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GiveWell Co-Founder Explains Effective Altruism Frameworks

By Vimal S. Konduri, Crimson Staff Writer

GiveWell co-founder Elie Hassenfeld offered advice on how to evaluate charities within an effective altruism framework before a small audience in Sever Hall on Thursday. The talk, titled “How and where should you donate?” was sponsored by the undergraduate student group Harvard College Effective Altruism.

GiveWell, a charity evaluator site, was founded in 2007 by Holden Karnofsky and Hassenfeld, who worked as investment bankers before starting the website. The site publishes a list of “top charities” based on their efficiency as determined by a set of metrics. Hassenfeld estimated that around $13 million was given to charities based on the GiveWell site’s recommendations in 2014. He said that figure is projected to nearly double to $25 million in 2015.

In his talk, Hassenfeld offered case studies of a few of the charities highlighted by GiveWell. He focused primarily on GiveDirectly, which transfers cash to impoverished households in Kenya and Uganda, the Against Malaria Foundation, and two de-worming initiatives—programs which aim to help eliminate parasitic worms.

Hassenfeld praised the impact of GiveDirectly, noting that the organization has been able to sustain rapid growth. GiveDirectly is “the most outstanding organization that we have come into contact with over the years that we’ve done GiveWell,” he said.

Hassenfeld, however, noted that GiveDirectly was not as cost-effective as other organizations, such as many of the de-worming initiatives including the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which he estimated were “in the range of five to ten times as effective as cash transfers.”

At the same time, Hassenfeld argued that GiveWell has “struggled to communicate” with the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and criticized what he said was their poor management and lack of financial transparency.

Hassenfeld also discussed GiveWell’s partnership with Good Ventures, a firm started by Cari Tuna and Facebook co-founder Dustin A. Moskovitz, a Harvard dropout and co-founder of Facebook who formerly belonged to the class of 2006. Good Ventures often gives large sums of money to top charities identified by GiveWell.

In the talk, Hassenfeld outlined his vision for the future of GiveWell, citing new projects that aim to help create new charitable organizations target large donors.

The talk was followed by a long question and answer session during which Hassenfeld fielded inquiries from many of the audience members about GiveWell and effective altruism more broadly.

Ales Flidr ’17, an outgoing co-president of Harvard College Effective Altruism, said that the group has a particularly close relationship with Hassenfeld, who has come to speak at Harvard frequently in recent years.

“[Hassenfeld] presented himself very transparently, very willing to let us know about all his assumptions, and answer really anything,” said Andrew M. Bergman, a graduate student in applied physics who is involved with the graduate student effective altruism group.

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