GiveWell’s funding needs

Building GiveWell’s staff has long been one of our top priorities, and one of our most difficult challenges. In 2013, we’ve seen progress on this front like never before. Our staff currently stands at 10 full-time (not “trial”) employees, compared to 5 at the start of 2013 and a maximum of 7 at any point prior to 2013.

As a result, our projected expenses have risen significantly, and we now have the largest projected funding gap in our history: we project ~$1.2 million in expenses over the next year, against ~$850,000 in revenue. We have about $900,000 of reserves available, so failing to close the gap would not mean insolvency, but it would mean drawing on our reserves, something we seek to avoid. So fundraising will become a significant priority until the gap is closed (and may continue until we also have a comfortable level of reserves on hand, i.e., ~12 months’ worth). In some ways, our projected budget may be an overestimate: it allows for a scenario in which we retain all current employees and hire several more. On the other hand, since we expect to keep expanding and since we will need to adjust compensation upward over the long run, we expect our expenses to continue to grow over time. We take a somewhat unusual approach to fundraising, because we don’t want to take on the credibility risks or potential perceived conflicts of interest that would come with “competing with top charities for donations.” Historically, we have confined our fundraising to a small number of “insiders” – often people who started off as major donors to our top charities, but whom we built relationships with over time and felt comfortable approaching privately for direct support. With our larger funding gap and wider audience, we’re now writing publicly about our funding needs, and we encourage interested parties to consider supporting us , but we are still not creating a prominent ask on our main website. Summary This post addresses the following: • How and why has GiveWell’s funding gap emerged? In the last nine months, we’ve had more success with making full-time hires than expected, and we recently revisited our financials with this in mind. Because we generally don’t solicit funding in excess of our 12-month projected expenses, we’re set up to experience a gap when our forward expenses change. (Again, this gap does not indicate coming insolvency, as we have reserves to draw on if revenues fall temporarily short of expenses.) More • What functions are GiveWell’s new staff performing? We are partly training staff to carry out our traditional work on proven, cost-effective, scalable charities, with the hope that over the long run, they will be able to execute this work with more thoroughness than GiveWell has had in the past. New staff are also crucial for our GiveWell Labs work, which is much larger in scope. More • Why can’t GiveWell raise all needed funds from Good Ventures? We wrote about this previously. In a nutshell, we and Good Ventures agree that it is important for GiveWell to have a diversified funding base so that we aren’t overly reliant on one funder. Good Ventures is supporting us to an extent that both organizations feel is on the high end consistent with this principle. More • What will happen differently if GiveWell fails to close its funding gap? We haven’t yet determined this. It’s possible that Good Ventures would up its contribution; in this case we would risk becoming overly reliant on Good Ventures and losing credibility and accountability as a group serving large numbers of donors. It’s also possible that we would slow down our attempts to recruit new employees. More • Are GiveWell’s projected operating expenses reasonable or excessive in light of its impact? We’ve recently put some thought into how much operating expenses would be reasonable, as a function of our total projected money moved. Based on looking at how much large foundations spend, we believe that spending (15%*money moved) on operating expenses would be within the range of normality, as well as defensible on impact grounds. Our 2012 “money moved” was ~$9.6 million and we expect substantially more in 2013, which would justify (based on the 15% figure) an operating budget in excess of our current planned budget. More
• What is the “good accomplished per dollar” of a donation to GiveWell and how does it compare to GiveWell’s top charities? Over the long run, we expect to continue to have “money moved” of at least ~$7 for each$1 we spend on operating expenses. The additional spending we’re doing now is largely aimed at improving the progress of GiveWell Labs, which we believe will substantially increase our money moved in the future (though not in the short or even necessarily medium term); it is also aimed at making our traditional work more deep and robust in the future. If revenue remained the same rather than growing, it would significantly slow the progress of GiveWell Labs and lower the probability that our traditional work will grow beyond its current level, though it’s hard to quantify the impact of this on future money moved. More below. More
• How does GiveWell plan to fundraise? Our primary emphasis will be on directly contacting people who give large amounts to our top charities. In terms of reaching out to others, we are running this blog post and including it in our next email update in the hopes that some people will voluntarily choose to support us, and we will be open to answering questions from interested parties, but we will not actively promote ourselves to the general public beyond that. More
• If GiveWell closes this funding gap, will it continue to need to raise its revenue after the next 12 months? Almost certainly yes. We hope to continue expanding our staff; in addition, over the long run we will need to raise salaries in order to become a mature organization, including retaining employees at later career stages. We will be writing more about this in the future, but for the moment the focus is on closing our 12-month funding gap. More
• How can I help? If you’re interested in providing operating support to GiveWell, we would be happy to hear from you and to answer any questions you might have. The more information we have about our donors’ long-term interest in supporting us, the more helpful it is to our planning; clear communication about future plans is more valuable to us (all else equal) than a one-off gift whose likelihood of repeating we can’t predict. More

