The GiveWell Blog

General plans for GiveWell as an organization in 2014

This is the fifth post (of six) we’re planning to make focused on our self-evaluation and future plans.

Previous posts have discussed our 2013 progress on, and 2014 plans for,

This post outlines our plans and thoughts on issues that cut across these two projects, and pertain to GiveWell the organization as a whole.

  • We tentatively envision GiveWell Labs becoming a separate organization, with a separate name, eventually. Our impression is that GiveWell has built a strong and valuable brand around being extremely thorough in its investigations and backing its recommendations with copious evidence. We envision a very different set of strengths and weaknesses for GiveWell Labs: we hope GiveWell Labs will identify high-risk, high-reward giving opportunities, suitable for ambitious major philanthropists, and be notable for its boldness – a goal inconsistent with producing copious evidence for all recommendations, and inconsistent with shying away from issues with high potential for controversy. We believe that the two will likely appeal to very different audiences: GiveWell Labs will be a valuable resource for highly engaged and ambitious givers (or people with a great deal of trust in and alignment with the individuals producing GiveWell Labs recommendations), while our traditional work will be more suitable for individual donors who have less capacity (time, staff) for processing “soft” arguments and more need for high thresholds of evidence.

    For the founders of GiveWell, the most important vision has always been of finding the best giving opportunities possible and being highly transparent about our process for doing so, thus generating better public dialogue around how to give well. This vision is common to our traditional work and GiveWell Labs. Our mission statement reflects this, stating, “GiveWell is a nonprofit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities and publishing the full details of our analysis to help donors decide where to give” (it does not emphasize high standards of evidential support). However, in reflecting on the media coverage we’ve had, we believe it is likely that a bold, high-risk, controversial GiveWell Labs could endanger the “trustworthy, evidence-backed” brand of our traditional work if the two are not clearly separated, and people who support one project financially will not necessarily wish to support the other.

    Ultimately, we feel that separation is reasonably likely to involve separate budgets and separate staffs as well as separate organizations and brands. (This does not mean there will be no overlap: some staff may work part-time for each, for example.)

  • However, we are taking only very minor steps toward this separation in the near term. Over the coming year we will remain one organization and allocate staff flexibly between the two projects. We don’t believe that we have sufficiently developed organizational capacity to manage this sort of split in the near term. We see a lot of value in being able to allocate current staff flexibly, given that the needs of the two projects – and question of where current staff members fit best – are not yet very predictable.
  • We would like to rename GiveWell Labs in order to begin separating its brand from our traditional work and improving our ability to partner with major philanthropists (including Good Ventures) without causing confusion. Currently, we find it hard to communicate that GiveWell and Good Ventures are equal partners working jointly on the agenda of GiveWell Labs. We believe that renaming GiveWell Labs to something more neutral (i.e., without the word “GiveWell”) will make it easier to get this across, and may also make it easier to pitch other major philanthropists on partnering with us on this work. It will also be a first step in the direction of separating the two projects, as discussed above.
  • Fundraising remains a priority. We are currently fundraising for unrestricted support, supporting a team that is allocated flexibly between GiveWell Labs and our more traditional work. The basic framework for fundraising remains the same as what we laid out in our October post on the subject: donations have the advantage of diversifying our funding base and ensuring that we do not rely on a single source for too much of our funding. In addition,
    • We intend to begin asking our major supporters whether they would prefer to support GiveWell Labs or our traditional work; we are not yet committing to use funds according to such preferences, but we think this information is worth collecting, and doing so is another small step in the direction of eventually separating the two projects. If we see very little support tied to a preference for our traditional work, we may de-prioritize traditional work more than we currently plan to.
    • We are likely to start asking individual donors to give a portion of their donation (10-15%) to supporting GiveWell as an organization. This request will be on an opt-in basis. We haven’t previously taken this step because it would have been technically somewhat challenging, and would have had little upside since most of our money moved was coming from major donors that we could speak with individually. However, we now have improved technical capability for this feature, and our money moved from small donors (under $5k) has become substantial (more in our upcoming metrics report). We see little harm in adding this request to our website, but we will reconsider if we see much pushback.
  • In both GiveWell Labs and our traditional work, we plan to prioritize research (i.e., identifying outstanding giving opportunities and building the capacity to do so in the future) over outreach (i.e., trying to increase the number of donors or amount of money directed to our recommendations). As in previous years, we believe that the greatest challenge we face continues to be research, not outreach. Our growth remains strong: web traffic, number of donors, and total donations continued to grow in 2013. We also believe that Good Ventures and some others would give significantly more were we to identify sufficiently promising opportunities. We believe that the quality of our research and the giving opportunities we can recommend will be the most important determinant of our money moved going forward.
  • Another 2013 development was relocating GiveWell from New York to San Francisco. The move has successfully contributed to the strengthening of our relationship with Good Ventures. We have yet to make a concerted outreach effort in the San Francisco area; we will consider doing this once we have made more progress on GiveWell Labs and have specific opportunities to present to potential donors. We have made some preliminary efforts, which we have reinforced our feeling that progress on GiveWell Labs research will be a key factor in our outreach success.
  • We don’t see other major issues (in the “cross-cutting between GiveWell Labs and traditional work” category) that need addressing in 2014. In particular, we believe that our Board of Directors and our general procedures and official records are in good shape.