Transparency Talk

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Transparency Chat: GiveWell Promotes Transparency through Open Philanthropy
February 3, 2015

(Eliza Scheffler is a research analyst at GiveWell, which recently received a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight (FSI).FSI is a multi-year collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. This is the first in a series of interviews Transparency Talk is conducting with grantees of the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, director of Foundation Center’s San Francisco office and project lead of the Glasspockets initiative, asked Eliza Scheffler about the work this grant will fund.)

ElizaSchefflerphotoJanet Camarena: Congratulations on your recent grant from the Fund for Shared Insight!  Your grant falls within the part of the portfolio dedicated to supporting "efforts to increase foundation openness in service of effectiveness." What do you think the relationship is between increased openness and greater foundation effectiveness, and what have you learned about this from your prior work?

Eliza Scheffler: Thanks, we're really grateful for the support of the Fund for Shared Insight. We believe philanthropy could be more impactful by becoming more transparent. Very often, key discussions and decisions happen behind closed doors, and it's difficult for outsiders to learn from and productively critique philanthropists' work. We envision a world in which philanthropists increasingly document and share their research, reasoning, results, and mistakes to help each other learn more quickly and serve the world more effectively.

JC: Your specific funded project is The Open Philanthropy Project. Tell us more about the details about what this work will produce and what you hope its impact will be, and whether there are opportunities for our Transparency Talk audience to participate?

GiveWell has expertise in charity research and evaluation, but the funding for our recommended charities has historically come from individual donors.

ES: The motivating question behind this work is, "How can we accomplish as much good as possible with our giving?" Our mission is to give as effectively as we can and share our findings openly so that anyone can build on our work. Through research and grantmaking, we hope to learn how to make philanthropy go especially far in terms of improving lives.

One of the key innovations of the Open Philanthropy Project is that we didn't arrive at focus areas based on any of our particular passions. Rather, we want to improve the world as much as we can, and our level of excitement about an issue depends on how much good we believe we’ll accomplish by working on it. We've conducted dozens of cause investigations in order to answer that question and help us strategically select focus areas. These cause investigations are available on our site, and we hope that they will also serve as a resource for other funders.

Though we continue to investigate new causes, we are also moving forward with some highly promising ones. We've made early grants in criminal justice reform, labor mobility, global health, and other areas.

To stay up to date on this work,  Transparency Talk readers can visit the Open Philanthropy Project website, follow the GiveWell blog, and read about the grants that Good Ventures has made as a part of the Project If you’re a philanthropist who’s interested in co-funding alongside the Open Philanthropy Project, please contact us at info@openphilanthropy.org.

GWLogoJC: GiveWell is partnering with the Good Ventures Foundation on The Open Philanthropy Project. What will Good Ventures bring to the project in addition to GiveWell’s expertise?

ES: GiveWell has expertise in charity research and evaluation, but the funding for our recommended charities has historically come from individual donors. Working with a foundation enables us to consider new types of giving opportunities that may be more suited to an institutional donor. Good Ventures and GiveWell share common core values: global humanitarianism, risk tolerance and patience, action in the face of uncertainty, and a desire, as Good Ventures puts it, "to help humanity thrive."

JC: Given your work on this project is focused on openness, will there be any public-facing elements to it that has the opportunity to reach or include a broad audience of grantmakers or other influencers outside of your networks?

Transparency about our work also facilitates change, because our reasoning is subject to outside critique, and we publicly recognize our mistakes along with our successes. These attitudes and practices keep us always working to improve.

ES: We will continue to make public our research and reasoning, including summaries of information-gathering conversations and our full cause investigations. We will also publish reports about the grants we make and detailed follow up on those projects. GiveWell hosts regular conference calls on our work for the Open Philanthropy Project and publishes recordings and transcripts of those meetings.

JC: Some of the risks mentioned in the Fund for Shared Insight's Theory of Change include the fact that institutional philanthropy is resistant to change.  How do you plan to get past that to achieve what you need to as a part of this project, and what do you think needs to happen for the field to be more change-oriented?

ES: GiveWell has been evolving since the day it was founded. We place a lot of importance on being reflective and self-critical. Every year, we publish a retrospective self-evaluation and a plan for the upcoming year. Transparency about our work also facilitates change, because our reasoning is subject to outside critique, and we publicly recognize our mistakes along with our successes. These attitudes and practices keep us always working to improve. One vehicle for change in philanthropy is new foundations, which are continually arising. We see future foundations as a major part of our target audience.

--Eliza Scheffler

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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