GiveWell’s research process focuses on finding excellent giving opportunities and deeply reviewing them. We currently recommend just eight top charities that have met our high standards.
Although the number of top charities we recommend is small, we review a large number of organizations in our ongoing work to find new top charities. We consider some of these groups to be exceptional relative to the vast majority of organizations, even though they do not meet our top charity standards. We name these organizations standout charities to recognize their exceptional status and to provide an incentive for charities to engage with our intensive review process.
The standout charity designation, though valuable for the reasons mentioned above, has created communication challenges for us. People who rely on our recommendations to make donations have expressed confusion about how our view of standout charities compares to that of top charities.
This blog post will explain why we have standout charities and how they differ from our top charities.
- Why do we have standout charities?
- Recognition of excellence
- Incentives for participation
- How do standout charities compare to top charities?
Why do we have standout charities?
Recognition of excellence
Our research process centers on finding charities that meet our four top charity criteria: (1) evidence supporting the impact of the organization’s program; (2) cost-effectiveness or impact per dollar donated; (3) the ability to use additional funding well; and (4) transparency. We have very high standards in each of these categories. Although it’s challenging to measure precisely, we estimate that we’ve reviewed at a minimum of a very shallow level (i.e. looking on a charity’s website for evidence it runs one or more of our priority programs or has a unique level of monitoring) around a thousand charities since GiveWell was founded in 2007, and have named just nine to be top charities since we moved to our current ranking system in 2011. 
We begin our review process at a very shallow level and spend more time assessing each group the more promising as a potential top charity it seems, culminating in hundreds of hours of review for our top charities. As we go through this process, we sometimes identify charities that don’t meet all of the above criteria but seem otherwise excellent (and exceptional relative to our impression of the average charity).
In these cases, we consider whether the organization should be named a standout charity. In all cases, the groups that are named standout charities have entered our review process as potential top charities; we don’t seek standout charities as a goal unto itself.
Standout charities should be able to provide us with:
- A breakdown of their spending for at least one recent year and ideally the past three years.
- A basic list of things they would do with more funding and an indication that they could absorb additional funding to support their work (or their work on a specific program of interest to GiveWell).
- A list of types of monitoring information they have gathered, with examples of each type.
We want to make sure we have:
- A basic understanding of value-added of the charity. What would happen if the charity did not exist?
- Sufficient information and understanding to develop a cost-effectiveness model of the charity’s work, so that we can estimate the impact per dollar donated to the charity.
- An estimate of cost-effectiveness for the charity that is not clearly lower than our estimate of the cost-effectiveness of providing cash transfers to very poor households, the benchmark we use for comparison.
We generally aim for standout charities to meet all of the above criteria, though we have sometimes made exceptions when a charity meets most of the standout charity criteria and otherwise seems exceptional (though still below the bar we’ve set for top charities).
Incentives for participation
In addition to recognizing charities for exceptional work, we hope the standout designation incentivizes charities to engage with our intensive review process. We typically ask promising organizations to provide us with detailed information as well as to join us for several phone calls, and we ask charities to allow us to publish our views of their work (including any negative impressions we have) so that we can be publicly transparent in our reasoning. The fact that we recommend so few top charities limits the incentive for groups to engage with our process because the odds of becoming a top charity aren’t very good, even though the benefits of being named a top charity are substantial. Top charities have annually received at least $2.6 million and an average of $13.5 million each as a direct result of our recommendation over the last three years. 
The standout charity designation offers a chance for groups that engage but don’t become top charities to receive recognition and funding. Standout charities have annually received an average of $356,000 each as a direct result of our recommendation over the last three years. 
Beyond financial incentives, GiveWell’s designation of a program as standing out from that of most charities may be a reputational incentive to engage with our process. For example, a number of standout charities point to our recommendation as a stamp of approval on their websites. 
How do standout charities compare to top charities?
We note at the top of our list of standout charities that “we do not feel as confident in the impact of these organizations as we do in our top charities.”  We don’t advise giving to our standout charities over our top charities because we believe that top charities have a greater impact per dollar donated. By definition, top charities have cleared a higher bar of review from GiveWell. We also spend significantly less time following up on our standout charities’ work on an ongoing basis and thus are less confident in their plans for and ability to use additional donations relative to our top charities.
Standout charities have met a very high bar of review—though not our highest bar—and we think they are exceptional. We’re excited to recognize them on our website.
1. Top charities since 2011: (1) Against Malaria Foundation; (2) END Fund’s deworming program; (3) Evidence Action’s Deworm the World Initiative; (4) Evidence Action’s No Lean Season (no longer a top charity); (5) GiveDirectly; (6) Helen Keller International’s vitamin A supplementation program; (7) Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention program; (8) Schistosomiasis Control Initiative; (9) Sightsavers’ deworming program.
2, 3. See calculation and sources here.
4. See, for example: Living Goods, Awards & Testimonials; Development Media International, Homepage; Sanku-Project Healthy Children, Awards; Food Fortification Initiative, Homepage; and Iodine Global Network, Homepage.
5.“The organizations listed below support programs that may be extremely cost-effective and are evidence-backed. We do not feel as confident in the impact of these organizations as we do in our top charities. However, we have reviewed their work and believe these groups stand out from the vast majority of organizations we have considered in terms of the evidence base for the program they support, their transparency, and their potential cost-effectiveness. We have published reviews of all of these organizations.” (GiveWell, Standout Charities)