The GiveWell Blog

Profile of a GiveWell customer

The Money for Good study examined the size of the potential audience for work like GiveWell’s. What we’d like to see next would be a study on the nature of this audience: what sort of donor is open to giving based on third-party research? How do they think, what sorts of causes are they interested in, and where can they be found?

We don’t have the resources for a large-scale study on this topic, but in the absence of this, we thought it would be worthwhile to share our impressions from interacting with our own “customer donors,” i.e., people who use GiveWell to decide where to give. Because our money moved is somewhat “top heavy” (the bulk of the money comes from a relatively small number of relatively large donors), we have had in-depth conversations and formed informal relationships with people accounting for a large chunk of our influence. Some of the things we’ve found out about GiveWell customers have surprised us and led to changes in strategy; below we discuss the general impressions we’ve gotten.

  • Attitudes toward evidence seem less key than we would have guessed. When we started GiveWell, we and most of our supporters imagined that new customers could be found in certain industries where people are accustomed to using measurement to evaluate and learn from their decisions. We hoped these people would resonate with our desire to bring feedback loops into areas where feedback loops don’t naturally exist. But we’ve found that a lot of them don’t, largely because impact isn’t the main thing they’re aiming for when they give. People give for many reasons – to maintain friendships, to overcome guilt and cognitive dissonance, to achieve recognition – and a given donor is unlikely to be interested in GiveWell unless achieving impact is at the top of his/her list.
  • Moral and spiritual values seem more key than we would have guessed. Several of our major “customer donors” see their giving as fulfilling religious imperatives to help others. Many others have backgrounds in philosophy and deep interests in secular moral systems. What these two groups have in common, in my view, is serious investment in abstract principles of morality – principles that tell them it is as worthwhile to help people they’ll never meet as it is to help those in their community.
  • GiveWell customers tend to be cause-agnostic and/or aligned with our views on the most promising philanthropic causes. We discussed this phenomenon in early 2011; it’s been one of the major surprises for us. We initially anticipated that many donors would agree with our basic approach to research, but would have strong disagreements with us on which causes to support, and that we would thus have to research a lot of different causes to serve them. That hasn’t turned out to be the case: most people tend to be either fully aligned with our approach to giving (including issue-agnosticism and a preference to help the poorest people, even if they’re overseas) or not aligned at all.
  • GiveWell customers tend to be busy with non-philanthropic pursuits. People who spend all their time on philanthropy generally have their own relationships, convictions based on personal observation, etc. The people most likely to use our research are the ones who don’t have time to do their own. While not surprising, this phenomenon has made it somewhat difficult for us to get thoughtful, meaningful feedback on our research despite our efforts to make it transparent. That’s led us to experiment with more ways to solicit feedback, including formal evaluations, our public email group, summaries of our views on key topics posted to this blog, and (in progress) a possible in-person meeting to discuss our research with any “customer donors” who want to attend.
  • GiveWell customers don’t tend to be friends with each other; it’s been very hard to find “clusters” of them. Most of our customers have had little success interesting their friends in us. We’ve found very little in the way of particular industries or social groups filled with GiveWell customers; instead, it seems that for every twenty people we talk to in any setting, one or two will become a customer. It’s thus not surprising that one of our top sources of referrals is Google: people tend to find us more than we find them.The major exception is that we seem to get disproportionate interest from fans of Peter Singer.
  • Some of GiveWell’s donors are very young (considering how much they give) and very few are retired. This has implications for the future of GiveWell’s influence: the money we’re moving now is mostly coming from people whose peak giving years are yet to come.
  • GiveWell customers never seem interested in public recognition. In our first year, we considered posting acknowledgements to major supporters on our website, but there was no interest. Since then, we have had many customers who require anonymity (even when we ask them to take public credit for our sake) and no customers who’ve requested that we publicly thank them or otherwise help them get recognition.

In my view, the last point is most consistent and most interesting. GiveWell customers have many reasons for giving – some religious, some secular – but they all revolve around achieving an impact for others rather than around getting any direct personal benefit (whether social, reputational or emotional). GiveWell customers are the kind of people who give when no one is watching, and for whom giving is not about the giver. One of the highlights of running GiveWell has been coming into contact with the people who share this value with us.


