Theory of Change


The evidence suggests that the activities outlined in our theory of change are feasible, and that such research and outreach will be impactful.

(1) Are there causes with far greater cost-effectiveness than existing ones, and if so, by how much?

We can reasonably expect there to be causes out there with far greater cost-effectiveness than existing top causes.

  • CEARCH’s research: Shallow research by CEARCH suggests that there is a high variance in cost-effectiveness between causes, and while some can be 0.04x as cost-effective as GiveWell top charities, some are 5000x as cost-effective (link).
  • External evidence: The latest Disease Controls Priority report (link) estimates that the most cost-effective global health cause-interventions pairs are around 10,000 times more effective than the least cost-effective ones. To the extent that the search space is vast and the existing top causes are simply the best of only part of the search space, there will still be causes out there that are far more cost-effective than current GiveWell top causes.

Of course, there is high uncertainty about these estimates, and there is a decent chance that we are wrong – a possibility that should always be kept in mind.

(2) Can these highly cost-effective causes be accurately identified?

CEARCH has in place a comprehensive search methodology to look for causes to evaluate. Approaches that we take include, but are not limited to:

  • Relying on the Nuno longlist.
  • Consultations and surveys
  • Outcome tracing – examining the causes of bad outcomes (e.g. through the Global Burden of Disease Study) and good outcomes (e.g. through the World Database of Happiness).

Meanwhile, for evaluating candidate causes, CEARCH applies a rigorous marginal expected value (MEV) framework (link). As an extension of the ITN framework, this takes into account importance, tractability and neglectedness but also goes further in:

  • Paying attention to the decline (i.e. non-persistence) of problems (e.g. the harm done by a particular disease) from secular trends (e.g. economic growth reducing disease burden through better sanitation, nutrition, and greater access to healthcare).

With a comprehensive search methodology and rigorous evaluative framework, there is a reasonable chance of identifying extremely cost-effective causes not yet found.

(3) Will cause prioritization research change minds and help direct support to causes identified as most cost-effective?

Optimism in this respect is warranted, given:

  • Charity Entrepreneurship: CE is likely to incubate a charity based on our research.
  • Interest by donors & broader EA community: CEARCH has had some outreach success so far, with medium-sized donors as well as EA individuals working on direct work (e.g. in the policy space) expressing interest in using our research.

    Moreover, research by Charity Entrepreneurship (link) finds high interest in cause prioritization research from EA organizations, and Open Philanthropy in particular has launched its cause exploration prize (link). Further, previous analysis of new causes (e.g. mental health) have indeed led to individual EAs changing careers and donating to these causes accordingly.