We aim to cost-effectively direct around $1 billion annually by 2025

by GiveWell18 min read24th Nov 2021No comments

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GiveWell
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A little over a decade ago in 2010, GiveWell directed around $1.5 million to the charities we recommended.[1] In 2021, we expect we’ll raise at least $500 million, and may raise as much as $560 million or more.[2]

We never anticipated that we’d grow this large this quickly. We’ve seen rapid growth from donors of all sizes, the most recent of which is a commitment of $300 million from Open Philanthropy.

While this growth comes with challenges—we’re working hard to hire enough researchers, apply here!—it’s a testament to our donors’ trust in us and enthusiasm for our mission.

But these big numbers are relatively small in the long-term scope of what GiveWell hopes to achieve. We believe there are billions of dollars’ worth of annual cost-effective giving opportunities that we have yet to identify.

We aim to find and fund around $1 billion of highly cost-effective giving opportunities annually by 2025. There’s an enormous amount of good that we can accomplish with our team and donors, and we’re excited to take on this ambitious challenge.

Our confidence in our ability to increase the amount of cost-effective funding we find—and our rapid growth—is driving some changes this year. While we could spend all of the funding we expect to raise in 2021 on opportunities now, we don’t think we should. We plan to roll over about $110 million (~20% of our forecasted funds raised) into 2022 because we expect the opportunities this funding would be spent on now are much less cost-effective than those we expect to find over the next few years.

There are tradeoffs to using funds later, but we think they strongly favor waiting for better opportunities. Our core mission is to help donors maximize their impact, not to get funding out the door as quickly as possible.

We will continue to raise funds, and our top recommendation to donors continues to be our Maximum Impact Fund, which grants funds on a quarterly basis to the most cost-effective giving opportunities we’ve identified at the time grants are made.

This year, GiveWell’s community of donors will have a larger impact than ever before. This is a thrilling milestone for us, as well as a powerful incentive to find more excellent funding opportunities to match our donors’ enthusiasm. Below, we’ll share more detail on our approach to funding, how and why we’re rolling over funds, and what it means for our donors.

Summary

GiveWell aims to maximize impact

We search for the charities that save or improve lives the most per dollar. We’re not just looking for great opportunities to share with our donors, we’re looking for the best opportunities that meet our criteria.

We use cost-effectiveness analyses as a key tool to compare charities and programs. This helps us identify where donations will help the most per dollar. Because we compare between programs with different outcomes—for example, we compare programs that increase incomes to those that avert death—our cost-effectiveness model relies on concrete inputs (such as rates of disease in different regions) as well as judgment calls and subjective philosophical values.[3]

The most cost-effective funding opportunities can be multiple times better than even outstanding opportunities. This is true even among our top charities. GiveDirectly is an excellent, cost-effective charity, and one of only nine Top Charities that we recommend. Yet we estimate it’s significantly less cost-effective than Malaria Consortium. For example, we’ve calculated that funding to Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention program in Burkina Faso is almost fifteen times more cost-effective than donations to GiveDirectly.[4]

This is reflected in our 2020 record of grants made from our Maximum Impact Fund or recommended to Open Philanthropy. In 2020, GiveWell made (or recommended) grants totaling about $43 million to Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention program, and made no discretionary grants to GiveDirectly.[5]

We also don’t stop evaluating cost-effectiveness at the organizational level. Any one charity often presents us with multiple funding opportunities, and they can look very different! For example, in March 2020, we made multiple grants to Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention program, including the following:

  • $3.4 million to distribute malaria medication in Burkina Faso at an estimated cost-effectiveness of $2,000 per life saved
  • $2.8 million to distribute malaria medication in Chad at an estimated cost-effectiveness of $8,000 per life saved

We direct money to the best opportunities we can identify. While we ultimately granted to both of the above, if we’d had limited funding, we would have granted only to the funding opportunity in Burkina Faso.

What our funding bar has been

We compare charities (and funding opportunities within them) using multiples of our impact estimate for GiveDirectly’s cash transfer program. For example, we describe opportunities as “8x cash,” indicating that we think it’s 8 times as cost-effective as GiveDirectly.[6]

We compare programs to GiveDirectly because its program is excellent, and it could absorb enough funding that we’re unlikely to fund anything less cost-effective in the foreseeable future.[7] In 2022, we plan to prioritize research that could cause us to update our estimate of GiveDirectly’s cost effectiveness (for example, evaluating spillover effects). For more on this, read: What could change our cost-effectiveness estimate of GiveDirectly’s cash-transfer program?