  • Jonah S on June 2, 2011 at 7:23 pm said:

    People give for many reasons – to maintain friendships, to overcome guilt and cognitive dissonance, to achieve recognition – and they’re not going to be interested in GiveWell unless achieving impact is at the top of their list.

    I think that desire to achieve impact is rooted in some of the same factors that lead to ineffective giving; in particular the desire to overcome guilt and cognitive dissonance and the desire to feel like one is making a difference.

    I think that of those with these motivations, what separates out those who place high emphasis on impact from those do not is that the salience of the factors relevant to effective giving is sufficiently high in the former group so that it becomes impossible to assuage guilt & cognitive dissonance or feel like one is making a difference without putting a fair amount of effort into ensuring high emphasis on impact.

  • Chuck S'r on June 3, 2011 at 12:01 pm said:

    Do you have an impression about the gender ratio among your “customer donors”? Has it or will it change your strategy?

    This question may be less relevant than it seems because of the reality that many men and women are in relationships, married or not, that make them part of an economic unit. It really doesn’t matter who signs the checks.

  • Wendy Smith on June 3, 2011 at 12:28 pm said:

    Your findings are consistent with my research into citizen philanthropy and the feedback I’ve rec’d from readers of my book, “Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform the World.”

    Everyday donors do, indeed, give for many reasons and though they do not request/require public acknowledgment, they do need more accurate info about the magnitude and power of their giving! Giving by non-wealthy American households amounted to $110 billion in 2009. These donors need to know that we NEED them to meet the MDGs and realize beneficial change in our world.
    Wendy Smith

  • Geri Stengel on June 4, 2011 at 11:46 am said:

    In this very interesting account, you state you’ve found out things that have surprised you and led you to change strategy. Your decision to conduct the in-depth discussions with your large donors yielded another great example of how talking directly with donors/supporters/customers sheds light on them and gives direction for your enterprise. I recommend pursuing this kind of direct communication whenever, and however, possible. Social media can facilitate this if there’s not a big budget for it, or a small, identified group as you had.

  • Recent College Graduate on June 15, 2011 at 1:31 am said:

    “The major exception is that we seem to get disproportionate interest from fans of Peter Singer.”

    ^That’s why I’m here. I tried to get friends to read his book but I think I’ve been zero percent effective with that initiative. I still harangue friends (and total strangers) about Givewell and whatever anecdotes I can randomly recall at the moment. Sad, but true. If you were like Fox News and had the most-effective talking points up – who knows the droves I could bring. Or not.

    “Most of our customers have had little success interesting their friends in us…it seems that for every twenty people we talk to in any setting, one or two will become a customer.”

    Well, given the prominence of “abstract principles of morality,” why not try some targeted marketing in those areas. e.g. as part of a faith community, particularly an immigrant one, communication isn’t easy, but maybe connecting with the younger members? I can see myself speaking to a faith-based youth group if I had the right tools. Of course, it would be long term social investment- they wouldn’t be donating significant sums until becoming independent earners.

    Thanks again for your work and transparency in posts – love it! (If you’re keeping track of my “Name,” I realized I graduated from college after I posted my last comment. Talk about cognitive dissonance…)

  • On The Other Handle on June 22, 2011 at 7:20 pm said:

    This seems pretty consistent with me, and I did get very into giving effectively after reading Peter Singer’s essay “The Singer Solution to World Poverty”, although I haven’t read his books yet.

  • Patrick Brinich-Langlois on July 5, 2011 at 2:22 am said:

    We seem to get disproportionate interest from fans of Peter Singer.…

    GiveWell customers never seem interested in public recognition.

    That’s funny, since Peter Singer wants people to be public about their giving: “We are much more likely to do the right thing if we think others are already doing it. More specifically, we tend to do what others in our ‘reference group’—those with whom we identify—are doing. And studies show that the amount people give to charity is related to how much they believe others are giving.… Those who make it known that they give a significant portion of what they earn can increase the likelihood that others will do the same” (The Life You Can Save, p. 64, 67).

    So you should consider mentioning to your friends how much money, as well as to what organizations, you give. Social media (e.g., the Facebook app Causes) are good for this. If being public about your giving makes you uncomfortable, think of it as a sacrifice for the world’s poor. 🙂

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