Since 2007, GiveWell has maintained a list of top charities. The organizations and programs on that list have changed over time, but the goal has remained the same: to help donors decide where to give.
In service of that goal, we’ve spent roughly the last year working on a plan to add to and update our criteria for top charities, so that they accurately reflect our prioritization of funding opportunities and are more helpful to donors. The revised criteria emphasize programs from which we expect high impact, with the additional requirement that we have a high degree of confidence in our expectation.
We hope these changes will also draw a brighter line for donors between our top charities and other excellent funding opportunities we support, a distinction that we haven’t always made clear. Recognizing that some donors want to contribute to grants outside our top charities list, we’re also introducing a new giving option: the All Grants Fund. Providing this option as a complement to the Maximum Impact Fund is an important step as grants to programs outside our top charities become a bigger part of our work.
In this post, we will:
- Explain why we are making these changes
- Share our updated criteria and our updated top charities list
- Explain how these changes affect donors’ giving options
Why we’re revising our top charity criteria
Our top charities list—and by association the Maximum Impact Fund—is often the first thing that people encounter when they’re introduced to GiveWell. We want it to be easy to understand why these programs are on our list.
Additionally, our top charity programs should reflect the kinds of giving opportunities that people are seeking from such a list. After soliciting feedback, we believe that most donors are looking for opportunities that are both high-impact (i.e., GiveWell expects donations will do a lot of good per dollar) and high-confidence (i.e., GiveWell is relatively sure that that expectation will bear out).
By adding criteria that are more specific, we also hope to establish clearer guidance on when programs should be added or removed.
Our revised criteria
Previously, we listed four criteria for top charities: evidence of effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, room for more funding, and transparency. These continue to be the criteria we’ll use to evaluate funding opportunities, but they no longer fully describe the few programs that we consider top charities. Those programs will meet the following additional, more precise criteria:
We’ve directed a significant amount of money to this program and seen it operate effectively at scale. A program meets this criterion if:
- We’ve directed a single grant to it of at least $10 million or multiple grants totaling at least $20 million, and
- We’ve supported the program as carried out by the implementing organization for at least one year.
It’s a good sign of our confidence if a program fulfills these two requirements. If we’ve provided significant, sustained support, that means we’ve already analyzed it thoroughly and judged it likely to clear our bar for funding. And if we’ve supported it for a year or more, it’s less likely (though possible) that we’ll receive information that would dramatically update our cost-effectiveness analysis.
We think there’s a high likelihood of significant impact from funding this program (as opposed to lower likelihood of enormous impact). The goal is to move grants with higher risk profiles into our other portfolio of grantmaking. For example, we fund public health advocacy because the potential benefit is so large that these grants have high expected value—even though there is a chance they do not have a significant impact. We feel that these programs are better suited to our other grantmaking (including the All Grants Fund) rather than top charities and the Maximum Impact Fund.
Typically, the overwhelming case for funding rests on the direct impact of a grant, not on the value of information we might gather through it. We don’t want to make grants from the Maximum Impact Fund when the case for support primarily focuses on generating valuable information to inform future grantmaking. For example, we recently made a grant to Precision Development to scope and plan an impact evaluation of its agriculture program in order to inform future grants we may make to it. While a good grant in expected value terms, it has not led us to make this program a top charity—we think the primary benefit of grants made through the Maximum Impact Fund should be directly producing outsized impact in the lives of others.
The program has funding gaps that meet our current cost-effectiveness bar. This is a check that there are specific opportunities within the program where we believe our funding will be deployed cost-effectively.
We describe the purpose of these additional criteria and how we will test for them on this page.
In accordance with the updated criteria, our top charities will be (in alphabetical order):
- Against Malaria Foundation
- Helen Keller International’s vitamin A supplementation program
- Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention program
- New Incentives
This update does not reflect any change in our thinking about the programs that do not meet the new criteria, and it will not impact our overall grantmaking priorities. Past top charity programs remain eligible for GiveWell grantmaking from the All Grants Fund and other sources of funding apart from the Maximum Impact Fund (which is restricted to top charities).
What this means for donors
The Maximum Impact Fund is our top recommendation for donors who want to be confident that their gift will have a strong impact. But we recognize that some donors have priorities or interests that may diverge from our top charities list.
The new giving option we’re introducing—the All Grants Fund—is for donors who want to support high-expected-value opportunities that we’re less sure about than our top charities. To be clear, these funds may also be allocated to top charities—they can be used for any grant that meets our cost-effectiveness bar (10x cash, as of this writing).
