To date, most of GiveWell’s research capacity has focused on finding the most impactful programs among those whose results can be rigorously measured. This work has led us to recommend, and direct several hundred million dollars to, charities improving health, saving lives, and increasing income in low-income countries.
One of the most important reasons we have focused on programs where robust measurement is possible is because this approach largely does not rely on subject-matter expertise. When Holden and I started GiveWell, neither of us had any experience in philanthropy, so we looked for charities that we could evaluate through data and evidence that we could analyze, to make recommendations that we could fully explain. This led us to focus on organizations that had impacts that were relatively easy to measure.
GiveWell has now been doing research to find the best giving opportunities in global health and development for 11 years, and we plan to increase the scope of giving opportunities we consider. We plan to expand our research team and scope in order to determine whether there are giving opportunities in global health and development that are more cost-effective than those we have identified to date.
We expect this expansion of our work to take us in a number of new directions, some of which we have begun to explore over the past few years. We have considered, in a few cases, the impact our top and standout charities have through providing technical assistance (for example, Deworm the World and Project Healthy Children), supported work to change government policies through our Incubation Grants program (for example, grants to the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention and Innovation in Government Initiative), and begun to explore areas like tobacco policy and lead paint elimination.
Over the next several years, we plan to consider everything that we believe could be among the most cost-effective (broadly defined) giving opportunities in global health and development. This includes more comprehensively reviewing direct interventions in sectors where impacts are more difficult to measure, investigating opportunities to influence government policy, as well as other areas.
Making progress in areas where it is harder to determine causality will be challenging. 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. Our values, intellectual framework, culture, and the quality of our staff make me optimistic about our chances, but all of us at GiveWell recognize the difficulty of the project we are embarking on.
Our staff does not currently have the capacity or the capabilities to make enough progress in this direction, so we are planning to significantly increase the size of our staff. We have a research team of ten people, and we are planning to more than double in size over the next three years. We are planning to add some junior staff but are primarily aiming to hire people with relevant experience who can contribute as researchers and/or managers on our team.
GiveWell’s top charities list is not going to change dramatically in the near future, and it may always include the charities we recommend today. Our top charities achieve outstanding, cost-effective results, and we believe they are some of the best giving opportunities in global health and development. We expect to conclude that many of the opportunities we consider in areas that are new for us are less cost-effective than those we currently recommend, but we also think it is possible that we will identify some opportunities that are much more cost-effective. We believe it is worth a major effort to find out.
What areas will we look into?
As with any exploration into a new area, we expect the specifics of the work we will undertake to shift as we learn more. Below we discuss two major areas of work we are embarking on and building our team for currently. In the long term, we are open to considering making grants or recommendations in all areas of global health and development. We have not yet comprehensively considered what those areas might be, but they could include (for example) research and development, or social entrepreneurship.
Using reasoned judgment and less robust evidence to come to conclusions about additional direct-delivery interventions
In the past, we have often asked, “does this intervention meet our criteria?” rather than “what is our best guess about how promising this intervention is relative to our top charities?” Our intervention report on education is a good example of asking the question, “does this meet our criteria?” It reviews all randomized controlled trials of education programs that measure long-term outcomes, but it does not attempt to reach a bottom line about how cost-effective education in developing countries is.
We plan to more deeply explore how we can reach conclusions about how areas such as nutrition, agriculture, education, reproductive health, surgical interventions, mental health, and non-communicable diseases compare to our current top charities.
Investigating opportunities to improve government spending and influence government policy
Some of the areas we will consider exploring to leverage government resources and affect government policy are:
Public health regulation
Improving government program selection
Improving government implementation
Improving non-programmatic government capabilities
Improved or increased aid spending
Advocating for increased spending on highly cost-effective, direct-delivery programs
Increasing economic growth and redistribution
Negative externalities of high-income country policies
Reducing the cost of health commodities
Improving data collection
One-off big bets
How will our analysis change? How will it be the same?
Writing up and publishing the details of the reasoning behind the recommendations we make is a core part of GiveWell. We will remain fully transparent about our research.
Judgment calls that are not easily grounded in empirical data have long been a part of GiveWell’s research. For example, we make difficult, decision-relevant judgment calls about moral weights, interpreting conflicting evidence about deworming, and estimating the crowding-out and crowding-in effects of our donations on other actors (what we call leverage and funging).
As we move into areas where measuring outcomes and attributing causal impact is more difficult, we expect subjective judgments to play a larger role in our decision making. For examples of the approach we have taken to date, see our writeup of our recent recommendation for a grant to the Innovation in Government Initiative, a grantmaking entity within the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) or our page evaluating phase I of our 2016 grant to Results for Development (R4D). While writing about such judgments will be a challenge of this work, we are fully committed to sharing what has led us to our decisions, with only limited exceptions due to confidential or sensitive information.
What does this mean for staffing and organizational growth?
We need to grow our team to achieve our goals. Repeatedly this past year, we had to make the difficult choice to not take on a research project or investigate a grant opportunity that seemed promising because we did not have the capacity.
We are planning to roughly double our research team over the next few years, primarily by adding researchers who have experience and/or an academic background in global health and development. We are looking to add both individual contributors and research managers to the team. We expect that the people we hire in the next few years will play a critical role in shaping GiveWell’s future research agenda and will be some of the leaders of GiveWell in the future.
For more information about the research roles we’re hiring for, see our jobs.