Notes on the budget figures used in this post:

• We present core operating expenses and revenue available for core operating expenses, which are distinct in several ways from the figures on our audited financial statements and tax returns. Most importantly, they exclude restricted donations intended for the support of our top charities, and also exclude the grants we make using such donations. The figures also exclude non-core, Good Ventures-supported expenses based on the framework laid out previously. (Specifically, they exclude ~$100,000 in projected specialized research consulting expenses.) • There is usually a delay between the end of a month and our producing complete financial records for that month. So the budget we present is for the twelve months starting in August 2012, the most recent month for which we’ve completed financial records. How and why has GiveWell’s funding gap emerged? Our 2012 expenses were ~$550,000, against ~$630,000 in revenues (see Attachment C from our May 6 Board meeting). From August 2013 through July 2014, by contrast, we project ~$1.2 million in expenses, against ~$850,000 in revenues. What changed? The following table gives a summary. Details of our current forward-looking financials are available at our budget spreadsheet (XLS / ODS). Expense category 2012 expenses (actual) Aug 2013-Jul 2014 expenses (projected) Change Notes Compensation: co-Executive Directors$187,516 $249,587$62,071 All compensation lines include payroll taxes, health benefits
Compensation: other staff $276,399$772,113 $495,714 More discussion below Office space$12,062 $96,000$83,938 Moved from co-working to more professional, dedicated office space
Other $73,081$88,000 $14,919 Includes travel, accounting, website; details at budget spreadsheet Some of the rise in expenses comes from increases in the pay level for staff, including Elie and myself. These increases are not a major driver of our current funding gap, but we expect increases to continue and believe they are worth addressing. We will be writing more about the path of staff compensation in the future. The overwhelming driver of the rise in expenses is the fact that we’ve significantly expanded our staff. • In 2012, we employed 5 full-time people throughout the year, and two starting at mid-year. (We had two departures at the end of 2012, leaving us with 5 people total for the start of 2013.) • For the next 12 months, by contrast, we project retaining our entire current 10-person staff and leaving space in the budget to hire up to 4 more people in the next year. We’ve made five full-time hires this year – two sourced via referrals, one sourced via our jobs page, one sourced via an interview I did with 80,000 Hours and one former intern. All five have gone through an internship or “trial hire” period; while this doesn’t guarantee a long-term fit, it makes our confidence much higher than for employees hired simply on the basis of resumes and interviews. Looking forward, we are leaving room in the budget to hire four more, two at a senior level and two at a junior level; we are relatively unlikely to do this much hiring, but given the results of the past eight months, it is a distinct possibility. Revenue has not changed as much. We had ~$813,000 of unrestricted revenue in 2012 (see our audited financial statement); ~$180,000 came from three donors that were giving for idiosyncratic reasons and that we knew would not renew their support, leaving ~$630,000 in revenue that we could reasonably expect to repeat. Today, our 12-month-forward revenue projection is $856,433, and the main gain between then and now is the$190,000 in increased projected support from Good Ventures.

The reason our revenue has not grown much is simply that we haven’t solicited more operating donations. We’ve had a general approach of not asking for operating support beyond what we foresee needing to balance our budget over the next 12 months; many of the people we solicit from are deciding whether to give to GiveWell or its top charities, and they generally prefer to support top charities when no funding gap is projected.

