One of the roles of Giving What We Can (GWWC) is to help its members and other interested people figure out where to give. If you go to their site and click " start giving" they list charitable funds, including GiveWell's All Grants Fund and the EA Infra Fund, both of which our family donated to in 2022. Showing funds first reflects their view (and mine!) that most people should donate via funds: a grantmaker with time and resources to determine where money is most needed can generally do a better job allocating funds than an individual.

One of the big downsides of donating via a fund, however, is that you have to trust its grantmakers are allocating your money in line with what you would want. Perhaps they have different values or ways of thinking about uncertainty, risk, and evidence. Or perhaps they're just not very good at their job. One of GWWC's roles is evaluating these funds, helping people figure out who to trust, but if you're more skeptical GWWC also recommends individual charities.

They maintain a list of charity evaluators they trust, and if one of those evaluators recommends a charity then GWWC will list it prominently on their site and badge it as "top rated". You can see these on GWWC's donating page if you scroll down past the funds.

There was recently some discussion on the EA Forum around one of these evaluators, Founders Pledge, and one of their recommended charities, StrongMinds. In March 2019, Founders Pledge performed a detailed investigation of StrongMinds, decided that their work treating depression in low-income countries was highly cost-effective, and wrote up a public evaluation explaining this decision (summary, details). GWWC then listed StrongMinds as a top-rated charity. All makes sense.

While Founders Pledge has continued to follow StrongMinds' work and stands by their recommendation, they haven't had the resources to update their public review. Since Founders Pledge continues to recommend StrongMinds, GWWC continues to consider it a top-rated charity.

This is not a great situation: if you want to be giving to individual charities because you don't trust grantmakers deciding privately what most needs funding, you don't want to be taking Founders Pledge's word that StrongMinds is still a highly cost-effective opportunity. How has their funding outlook changed over the last nearly four years? Have there been more recent studies on their work or on this kind of intervention?

A case with even less public information is Suvita. GWWC says they recommend Suvita because Founders Pledge's Global Health and Development Fund made a grant there in July 2022. GWWC links to that fund's Q2 2022 grants writeup which has a single paragraph on Suvita.

I think what Founders Pledge is doing here is fine; this is a reasonable level of transparency for a fund making a $50k grant. On the other hand, for a charity that GWWC is promoting directly to donors it's very little to back up a designation of "top rated".

(After sharing a draft of this post with Founders Pledge they linked me to a more detailed writeup on Suvita, but it isn't currently linked from the rest of their site or from GWWC.)

On the EA Forum I proposed that one of GWWC's requirements for endorsing recommendations from their trusted evaluators be that they're supported by current public evaluations. In the case of StrongMinds, once Founders Pledge's public evaluation became stale GWWC could have removed the "top rated" badge. GWWC's response was that they thought their current policy was correct because "our goal is primarily to provide guidance on what are the best places to give to according to a variety of worldviews, rather than what are the best explainable/publicly documented places to give."

In this case, I don't think this should be their goal. The biggest advantage I see to GWWC pointing people to specific charities, not just funds, is that this simpler approach supports people in directing their money effectively even if they don't trust the private decisions of evaluators. This doesn't work without recommendations being backed by reasonably detailed public current evaluations.

Note that this doesn't require that most donors read the evaluations: lower-trust donors still (rightly!) understand that their chances of funding work that's pretty different from what they thought they were funding are much lower if an evaluator has written up a public case. On the other hand, there are several reasons why a donor willing to take an evaluator's word for how effective a charity is might still prefer to donate to an individual charity instead of a fund:

  • Taxes. Donations to, for example, StrongMinds are tax-advantaged in 22 countries while donations via the EA Funds platform are only tax-advantaged in 3. If the fund is planning on granting to charity X this year, then you donating to X has similar effects to donating to the fund.

  • Preference adjustments. Perhaps you agree with a fund in general, but you think they value averting deaths too highly relative to improving already existing lives. By donating to one of the charities they typically fund that focuses on the latter you might shift the distribution of funds in that direction. Or maybe not; your donation also has the effect of decreasing how much additional funding the charity needs, and the fund might allocate more elsewhere.

  • Ops skepticism. When you donate through a fund, in addition to trusting the grantmakers to make good decisions you're also trusting the fund's operations staff to handle the money properly and that your money won't be caught up in unrelated legal trouble. Donating directly to a charity avoids these risks.

These are real concerns, but they're the kind of concerns sophisticated and committed donors are likely to have. These are the kind of people who are much less likely to put a lot of weight on a "top rated" badge, or to be on the fence about whether to donate. Supporting donors in these kinds of situations is good, but that mostly just requires listing the charities, not marking them as "top rated". Overall, I still think limiting the "top rated" badge and promotion to charities that have current public evaluations is the right choice for GWWC.

Disclosure: my wife used to be President of GWWC, but I haven't run this post by her and I don't know what she thinks of this proposal. I sent a draft of this post to GWWC and Founders Pledge; thanks to Sjir at GWWC for discussion on the Forum that led to this piece, and to Matt at Founders Pledge for his quick responses.