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Articulating your values in order to measure impact

Charlotte Fisken GiveWell

GiveWell is a research institution that evaluates global health interventions to help donors maximize their impact; we directed around $600 million to life-saving interventions last year. Philanthropy Advisor Olivia Larsen will take the stage to explain one of the thorniest aspects of our work: moral weights. She’ll leave plenty of time for Q&A.

Basic overview of talking points:
At GiveWell, we spend thousands of hours each year reviewing academic evidence and researching different programs to identify the most cost-effective, evidence-backed health interventions that can save the most lives per dollar spent.

But cost-effectiveness isn’t always easy to identify because most interventions produce wildly different types of outcomes. We have to figure out how to compare those outcomes, and this is a really thorny moral and philosophical problem. If you could either save the life of a toddler, double the consumption of a four-person household for one year, or avert a stillbirth, what would you choose?

Every time we evaluate an intervention, we ask questions like these as we compare it to the other programs we may fund instead. Because of this, we set what we call “moral weights” (i.e. subjective valuations) for the outcomes of each program. These values, though uncertain, enable us to estimate which programs are likely to help people the most per dollar donated.

Many people might argue that it’s impossible to make comparisons between different types of suffering, or that making such comparisons is too analytical. But we’d argue that anyone deciding to donate to one charity over another is implicitly using moral weights, even if they aren’t explicitly engaging with them. We include moral weights in our cost-effectiveness analyses because they are an important part of any giving decision, and we think it is valuable to be transparent about them.

Track

Catalytic Philanthropy

Format

Brief and Bold (1 Speaker, keynote style)

Speakers

  • NameOlivia Larsen
  • TitlePhilanthropy Advisor
  • OrganizationGiveWell

Description

GiveWell is a research institution that evaluates global health interventions to help donors maximize their impact; we directed around $600 million to life-saving interventions last year. Philanthropy Advisor Olivia Larsen will take the stage to explain one of the thorniest aspects of our work: moral weights. She’ll leave plenty of time for Q&A.

Basic overview of talking points:
At GiveWell, we spend thousands of hours each year reviewing academic evidence and researching different programs to identify the most cost-effective, evidence-backed health interventions that can save the most lives per dollar spent.

But cost-effectiveness isn’t always easy to identify because most interventions produce wildly different types of outcomes. We have to figure out how to compare those outcomes, and this is a really thorny moral and philosophical problem. If you could either save the life of a toddler, double the consumption of a four-person household for one year, or avert a stillbirth, what would you choose?

Every time we evaluate an intervention, we ask questions like these as we compare it to the other programs we may fund instead. Because of this, we set what we call “moral weights” (i.e. subjective valuations) for the outcomes of each program. These values, though uncertain, enable us to estimate which programs are likely to help people the most per dollar donated.

Many people might argue that it’s impossible to make comparisons between different types of suffering, or that making such comparisons is too analytical. But we’d argue that anyone deciding to donate to one charity over another is implicitly using moral weights, even if they aren’t explicitly engaging with them. We include moral weights in our cost-effectiveness analyses because they are an important part of any giving decision, and we think it is valuable to be transparent about them.

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