The GiveWell Blog

The fungibility question: How does GiveWell’s funding affect other funders?

How do GiveWell’s funding decisions influence the actions of governments, funders, and other organizations? Answering this question is an important part of figuring out which global health programs are most cost-effective and thus which we should support. We’ve already written about two key factors in our cost-effectiveness estimates: the cost per person reached and the overall burden. But those are only part of the equation.

We also consider what others are likely to do in response to our choices. For example, does our funding displace money the local government had planned to allocate to the program? Or would our funding make other funders more excited to join us in making sure the program is implemented?

Wedding registries provide a loose analogy about how one person’s decision might influence another’s: If someone already bought the toaster on the list, you’re probably not going to buy the lucky couple another one. The money that great-aunt Sally spent on the toaster has displaced the funding you had planned to allocate to the toaster: this is what we call “fungibility.”

In contrast, if the spouses-to-be have signed up for flatware service for 12 and only 6 settings have been purchased, you might prioritize filling out the remainder of the set, to be sure that the couple doesn’t run out of spoons at their upcoming dinner parties. In that case, the guests who purchased the first 6 settings can “crowd in” funding from other guests: this is what we call “leverage.”

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Increasing impact by combining programs

The idea has obvious intuitive appeal: If you’re already sending community healthcare workers door-to-door in (say) remote parts of Sierra Leone to deliver routine childhood vaccines, why not have those healthcare workers deliver chlorine for disinfecting drinking water, or oral rehydration solution for treating dehydration from diarrhea?

After all, if you’re already spending money on the fixed costs of delivery, why not provide other programs at the same time? You’d be able to amortize the costs across multiple goods and offer additional benefits to the community. (If you’re getting groceries delivered, it’s more efficient to have one driver deliver your eggs and milk and vegetables all together than to have separate drivers going round delivering each one separately.)

GiveWell is very interested in these “layered interventions,” and we are excited to support them wherever they cross our cost-effectiveness threshold. But we’ve discovered it’s harder than you might think to find ways to combine programs effectively.

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Researcher spotlight: Erin Crossett, GiveWell Program Officer

Our research team spends over 50,000 hours a year looking for cost-effective organizations and interventions to save and improve lives, with the goal of producing the world’s top research on where to give. This interview with Program Officer Erin Crossett provides a glimpse into the world of GiveWell research.

Infographic with image of GiveWell Program Officer Erin Crossett and information about role.

Q: What made you interested in joining the GiveWell research team?

A: I really cared about working at a place where evidence of real impact was the key determinant of what we investigated and what we funded. I think a lot of organizations nominally care about impact, and the term “impact” gets thrown around a lot. But I think it really means something at GiveWell—it’s a core part of the GiveWell research DNA, and that’s very motivating.

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The hardest part about fundraising for GiveWell

May marked my three-year anniversary as a Philanthropy Advisor at GiveWell. It’s a job I adore (as I’ve written about here and here), and I’ve recently been tasked with the exciting process of interviewing candidates for our growing team.

One of the best questions I’ve been asked in this process is: What’s the hardest part about fundraising for GiveWell? The short answer: GiveWell is funding constrained, but we can’t point at a specific opportunity and say, “If you donate now, here’s the impact your donation will actually cause.”

Instead, our answer is fairly abstract, and pretty far from traditional fundraising language. We tell donors that we would spend additional money on opportunities at or above our cost-effectiveness bar (which translates to saving a life for about $5,000), but we’re unable to explain in advance precisely what we will allocate additional funds to. That answer isn’t as compelling as telling someone a vivid story about how their money alone would allow us to fund a great program we’ll otherwise have to decline, but it has the advantage of being completely accurate and true.

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June 2024 open thread

Our goal with hosting quarterly open threads is to give blog readers an opportunity to publicly raise comments or questions about GiveWell or related topics (in the comments section below). As always, you’re also welcome to email us at or to request a call with GiveWell staff if you have feedback or questions you’d prefer to discuss privately. We’ll try to respond promptly to questions or comments.

You can view previous open threads here.

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May 2024 updates

Every month we send an email newsletter to our supporters sharing recent updates from our work. We publish selected portions of the newsletter on our blog to make this news more accessible to people who visit our website. For key updates from the latest installment, please see below!

If you’d like to receive the complete newsletter in your inbox each month, you can subscribe here.

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