Open Philanthropy Project

During my trip to the Bay for EA Global I had the chance to visit the GiveWell offices along with other attendees. We listened to Elie Hassenfeld talk about GiveWell operations more in depth and their attempts to find more charities to recommend. The most encouraging take away I had from the talk was that as GW is able to move more and more money (in 2014 they moved about $29.5 million). This means charities have a larger incentive to participate in their lengthy and intensive evaluation process. Because let's face it, the reason the GW process is so good and so trustworthy is because it is a gigantic pain in the ass. A pain in the ass with a 96% fail rate (according to some quick back of the envelope math). They are also looking more and more into assisting in the creation of new charities, as well as funding repeats of control trials on the effectiveness of interventions.

All that is very exciting, and was great to learn about. But what I really signed up for was to hear about the Open Philanthropy Project.

There currently isn't a lot out there about Open Phil. There is a basic website and a bunch of blog posts on the GW blog and the Good Ventures blog. Most of what you can figure out is that it is a partnership between GV & GW (those aren't confusing or amusing abbreviations at all). While Good Ventures is the org that functions like a foundation to dole out the billions Dustin Maskovitz and Cari Tuna plan on giving away, the Open Philanthropy project seems to be the research arm that asks how to do as much good as possible. Luckily one of the first things we learned is that there is currently a plan to make Open Phil a more straightforward and action oriented organization. They will be creating a website that explains their work and the direction they are heading.

But that isn't up now. So what exactly have they been doing the last two years?

As Holden put it Open Phil is "the start of a good debate." Their work has not been to evaluate and pick charities, but to assess causes. The ultimate goal being to shape the field of philanthropy moving forward, to be at the forefront of making the world a better place. And often being at the forefront of things means asking crazy questions and being open to loads of possibilities.

So what does it mean to look at the entirety of the philanthropic landscape? Well it turns out that it means there are a couple Google Docs out there that are handling this world-changing question.

I'll let that sink in: there are Google Docs that are the culmination of loads of deep thinking and years of research that is deciding the future of philanthropy... The same program I use to track my grocery list is being used to tabulate and track the potential of billions of dollars.

I kind of felt like I'd stumbled upon the inner cabal! There is a list floating around in the cloud ranking the importance of pandemics, global poverty, magnetic storms, malaria, organ donation, immigration, and scientific research standards.

Google please don't crash.

Cari Tuna (Lettering by Joel Holland for The Washington Post/Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

While ranking causes seems like an obvious step to most people who have bought into the idea of effective altruism, the idea of purposefully studying and selecting a cause is actually fairly new. More than just a step to take, Open Phil thinks it is one of the most important decisions you can make in your philanthropic donations. Thus this stage deserves extensive time, commitment, and thought. Because being vaguely familiar with a cause isn't sufficient to make an impact in that cause. To make an informed decision about a cause it is necessary to understand the cause in it's entirety as much as possible.

So after selecting causes based on things like tractability and importance the next step Open Phil has identified is hiring and cultivating Program Officers. These are individuals who have spent a significant portion of their life working in a particular cause area. People who are familiar with the landscape, know the players, and are well versed in the nuances of the cause. The particular people Open Phil is looking to hire have these qualities, but is also willing to make bold decisions towards progress. Needless to say this leads to a fairly extensive hiring process.

They have however made their first hire! Chloe Cockburn was hired as their US Criminal Justice Reform Program Officer. Chole's last role was with the ACLU. I actually ran into someone from the NY office of the ACLU and she said that they had a group cry about Chloe leaving. A note in her favor I would say.

Aside from cultivating and identifying these Program Officers Open Phil is also interested in targeting rich young philanthropists. Large donors who have not yet hardened their area of focus or become set in a pattern of philanthropic giving. This would mean redirecting much of the future money of philanthropy to important causes, and the most effective solutions in each area.

Oh did I not mention that? The other part of Open Phil isn't just looking at which causes are the most outstanding, but also which ways of approaching each problem is the best. As I understand it, a large chunk of this will fall onto the shoulders of their new Program Officers, as these individuals decide how best to delegate funding, a few million dollars at a time.

Ranking causes and organizations isn't something completely new for EAs. What is interesting is that it is the first time someone has looked at social or policy change through an EA lens. This is so exciting to me. The lack of focus in this area is one of the first, largest, loudest, and sometimes most relevant critiques of EA. Aren't we just putting a band aid over the overlying problems of the world? Shouldn't we be investing time and energy into uprooting social, economical, issues that cause these problems? The counter point from most Effective Altruists is, sure - but we don't know the effective way to go about that that.


Open Phil seems to be the best way to go about creating that systematic change. Why? Because they are asking the hard questions, and are going in with an open mind. One of the most encouraging parts of my visit was during the Q&A portion of Holden's presentation. Despite being asked to narrow in or come up with a solid answer on how to go about doing most of this work his answers were almost continuously "I'm not sure. We are researching that." I found this so encouraging! Because again, in order to make change in a particular cause area you have to really truly understand it. Still sometimes even that isn't enough.

Charting and evaluating philanthropy on this scale is a massive undertaking, and something that has rarely, if ever been done successfully. But they aren't starting from scratch. They have generations of nonprofit workers and NGOs to learn from. Open Phil is focused on the history of philanthropy and learning from the past. Too often people see a need and instead of working or improving systems in place they create a new system, reinventing the wheel . In philanthropy it seems we have lots of wheels, but none of them seem to be using the same size fitment.

The thing that I find so exciting about all of this is that there is a chance it might actually work! Growing up around people that cared deeply about social justice, human rights, and political reform, change felt like an uphill battle. Trying to organize the political will to take on something like reforming the US incarceration system was nearly impossible. Let alone trying to stand against those that have millions invested in keeping the prison industry alive and well. It always felt that these sorts of reforms was David vs. Goliath. But with a large sum of money, and a lot of thoughtful careful effort, change seems to have a tangible future.

What attempts at social reform used to feel like

What attempts at social reform used to feel like

What it felt like after leaving the GW offices

What it felt like after leaving the GW offices

Hear Holden talk about Open Phil at EA Global: