Givology Staff's Blog

Givology Impact Series #13: Givewell

Check out our latest Givology Impact Series Podcast with Givewell on [url=]SoundCloud[/url] and now [url=]iTunes[/url] too!
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Here's the full transcript:

Delaney: Welcome to the Givology impact series podcast in which we share the experiences of social entrepreneurs and changemakers around the world. Today we're going to be talking about the organization Givewell, which is a nonprofit that analyzes qualitative and quantitative data from charities around the world to find which giving opportunities need your donation the most. I'm Delaney, joined by my co-host Vandana.
Today we are honored to have guest Catherine Hollander on our call. She's been working at Givewell since 2015 as a research analyst focusing on outreach. She is responsible for sharing Givewell's research with their community of donors and others who use their work. Before Givewell, she worked as a journalist focusing on economics and health care for the National Journal, and as an editorial director of Beacon. How are you Catherine?
Catherine: I’m doing well. Thanks so much for having me on the call!
[b]Vandana: Great! To start off, can you share with us the story of Givewell’s founding and mission?[/b]
Catherine: Absolutely! So Givewell was started by a group of donors who were working in finance at the time and they were interested in donating to charity at the end of year. And were interested in finding the place they could donate where it would do as much as good as possible. So they really wanted to maximize the sort of bang for the buck with their donation.
What they found is that this is actually this was actually a really hard question to answer.
There were very few resources that were available around you know what sort of impact charities were having and how far a donation could go or even you know what type of what type of programs were best to support. And so two members of this original group, Elie Hassenfield and Holden Karnofsky, sort of realized that this was a full time project and left their jobs to found Givewell in 2007.
And so Givewell’s mission is to be that resource that they were looking for back in 2007 when Givewell was getting started. For all donors-- anyone who comes to our website-- our goal is to find outstanding giving opportunities and recommend them to donors and publish the full details of our analysis to help them decide where to give.

[b]Vandana: Yeah, that’s fascinating. So since your founding in 2007, what has Givewell been working on what goals have you reached?
Catherine: We have been really focused on our mission of identifying outstanding giving opportunities and then also encouraging donors to use our research to donate to those giving opportunities and so you know one thing that we've seen that we're really excited about is just the increase in the amount of money that charities that we recommend are receiving. So back in 2010, our recommended charities received about 1.8 million dollars as a result of our recommendation. So we'll track the donations that people make that they say are attributable to Givewell or that are made through our website--that's how we get that number.
And as of last year, our current estimate is that we moved roughly 90 million dollars and we're still finalizing that figure but around 90 million for the charities that we recommend. So we've really seen exciting growth in the donors that are using our research and how much funding we can direct to what we believe are extremely high value giving opportunities.

[b]Delaney: Wow that's really impressive. Based on the information you’ve given us and the information we found on Givewell’s website, we decided to focus today’s podcast series on how donors decide where to fund their money, which is what you guys usually do, so that it makes the most impact. So what are the main aspects of charities that Givewell looks at in order to understand which charities are “outstanding,” so to speak?
Catherine: We look for four main criteria when we're assessing potential-- we call them Givewell top charities. So this is the shortlist of charities that we recommend to donors that we feel represent some of the best giving opportunities that we're aware of. So the four criteria that we look for are first the evidence of effectiveness.. So we're interested in both how effective the program is that the charity is implementing. So to use an example from one of our top charities the Against Malaria Foundation, they distribute insecticide-treated nets to prevent malaria, and so we are interested in whether we believe that there is a strong body of evidence behind that program, the distribution of insecticide-treated nets to prevent malaria, whether we think that that program in and of itself is effective.
And so we'll look at the academic literature, the studies that have been conducted on that program, and in the case of distributing insecticide-treated nets, we concluded that there is strong evidence showing that receiving a net to sleep under will reduce the incidence of child mortality from malaria. So that's one piece of the evidence that we're looking for.

