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.
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.
|2012 expenses (actual)
|Aug 2013-Jul 2014 expenses (projected)
|Compensation: co-Executive Directors
|All compensation lines include payroll taxes, health benefits
|Compensation: other staff
|More discussion below
|Moved from co-working to more professional, dedicated office space
|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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.)
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.