The GiveWell Blog

GiveWell’s outreach and operations: 2017 review and 2018 plans

This is the third of three posts that form our annual review and plan for the following year. The first two posts covered GiveWell’s progress and plans on research. This post reviews and evaluates GiveWell’s progress last year in outreach and operations and sketches out some high-level goals for the current year. A separate post will look at metrics on our influence on donations in 2017. We aim to release our metrics on our influence on donations in 2017 by the end of June 2018.

Summary

Outreach: Before 2017, outreach wasn’t a major organizational priority at GiveWell (more in this 2014 blog post). In our plans for 2017, we wrote that we planned to put more emphasis on outreach, but were at the early stages of thinking through what that might involve. In the second half of 2017, we experimented with a number of different approaches to outreach (more on the results below). In 2018, we plan to increase the resources we devote to outreach primarily by hiring a Head of Growth and adding staff to improve our post-donation follow-up with donors.

Operations: In 2017, we completed the separation of GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project and increased our operations capacity with three new hires. In 2018, our top priorities are to hire a new Director of Operations (which we have now done), maintain our critical functions, and prepare our systems for increased growth in outreach.

Outreach 2017 review and 2018 plans

Before 2017, outreach wasn’t a major organizational priority at GiveWell (more in this 2014 blog post). In our plans for 2017, we wrote that we planned to put more emphasis on outreach, but were at the early stages of thinking through what that might involve.

We currently have one staff member, Catherine Hollander, who works on outreach full-time. Two others, Tracy Williams and Isabel Arjmand, each spend significant time on outreach. From August 2017, our Executive Director, Elie Hassenfeld, also started to allocate a significant amount of his time to outreach.

How did we do in 2017?

In 2017, we focused on experimentation. In brief, we found that:

  • Advertising on podcasts has had strong results. Using the methodology described in this blog post, our best guess is that each dollar we spent on podcast advertising returned $5-14 in donations to our top charities.
  • Increasing the consistency of our communication with members of the media had strong results for the time invested.
  • Retaining a digital marketing consultant yielded strong results.
  • Retaining a PR firm to generate media mentions did not have positive results.
  • We’ve had a limited number of conversations with high net worth donors. We don’t yet have enough information to conclude whether this was a good use of time.

You can see our estimates of the five-year net present value of donations generated by each of these activities here. Overall, we spent approximately $200,000 and devoted significant staff time to this work. Our best estimate is that these efforts resulted in $2.5 million to $5.9 million in additional donations to our recommended charities.

We conclude:

  • New work on outreach had a high return on investment in 2017.
  • Some activities, such as podcast advertising and digital marketing improvements, have shown particularly strong results and should be scaled up.

What are our priorities for 2018?

Our marketing funnel has three stages:

  1. Awareness/acquisition: more people hear about GiveWell and visit the website,
  2. Conversion: more people who visit the site donate, and
  3. Retention: over time, donors maintain or increase their donations.

Our current working theory is that we should prioritize (though not exclusively) improving the bottom of this funnel (retention and conversion) before moving more people through it. We also plan to scale up the activities that worked well in 2017 and to continue experimenting with different approaches.

Our primary outreach priorities (which we expect to achieve and devote substantial capacity to) for 2018 are:

  1. Hire a Head of Growth to improve our efforts to acquire and convert new donors via our website. Over the long term, the Head of Growth will be responsible for digital marketing.

    What does success look like? Hire a Head of Growth.

  2. Improve the post-donation experience. We believe we have substantial room to improve our post-donation communication with donors. We have hired a consultant to help us improve our process.

    What does success look like? Significantly improve our process for post-donation follow-up before giving season 2018.

    At this point, we’re still in the earliest stages of figuring out how we’ll do this, so we don’t have concrete goals for the year beyond finalizing our plan in the next few months. Our stretch goal for the year is to succeed in achieving measured improvement in our dollar retention rate/lifetime value of each donor.

Our secondary outreach priorities (which we expect to achieve, but not devote substantial capacity to) for 2018 are:

  1. Continue advertising on podcasts. This advertising was particularly successful in 2017. We want to systematically assess podcast advertising opportunities and increase our podcast advertising. We plan to spend approximately $250,000 to $350,000 on podcast advertising this year.