And then the second piece is really the evidence that the charity is reaching people who need it with their programs. So we're looking for charities that can provide a lot of information on monitoring and how, you know, how they're choosing which areas to to operate in, how confident they are that the people are receiving their program that need it, and then any relevant sort of follow-up. So in the case of the net, just to stick with one example, are the nets still being hung six months later? And used by people who received them when they were distributed? So we really look for strong evidence that the charity is effective.
The second criteria that we use is cost-effectiveness. So we're very interested, as I mentioned at the beginning, you know. Our mission is to find places that allow donors to have the greatest impact per dollar donated and so cost effectiveness is really important to us. And so we spend a lot of time looking at charities’ budgets and really trying to understand what our best estimate is of how cost effective their work is. And we are currently looking for charities that are more cost-effective than distributing direct cash transfers, which is one of the programs that we recommend and is sort of the least cost-effective out of our top charities but we think is a very good program and we use that as sort of a benchmark for other opportunities that we're looking at. So we look for charities that are very cost effective.
We also as a third criteria are interested in transparency. As I mentioned that, you know, Givewell’s mission is to share the full details of our analysis with donors to help them decide where to give. And so in order to do that, we both need to see a lot of information from charities such that we can assess them. And then we also want to be able to share that information with the donors who rely on our research so that they can vet our work and decide if they agree with it. The transparency is incredibly important to us for the charities that we recommend.
And then the final criteria that we look for is what we call room for more funding, and this is basically how much additional funding we think that the charity can effectively put to use. So we're not just interested in asking whether charity has had an impact in the past, although certainly a charity’s track record is a really important input for us when we're looking at at their program, but we're also interested in will additional dollars enable that charity to do more of its more of its core program. And so you can imagine a scenario where maybe a charity is constrained in expanding its program, not by funding, but by some other obstacles. So you know, you could think of a surgery charity where they can't identify additional surgeons. And so that is the block to doing more surgeries, rather than, you know, just additional funding. So that final piece of room for more funding is also really important to us. And so those are the main criteria that we're looking for when we are assessing charities.

[b]Joyce: Great! That's really helpful. And also, you guys are focused on global health and that’s a really great focal area, but you know there's probably thousands of organizations around the world that do work in this area. How does Givewell kind of sort through the entire universe of charities to recommend and look at?
Catherine: Yeah, so the first step in our process is reviewing the evidence behind programs independent of the charities that are implementing them. So we first start by looking at promising programs which we identify by looking at and following the academic literature and then talking to folks that work in the space that work in global health and development about which interventions, which programs, are most likely to be cost effective and strongly evidence backed. And then we do our review of the program to assess, you know, whether we think, in general--sticking with the bed net example--- charities that distribute insecticide treated nets are likely to reduce child mortality from malaria based on the evidence that we see for that particular program itself.
And so that sort of narrows our first step of the pipeline where we're really looking just at charities that are implementing, in general, programs that we have assessed. And so we have a relatively short list of priority programs, although we're, as another sort of goal in 2017, hoping to increase our output of these initial program assessments as part of our research work. So we're first starting by narrowing down and saying we're really looking for charities that are implementing Givewell priority programs, these programs that we've already assessed.
And then from there, we’ll typically have, you know, initial conversations with the charities that operate in that space will either apply to Givewell or we will proactively reach out and ask for a conversation. And then from there, we will begin to assess whether they might, you know, be a good fit, based on our criteria and then sort of move forward from there with the organizations that seem promising and then sort of go through our process from that point.

[b]Vandana: Yeah that’s really interesting. So besides checking the Givewell website, what are some ways that donors can use these strategies to decide what charities to donate to?
Catherine: One of our one of our big tips for donors is to be proactive rather than reactive when donating. So doing research on a potential place that you might want to donate rather than giving to the first place that calls you and and really, you know, asking them how additional dollars will be used, you know, with your with your donation. And then we also recommend that donors be open-minded about which causes to support.
We've seen that sometimes there can be a very big difference and how much you can accomplish with a donation just between different causes. So we focus on charities that work in global health and development because we found those to be some of the most evidence-backed and cost-effective interventions that we're aware of and we've seen that the difference in cost effectiveness just among charities that are working on different programs can be something like ten times or a hundred times. And so just the sort of program that a charity is implementing can be really important and so we recommend, you know, if you're interested in having as much impact per dollar donated to be open minded about which causes to support.

