Why “Giving Foundations” Are Full of Shit: What Is a Good Cause



As we’ve written previously, Good Ventures is working with GiveWell to research potential focus areas. This joint venture, known as “GiveWell Labs,” currently is our primary strategy for learning and the main input into our grant decisions. We’re cross-posting blog entries by GiveWell staff related to GiveWell Labs to give readers of the Good Ventures blog a fuller picture of our progress.

Throughout the post, “we” refers to GiveWell and Good Ventures, who work as partners on GiveWell Labs.

In our work on GiveWell Labs, we’ve consistently found that the level of interest we show in a cause — including our perceived willingness to provide funding within it — is a major driver of what sorts of giving opportunities we’re able to find.

This dynamic has been one of the major factors in the grants we’ve made so far, and it’s also a major reason that we’re eager to “commit” to causes, as mentioned earlier this year. We believe that there’s a limited amount we can learn about a cause when presenting ourselves as “potentially interested in providing moderate amounts of funding” rather than “strongly interested in providing major funding.”

We’ve come to believe in the importance of committing to causes in order to investigate them, and in the importance of “giving to learn” for GiveWell Labs, via the following process:

• We initially envisioned a process that first gathers information on giving opportunities and then identifies which grants should be made.

• However, from observing the behavior of potential grantees and other funders, we came to believe that a funder must be highly prepared (and likely) to make grants in an area in order to find giving opportunities in that area. Many people will only make the relevant referrals, propose relevant ideas, etc. once they are convinced of a philanthropist’s serious interest in providing funding.

• As such, we have in many cases tried offering funding in an area — or at least expressed strong interest in the area — before knowing what giving opportunities would turn out to be available. This approach has led to multiple cases in which much of the learning value of a grant (from our perspective) comes from the process leading up to the grant.

• “Giving to learn” can mean multiple things. It can mean (a) funding research in order to gain specific knowledge; it can also mean (b) funding a project in order to learn from following the project’s progress. The dynamic laid out in the above bullet points represents perhaps the most counterintuitive meaning: “giving to learn” can mean (c) offering funding in order to learn from the process of finding grantees.

This post lays out:

• An overview of the paths we’ve taken in the last few years to find giving opportunities for GiveWell Labs. More…

• Examples of where showing strong interest in a cause, and particularly in making grants within it, led to information that we couldn’t have gathered in any other way. More…

• The implications of this dynamic — including why we do not believe (contrary to what some have suggested) that funding research is necessarily the best way to gather more information relevant to our work (more) and why we think it is important to commit to specific causes fairly soon (more).

Approaches we’ve taken to finding giving opportunities for GiveWell Labs.

Early on in our work on GiveWell Labs, we spoke to a broad array of people and organizations — including academics, funders and nonprofits — and asked them for their opinions on the best giving opportunities, broadly speaking. (We also asked for referrals to other people who might be able to help us with this question.) As noted in a previous post, this approach generally didn’t yield much in the way of actionable ideas (and was often met with responses like “That question is too broad” or “First I need to know what causes you’re passionate about”).

We gravitated toward assessing “causes”, which helped us to ask more focused questions (rather than “What is the best giving opportunity you know about?” we could instead ask something like “What would you do if you were a funder seeking to make progress in solving problem X?”) But as we conducted shallow (and even medium) investigations, we still encountered relatively few “shovel-ready” giving opportunities. We encountered organizations seeking more funding generally, but we didn’t see many cases where we had a clear sense that more funding would play a crucial role in allowing particular promising work to go forward.

At the same time, we were speaking with major foundations and trying to understand how they go about finding giving opportunities. We explored the possibility of co-funding projects with them, and we encountered ideas — such as a project combating malaria drug resistance in Myanmar (with the Gates Foundation) and the Service Delivery Indicators (with the Hewlett Foundation) — that seemed like interesting and relatively tangible (in the sense of understanding what activities were made possible by the funders’ support) giving opportunities.

In addition to these co-funding conversations, we devoted substantial time to exploring the cause of meta-research and observing how funders in that space were finding giving opportunities. We noticed that:

• The “meta-research” ideas we saw, such as a registry for randomized controlled trials, were brought straight to the funders who already were known for supporting relevant research, and it seemed to us that the projects might get sufficient support this way without needing a broader search for funds. These funders seemed to us to be well-connected to the people best positioned to come up with ideas for working toward “meta-research” related goals.