When we both (a) drive ourselves to expand when we can and (b) don’t do fundraising beyond what we need to close the 12-month funding gap at a given time, the inevitable consequence is that we’ll have situations – such as this one – in which our expenses rise much faster than our revenues, and a substantial funding gap appears. We believe we have identified this funding gap and started taking action with ample lead time for good decision-making. Since we have ~$900,000 in reserves, we can operate as planned over the next twelve months as long as we feel that we’re making sufficient progress on fundraising for our budget to be sustainable. As a side point, we would guess that many nonprofits address these sorts of issues differently, raising as much as they can (even when no particular plans can be outlined for the funds) and hiring only when they’re confident of being able to afford it. Assessing room for more funding for a group that operates in this manner could be quite challenging. What functions are GiveWell’s new staff performing? GiveWell’s new staff are all Research Analysts, and we believe they combine the analytical skills and passion for GiveWell’s mission necessary to contribute to our work on a broad array of fronts, such as: • Taking over some of GiveWell’s traditional work on proven, cost-effective, scalable charities. We wrote previously that we are “sticking to the essentials” for this work until we can expand the capacity available for it, in order to make more progress on GiveWell Labs. If newer staff can take over much of this work, the quality and thoroughness will improve even as the time that the co-Executive Directors allocate to it falls. The process for moving in this direction is gradual, as outlined in a previous post. Currently, non-senior staff do most of the work behind our charity updates. In preparation for this year’s giving season, we are experimenting with having such staff do much of the work behind (a) assessing new candidates for “top charity” status; (b) reviewing the evidence on interventions that we’re seeking to learn more about; (c) refreshing our existing reviews on LLIN distribution, cash transfers, and deworming. Over time, staff who prove highly capable for this work may take on management roles within it, as well as expanding its scope (e.g., doing deeper dives on recommended and potential recommended charities, and looking for charities that provide donors with more options even if they don’t fully meet the standard of our top charities). • Providing capacity for GiveWell Labs. The challenge we’ve taken on with GiveWell Labs is enormous in scope. Even conducting one high-quality shallow investigation or medium-depth investigation of a cause is highly challenging, and we have a growing internal list of nearly 100 causes that we’d like to investigate at some level. In addition, conversation notes require serious time investment, and as our volume of conversations has gone up, we’ve allocated many staff hours to them. • Communications and outreach. We’ve experimented with having newer staff handle communications with new donors and take speaking engagements. We think it is likely to take a long time to absorb enough knowledge of GiveWell’s work to be able to communicate effectively about it, but staff who did so could increase our capacity for outreach on many dimensions. • Management and recruiting. Longer-standing hires have taken on management- and recruiting-related roles, thus “expanding capacity for expanding capacity” – one of the most challenging and crucial things we do. We are trying to move staff in this direction, while recognizing that it may be a reasonably long path to get there. Why can’t GiveWell raise all needed funds from Good Ventures? Good Ventures makes substantial financial contributions to GiveWell. Its total support over the next 12 months is projected at$340,000, of which $240,000 is core support (about 20% of the “core budget”). (The other$100,000 is our projection for specialized research expenses covered by earmarked grants, as discussed previously).

Both GiveWell and Good Ventures believe it is not a good idea for GiveWell to rely on Good Ventures for more support than this. We discussed the reasoning behind this view previously. In brief, if too high a percentage of our core operating expenses came from Good Ventures, this would cause a couple of problems: it would put GiveWell in an overly precarious position (such that we wouldn’t have a realistic way of dealing with losing Good Ventures’s support, and would thus have more difficulty maintaining our independence), and it would mean that our incentives would not be aligned with our mission of serving large numbers of donors.

What will happen differently if GiveWell fails to close its funding gap?
It would take a good deal of conversation and deliberation – internally among staff, with our Board, and with supporters – to decide on the answer to this question. We find it more efficient to try to close the gap before having the conversation about what we would do if we couldn’t. With that said, some possibilities:

• We might solicit more support from Good Ventures. If we did so, and if Good Ventures were to provide such support, we would become highly reliant on Good Ventures, and this would cause us to have difficulty maintaining our independence and to rethink the priority we place on serving Good Ventures vs. individual donors. This would, in turn, likely mean less emphasis on our traditional work (proven, cost-effective, scalable charities); it could mean investigating causes that Good Ventures finds more promising than we do. While we would continue to highly value transparency (as Good Ventures does), we might design our communications more for staffed foundations and less for use by individuals.
• We might reduce the time we allocate to recruiting and refrain from making additional hires until we raised more in operating support. We believe we could make up most of the gap in this way, and would not need to resort to funding-based layoffs.