Recommending grants to non-top charity programs isn’t new to us, but this area of our work has grown significantly in recent years. In 2021, we directed about $190 million in non-top charity grants (a little more than one-third of our total grant spending) to a wide variety of programs, including lead exposure mitigation, tuberculosis treatment and prevention, and iron fortification. Some of the funding gaps we’re exploring in this category appear to be well above our cost-effectiveness bar, and in some cases may be meaningfully more cost-effective in expectation than some of our top charities. For example, we’ve recommended a grant to expand Evidence Action’s maternal syphilis screening and treatment program (write-up forthcoming) that we estimate could be around 35x cash.
We’re excited by the success we’ve had so far in this area of our grantmaking, and invite like-minded donors to consider a gift to the All Grants Fund. You can read more about all the options available to GiveWell donors on our “Guide to GiveWell’s Giving Recommendations” page.
Frequently asked questions
What does this mean for your views on deworming programs and GiveDirectly?
Our views on GiveDirectly and the four deworming programs previously on our top charity list—The END Fund’s deworming program, Evidence Action’s Deworm the World Initiative, SCI Foundation, and Sightsavers’ deworming program—have not changed. We continue to see these as exceptionally strong programs; however, they do not fulfill the new criteria we’re introducing.
Deworming. We have always supported deworming because we estimate it to be highly cost-effective—deworming programs are very inexpensive, and we think there’s a small chance they may lead to large income gains later in life. But we’re more uncertain about deworming than we are about our current top charities, so deworming doesn’t fulfill the second criterion on our list—a high likelihood of substantial impact. However, we expect to continue supporting deworming through grants from our All Grants Fund, as there continue to be funding opportunities in deworming that exceed our cost-effectiveness threshold, and we encourage donors who have supported individual deworming programs in the past to keep doing so (see links below).
GiveDirectly. We estimate that the funding gaps at our top charities are currently 10x as cost-effective as GiveDirectly’s cash transfer program, which we use as a benchmark. Accordingly, we haven’t directed marginal funding to GiveDirectly since 2015 (other than incentive grants), and GiveDirectly doesn’t fulfill the fourth criterion on the list above—having funding gaps that meet our cost-effectiveness bar (currently 10x cash)—even though we consider it an outstanding program.
We’re continuing to research GiveDirectly’s program, with a focus on whether there might be positive spillover effects into areas adjacent to where cash transfers are received that could increase our estimate of its cost-effectiveness. Additional investigation could substantially update our modeling of cash transfers. If additional research leads us to believe GiveDirectly is similarly cost-effective to the marginal dollar we’d direct, we’d expect to consider it for future grants.
How can I continue supporting deworming programs or GiveDirectly?
Going forward, we will no longer accept donations on behalf of GiveDirectly and the four deworming programs previously on our top charity list. If you have an open recurring donation through GiveWell to one or more of these organizations, we’ll be contacting you shortly about your options for updating your gifts.
If you’d like to donate directly to these programs, you can do so through the links below. Please follow the instructions on each organization’s website or contact it directly for tax deductibility information in your country.
- The END Fund’s deworming program. Donors will need to specify that they have been referred from GiveWell so The END Fund knows their gift is intended to support deworming.
- Evidence Action’s Deworm the World Initiative
- SCI Foundation. Please follow the instructions on SCI Foundation’s website for tax-deductible giving in your country.
- Sightsavers’ deworming program
We’ve been in frequent communication about this transition with the above organizations, and we aim to assist GiveWell donors who support them in continuing to do so if they wish. If you have any questions about giving options for these programs, email us; we’ll be happy to connect you with these programs if we can’t help you ourselves.
How does funging affect my donation to the Maximum Impact Fund or All Grants Fund?
Your donation to GiveWell will support the fund or program of your choice, subject to our grant approval process. Donations you make to the Maximum Impact Fund will be allocated to the highest-priority funding gap among our top charities; donations to the All Grants Fund may be allocated to any opportunity, whether top charity or non-top charity, that we’ve decided to fund.
However, the true impact of your donation may be felt elsewhere, because it will affect how we decide to allocate other gifts from other donors. We call this funging (from “fungibility”). When you donate to the Maximum Impact Fund, you increase the pool of funding we have available to support top charities, which might mean that we end up allocating more of our flexible funding (such as the All Grants Fund) to non-top charity funding gaps.
Does this update make GiveWell too heavily invested in just a few interventions?