• A similar dynamic seemed like it might apply more broadly. We knew that as a grantee ourselves, we had been connected to the Hewlett Foundation by someone who knew of their interest in improving philanthropy; if not for that connection, it wouldn’t have occurred to us to approach them. Generally, it seemed to us (both from our reading of philanthropic success stories and from our conversations regarding “co-funding”) that funders encounter many opportunities via being approached, such that their reputation for being interested in one cause or another directly affects what opportunities they come across.

• While investigating meta-research broadly, we sourced the proposal for a meta-research-oriented center at Stanford that we wrote about previously. This was a clear-cut case in which actively expressing an interest in funding certain kinds of projects led to discovery of a giving opportunity we couldn’t have encountered otherwise.

We started to feel that we might need to “invert” our investigative process: rather than (a) first “exploring” a cause, finding potential giving opportunities, and then deciding whether we were interested in providing funding, we should perhaps (b) pick a few causes and definitively express an interest in providing funding, before knowing of any particular giving opportunities. Our initial thinking that led to this idea was outlined in a 2013 post, Challenges of Passive Funding.

This shift led to a noticeable improvement in our ability to source tangible giving opportunities.

Examples of the “giving to learn” dynamic…

The first cause we chose for a relatively deep investigation — including some grants — was criminal justice reform. Of the causes we were interested in, it seemed to offer the best odds of quickly finding “shovel-ready” giving opportunities, based on the comments of Steven Teles. We told Prof. Teles that we were interested in making some initial grants in this cause, and he quickly connected us to Mark Kleiman and Angela Hawken, each of whom sought funding. We also informed the relevant team at Pew Charitable Trusts that we were actively looking for giving opportunities, and discovered that this team was seeking funding (something that hadn’t come up in the first conversation we conducted with this team). We have since begun a thorough investigation of this organization’s track record in this space, with their help — something that wouldn’t have been as feasible if we hadn’t seriously been considering providing the requested funding.

Over time, we’ve seen more giving opportunities come up. We’ve been approached by multiple groups with confidential proposals to work toward reducing incarceration. In addition, Prof. Hawken contacted us when her organization, BetaGov, came across a seemingly unique and temporary opportunity to study the impact of changing marijuana policy in the state of Washington (more details forthcoming). These are giving opportunities we’re convinced we couldn’t have come across without expressing strong, credible interest in funding work on criminal justice reform (and in some cases, particularly Prof. Hawken’s, actually providing such funding).

In the meantime, Prof. Teles has continued to think actively about the topic of criminal justice reform, and has come up with multiple new ideas for things a funder might do. We are currently seeking to pause our work in this space, as we try to investigate other causes to a similar level of resolution; however, we’ve now gotten multiple people and organizations to see us as a potential source of funding and to start thinking about more work that would align with the aspects of the space we’re interested in.

Similar dynamics have applied to the other causes we’ve explored:

• Malaria control and elimination. We commissioned Dr. Steve Phillips to explore this space for us and identify giving opportunities. We had substantial discussion with Dr. Phillips around setting expectations appropriately — in particular, what to say about the likelihood of funding — which he found important in order to have conversations about possible projects. In this particular case, we did not commit any funds to malaria control and elimination projects, but we wouldn’t have been able to conduct this project if we hadn’t seen a legitimate possibility of doing so, and we’d be hesitant to dig further on these proposals (or to do a similar project in another area of global health) without having a relatively strong expectation of following up with funding.

• Labor mobility. We did a shallow investigation of the cause of labor mobility that included a conversation with Michael Clemens, a researcher on the global economics of migration who has been a leading voice on the humanitarian benefits of labor mobility. However, it wasn’t until we communicated an intent to fund labor-mobility-related work that Dr. Clemens approached us with giving opportunities, including support of his own work as well as another project that we will be writing about in the future. We find the project both promising and unlikely to get funded without our involvement, and believe that we wouldn’t have been able to find out about it without specifically communicating an intent to provide funding. In addition, Dr. Clemens offered to introduce us to a person who might consider leaving their current post in order to pursue work in this area, but wouldn’t want this information widely disseminated.