Some subtler potential consequences:

• The more difficulty we have closing our funding gap, the more time we will spend on fundraising-related matters instead of on growing the organization and doing research. Fundraising time will mostly come from myself and Elie, and will directly cut into time spent on our other priorities.
• The more difficulty we have closing our funding gap, the (rightly) less workable our model will appear to those contemplating similar endeavors.

Are GiveWell’s projected operating expenses reasonable or excessive in light of its impact?
We address this question from two angles: first from the perspective of what would be a “normal” amount to spend given our level of money moved, and second from the perspective of how much value-added one has to believe our research brings in order to justify our level of operating expenses.

To address the question of what a “normal” level of operating expenses is, we put together a spreadsheet summarizing expenses from other foundations (XLS / ODS). In a nutshell:

• We collected data on grants and operating expenses for major foundations as well as foundations with grantmaking in the $1-10 million range (the latter is the range that our current money moved sits in). We found that the average ratio of operating expenses to grants is around 15%. Many of the foundations in this set have reputations for being highly impact-oriented, so we don’t believe that these figures are necessarily excessive. See our spreadsheet for this data (XLS / ODS). • The analogy between “money moved” and “grants” seems strong to us, and so we believe that if our operating expenses were equal to 15%*(projected money moved), we would be at a roughly “normal” level of operating spend relative to money moved. • Total money moved for 2012 was ~$9.6 million, which (by the above reasoning) would justify up to $1.44 million in operating expenses. We anticipate significantly higher total money moved for 2013. The above argues that our projected expenses are well within the range of “normal,” compared to the practices of others. Another question one could ask is whether these expenses are excessive in the sense that they would do more good as donations to our top charities. This question is addressed immediately below. What is the “good accomplished per dollar” of a donation to GiveWell and how does it compare to GiveWell’s top charities? This is a very difficult and judgment-laden question, but we anticipate that many of our readers will want our take on it. One simplified way of answering this question is to presume that, over the long run, GiveWell will spend$15 in operating expenses for every $100 in money moved (consistent with the ratio discussed in the previous section), and to focus on the question, “How much more good do ‘money moved’ dollars do, compared to how much good they would do in the absence of GiveWell?” If the answer is “15%” (that is, the dollars given on the basis of GiveWell’s recommendation are 15% more effective than they would be in the absence of GiveWell), then this implies that the average dollar spent by GiveWell over its lifetime does the same amount of good as the average dollar of its money moved. (On average, that is, every$15 spent by GiveWell causes another $100 to be spent 15% more effectively.) We intuitively believe that we are easily clearing this standard, but because of the difficulty of evaluating the “good accomplished per dollar” of non-recommended charities, it is difficult to pin down just how much we are improving the effectiveness of donations. If you believe that our “money moved” does twice as much good as it would do in our absence, this implies that the average dollar donated to GiveWell does 3-4x as much good as it would if donated to recommended giving opportunities. This analysis excludes benefits that accrue from GiveWell’s work that go beyond the direct impact of “money moved.” It also focuses on the average dollar given to GiveWell, as opposed to the marginal dollar. At this stage in our development, we would guess that the marginal dollar does an unusually large amount of good, since we are still a relatively young project, and the funds we raise now will help us to do work that will hopefully greatly expand our money moved over time. If we were to fail to close our funding gap, we would still operate, but we might change our emphasis and incur the costs described above, which could have long-term consequences for how much we’re able to increase our money moved. Determining just how much good the marginal dollar spent by GiveWell accomplishes is a substantial judgment call, and we feel we’ve provided as much information as we usefully (and relatively easily) can in order to assess it. One can approach this question from another angle, by noting that donations to support GiveWell are, to some extent, fungible with donations to GiveWell’s top charities. Because we tend not to solicit operating support when we don’t