To this point, we’ve typically[8] funded opportunities that pass a relatively high bar: eight (or more) times as cost-effective as GiveDirectly. But it takes hard work to find these opportunities, and each opportunity can only absorb a limited amount of funding.

What do we do when we can’t spend at that bar

In 2021, we may need to direct as much as $560 million. While we have an excellent team of 22 researchers working on this full time, we haven’t been able to hire quickly enough to match our incredible growth in funds raised.

This year, we expect to identify $400 million in 8x or better opportunities. If our fundraising projections hold, we may have $160 million (or more) that we’re unable to spend at our current bar.

What we’re doing this year

We considered three options when deciding how to spend this pool of $160 million:

  • We grant it to GiveDirectly at 1x cash.
  • We lower our bar somewhat, but not to 1x cash.
  • We roll it over into next year to grant to more cost-effective opportunities in the future.

If we don’t have any better opportunities in 2021, and don’t expect to have any in the near future, it makes sense to grant these funds to GiveDirectly. But, if we think we’re able to find (for example) a 5x opportunity relatively soon, choosing whether or not to hold funds is the equivalent of choosing between donating $1 to GiveDirectly this year or giving to something a year or two later[9] that would have the same impact as giving $5 to GiveDirectly.[10]

We think we’ll find great opportunities this year and next. Driven by our goal to direct donations where they can help the most, we felt the decision was clear. Our highest priority is to help donors maximize their impact, not to get funding out the door as quickly as possible.

Given that, we expect to:

  • Direct about $50 million to 5-8x funding opportunities.
  • Roll over about $110 million to grant to future opportunities we expect will be 5x or better.

We expect that cost-effectiveness is going to decrease as we raise more funds, so it makes sense to lower our bar a bit. Our guess is that maintaining a bar of 8x (or higher) over the long-term is unlikely. We’re snapping up the best funding opportunities as quickly as we can identify them (and then snapping up the next-best). Over time, this reduces average cost-effectiveness. That’s a great outcome—saving lives shouldn’t be cheap.

This year, we expect to direct about $50 million to opportunities that are between 5x and 8x. This is an uncertain estimate based on our best guess projections of grants we haven’t yet finished investigating—you can read more on our estimate here.

For 2022 and beyond, we’re confident we’ll be able to increase the total amount of funding opportunities we identify at both 8x and 5x better than GiveDirectly. We’re hiring for our research team (apply here!), and have already grown from 8 researchers in 2017 to 22 in 2021.

Despite our limited capacity, we’ve made incredible progress in our efforts to quickly scale up the amount of cost-effective giving opportunities we identify. We expect we’ll direct over twice the amount of funding to excellent opportunities in 2021 ($450 million) compared to 2020 ($200 million).[11]

We think the cost of holding on to $110 million is low compared to the reduction in impact we’d see from granting this funding immediately. To use the same framing as above, we’re choosing impact equivalent to directing $550 million or more to GiveDirectly in the next few years over directing $110 million to GiveDirectly this year.

How it will impact your gift

If you give to the Maximum Impact Fund or to one of our specific recommendations this year, your donation will be granted out as usual to the outstanding giving opportunities we’ve identified.

We’ll roll only Open Philanthropy’s funding into next year—it’s our largest donor, and it’s easiest to manage rolling over a single large donation. Additionally, because we typically fund organizations a few years into the future, rollover funds—like the rest of our grants—are unlikely to actually be put to use until a few years after they’re granted.

We’ll grant all other donations on our typical timeline.[12] Because money is fungible, many gifts will effectively take the place of money that Open Philanthropy would have granted this year. The true impact of the donations we receive this year will be realized once we are able to spend down all available funding, with no rollover funds remaining. But additional donations today will still increase the total amount of funding to our recommendations over the next few years.

We think that total funds raised will exceed the total amount in cost-effective funding opportunities we identify (i.e., room for more funding) in both 2021 and 2022. But this estimate is highly uncertain due to our rapid growth. Our targets for total funding needs identified, and our projections for total funds available (broken down into new funds raised and rollover funds from the previous year), are shown below through 2025:

We don’t put a lot of stock in these specific estimates—we’ve grown unpredictably fast to this point—but in the short term, we think it’s very likely that we’ll have strong continued growth in funds raised that outpaces the funding needs we identify.

