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Fwd: Trip to India

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  • Alexander Berger
    Hi folks, Evan Larson, a Princeton student-journalist, is interested in some details of GiveWell s trip to India. We ve tried to answer his questions briefly
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 26, 2013
    Hi folks,

    Evan Larson, a Princeton student-journalist, is interested in some details of GiveWell's trip to India. We've tried to answer his questions briefly but aren't planning to spend more time on this. I've sent along our exchange (including his original attachment). If many others are interested in this, we'll take the time to respond in more detail.

    You're also welcome to respond to Evan yourselves; I think some of his questions have publicly-available answers.


    ---------- Forwarded message ----------
    From: Evan Larson <eklarson@...>
    Date: Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 4:13 PM
    Subject: Re: Trip to India
    To: Alexander Berger <alexander@...>

    Hi Alexander,

    Thanks for your response and for offering to forward our conversation to the research mailing list. I am comfortable with forwarding this conversation to the list. I would be happy to talk on the phone or via email with anyone who would like to comment or respond to what I have written.

    Will it be possible to include the attachment to my first email when you forward the message? I lay out my cost estimates in that message, which might be helpful for people who are dropping in on the conversation.

    As I said before, I have always been and continue to be impressed by GiveWell's transparency and work. I am want to learn as much as possible about the India trip and develop a better understanding of the costs and benefits of the India trip.

    Thanks again for your response.


    On Feb 26, 2013, at 7:00 PM, Alexander Berger <alexander@...> wrote:

    Hi Evan,

    I think I answered the big substantive questions you ask here in my previous email; I don't think dredging through the details is worth the time. I don't think GiveWell has done anything remotely wrong or improper in connection with the India trip.

    I'd like to share this exchange with our public Yahoo research mailing list if that's something you'd be comfortable with. If others on the list are interested, we might take the time to get into the details, and you might also find that some of them will have answers to some of the detailed questions you're asking.

    Would you mind if I forward our exchange along?


    On Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 2:18 PM, Evan Larson <eklarson@...> wrote:
    Hi Alexander,

    Thank you for your response. From your response, I gather that GiveWell thinks that there was a substantial benefit from the trip to India that justifies its cost. My aim here is just to determine what the cost and benefit of the trip were.

    I know that many other non-profits would not be willing to make the time commitment to respond to a request for more information about a topic like this, so I understand your reluctance to fill in the details of the India trip. However, GiveWell sets itself apart from other organizations with two defining characteristics: complete transparency and cost-benefit analysis. I think that my questions about the India trip fall represent a request for transparency about the cost of the trip and a request for a cost-benefit analysis of GiveWell's decision to take that trip. GiveWell holds the organizations that it partners with to a high standard of transparency and rigorously evaluates their cost-benefit. I don't think that my requests for additional information about India trip is nearly as rigorous as the kinds of requests that GiveWell makes of the charities it investigates.

    Please help me understand the full cost of the India trip. I need the following information to determine the cost of the trip:
    1. The amount of time spent researching and planning site visits in India, traveling to site visits in India, and visiting sites in India (I have estimated this figure)
    2. The wages paid to GiveWell's employees such that we can determine the amount of salary spent on site visits (I have estimated this figure)
    3. The cost of doing office work in India, which Holden indicated GiveWell would pay for (Was a New York office maintained? This has bearing on our interpretation of the cost of an Indian office space)
    4. The cost of travel to and from sites in India, which Holden indicated GiveWell would pay for (Was food and lodging covered during travel?)

    Please help me understand the benefits derived from the trip to India. GiveWell did produce a number of blog posts about the trip. However, by my calculations, the charitable contribution that resulted from the Indian site visits was substantially less than the amount GiveWell spent researching. You indicate that GiveWell would have liked to look at these sites regardless of the 10,000$ gift. Why? GiveWell's aim is to recommend the most highly-effective and high-impact charities in the world. I would like to know why GiveWell thought the India trip would advance GiveWell's stated purpose of identifying the most highly-effective high-impact charities in the world.

    After all, on your site, you argue that there are many kinds of charities that you will not consider. For example, you do not support charities in the US because poor people in the US still have more money than most other people around the world. Unless I am mistaken, the GDP of India is much higher than the GDP of the other countries in which your top charities work. For example, you support GiveDirectly, which works in Kenya. The per capita GDP of India is around double the per capita GDP of Kenya. Did GiveWell consider the possibility that, by its own lights, charities in India would not qualify to be GiveWell's top charities because India is too "rich"? If so, why did GiveWell continue to spend a substantial amount of money researching Indian charities? Why did this investigation take place on the ground in India, when a preliminary investigation could have been conducted online for less money? Did anyone argue that GiveWell's time and money could have been better spent elsewhere? 

    If you conducted a lengthly and expensive series of site visits in Africa and did not find a single top charity, would you consider the trip a success? Or would you consider it to be a failure?

    You say in your message:
    • We accepted this one [the strings attached gift] because it caused no substantial additional expenses for us (in fact we felt it was a benefit to be able to truthfully tell charities we were looking to make a grant to one of them). However, the purpose of the visits went beyond this gift and the expenses should therefore be viewed in the context of our overall budget, not in the context of the $10k gift.
    Does this mean you were planning the India trip before you received the gift?