project a funding gap, helping to close the funding gap can mean allowing other donors to redirect their giving to GiveWell’s top charities. We believe that in the past, there has been substantial fungibility of this kind, i.e., at the relevant margin each dollar donated to GiveWell caused another dollar (from another donor) to be reallocated to top charities rather than to GiveWell. We believe it may be fair to imagine that if you give to GiveWell rather than to recommended charities, the total number of dollars given to recommended charities will remain the same (relative to what it would be if you gave to top charities), but there will be the added benefit of reducing the time we spend on fundraising and improving our ability to plan. (This logic only holds if we eventually succeed in closing our funding gap.) How does GiveWell plan to fundraise? Our primary emphasis will be on directly contacting people who give large amounts to our top charities. We will also disseminate this blog post via our next email update (as well as via Facebook and Twitter, as with all blog posts), in the hopes that some people will voluntarily choose to support us. We believe that more aggressively advertising ourselves to the general public – by, for example, emphasizing the “donate to GiveWell” option on our main website – would be unlikely to raise much additional money and could incur substantial credibility costs. If GiveWell closes this funding gap, will it continue to need to raise its revenue after the next 12 months? At this time, we feel a great need for more capacity, and we hope that we will continue to be able to expand our team. In addition, over the long run we will need to raise staff compensation in order to be competitive with other mature organizations and in order to support staff who will be supporting families. For both of these reasons, we expect our operating expenses to continue rising in the future, and we expect to continue fundraising to keep up with this. However, now and in general, our focus is on closing our 12-month funding gap. How can I help? If you’re interested in providing operating support to GiveWell, we would be happy to hear from you and to answer any questions you might have. The more information we have about our donors’ long-term interest in supporting us, the more helpful it is to our planning; clear communication about future plans is more valuable to us (all else equal) than a one-off gift whose likelihood of repeating we can’t predict. Donate to GiveWell or Contact GiveWell Comments • Matthew Honnibal on October 2, 2013 at 12:18 pm said: Are donations to you only tax deductible within the US? I’m guessing that donations won’t be tax deductible from my country (Australia), as AMF and other charities seemed to have a lot of trouble getting charitable status here. But I thought I’d check. • The fourth column (and any subsequent columns) of your table is being cut off. only the N from Notes is shown (I figured it out from a copypaste) • Alexander on October 2, 2013 at 7:32 pm said: Matthew – yes, unfortunately, donations to GiveWell are only tax-deductible in the U.S. Tarn – are you talking about the table included in the blog post, with “Expense category” in the top left corner? It displays correctly in the browsers I tried. • I won’t be donating to GiveWell in the near future, even though I think you guys do great work. I probably wouldn’t donate even if I were convinced giving to GiveWell does more good than giving to its top charities. Why? Because I believe GoodVentures or other big donors will step in to make up for any funding gap. And I’m OK with that. I don’t value GiveWell’s independence from GoodVentures/big foundations. I’m not persuaded the benefits from having a wide base of small donors are all that great. If anything, I see the potential for some bad outcomes. Individual donors as a whole are too focused on staff and executive pay levels, encouraging nonprofits dependent on their largesse to engage in false economy (i.e. hiring people who are worse than useless). I am OK with paying high wages to excellent people (and I think you and Elie are still grossly underpaid). I suspect foundations are more comfortable paying for talent. • Alexander on October 9, 2013 at 11:27 pm said: I work for GiveWell but am expressing my personal views in this comment. In this particular instance, and based on my current understanding of our finances, I don’t agree with Holden’s argument that it would be inadvisable to seek more funding from Good Ventures than we currently plan to. Given that he and Elie believe that it would be, though, I think it’s good for donors who use our research to support GiveWell. The budget projected for the next year is ~$1.2 million, and we project ~$850k in revenue, for a ~$350k budget gap. The rough breakdown of the ~$850k projected revenue is$240k from Good Ventures, another $200k from other institutional supporters, and$420k from 30 individuals.