Why the opportunity to do good is still so large

While we’ve identified a limited number of cost-effective funding opportunities this year, many people still need help:

Donors can have an extraordinary impact. Just looking at the approximately $100 million GiveWell had discretion to grant in 2020[13]—a subset of all the money we directed to the charities we recommend—the impact of our donors is impressive. We estimate these grants will:

  • Save more than 24,000 lives
  • Treat over 6 million children with a full course of antimalarial medication
  • Provide vitamin A supplementation to over 8.6 million children
  • Deliver over 4.4 million long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLINs) to protect against malaria
  • Vaccinate 118,000 children
  • Treat over 11.4 million children for parasitic worms

While our top charities are extraordinary, it shouldn’t be this cheap to save or improve lives. We want to continue to expand our research to identify billions of dollars’ worth of annual funding opportunities. If we’re successful in raising funds to fill those opportunities, we’ll continue to see cost-effectiveness decline. We think that would be something to celebrate.

For additional details on how we produce impact estimates, see this page.[14]

We aim to find $1.5 billion in cost-effective funding opportunities by 2025

Over the past year, we’ve already accelerated our pace of research. Due to the incredible efforts of our research team, we’ve jumped from directing $200 million in highly cost-effective giving in 2020 to an estimated $450 million by the end of this year.

Our research is largely done by two teams:

  • Our top charities team, which focuses on continued evaluation of our top charities, as well as projects to increase the amount of funding those organizations can use cost-effectively.
  • Our new interventions team, which focuses on identifying new programs for GiveWell to fund.

This year’s growth comes from both teams:

Part of that growth has been driven by finding new opportunities within our current top charities. We expect to direct about $300 million to our top charities in 2021, compared to about $180 million in 2020.[15] That growth has been driven by funding program expansions into new regions, filling gaps where other funders withdrew support, and funding research to test and measure the impact of our top charities’ programs in additional locations.[16]

We also have promising opportunities in new categories that we’ve been investigating. In 2021, we’ve done in-depth investigations of malnutrition treatment, cash transfers for immunizations, and water treatment.[17] In 2022, we’ll continue assessing the possibility of expanded grants in these areas, investigate programs that reduce neonatal mortality, and look into other large-scale programs that target the ultra poor or leverage community health workers. Together, we think these programs can absorb extremely large amounts of funding.

We’ve already recommended significant grants to some of these programs this year. In 2021, we’ve directed about $29 million to organizations working on malnutrition treatment: $20 million to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and $9 million to The Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA).[18] We have also committed to directing up to $25 million to IRD Global to fund a mobile phone-based incentives for immunization program. We may recommend further grants in 2021, and expect to recommend more in 2022.

We’ve set the target of $1.5 billion in funding opportunities identified by 2025 with the goal of exceeding the amount of funding we raise while maintaining a relatively high cost-effectiveness bar. If we raise significantly more—for example, $2 billion in 2022—we expect we’d drop our cost-effectiveness bar more quickly to keep pace with our growth.

This is an ambitious target, and we plan to update donors on our progress next year when we expect to have more insight into what we’ll be able to achieve in the long term.

We’re excited to find more excellent funding opportunities, and for the impact GiveWell donors will continue to have.

We’re committed to finding the most cost-effective places for your donation

Our donors trust us to direct their donations to the most cost-effective places we can find. We want our donors to be confident that we’ll find them the best opportunities available, navigate the hard tradeoffs while figuring that out, and share our process transparently.

We guess that we’ll probably have rollover funds at the end of 2022 as well, though our rapid growth makes our estimates especially uncertain. We currently estimate that we’ll have $870 million to grant in 2022 (including new funds raised and rollover funds from 2021), and $740 million of 5x (or better) opportunities.[19] We don’t put a lot of stock in these specific estimates, but we think it’s very likely that we’ll have strong continued growth in donations that outpaces identified opportunities, at least in the short term.

If we’re in a similar position next year, we plan on navigating it in the same way. We’ll direct donations where we think they’ll help the most, whether that means granting them immediately or rolling them into the following year.

Our Maximum Impact Fund is still our top recommendation for donors who want to help the most. We use our Maximum Impact Fund to grant to the most cost-effective funding opportunities we can find among our Top Charities.

What you can read to learn more

We know some donors may be nervous about GiveWell rolling money into 2022 that we don’t spend this year, or about what this means for the impact of their gifts.