Our top charities list has always been limited to the small number of programs that met our rigorous criteria, and these changes will further narrow that list. We think this reflects our belief, laid out above, that the “top charity” label should be applied only to programs for which we believe there is a high likelihood that funding we direct will have a positive, highly cost-effective impact. We also know that, notwithstanding our heavy investment to date in our top charities’ focus areas, there’s still a lot of work to do in a world where over half a million people die from malaria each year, and where we expect that a child’s life can be saved for a mere $3,500 spent on vitamin A supplementation.
Despite a shorter list of top charities, the range of programs we’re funding overall has grown. We’re investigating as many new interventions as we reasonably can (and we want to hire more research talent so we can do even more). We have around 350 programs in our new interventions pipeline right now, and active investigations open for about 60 of them; we think about 15 of those active investigations could result in grants. While it’s likely that most of these programs will never become top charities, we’re open to funding any opportunity that meets our cost-effectiveness bar and helps us achieve our mission of improving health and well-being for the poorest people in the world.
If you’d like to support grants we make to new interventions, we encourage you to donate to our new All Grants Fund. You can learn about other options for supporting GiveWell’s work on this page.
Although we have thoroughly analyzed our top charity programs, it is important to note that we still have open questions and uncertainties in our analysis, as with all of the programs that we have investigated. We’ve written about our approach to cost-effectiveness analysis and its limitations here. ↩︎
We began recommending GiveWell Incubation Grants in 2014, with the goal of seeding programs that would eventually become new top charities. (We retired the "incubation grant" designation in May 2022 because developing new top charities is no longer the only goal of our non-top charity grants.) An early grant we recommended in this category was $100,000 to New Incentives for general operating support; after directing several further grants to New Incentives, we named it a top charity in November 2020. ↩︎
See our 2021 metrics report, p. 6, "2021 Funds directed by category" chart. $190 million in non-top charity grants / $518 million in overall grant spending = ~37%. Based on the number of opportunities we're currently investigating, we expect the proportion of our non-top charity grant spending in 2022 to be closer to 25%. Based on this projection, and depending on the popularity of this giving option among donors, it is likely that the All Grants Fund will support top charity programs. ↩︎
This is a preliminary estimate. We plan to publish more information about our cost-effectiveness analysis when we publish a page about this grant. ↩︎
Our current best guess is that negative or positive spillover effects of GiveDirectly's cash transfer program are minimal on net, but this estimate is uncertain. We wrote about our view of spillover effects here in 2018, and the full results from a more recent study of GiveDirectly’s program are now available here. We have not yet reviewed in detail the results of the study, but intuitively we think the difference could be on the order of 2x—i.e., it is unlikely updates to our model from this investigation would be large enough to change our marginal recommendations to donors given our current cost-effectiveness bar. You can find our calculations on GiveDirectly’s cost-effectiveness here. Additionally, in June 2021, we made a grant of $121,626 to Oxford University to support research evaluating spillover effects from a variant of GiveDirectly's cash transfer program in Kenya. We are considering support for additional research projects on this subject. ↩︎
"In 2020, [global] malaria deaths increased by 12% compared with 2019, to an estimated 627 000." WHO, World Malaria Report 2021, p. xvi ↩︎
This is a rough estimate. We calculate $3,500 as the 2021 average cost per life saved through Helen Keller International's vitamin A supplementation program, using donations from Open Philanthropy and the Maximum Impact Fund. More information here. ↩︎
Thanks for all you do.
I feel that changing the nature of the Maximum Impact Fund in this way should come with a renaming of the fund, since it is now no longer going all-out on expected value; whereas before it was "maximizing" expected "impact", it's no longer doing that. And many donors have come to expect that the MIF is the go-to for high EV donation, and will not notice this change.
Something like the 'Top Charities Fund' or 'High Impact Fund' flags the fundamental change, and is a bit less misleading.
What about "Direct Impact Fund"?
Thanks for your feedback! We considered renaming the Maximum Impact Fund in the lead-up to these changes, but decided not to in the end. The Maximum Impact Fund has been a popular giving option that's attracted a lot of new donors; we wanted to err on the side of not confusing these newer donors, who we believe associated this fund with high confidence rather than with high expected value, despite the name. For those like you who follow our work more closely, we expected the risk of confusion would be lower: we thought they'd be more likely to understand the differences in the funds and find it relatively straightforward to make the switch to supporting All Grants versus the Maximum Impact Fund, if their priority was high expected value.
All that said, while this was a considered decision, we recognize that it might not have been the right one. Part of our reason for introducing the All Grants Fund was to help clarify our giving options for donors, and it'd obviously be bad if keeping the Maximum Impact Fund's name were introducing more confusion than clarity. We appreciate your feedback about this, and we'll certainly think about whether this decision merits revisiting!
Similar thoughts crossed my mind (including the thanks!).
