Joey Schnide

55Joined Mar 2021

Comments
1

A Critical Review of Open Philanthropy’s Bet On Criminal Justice Reform

Hey! Member of the Open Phil grants team here (not officially writing on behalf of OP; just responding based on my experience of how things work here) 

I feel that there’s a bit of a misunderstanding here about how our grants process works that I’d like to correct. It seems like the thrust of your argument is that it isn’t effective for us to fund non-EA-aligned organizations, and you list some of our grantees’ activities to support that claim (i.e. Color of Change’s work on diversity in Hollywood). I think you’d have to be making one of two assumptions for this argument to work: 

  1. We don’t have the ability to restrict how our grantees use the funds we give them, or
  2. We can restrict our funding to projects aligned with our focus areas, but we can’t properly assess whether an organization’s other work or overall philosophy will spoil/reduce the impact of the work we want to fund.  
     

Responding to the first assumption, we sometimes do restrict how our grantees use our funding, by adding a “purpose restriction” to the grant’s legal documentation. A purpose restriction is exactly what it sounds like - it specifies acceptable uses of our funds and prevents the grantee from spending our money on other projects. This enables us to fund a variety of organizations without having to worry much about the organizations spending lots of our money on things we don’t want to fund.

For example, our $2.5 million grant to Color of Change specifies exactly what we funded them to work on — prosecutorial reform, and advocacy/communication around the film “Just Mercy”. (We’ve also funded film-related projects in other areas, like farm animal welfare and effective altruism.)

While we try our best to restrict our funding to projects we’re excited about, restrictions aren’t perfect and money is fungible in a variety of ways.  OP’s Program Officers try to address this, but it’s reasonable to worry that funding an org might encourage some of the work we didn’t fund. However, I think it makes more sense to view this as a tradeoff, not a reason for a blanket policy against funding political organizations. In my limited time at OP, I haven’t seen many instances where an organization we were funding was doing things with other funding that struck me as being actively harmful. 

That said, it’s certainly possible that one of our grants has a negative impact that we didn’t intend; this might be inevitable given our hits-based giving model. We try our best to be mindful of these types of tail risks and incorporate them into the expected value assessments we do for our grants and we hope to learn from cases where we really get it wrong. 

The second assumption also seems wrong to me. A large part of the job of a Program Officer at any funder is to conduct a comprehensive investigation into potential grantees to determine if they are capable of carrying out the funder’s goals. I don’t have a programmatic role at OP so I can’t comment too much here, other than to say that as far as I can tell OP Program Officers are very good at doing this. This is why I don’t think it’s particularly relevant what Color of Change “believes” as an organization. The relevant question was whether COC would be able to carry out specific CJR work that we would want to fund. 

Maybe I’m being a bit uncharitable and ignoring an outside view, like “overtly political organizations are generally unable to implement narrowly designed programs”. That doesn’t seem too plausible to me. 

There’s a better argument that says that overtly political organizations inevitably allow their political beliefs to seep into their programmatic work. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is I think it probably looks more like “An overtly progressive organization trying to reduce the prison population of a large city (a programmatic goal of OP’s) uses some very progressive sounding language in their messaging” than “A progressive organization is too obsessed with ideological purity to accomplish the stated goals of a project”. If the former is true, it’s not clear to me why it’s relevant as long as the project succeeds. If it’s the latter, I think it’s the normal kind of risk to a project’s impact that our POs would be trying to ferret out, though they may not always succeed.