[b]Delaney: Yeah that makes a lot of sense. And so we when we were researching you, we noticed that Givewell is a nonprofit itself. So we were kind of wondering how Givewell is able to utilize the same tactics and standards that it uses to measure other charities efficiencies on itself.
Catherine: Now the main way in which Givewell measures our own success in our own impact is the amount of money that we are moving to the organizations that we recommend since our mission is moving money to highly effective charities. That's really one of the core metrics of Givewell’s success for us. So I mentioned the money that we estimate that we moved in 2016. And that's the number that we you know we think is really important for us to think about, you know, how how successful we are in directing funding to the organizations that we think are highly effective.
And then we also him to hold ourselves to a very high standard of transparency about our own work. One example is that we have a page on our website where we discussed the mistakes that we've made in the past, and we think that it's really important that we are very transparent with the individuals who use our work as well because that allows them to vet us and hold us accountable if they think that we are not living up to our standards or if they disagree with with the decision that we've made. It's really helpful to us to to hear that and so you know we again hold ourselves to that high standard of transparency that I mentioned that we also hold our top charities to.

[b]Vandana: Yeah, absolutely. So can you tell us more about Givewell’s philosophy of focusing on overseas donations to deliver more impact per dollar, which we agree with, and what you think about prioritizing countries of greatest need versus countries that have less institutional infrastructure to deliver aid and measure effectively?
Catherine: So Givewell focuses, as I mentioned, on global health and development and typically we are focused on recommending charities that are operating in low/middle income countries and developing countries rather than in the United States where we are based. And that grew out of some initial considerations that we did of charities that were working in the United States back when Givewell was getting started. And what we saw when we were looking at at charities in the United States versus charities that were operating overseas was just that the difference in cost effectiveness was extremely large. So you know our impression is that you know helping people in the United States usually involves tackling very complex and poorly understood problems and that the cost of tackling those problems might be quite high, but in other parts of the world, people suffer from very different problems so you know that you could have a very large impact with something like five dollars bed net or a cheap deworming treatment or a cash transfer that significantly improves someone's quality of life. And that really led us to our focus abroad rather than in the United States. That, as well as the evidence that we've seen for certain global health and development interventions. So we're really looking at recommending things, as I mentioned that have a strong evidence of effectiveness.
And so one of the elements of that is that we are often looking at academic studies that have been done of a particular intervention and thinking about whether we expect the findings of that study to be generalizable to the places where charities are working. So just to give a sort of concrete hypothetical: if we saw a study that was done of a bed net program, the insecticide-treated nets that I mentioned, where we think that the main benefit is preventing malaria. I think we feel reasonably confident that you know a net would work the same in one country as another country

Delaney: Yeah

Catherine: Whereas interventions that are focused on something like education, for example, we think might be much more difficult to generalize from since we can imagine that, you know, that in particular might be very geography specific. And so health interventions, you know many of our charities focus on health interventions, and that's another reason why that’s, I think, been a place where we've we've really focused due to the evidence base there.