• New top charities. We have also been interested in making grants to increase the supply of evidence-backed charities serving the global poor. Here too, we have started conversations with research organizations that we wouldn’t have been able to have without a strong interest in (and high likelihood of) providing funding.

Why expressing stronger interest can lead to better giving opportunities

Without pretending to know exactly how the dynamics work, it seems to us that:

• People are often hesitant to ask for funding, or even mention that they’re seeking it, until and unless they perceive a strong specific interest on the part of the person they’re talking to. (Just knowing that the person they’re talking to is a funder and “open to many possibilities” is often not enough.) Part of this may be a fear of being perceived as “unsuccessful” if they are public about having an idea that they can’t find funding for.

• People are often hesitant to put time into fleshing out an idea until they see a potential path to getting it funded. This seems rational, especially since different funders will often have different preferences in terms of what information they find most important, what sorts of proposals they want to see, and what aspects of the work are most important to prioritize from their perspective.

• Many people seem to seek funding primarily by going through their networks, and seeking out people who are clearly interested in what they’re doing (rather than by publicly disseminating their ideas).

In theory, it seems possible to have a world in which funding ideas are written up and posted publicly for anyone to browse. In reality, funding ideas are often not even internally fleshed out (much less written up) until specific interest is perceived. Because of this, asking someone for giving opportunities often means asking for substantial amounts of their time and energy, and it can be inappropriate to do so except when one has a high probability of following through with funding.

The approach we’re taking…

Our basic heuristics for deciding what and how much to fund has been:

• Be very thoughtful and careful about how we spend our time, and realize that making grants will almost always have implications for how we spend our time (by signaling our interests, by causing more people doing similar work to approach us, by forming relationships with grantees, etc.)

• When we’re interested in an area, be willing to express strong interest in providing funding and to follow through with high probability.

• Fund projects we come across that seem reasonable, that we’re willing to spend some time following up on, and that fit within our interests in terms of what areas we want to learn more about and see more proposals from.

Our priority at the moment is asking what sorts of giving opportunities might exist in different causes (and, along with this, learning about meta-issues such as the “giving to learn” dynamic described in this post). We think of this as an learning/information-gathering agenda, supported by “giving to learn” grants whose informational value comes from (a) following through on initial expressions of interest; (b) signaling our further interests; and (c) giving us opportunities to follow up over time and learn about the relevant people and organizations and their progress.

We’ve seen a few comments that we don’t seem to place much value on “value of information,” since we’re primarily funding direct work of various kinds rather than research projects aiming to identify the best causes. I disagree with comments along these lines. Our work is a research project aiming to identify the best causes, and funding projects in causes of interest is an important tool for carrying this project out. This sort of “giving to learn” provides certain kinds of information (e.g., “what are the giving opportunities in cause X like?”) relatively quickly and efficiently; more broadly, it is a form of “learning by doing” that has already yielded insights about grantmaking (such as how the “giving to learn” dynamic works) that would have been difficult to pick up in any other way. By contrast, funding studies would introduce the management challenge (costly in terms of person-hours, our scarcest resource) of trying to align researchers’ work with our own interests, and could take years to produce actionable information.

The importance of committing to causes…

To date, we’ve quite deliberately limited our involvement in — and commitments to — any given cause. We believe that this has placed limits on how well we’re able to get to know the fields in question. If we were to make a substantial “commitment” to a cause — intending to allocate a substantial number of person-hours to it for the next several years, accompanied by a substantial potential budget — we would be able to:

• Network more extensively, get to know the relevant people and organizations, and communicate the nature of our interests.

• Encourage people to come to us with ideas, without having to caveat that our interest is preliminary and we may not be able to provide stable/renewable funding over time.

• Generally do more investigation and learning about the cause, leading to refinements in the specific types of projects we’re looking to fund — which in turn would affect the types of projects that would come to our attention.

We believe these activities would lead to deeper understanding of the few causes we investigate, which would likely inform how we approach our lower-depth investigations of all causes. Accordingly, we see a great deal of value in making such commitments relatively soon, rather than trying to be comprehensive in doing lower-depth investigations of every possible cause of interest.

