GiveWell is exploring giving opportunities that are more difficult to measure

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SAN FRANCISCO — Elie Hassenfeld and Holden Karnofsky, co-founders of GiveWell, had no experience in philanthropy when they launched the charity assessment organization.

The former hedge fund analysts started GiveWell in 2007 as a way to respond to the simple question “Where should I donate?” and by focusing on programs with results that could be easily measured.

But since then, GiveWell has become influential in the field of philanthropy, guiding the giving of people who identify as effective altruists, meaning they seek to do the most good they can with every dollar they donate.

Now, after more than a decade of research, the organization is expanding its scope by exploring opportunities “to leverage government resources and affect government policy.” And over the next three years, the organization plans to double the size of its research team, from 10 to 20 people.

Expanding the scope of research

Traditionally, GiveWell has focused on the kinds of interventions that can be measured by randomized controlled trial, such as the distribution of insecticide-treated bednets.

But recently, as it explored whether it would branch out into supporting policy advocacy, the charity assessment organization made an incubation grant to an organization focused on removing highly hazardous pesticides from local small-scale agriculture to prevent suicide deaths from intentional pesticide poisoning.

The decision was inspired by the research of James Snowden, a senior research analyst at GiveWell, who previously worked for the Centre for Effective Altruism in the United Kingdom.

There, he stumbled upon something he had never heard of: At least 1 in every 8 people who die by suicide each year do so by ingesting pesticides. In low- and middle-income countries, where there are fewer regulations on pesticides, it is easier for individuals to get their hands on the most lethal forms, Snowden said.

“It falls into this bucket of things which are often promising for groups like us,” he told Devex. “If you find a surprisingly large cause of death that no one in the West has ever heard of, the chance is nobody is donating any money to help.”

Snowden started looking into pesticide suicide prevention as a potential high-impact area for philanthropists, reviewing evidence from Sri Lanka, where suicides fell after bans on particularly dangerous pesticides.

Five months after he joined GiveWell as a research consultant, the organization gave a $1.3 million grant to the Center for Pesticide Suicide Prevention.

“When you’re working as a philanthropic funder, your impact is a function of (i) how much funding you influence, and (ii) how much you can improve the allocation of that funding,” Snowden wrote in a blog post on what it is like to work at GiveWell, where he explained how his job offers a great deal of both.

GiveWell moves around $150 million a year to its top charities. This is due in part to its partnership with Good Ventures, a private foundation co-founded by billionaire philanthropists Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz, which provided more than $75 million in grants to GiveWell top charities in 2017. These top charities work in malaria prevention, vitamin A supplementation, deworming programs, and distributing cash directly to the poor.

“If you find a surprisingly large cause of death that no one in the West has ever heard of, the chance is nobody is donating any money to help.”

— James Snowden, senior research analyst, GiveWell

Now, as GiveWell expands the scope of its research beyond direct interventions, a range of organizations working in sectors such as nutrition, agriculture, education, or mental health might be eligible for funding.

Snowden said that as GiveWell expands its research scope to include policy, it is beginning with public health regulation.

“They’re still fairly defined interventions,” he said in reference to areas such as tobacco control or lead paint regulation.

From there, the research team will consider other direct interventions in sectors where impact can be harder to measure, including improving government implementation or increasing aid spending.

Growing the team of researchers

Hassenfeld, executive director of GiveWell, acknowledged that it will be a challenge to make progress on areas where it is harder to determine causality.

“In my opinion, we are excellent evaluators of empirical research, but we have yet to demonstrate the ability to make good judgments about giving opportunities when less empirical information is available,” Hassenfeld wrote in a recent post.

Hassenfeld explains that one shift will be moving from asking, “Does this intervention meet our criteria?” to, “What is our best guess about how promising this intervention is relative to our top charities?”

GiveWell plans to continue to share the details of its research and rationale for its recommendations. The write-up of its recent recommendation for a grant to the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab’s Innovation in Government Initiative demonstrates how this approach extends to its exploratory work in policy.

But as GiveWell begins to evaluate sectors where impact is harder to measure, the organization is seeking new skill sets in its new hires.

“We’re aiming to hire people who are passionate about helping the global poor as much as possible, who are skilled at expressing what they believe and why, and who can interpret and critique statistical analysis and understand causal inference,” said Catherine Hollander, research analyst at GiveWell, in an online forum where people posed questions about the changes at GiveWell.

While she said she expects most research analysts will have backgrounds in areas such as math, economics, or statistics, she emphasized what is equally valuable is what GiveWell defines as a “truth-seeking attitude” of “objectivity, curiosity, open-mindedness, humility.”

These new roles will require “more creativity, more judgment, more systems-level thinking,” Snowden said. He explained that the further you go up the impact pyramid, the more judgment calls are involved.

“It’s not: ‘Here are all the interventions. Let’s line them up and order them,’” Snowden said. “The best you can do is try and be as explicit as you can about why you’re making the judgment calls you are.”

About the author

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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.