Why GiveWell is rethinking its approach

By Catherine Cheney 15 April 2016

GiveWell, the charity rater known for deep investigations of promising charities, is changing course. Photo by: Devex

GiveWell, the charity rater known for its rigorous investigations of the good that charities can do per dollar spent, is changing course.

“We have come to believe that the kind of work we’ve recently been doing to find top charities — deeply investigating the most promising-seeming charities we know of, based largely on which interventions they carry out — has limited promise,” wrote Natalie Crispin, senior research analyst at GiveWell, in a recent blog post on the charity rater’s website.  

“We have begun seeing more potential in other research priorities, such as supporting the development of new organizations and new evidence bases,” she wrote.

This is a significant update for an organization that points to its research as the reason donors can count on “real change for your dollar.”

The blog post appeared a day after Devex published a story about major charity raters and their varying approaches to evaluating organizations. While other organizations such as Charity Navigator tend to focus on financials or favor low overhead costs, GiveWell puts effectiveness first. GiveWell outreach associate Catherine Hollander told Devex a future post will elaborate on the reasons the organization, which has been both praised and criticized for its selectivity, is rethinking its approach.

In 2015, the organization tried to find new top charities to join its current list, which includes only four organizations: Against Malaria Foundation, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, Deworm the World Initiative, and GiveDirectly. It researched deworming organizations, micronutrient fortification organizations and bednet organizations. And it investigated three out of its four standout organizations — the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, Iodine Global Network and Development Media International — as potential top charities. But ultimately the organization determined that it had already identified most of the strongest charities that satisfy its rigorous criteria for evidence, transparency, cost effectiveness and room for more funding.

Because the process did not result in new top charities for 2015, the prospect for identifying high performers beyond the current list appeared limited. So while GiveWell’s goal for 2015 was, as in previous years, to grow the list of top charities, the goal for 2016 is to research and support those initiatives that could become top charities in the next year or two. GiveWell plans to provide funding to organizations that could become top charity contenders in 2017 or 2018 to help them scale up or invest in improvements in monitoring.

In her post, Crispin reflected on exercises in January and February during which staff predicted which charities might emerge as new top charities. They then held exploratory conversations with several of those organizations.

“Ultimately, this work made us more pessimistic that prioritizing work on all the organizations listed above would lead to new top charities by the end of 2016,” she wrote. “We refined our plans for the year as a result.”

GiveWell has researched better known interventions such as conditional and unconditional cash transfers and lesser known interventions such as mass administration of medications to control elephantitis. But the organization is going to cast an even wider net on its interventions research. Crispin writes that, because the staff continues to come across programs that were not on its radar, they plan to do “quick investigations on a large number of interventions” to identify more priority programs.

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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