On Giving Well

give well

Tomorrow is Giving Tuesday. Given that most of my work in education is philanthropically funded, as well as the fact that I try to give every year, I’ve thought about a philanthropy a decent amount. Some thoughts below.


A little while ago, Marc Andreessen tweeted about gift made by he and his wife Laura, a professor at Stanford who writes about philanthropy. They gave $27.5 million gift to build a state-of-the-art Emergency Department in Silicon Valley.

I think it’s great, and really important, that Marc and Laura are giving back. They have a chance to be philanthropic leaders in an area of the country that is a hub of extreme wealth. I look forward to watching them make additional investments over time and hope that their colleagues will follow.

I think it’s an open question, however, whether or not this gift is an example of giving well, which I define as maximizing the benefit to those who need it most.


My general take on giving well is that donations should go toward one of the following:

1. Charities with a proven track record of raising the living standards of those in extreme poverty

Generally speaking, this category covers health investments in third world countries. For example, Give Well estimates that it cost the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) about a dollar to deworm a child.

Marc and Laura’s gift could have dewormed 27.5 million children. Silicon Valley has about 4 million people in it. It’s hard to imagine a Silicon Valley emergency department having the direct impact of deworming 27.5 million children.

2. New charities with the potential to raise the living standards of those in extreme poverty

Charities such as Give Directly seem to hold much promise, and investing in them to deliver their programs (and ensuring that these programs are eventually evaluated) allows for continued innovation in the field.

I would not put a Silicon Valley emergency department in this category.

3. Charities where impact is impossible to capture in a controlled experiment but where a strong theory of change exists for raising the living standards of those in extreme poverty

My guess is that it’s hard to fully quantify the impact of an organization like Human Rights Watch; or an organization that puts out annual indices on government corruption; or a local pro-democracy woman’s rights group.

Social change is complex, and I don’t think we should hesitate to giving to groups that can realistically play a part in creating social changes in societies that still suffer from high rates of extreme poverty.

I would not put a Silicon Valley emergency department in this category.

4. Charities whose innovations can benefit the lives of everyone the world

Curing AIDS, heart disease, cancer; investing in protections against existential threats such as asteroids and super volcanoes; developing new models of education (schools, governance, etc.) that can scale across the globe – all of these efforts have the potential to serve all of humanity – and thus warrant investment even if the short-term aims of some of these charities are more local in nature.

An investment in a Silicon Valley emergency department could meet this criteria, but only to the extent that most of the investment was funding research in innovations in emergency care that could eventually be adopted worldwide.

I do not know enough about Marc and Laura’s investment to understand how well it fits into this criteria.


In sum, I think the only way Marc and Laura’s investment meets my criteria of giving well is if this investment heavily funded research and innovation in emergency care.

If the investment was not structured in such a manner, my inclination is that the money could have been spent in more effective ways.

If it was spent in such a manner, I hope that it yields breakthroughs that serve people throughout the world, especially those less fortunate than the citizens of Silicon Valley.

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