I’ve been a Philanthropy Advisor at GiveWell for two years. This role is a better job for me than I thought I could find, and GiveWell is a better workplace than I knew existed.
I’m often asked what a typical day in my role is like. Because my day to day is (delightfully) varied, I’ll instead share what a typical month looks like as a Philanthropy Advisor. I’ll also share some thoughts on my pathway to this role and its impact on GiveWell’s work.
A GiveWell Philanthropy Advisor is best compared to a Major Gifts Officer at other institutions, though there are some key differences. Big-picture, my role is to fundraise for our top charities as well as for non-top charity grants (such as those funded from our All Grants Fund) that may align with a specific donor’s priorities. I primarily do this by maintaining relationships with a portfolio of donors.
Unlike my preconceived notion of what fundraising entailed, my job does not require cold outreach or making awkward asks of existing donors. Instead, I try to get to know my donors, learning about what motivates them in their giving, helping them stay up to date with our research, sharing organizational updates, and occasionally presenting them with giving opportunities that seem strongly aligned with their philanthropic goals and interests. When I accepted this role, I worried that it would require me to be interpersonally disingenuous or that I'd have to make funding opportunities seem like surer bets than they really are; I’ve been delighted to find that our donors are genuinely easy to connect with and that GiveWell’s values of transparency and truth-seeking translate to extreme honesty with donors about the risks and uncertainties of different grants.
In a typical month, my responsibilities break down as follows:
- Communication with donors: In a typical month, I’m likely to send an update to each of the donors I know. This is often part of a natural ongoing conversation, but if I’m not specifically in touch with a donor already, I might reach out with an interesting article, share an impact report for their most recent gift, or get their feedback on some of our work. I also answer inbound donor questions from people seeking GiveWell’s expertise and have a lot of calls with donors (over 100 per year). The volume of donor calls I have in a typical month varies greatly, clustering at the end of the year when many donors have questions about our work as they make annual giving decisions. These calls range from in-depth research conversations to logistical conversations about estate planning or giving mechanics to intense conversations about long-term philanthropic and financial goals and challenges. As relationships grow, we might also have more personal calls to catch up.
- Following GiveWell’s research: In order to keep donors informed about our work, I have to stay up to date with it myself! I spend a lot of time listening in on research meetings, reading research documents for various grants, and asking our researchers questions about the specifics of different programs. A donor call can go in any direction—it’s not uncommon for a donor to ask about a research decision we made years before my tenure at GiveWell began or about our position on a research area we have yet to publish public materials on—so keeping abreast of our research is a core component of the job. Depending on my workload, I might also lead the process of drafting a grant proposal. This requires a deep dive into the supporting documents for a specific grant and then condensing a lot of technical materials into a donor-facing format that highlights the intervention, considers the benefits, risks, and uncertainties of the grant, and shares the case for funding with interested parties.
- Special projects: At any given time, I’m likely managing 1-3 special projects. Some of the special projects I've led include helping a company's employees organize internal donations before an IPO, overhauling GiveWell's legacy giving structure, and creating a new resource to help donors understand their options for giving.
My experience at GiveWell has been wildly rewarding. This is not just because the research is deeply interesting to me and because we have the world’s kindest donors (we do), but also because GiveWell is a great place to work. GiveWell is a remarkably humane workplace, one where I feel valued as a person in addition to as an employee—and of course we have very fun banter on Slack, from our hot takes channel to our weekly Wikipedia game.
My path to the job
A few years before applying to GiveWell, I identified through a professional development fellowship that major gifts fundraising would be a good fit for my skills and interests. At the time, I was working in educational advocacy for a civil rights nonprofit. Networking calls with higher education major gifts officers confirmed my sense that this type of job would be good for me, but I didn’t feel motivated by the idea of fundraising for an endowed educational institution.
One of my brothers is a GiveWell donor, and he learned during a call with my now-colleague that GiveWell's outreach team was hiring. I saw myself in the job description (one of those gasping-aloud-reading-excerpts-to-my-spouse moments) but I was doubtful that I could get a senior fundraising role without much fundraising experience. I also had some hesitations about GiveWell because of prior negative associations with EA as being cold and overly analytical.
The hiring process was heavy on performance trials, which made me more excited about GiveWell and also gave me confidence that I’d be able to fill the needs of the role. By the time I had my final interviews, I was dying for the job and thrilled to receive an offer.
Impact of the job
GiveWell has been working with donors since its founding, and collaborating closely with major donors has been a strength for nearly the entirety of the organization’s existence. I’ve learned a ton from the way GiveWell does donor outreach; collaborating with a team of fundraising experts helped me quickly apply the core strengths I was hired for (such as communication skills, the ability to understand and translate research materials, diplomacy, and tact in sensitive conversations) to serve as a resource to donors wondering how to do the most good with their available funds.
It can be hard to quantify the impact of a philanthropic advisor, as we often can’t know the counterfactual impact of our involvement in any given donation. However, we’ve seen a very clear trend of success as we increase our investment in donor outreach. Since overhauling our strategic plan for major gift fundraising in 2019, we've increased the number of donors giving in the six-figure range by 1.8x and the number of donors giving over $1 million by 4.8x. We also have remarkable donor retention rates for major donors. I’ve found this job tremendously rewarding both day to day and through some memorable wins, like cultivating a donor with no history of effective giving toward making a multi-million dollar gift, and having a donor mention the style of our direct communications as a motivating factor for an unexpected half-million dollar gift.
I hope this post is a helpful window into donor relations work in the world of EA. I also wrote about working on the outreach team in a June 2022 EA Forum post and would be happy to answer questions in the comments section.