GiveWell’s work breaks down roughly into our conventional charity recommendations and GiveWell Labs. We haven’t broken it down this way as far as I know, but I think a reasonable back-of-the-envelope is that our “core” budget is 50-50 split between the two types of work. Applying the 50-50 split to the budget implies a $600k budget for conventional GiveWell and a$600k budget for GiveWell Labs. I think it makes sense to similarly segment our funding sources. Allocating the individual and non-Good Ventures institutional support to the “conventional GiveWell” side of the ledger makes sense to me because that’s the product that I believe currently appeals to individuals and has been the reason for at least part of the institutional support in the past. In that framework, the \$350k funding gap is all on the GiveWell Labs side of the ledger. (Another way to think about this is that GiveWell Labs accounts for the growth in GiveWell’s budget, and accordingly in the funding gap.)

If the gap is on the GiveWell Labs side, as I’ve suggested above, I think it would be fine for either Good Ventures or individuals who are interested in investing in GiveWell Labs to fill the gap. If I felt that the right way to think about the issue was that the gap was on the conventional GiveWell side, I would believe it was more important for individuals (rather than Good Ventures) to fill the gap, since that is a service that primarily benefits them (as opposed to institutional funders like Good Ventures).

I think Holden’s arguments about why it would be bad to overly rely on Good Ventures funding apply much more convincingly if the source of the gap is on the conventional GiveWell side. As it stands, given that he and Elie are going to take the time to try to raise funding from individuals, I think it would be good for individuals to contribute. I agree with Holden’s argument that such contributions are likely to be fungible with top charities contributions.

• Peter Hurford on October 11, 2013 at 11:03 am said:

I’m not someone who believes that having large salaries is a sign of “oh no overhead” and an automatic fault in the organization, but GiveWell compensation does seem rather large compared to the sector average. Why is the size of the compensation what it is? Do you find that salary necessary to attract and retain key talent? Do you find that employees just donate a large portion of their salary to top charities to therefore make compensation size moot?

• Ian Turner on October 12, 2013 at 9:01 pm said:

Alexander,

I think it’s a reasonable frame to think of things in terms of a “givewell labs” shortfall, but I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that givewell labs is not for individual donors. It may well be the case that partners like Good Ventures are more interested in the work (I’m skeptical but open-minded myself). But the reality is that “givewell classic” has not yielded any new top charities for a couple of years now. Bednets are quickly getting more attention and in a few more years may no longer have room for more funding. So I think it’s a reasonable question to ask how well individuals would be served if Givewell were to eschew givewell labs and stick to “givewell classic”.

Also, I’d like to say how much admiration I have for an organization that can tolerate public display of an internal dispute, especially on something as central as fundraising.

–Ian

• Ian Turner on October 12, 2013 at 9:08 pm said:

Peter,

Givewell is having a hard time hiring as it is. Although it’s possible that the same staff would be willing to work for less, it seems highly possible that Givewell’s existing compensation structure is necessary in order to attract the right kind of talent. Most people who are interested in working in the nonprofit sector are not a good fit for Givewell.

The founders’ salaries do seem a bit high for an organization this size, but one should also keep in mind that Holden and Elie sacrified lucrative careers in finance to start Givewell. It’s not unrealistic to think that they could be making 5X or (much) more if they had stayed in finance. In other words, even at their current level of compensation they are effectively donating at least 80% of their income to charity.

Regarding your other remark, that compensation might be moot because of employees’ donations, unfortunately taxes mean that this is not the case. Charitable donations are deductible against income taxes (with some limitations), but not against FICA, which is a hefty 15%. New York State also has additional non-deductible payroll taxes and has significant limitations on charity deductibility for income tax (I’m not sure about California).

• Alexander on October 14, 2013 at 2:06 pm said:

Ian: I agree that it is not “accurate to say that Givewell Labs is not for individual donors,” and I did not mean to communicate that I believed that, so I apologize. I very much believe that GiveWell Labs will be a product that appeals to individual donors in the long term, so I think it would be appropriate for individual donors who are particularly interested to support it. I just don’t believe that it would be especially bad for Good Ventures, which I expect to use the results of GiveWell Labs in the shorter term, to account for a larger portion of the total GiveWell Labs budget than current plans suggest.

Peter: you can listen to the audio of the most recent compensation review for Holden and Elie here, which discusses some of the relevant considerations. Based on the salary survey used in the meeting (which is unfortunately under copyright, so we can’t post it), we don’t believe that our compensation is above average for the sector. We’re planning to write more about our approach to compensation in the future.

• Ben Kuhn on December 12, 2013 at 10:18 pm said:

Holden and Elie, I notice that Timothy Telleen-Lawton wrote of your funding needs that

> I don’t expect it to hit its “minimum funding target.”

What is your current sense of your ability to raise funds to cover this gap? How likely do you think it is that you’ll raise enough money, and how long do you anticipate spending to raise this? If things don’t go according to plan, how will you weigh drawing from your reserves vs. drawing from Good Ventures? How bad would things have to look for you to take one or both of those options?

• Ben, we’ve just posted an update on this point.