expected utility per dollar spent. “And from that perspective, even a 1 percent chance of saving a million lives is better than a certainty of saving a thousand lives,” he said.

Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder at Facebook, and his wife Cari Tuna also partnered with GiveWell soon after they began their philanthropy six years ago. Earlier this year they launched the Open Philanthropy Project with the goal of accomplishing as much good as possible while sharing the details of how they are giving away most of an estimated $13 billion fortune. The couple makes grants both to top charities and to incubation grants, which GiveWell introduced last year to support the development of future top charities.

“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,” Catherine Hollander, a research analyst at GiveWell focused on outreach, recently said.

She added that the top charities, which provide direct aid such as insecticide treated bednets to prevent malaria or cash transfers to poor households, are relatively straightforward and largely uncontroversial ways to do good.

Update, Nov. 29: This story was amended to clarify that Helen Keller International’s vitamin A supplementation program was included on GiveWell’s standout charities list a few weeks ago.

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.