[b]Joyce: In the world, sometimes the countries that need the most help sometimes have like the worst institutions to be able to deliver aid effectively. So for example, I think about Kenya, which tends to be in pretty good shape there's a good framework for a delivery versus like a Democratic Republic of Congo where there is massive scarcity of resources and huge amount of need, but you know pretty much a failing state. Like when Givewell goes and tries to identify organizations internationally to give to like: how do you like the difficulty of giving aid to the areas of greatest need?
Catherine: That's a really good question and just to the Congo specifically that's actually a country in which one of our top charities be against Malaria Foundation operates. So so it's definitely you know part of part of the universe in which Givewell is making recommendation. And you know for us we're looking for charities that are having the greatest impact and so often, you know, an important input into that is the areas in which they're working and what the needs are there. So you know for charities that are distributing bednets or working on a few malaria interventions we’re curious about how many people have malaria in the areas where they're working or for you know, GiveDirectly how-- the organization that I mentioned that distributes direct cash transfer--how much does that cash transfer increase the consumption of the recipients and how big of an impact is that having on their lives.
And so you know our cost-effectiveness in some ways will account for this because we're looking for, you know, where a dollar can have the greatest impact and that will often be in the places with the greatest needs. That being said, we also understand that it can be very challenging for charities to operate in those areas and so sometimes it might not be possible to fund distributions in particular places and so it just ends up getting taken into account sort of on a case by case basis.
And so for Givewell, we're looking for charities that are having a big impact and are taking into account where they're working as part of our assessment of their impact, but we are not kind of looking at a particular geography as a starting place and then looking for charities that are working in that area. But rather we kind of start with programs and then figure out where charities that are operating those programs are having the greatest impact that we believe we can direct additional donations to to cause more of that impact to happen.

[b]Delaney: Right. And earlier when you were mentioning how Givewell has a mistakes page on its website, we're wondering if you could talk a little bit out of the key mistakes and challenges that you guys have made when you were measuring the impact of all these charities that you had to sift between and if you have any recommendations for organizations that might be thinking about doing a similar project.
Catherine: Yes the mistakes and challenges specific to measuring charities’ impact.

Delaney: Yes

Catherine: One one thing for us is that we have tried to streamline our charity application process where we have really tried to focus on how we can sort of ask for minimal time from charities upfront before sort of moving into the more intensive phase of our process where we decide whether we're a good fit, the idea being there that we have a fairly intensive charity review process and want to sort of minimize the time that charities that might not be a good fit or spending with Givewell. So that's one thing that we have done and we've updated our application process a bit and tried to communicate with charities better around what our process involves.
In terms of other measurements, we've certainly updated our views on particular charities as we've learned new information or realized that we didn't have complete information in the past where we thought that we had, and so that's definitely something that has come up before.
I'm struggling to think a little bit of sort of a broad overarching theme on that. Definitely we have, you know, updated and changed our views on certain charities and have recommended charities in the past that we're no longer recommending. We do think it's really important you know once once we recommended charity we want to continue to follow up with that charity to you know confirm whether we want to continue recommending it and to understand you know how they are spending funding that they've received and what their future plans are.
And so you know, in one sort of example in the past we actually took one of our top charities off of our list of recommended charities, not because we thought that anything changed with respect to how you know good a job they were doing, but because we didn't believe that they had additional room for more funding that final criteria that I mentioned at the time that you know meant to us that we didn't think that we should direct additional donations to them sort of in the short term. And then you know a year later, we revisited that, we did believe that they could use additional donations and added them back to the list.

Delaney: Right…
Catherine: So we do think that really important to ask these questions in an ongoing way.

Delaney: Yeah it must be it must happen a few times if you guys have so many donations going to your top charities.

Catherine: We try to you know look for charities that can absorb significant amounts of funding

Delaney: Yeah…

Catherine: But generally our top charities, we believe, have significant room for more funding.
And you know looking towards Givewell’s future, one of our major priorities going forward is outreach about Givewell’s top charities and the reason for that is that we actually now are at a point where we feel that we are identifying significantly more high value funding opportunities than we are directing donations to.

So we are not in a situation now where we think our top charities are getting overfunded
Delaney: Yeah
Catherine: ... but rather we’re leaving funding out so we’re planning to prioritize additional outreach in the future for that reason.

Vandana: Great! So thank you so much for taking the time to participate in our impact series podcast! We’re really excited to continue following Givewell and the many developments to come.

Catherine: Great! Thank you so much for having me!

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