The world’s most intellectual foundation is hiring. Holden Karnofsky, founder of GiveWell, on how philanthropy can have maximum impact by taking big risks.

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The Green Revolution averted mass famine during the 20th century. The contraceptive pill gave women unprecedented freedom in planning their own lives. Both are widely recognised as scientific breakthroughs that transformed the world. But few know that those breakthroughs only happened when they did because of two donors willing to take risky bets on new ideas.

Today’s guest, Holden Karnofsky, has been looking for philanthropy’s biggest success stories because he’s Executive Director of the Open Philanthropy Project, which gives away over $100 million per year – and he’s hungry for big wins.

As he learned, in the 1940s, poverty reduction overseas was not a big priority for many. But the Rockefeller Foundation decided to fund agricultural scientists to breed much better crops for the developing world – thereby massively increasing their food production.

Similarly in the 1950s, society was a long way from demanding effective birth control. Activist Margaret Sanger had the idea for the pill, and endocrinologist Gregory Pincus the research team – but they couldn’t proceed without a $40,000 research check from biologist and women’s rights activist Katherine McCormick.

In both cases, it was philanthropists rather than governments that led the way.

The reason, according to Holden, is that while governments have enormous resources, they’re constrained by only being able to fund reasonably sure bets. Philanthropists can transform the world by filling the gaps government leaves –

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Conversation with Paul Penley of Excellence in Giving



  • Paul Penley: Director of Research, Excellence in Giving
  • Katja Grace: Research Assistant, Machine Intelligence Research Institute
  • Nick Beckstead: Research Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute; Board of Trustees, Center for Effective Altruism


This is a summary of Paul Penley’s points in a conversation on April 3, 2014, written by Katja with substantial help from the other participants.

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