For a donor whose values are closely aligned with GiveWell's and who trusts them to spend wisely on operations, it seems like an unrestricted donation might actually have the highest expected impact.
But it also seems like there's potentially a funging "cascade" across the different options such that marginal donations would be equivalent under certain circumstances, depending on details like the Excess Assets Policy.
I'd be very interested in an in-depth comparison of the different options for giving through GiveWell in terms of expected impact, funging, optimizer's curse, value alignment etc.
Apologies for the delay in responding!
It is a bit tricky to compare expected impact across the various funds. The tl;dr answer, without putting any real calculations into it, is that in practice, we don't expect there to be large differences. But theoretically there could be, and if you can give unrestricted or less restricted (assuming you trust GiveWell), that's probably better, as it allows us to deploy funding where it will be most impactful. Here are a few points to consider.
I hope that's somewhat helpful!
How many people are in this category? I think that standard nonbe some-EA charities would be loathe to take people out of recurring donations because they thing 'inertia' is a very important factor. I think this will be less so for EA and adjacent 'conscious informed' donors but it still might be a thing. Perhaps there should be some very positive (and easy to understand and justify) 'default' option for these people?
To clarify our process here, which we haven't detailed except in emails to the donors to whom this applies:
We plan to stop accepting donations to the programs previously on our top charities list by December 31, 2022. In the few months before then, we are contacting donors with open recurring gifts to these programs several times, asking them if they'd like to reallocate their gifts elsewhere. If we don't get a response from these donors by the December 31 deadline, we are automatically cancelling any portions of recurring donations that are allocated to one of the five former top charities (except those set up via PayPal; see below). If I'm interpreting you correctly, you're asking why we're choosing to cancel those donations instead of automatically reallocating them to a different program or fund—is that right?
We made this decision because it was more practical for us administratively, and because we expect that we'll ultimately end up needing to cancel very few donations, if any. Most donors will be able to choose their reallocation rather than this happening by default. When we discontinued the standout charity designation, the vast majority of donors switched their designation to a different program based on their preference; we think that will most likely happen this time as well, so we don't expect to end up missing out on large amounts of funding.
The exception to the process above is recurring donations through PayPal—we can't cancel or change these ourselves, so, after December 31, any funds we get from donations to previous top charities will be automatically reallocated to the Maximum Impact Fund (which seemed like a simple, justifiable default).
I hope that's helpful, and thanks for your engagement!
This seems like a move towards being more internally consistent. The inclusion of givedirectly j the max impact fund was hard to justify when it wa 10x “less effective than the ones included” by their own metrics.
With deworming the story seems a bit more nuanced. The uncertainty is higher and givewell wants to emphasise more ‘sure bets’. I wonder if The HLI evaluation had any impact on this. My takeaway from that evaluation was that the methods used here by GW were somewhat ad hoc; but actually we should update towards higher impact, as the study they strongly discounted had a very positive result.
I also appreciate GiveWell’s discussion of fungibility here. This might clear up some of the past confusion about “does no room for more funding for X mean that donations to X have no marginal impact?”
Thank you for your comment! To clarify one point from what you wrote: the critique of our deworming analysis from Happier Lives Institute was not a factor in our decision to update our top charity criteria. We had been planning an update of this kind for about a year before Wednesday's announcement, and only began communicating with HLI about deworming a couple of months ago.
HLI's engagement has led us to begin considering changes to our cost-effectiveness analysis for deworming (and to how we present the decisions behind our models in general). But Wednesday's announcement does not represent a change in our analysis of deworming; it is about a change to our criteria for top charities. We expect to continue to recommend funding for cost-effective gaps we find in deworming—we'll just be recommending it from pots of money other than the Maximum Impact Fund.
I hope that's helpful!
Thanks very much for the update!
Do GiveWell's published cost-effectiveness estimates already include an adjustment for the optimizer's curse? Or is the idea that donors should treat estimates like 35x cash as "raw" expected value calculations, to which they apply their own informal Bayesian adjustment along the lines of Holden's post?
Yes, the cost-effectiveness estimates we discuss publicly, including the 35x cash (preliminary!) estimate for the maternal syphilis expansion grant, incorporate all "human adjustments" we make to raw expected value, which often appear as “supplemental adjustments” in our cost-effectiveness analyses. These include factors such as likelihood of leverage and funging; charity-level risks, like wastage or funds being diverted for some other purpose; or intervention-level adjustments, like reduction in nonfatal illness or spillover effects. We don’t explicitly model these factors, but incorporate rough best guesses of their effects, which can shift the final cost-effectiveness estimate.