Tim Barrus Responds…

I can read this because I can read. I am able to read this but translating it is quite another endeavor. I think it’s in part saying something about boxes. The boxes we put forth as ideas fitting into the funding boxes that bring disparate worlds together. An alignment of values. But isn’t that what foundations and the aristocracy have always done. I have worked for nonprofits for forty years. There is a HUGE chasm between a research project aiming to identify the best causes, and funding projects in causes of interest that function as tools employed to carry the project out versus problems being solved. If language itself cannot transcend class, trust me, it will take more than a few years to produce “actionable information.” I work with adolescent boys with HIV/AIDS. We have solved the problem of the pill. We can extend their lives. But why aren’t they being reached. So many subgroup infection rates are going down. But this one keeps going up.

We have failed them.

Solving the problem of a pill a day is not enough. HIV does not thrive in a vacuum. There is a CONTEXT. Quite Frankly, I do not have the TIME or the MONEY to dilly dally with people who cannot speak my language, and I can only make wild guesses as to what they really mean. Funding or no funding. I wouldn’t waste your time, and I would not waste mine. Not when so many of these kids we call — AT RISK — are at risk for dropping dead. No one wants to admit they have this disease. Stigma is real. So is time. I cannot think of a bigger waste of time than spending it with people who obviously would have no idea what I would be talking about — what does the term reinfection mean — and I would have no idea how to communicate with them, and why should I; while you are doing more investigation and learning about a cause, leading to refinements in the specific types of projects that could be funded — which, in turn, would affect the types of projects that would vis-a-vis a focus bring such projects to a funding institution’s awareness generally turns me into a pedigreed lap dog and I am not a pedigreed lap dog.

The idea that you would investigate while I rowed the boat across the River Styx while you took note of the countryside and never mind the bodies in the water is slightly offensive. I am not interested in any institution’s focus where the laser beam is on the continued existence of the institution. You could study what I do to death. Bigger men than I have tried. There is an art to it. You would be wasting your time and I would be wasting mine. In my line of work, you rock and roll the minute you walk through MY door, or get out of my way.

Anyone who blithers about investigating every possible cause of interest is an idiot, and they are, in truth, investigating nothing but foregone conclusions. You do KNOW what you want. Just like I do KNOW what I want. But what happens when people do not speak the same language is that I go my way, and you go with the people who understand what in the world you are talking about which seems to be an ornate ballet around what is really being said.

In other words, suits only speak to other suits. Seriously, why do you think that in so many photo ops, Bill Gates takes his coat and tie off. Because Bill Gates understands that he only wants to talk to other suits. But he does’t want you to necessarily know that. So he at least appears to be ready to roll his sleeves up and go to work. He’s selling something called Bill Gates. The other suits don’t quite get it, but they smile for the camera anyway. My focus is getting young boys off the street who are doing sex work. You get it or you don’t.

You get the connections of disease to homelessness (let us not forget addiction) or you don’t. You get it right away or you don’t get it. I am sick and tired of foundations telling me to put it clearly in this box and then put this box in this box and did you wrap it up in the big box by the deadline for the golden goose. No. I. Didn’t. I was busy that night with some kid whose first dose of Sustiva was exactly like his first dose of LSD. This is where we part company because you might know what LSD is, but you have no idea what Sustiva is, or why it’s like LSD, and why is this being given to children.

Because it makes their viral loads undetectable.

Bill Gates is getting out of the AIDS business. It’s too intractable. The answers are too hard to come by. I know this: you have to watch the nonverbals. When the subject of HIV comes up, Bill Gates’ entire body sags. His head looks down. He shakes it as if to say no, no, no. Then, he talks about how hard all of this is. He bites his lip. He bites his lip as if to say: I have other observations I would like to make but I will not make them now.

I know that look. I have read it ten thousand times.

It’s easier if the suits just talk to the other suits. They speak the same language.

If Bill Gates had known in the beginning how hard this was going to be…

I don’t have time to teach you anything, and you don’t have time to teach me a new language, and your language isn’t one I would learn anyway. I find too much of it too insulting.

So the suits stay in their world, and people like me stay in mine.

And we all wonder why it is that we can’t reach these kids. Because they’re expendable.

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