    What does success look like? Advertise on new podcasts and measure results to decide how much to spend in 2019.

  2. Receive coverage in major news outlets. This has led to increased donations in the past.

    What does success look like? Pitch major news outlets on at least five stories in total and get at least one story covered.

  3. Deepen relationships with the effective altruism community. We want to deepen our relationships with groups in the effective altruism community doing outreach, particularly to high net worth donors.

For a list of other potentially promising projects we’re unlikely to prioritize this year, see this spreadsheet.

Operations 2017 review and 2018 plans

In 2017, we increased our operations staff capacity, made a number of changes to our internal systems, and completed the separation of GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project. In addition to maintaining critical functions, our highest priorities for 2018 are to (i) appoint a new Director of Operations and (ii) make improvements to our processes across the board to prepare our systems for major growth in outreach.

How did we do in 2017?

We made a number of improvements to our operations. In brief:

  • We completed the separation of GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project.
  • Donations: We hired two new members of our donations team, which allowed us to process donations consistently notwithstanding increased volume. We also added Betterment and Bitpay (for Bitcoin) as donation options.
  • Finance: We hired a Controller. We rolled out a few systems to improve the efficiency of our internal processes (Expensify, Bill.com, and others).
  • Social cohesion: We created a regular schedule for visit days for remote staff and staff events to maintain cohesion.

In January 2018, Sarah Ward, our former Director of Operations, departed. Natalie Crispin (Senior Research Analyst) has been covering her previous responsibilities during our search for a new hire to take them on.

What are our priorities for 2018?

In the first half of 2018, we aim to move from a situation in which we were maintaining critical functions to positioning the organization to grow.

Our two main priorities for the first half of 2018 are to:

  1. Appoint a new Director of Operations (complete). In April 2018, we hired Whitney Shinkle as our new Director of Operations. Between January and April 2018, Natalie Crispin served as our interim Director of Operations.
  2. Prepare our systems for major growth in outreach, which we expect to lead to increases in spending, staff, and donations.
  3. Maintain critical operations across domains: donations, finance, HR, office, website, recruiting, and staff cohesion.

Major operations projects we aim to complete in the first half of 2018 include:

  • A significant improvement in our approach to budgeting making it significantly easier for us to share updated actual spending versus budget.
  • We retained a compensation consultant to help us benchmark GiveWell staff compensation to comparable organizations.
  • We published our 2016 metrics report and plan to publish our 2017 money moved report by the end of June.

Comments

  • How do you distinguish between “PR for media” and earned media?
    like, in other words, you name this as a priority:
    Receive coverage in major news outlets. This has led to increased donations in the past.

    So, are you saying: look, being covered in the news was valuable. the PR agency we hired had nothing to do with it? (which is a common thing and my own experience, I’m just trying to clarify for my own interest)

  • Catherine on April 23, 2018 at 3:12 pm said:

    Hi Adam,

    That’s right – we believe that GiveWell reaching out to reporters individually to discuss our work is something we should do more of in the future, and view this as distinct from outreach to members of the media done by a PR firm (which was not very successful for us).

    The coverage we have received as a result of reaching out individually to journalists when we have news to share and from inbound interest from reporters has been very valuable in spreading awareness of our work and driving new donations.

  • Hi my name is Jan and I love what your organization is doing. The concept is great. This is exactly the type of organization
    I would have loved to work for. I am in the UK and as far as I know there is no organization like this, if only, I my self do not give donations as a large percent more than I think should,
    goes to administrative costs. I would be interested to know if your GWLabs projects will focus on penal reform being linked to philanthropy . By way of giving back, helping those in poverty and not necessarily in the US. In other words helping the very people your giving to, each one teaching one principle such a programme pushes the boundaries for humanity. I will continue to follow your site.

    Keep up this fascinating and valuable work.

  • Catherine (GiveWell) on May 14, 2018 at 8:42 pm said:

    Hi Jan,

    Thank you for your kind words! We’re glad to hear that you like our work.

    To your question about GiveWell Labs, I wanted to let you know that GiveWell Labs was renamed the Open Philanthropy Project and became a separate organization from GiveWell in 2017. They describe their approach and past grants here.

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