We take those concerns seriously. The trust of our donors is incredibly important to us. It’s why we publish all of our research for public review, and why we report on our own mistakes.

If you want to hear arguments for (or against) donating to GiveWell this year, or dive into any of the details of rollover funding or Open Philanthropy’s donation, we have an extensive FAQ here.

A few sections we think may be especially helpful:

If you have more questions, you can also reach us directly at info@givewell.org.


  1. See our blog post on 2010 money moved here. ↩︎

  2. Note that each of our funds raised estimates for 2021-2025 subtracts projected annual operating costs. ↩︎

  3. Our approach to cost-effectiveness analyses is described on this page. The factors we take into account when deciding how to morally value different outcomes, like increased income versus death, are described here. ↩︎

  4. See our cost-effectiveness estimates of Malaria Consortium's program across multiple countries, including Burkina Faso, here. ↩︎

  5. We did recommend a $500,000 grant to GiveDirectly in 2020. Each year since 2016, we have recommended that Open Philanthropy make a minimum grant to each of our top charities. These "incentive grants" are designed to compensate charities for the time they spend engaging with our process and for the risk they take by allowing us to write publicly about their strengths and weaknesses. ↩︎

  6. For more on our cost-effectiveness models, read: GiveWell's Cost-Effectiveness Analyses. ↩︎

  7. See additional details in the "Is there room for more funding?" section of our charity review page for GiveDirectly. ↩︎

  8. We have occasionally funded top charity programs that were modeled as less than 8x in our cost-effectiveness analyses. For example, see this $200,000 grant we recommended in 2020 to Sightsavers' deworming program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which we estimated at 2x cash. These cases have occurred when changes to our cost-effectiveness model caused an opportunity (that we had previously believed to be 8x or better) to drop below our 8x threshold. We still decided to fund these opportunities because either:

    • The grants were small and to organizations with which we had a history of grantmaking. Because these organizations had planned around GiveWell's funding, we chose to make some of these small grants to be a good partner. This also gave us more time to plan a withdrawal of funding that would be minimally disruptive.
    • There was specific additional work we wanted to do on the model that we thought might push it above 8x, and we wanted to maintain the organization's operations, so that we could have the option to direct additional funding to it in the future.
    ↩︎
  9. In practice, the gap between spending at GiveDirectly compared to our other recommended charities is closer to three or four years. We typically fund organizations a few years into the future, so it often takes two or three years for a donation to be put to use. While we haven’t directed grant funding to GiveDirectly recently, it can put funds to use very quickly. You can read more in: Why we’re excited to fund charities’ work a few years in the future. ↩︎

  10. This comparison isn’t exactly right. We think there is lost impact by holding money to spend in the future. But we would be surprised if the lost impact was greater than 10% each year. These differences wouldn't outweigh large differences in cost-effectiveness (e.g. GiveDirectly versus opportunities that are 5x or 8x better). ↩︎

  11. This is all of the money GiveWell directed to charity in 2020, excluding about $40 million donated directly to GiveDirectly by GiveWell donors (see our 2020 metrics report). Because these funds are below the threshold for cost-effectiveness we have for this pool of funding, we’ve excluded them from this total. ↩︎

  12. It takes time to allocate donations. We typically grant donations to our Maximum Impact Fund on a quarterly basis. While most donations are granted in the same calendar year we receive them, donations from October-December of any given year are typically granted by the end of the first quarter of the following year. ↩︎

  13. This includes money we grant from our Maximum Impact Fund, as well as grants we recommend to Open Philanthropy. ↩︎

  14. See how we generated impact estimates for the $100 million in discretionary funds that we directed in 2020 on this spreadsheet. ↩︎

  15. This figure excludes the funding GiveWell donors gave to GiveDirectly in 2020, since it is below our cost-effectiveness threshold. See our 2020 metrics report for a complete breakdown of the money we directed in 2020. ↩︎

  16. See additional details on our 2021 giving recommendations blog post. ↩︎

  17. We plan to publish reports on these investigations in the near future. ↩︎

  18. As of November 2021, we have only published a page on one of the grants we recommended to ALIMA, although we plan to publish grant pages for the other grants we've recommended to ALIMA and IRC. ↩︎

  19. We expect the majority of our funding will be directed to opportunities that are 8x or better, however we don't have specific estimates for the breakdown of funding opportunities in 2022 by cost-effectiveness. ↩︎

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