Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

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Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna

The Open Philanthropy Project funds an array of causes that would seem, at first glance, to have little or nothing in common.

OpenPhil, as it’s known, gave away about $240m last year, making major grants to nonprofits that seek to alleviate global poverty, reform the US criminal justice system, perform basic scientific research, improve the welfare of farm animals and reduce the dangers posed by existential threats to humanity.

Smaller grants went to organizations that want to shift the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy to promote employment, provide guidelines for solar geoengineering research, study the history of philanthropy and improve the quality of human decision-making.

Does that make any sense?

In a word, yes.

If nothing else, OpenPhil is relentlessly logical in its approach to philanthropy. Shaped by a philosophy known as effective altruism, the organization simply aims to do as much as good as possible with its giving. With that in mind, it seeks out causes that meet three key criteria: They are important, neglected and tractable.

I took a close look at OpenPhil in a story headlined Giving in the Light of Reason that was published yesterday by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Here’s how it begins:

There’s an old saw in philanthropy: If you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation. Each is distinctive, which makes sense: Extremely wealthy people do not get to be that way by following the crowd, so they want their foundations to stand out as well.

Still, of the 86,000 or so grantmaking foundations in the United States, few stand quite so far outside of the mainstream as the Open Philanthropy Project, which guides the charitable giving of Dustin Moskovitz, the cofounder of Facebook, and his wife, Cari Tuna, a former Wall Street Journal reporter.

Open Phil, as it’s known, has a vast fortune to give away. Moskovitz’s net worth was estimated to be about $14.3 billion at the end of 2017, and Moskovitz and Tuna say they intend to disburse nearly all of it before they die. In terms of assets, that puts them ahead of the Ford Foundation and behind only the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations in a ranking of America’s philanthropic giants.

Their giving is shaping up to be a grand experiment in rationalism—the idea that it’s possible to think through nearly all of the messy questions at the heart of philanthropy. Should grants go to education, science, or the arts? To a nearby community or to poor people overseas? To cure disease or influence public policy? As Open Phil grapples with such questions, it is guided by the principles of effective altruism, a philosophy and a movement that seeks to use reason and evidence to determine the best ways to do good. “They are unabashed technocratic engineers of good outcomes,” says one insider.

The story, which runs for more than 6,000 words, explains the genesis of OpenPhil and its approach to grantmaking. I’m generally an admirer of its work, which, in my view, deserves more attention from others in philanthropy. People at OpenPhil bring more rigor and transparency to their work than most other big foundations do. They are also, to their credit, unafraid of risk, willing to embrace causes that are out of the mainstream (like the well-being of chickens) and long-term thinkers, as the story explains.

I do have a couple of reservations about OpenPhil. First, the operation is run by a small group of people, fewer than two dozen, who are charged with giving away very large sums of money. Most are young, white and educated at elite schools. They run some risk of getting caught in groupthink, and would do well to find ways to open themselves up to critical, dissenting ideas.

Second–and I’m not as sure about this–is my concern about a coming shift in their grantmaking away from people (or animals) who suffer today and towards efforts to prevent so-called existential risks to future generations. Part of me wants to applaud this idea. After all, neither governments nor companies nor other philanthropists tend to think very long term, as a rule, and we are at a peculiar moment in human history where, for the first time, a number of technologies have become so powerful that they could wipe out the human race. In response, OpenPhil is making grants designed to reduce the catastrophic risks posed by general artificial intelligence and pandemics. If you haven’t paid attention, here’s a long but readable blogpost from Wait But Why explaining the dangers of AI.

In a blogpost on cause prioritization published in January, Holden Karnofsky, the brainy executive director of OpenPhil, wrote: “It is reasonably likely that we will recommend allocating >50% of all available capital to giving directly aimed at improving the odds of favorable long-term outcomes for civilization.” This reflects the worldview, popular among effective altruists, that ascribes very high value to the long-term future. Some effective altruists reason that improving the prospects for preserving the human race by even a fraction of a percent could have enormous impact because trillions of future lives are at stake.

That said, I’m just back from a reporting trip to Rwanda where I took a close look at rural poverty for the first time. Seeing a mother living with a 15-day old baby in a hut without running water or electricity is a sobering experience. To its credit, again, OpenPhil has in its relatively short life given more money than any other donor to groups recommended by GiveWell that try to alleviate the suffering of the global poor. (Why other foundations have not done so is a mystery.) But as a greater share of OpenPhil’s grant-making goes towards preventing long-term catastrophic risks, a smaller share will be left to reduce the suffering of poor people today.

Visiting Rwanda reinforced my belief that the vast majority of our charitable giving should flow to the global south, where the needs are greatest and charitable dollars can go a long way towards meeting those needs. As Charlie Bresler, the founder and executive director of The Life You Can Save, told me the other day: “We focus on extreme poverty because it’s tractable. It’s something we can do something about.” It’s harder to see what, if anything, can be done to prevent superintelligent general AI from wiping out humanity.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that OpenPhil is doing important work. If more foundations approached their giving with as much seriousness and rigor, we’d all be better off.

You can read the rest of my story here.

One thought on “The most unorthodox big foundation in America

  1. Thanks, Marc–

    I appreciate the generosity and thoughtfulness of OpenPhil. That said, I think it’s crucial to highlight the most “important, neglected and tractable” aspect of effective altruism–which is that “Give More” precedes “Give More Effectively” (https://app.effectivealtruism.org/pledge). From this perspective, the demonstrated effectiveness of lower-income givers is rarely explored (https://www.vox.com/2014/10/7/6920269/recession-charity-chronicle-of-philanthropy-rich-poor-inequality).

    When we commit ourselves to set a chosen percentage of income aside, we can always make thoughtful course adjustments in disbursements over time. As the effective altruism group Giving What We Can has come to acknowledge, proposed indicators of organizational effectiveness are secondary (https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/about-us/frequently-asked-questions/#48-which-organisations-are-the-most-effective) . Sadly, the search for elusive indicators too often serves as an excuse for affluent people to keep their giving rates low.

    I hope further discussions will reach through the longstanding taboo around connections between income inequality and (OUR) personal finances, which receives almost no media coverage.

    With deep appreciation,

    Regina Sandler-Phillips
    WAYS OF PEACE Community Resources
    http://waysofpeace.org/generous-justice

    Like

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