Learning the basics

In 2012, we sought out information on the history of philanthropy as well as what foundations focus on today. We also spent substantial time getting to know established philanthropists and foundations (some examples), learning about how they approach their work and in some cases co-funding projects with them.

Exploring potential focus areas

While there are many worthy causes, additional philanthropy may accomplish more in some areas than others, depending on the circumstances. We’ve sought focus areas that are strong on some combination of the following criteria:

  • Importance. How many individuals does this issue affect, and how deeply?
  • Neglectedness. All else equal, we prefer causes that receive less attention from others, particularly other major philanthropists.
  • Tractability. We look for clear ways in which a funder could contribute to progress.
Shallow investigations

In these shallow investigations, we try to get a sense of:

  • What is the problem or opportunity? How important is it?
  • What could be done to address it?
  • Who else is working on it?
Deeper investigations

These can involve many conversations with experts (at least 10 to 20, and sometimes over 100); extensive reviews of academic literature; and making some preliminary “learning grants” in order to get a sense of what funding opportunities exist.

Selecting and prioritizing focus areas

We summarized what we learned from our cause investigations — and how we planned to prioritize our work going forward — in Google sheets, to make it easy for others to quickly absorb what we’ve learned.

For each cause we’ve investigated, the Google sheets show:

  • How we prioritized the cause and what our goals should be.
  • Links to additional information about the cause and notes on how deeply we investigated it.
  • How we assessed the cause’s importance, neglectedness, and tractability.
  • (U.S. policy only) What we saw as the main “venues” (federal, state or local) for working on the cause.
  • Whether we saw the cause as a good fit for hiring a full-time specialist.
Hiring and grantmaking

Once we’ve identified focus areas, we seek to:

  • Hire specialized staff in these areas, when that seems like the best way forward.
  • Make grants in these areas. The higher a cause ranks on our priority list, the more time we will spend finding and vetting giving opportunities, and the more open we will be to making large grants.

Read the full article about choosing a focus area at Open Philanthropy Project.