    I am also interested in how the India trip decision was made. It seems like you have answered that question: This decision was approved by your board and supporters. If you could tell me more about the timeline of how this decision was made it could be helpful. Is there a particular board meeting recording I should listen too?

    Again, thank you so much for your time. I continue to be impressed by GiveWell's commitment to transparency and openness. 


    On Feb 26, 2013, at 3:18 PM, Alexander Berger <alexander@...> wrote:

    Hi Evan,

    Briefly, I think you've misinterpreted the situation with the $10k grant and the purpose of the trip to India. Correcting the details would take more time than I think it's worth, but brief responses:
    • The purpose of the site visits was general learning and sharing of information. The relevant output was the set of notes and blog posts at http://www.givewell.org/international/site-visits/india-fall-2010
    • We do not do formal cost-effectiveness analysis for relatively minor expenses like this because the time it would take to do thorough such analysis would overwhelm the original costs. However, we considered this visit to be worth the expense in terms of the learning and content it generated.
    • A donor offered us $10,000 to re-grant to our choice of charity that we visited in India. We accepted this gift. That doesn't mean we would accept all gifts with strings attached. We accepted this one because it caused no substantial additional expenses for us (in fact we felt it was a benefit to be able to truthfully tell charities we were looking to make a grant to one of them). However, the purpose of the visits went beyond this gift and the expenses should therefore be viewed in the context of our overall budget, not in the context of the $10k gift.
    • We discussed the India trip with our Board and kept them in the loop about what we were doing. We created a great deal of public content about the trip. It has been easy for our supporters and stakeholders to see what we were doing and speak up if they disagreed with our prioritization. As to the fees on the $10k, we found this more cost-effective than spending staff time to manage the administration of an international grant directly (which we have done before), and the donor in question was kept fully in the loop on exactly how his money was being spent.
    • More minor point: most site visits did not take a full day, and transportation expenses were small.
    In sum, we felt the site visits were a good use of time, and we were transparent about this use of time in case our audience and stakeholders might disagree, which they broadly did not. The way I would summarize this is that we wanted to do many site visits anyway, because we thought the generalized learning we would get from that justified the time, and a donor's offer of $10k to re-grant helped us get buy-in from the organizations we visited; we did not do the site visits in order to grant the $10k.


    On Mon, Feb 25, 2013 at 9:13 PM, Evan Larson <eklarson@...> wrote:
    Hi Alexander,

    I hope you are continuing to enjoy beautiful California! I must admit I am a little jealous -- I haven't been back to California in a while.

    I am writing to you as a fan of GiveWell and as a student journalist. I work for several publications on campus and I am currently taking an investigative journalism class with a reporter from the New York Times.

    Out of curiosity, I reviewed GiveWell's Form 990's the "tax returns" that non-profits must file each year. I was impressed by GiveWell's transparency in its Form 990. Transparency is, of course, one of the things I admire most about GiveWell.

    While reading the 990 for 2011 I found that GiveWell had given money to a charity in India that was not listed as one of the top charities. I was surprised by this decision and I did some background research on the GiveWell site. I found out that the whole GiveWell team moved to India for three months during 2010 and, while there, picked out a charity to receive a 10,010$ donation to GiveWell that had been earmarked for India.

    I did some very rough "back of the envelope" calculations and compared the approximate cost of conducting site visits in India with the benefit of the 10,010$ donation. I found that, based on my conservative assumptions, GiveWell spent far more money on the salary of its employees during the 20 site visits that GiveWell conducted than it ultimately donated to GiveWell's favored Indian charity. GiveWell also donated to this charity through a middle man who typically takes a substantial cut of donations, a fact that was not prominently listed anywhere on the GiveWell site. GiveWell did technically give 10,010$ away, but a little more than 9,000$ actually made it to the charity. If GiveWell received a special exception to this fee, I would like to know why that exception is not mentioned on the site.

    This investigation has raised some question about the GiveWell methodology. I would like to know more about how GiveWell's oversight process works. How was the decision made to pay for this costly research in India? Furthermore, does GiveWell see this trip as a failure, because it cost more philanthropic dollars than it moved? I did not see the trip to India listed on the GiveWell shortcomings page. But if GiveWell spent more money than it raised on every research project it conducted, it would seem like GiveWell would be failing to uphold its fundamental mission. Does GiveWell use cost-benefit analysis to vet its own projects? After all, GiveWell is known for the rigorous cost benefit analysis of other charities.

    I have attached a word document in which I lay out my observations. I recognize that there are many points where I speculate in this document. I hope you can help me fill in some of the gaps so that I can understand how GiveWell came to support the India trip. I would love to arrive at an accurate accounting of the cost of the trip and the benefit that the research conducted in India has provided.

    I can be contacted by email and I would also be happy to talk on the phone.

    Thanks for your time,

    Evan Larson
    Princeton University
    Department of Philosophy

    Alexander Berger

    Alexander Berger

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