Our progress to date

This page outlines the history of the GiveWell project, in terms of our plans and self-reviews.

Original business plan (published 4/7/2007)

On 4/7/2007, we published "The Case for the Clear Fund," our original business plan. It was written mostly to solicit the support and feedback of our existing contacts. The full PDF is available at this link:

See our story for an abbreviated version.

First-year review (published 6/19/2008)

After our first year, GiveWell completed a thorough report on our accomplishments, shortcomings, and lessons learned, and outlined our plans for the future.

Goal Importance Successes Concerns and shortcomings Grade
Research Very High Successfully and cost-effectively got meaningful information from charities; generated substantive and useful information about where to donate. Process took twice as long as expected; was often frustrating for charities. Overly narrow classifications of charities led to suboptimal allocation of grants. B+
Website High We were able to publish nearly all our sources publicly. Website completed under budget; sufficiently usable to generate reasonable levels of engagement for a new website. Website readability and usability still leaves much to be desired. B
Publicity Medium Attracted significant positive attention in the nonprofit-centered and mainstream media. Saw significant spike in website traffic leading to many contacts and over $30,000 in donations to recommended charities. Overly aggressive, inappropriate marketing called our judgment into question and damaged our reputation (justifiably). C
Startup hurdles Essential (but low time commitment) Raised sufficient startup capital, secured US-recognized nonprofit status, completed all necessary registrations, set up payroll and accounting procedures, formed Board of Directors. Did not establish a full set of policies and metrics for oversight purposes. Board members limited in availability and did not provide sufficient oversight. Little progress on finding potential staff. B+

The full report is available via these links:

These documents were the focus of our board meeting on 9/8/2008.

Change of direction (published 11/17/2008)

At our board meeting on 9/8/2008, we agreed that our top priority for the coming year was money moved, with research as a secondary priority. After several months pursuing the plan linked directly above, we felt that we were prioritizing our time and resources badly, and that we weren't on the best possible path to our eventual goal. We created a "vision document" outlining our eventual goal in more concrete terms than we had before; a new business plan, featuring an emphasis on research as opposed to marketing; and a "transition document" laying out what we had learned and why we felt a change of course was appropriate. In sum:

  • We believed that we could raise substantial amounts of money through our network, particularly through high-net-worth donors. We now believe that this networking approach is too time-intensive, and that the correct target market for us is medium-size donors whom we must reach in more systematic, scalable ways.
  • We believed that the current state of our research would be sufficient to raise large amounts of money. We now believe that in order to reach our target market in a large-scale way, we need substantially broader and deeper research.
  • We believed that we had no way to create a substantially broader and deeper set of research without extreme growth in staff. We now believe that a deep, broad resource can be built within a few years, while scaling up from our current expenses to no more than $1.6 million per year.
  • We believed that raising money through our network was the key to “proving” demand and thereby raising more operating funds and drawing more media exposure. We now believe that investors – including us – are unlikely to see money raised through our network as proof of demand. Instead, we must make progress toward a long-term goal of moving money at scale.
  • We believed that we could, and needed to, “prove” significant demand in the short term. We now believe that we can show incremental progress on demand as we continue our research, but the full state of demand for it can only be assessed once our research content is substantially improved.

Full documents are available below:

These documents were the focus of our board meeting on 11/10/2008.

2009 review and plan (published 2/19/2010)

Our full 2009 review and 2010 plan are available in this document (DOC).

The above document refers to the following documents:

We originally published this review and plan on our blog over five posts:

2010 review and plan (published February 2011)

This was published as a set of six blog posts:

  • GiveWell's annual self-evaluation and plan: a big picture change in priorities. Previously, we had aimed to cover as many causes (microfinance, education, etc.) as possible, to accommodate donors interested in those causes. However, we were finding that the lion's share of our money moved was going to our top charities in our top-rated causes. We decided to de-emphasize covering causes we didn't personally find promising so that we could focus entirely on finding the best possible giving opportunities (even if that meant continuing to focus on very small number of causes).
  • Stats on GiveWell's money moved and web traffic.
    • We tracked over $1.5 million in donations to top charities in 2010, compared to just over $1 million in 2009.
    • Our website traffic nearly doubled from 2009 to 2010, and donations through the website nearly tripled. Our overall increase in money moved appears to be driven mostly by (a) a gain of $200,000 in six-figure donations; (b) new donors, largely acquired via search engine traffic and the outreach of Peter Singer.
    • Our growth in online donations to recommended charities was significantly faster than that of the more established online donor resources (Charity Navigator and GuideStar); our total online donations remain lower than these resources', but are now in the same ballpark.
  • Self-evaluation: GiveWell as a donor resource. We discussed the state of GiveWell in terms of research quality and usefulness. We felt that our quality was strong, our credibility was reasonable but with room for improvement, and that our biggest problem was that we hadn't identified enough truly top-notch charities to absorb a significant amount of funding.
  • Self-evaluation: GiveWell as a project. We discussed the state of GiveWell from the perspective of stakeholders (Board members, direct supporters of GiveWell, etc.) We felt our influence, as well as the robustness of our research (i.e., the extent to which it could be systematically maintained without relying on the founders), were improving but remained major priorities; fundraising was a major need as well.
  • GiveWell's plan for 2011: top-level priorities. We gave a broad overview of our top priorities: finding more top-notch charities, then fundraising, then maintaining/systemizing/vetting our research, then marketing/outreach, and finally exploring more causes to lay the groundwork for future research.
  • GiveWell's plan for 2011: specifics of research. We laid out our possible strategies for our most important goal of the year, finding more top-notch charities.

2011 review and plan (published February 2012)

This was published as a set of six blog posts:

  • GiveWell’s progress in 2011. This summary post highlights major developments of 2012, including making new contacts with major donors and the launching of GiveWell Labs, significant growth in "money moved," and improving access to charity staff, foundation staff, and academics.
  • Stats on GiveWell's money moved and web traffic.
    • We tracked over $5 million to top charities in 2011, as compared to about $1.5 million in 2010.
    • Grants from Good Ventures and funding committed to GiveWell Labs account for about 1/3 of our money moved ($1.75 million).
    • Our web traffic doubled from 2010 to 2011.
    • GiveWell’s website now processes more giving than GuideStar’s and about 42% as much as Charity Navigator’s.
  • Self-evaluation: GiveWell as a donor resource.
    • We feel that our current research is high-quality and up-to-date.
    • We feel that evidence of our credibility has substantially improved and is now fairly strong, and that this is part of the reason for our increased money moved.
    • Since 2010, we have identified two new top charities and as a result, we have considerably increased our room for more funding.
    • We have also launched GiveWell Labs, a new arm of our research process that will be open to any giving opportunity, regardless of form or sector.
  • Self-evaluation: GiveWell as a project.
    • As of February 2012, we have three non co-founder staff members, have hired one more who will start in July 2012, and hope to hire two more staff members by the end of 2012.
    • Given our current pace of growth, we do not expect outreach to be a significant priority in the coming year, with the exception of low-hanging fruit that does not require very much staff time.
    • We project revenues that will meet expenses for 2012 and currently have what we consider a safe level of cash reserves. We project a deficit for 2013 but expect to be able to fund the gap using the strategies laid out above.
    • In 2011, we had money moved of over $5 million with expenses of $356,000, a ratio of 14:1.
  • GiveWell's plan for 2012: top-level priorities. We have identified three top priorities for 2012: (1) Make significant progress on GiveWell Labs; (2) Find more top charities under the same basic framework as our existing recommendations; and (3) Expand our team.
  • GiveWell's plan for 2012: specifics of research. In 2012, our top two research priorities are to make substantial progress on GiveWell Labs and to identify further outstanding charities for our recommendations.
    • GiveWell Labs is the new arm of the organization which is open to any giving opportunity. This year, our plan is to do make progress in sector-agnostic investigation which allows us to achieve a working understanding of the most promising sectors and the best giving opportunities in at least one sector (likely within global health and nutrition).
    • Further top charities: if we continue our current rate of growth, we will run out of room for more funding within a few years. In 2012, we will focus on finding further giving opportunities, continuing to research charities working on priority programs. Our goal is to find at least one new outstanding charity for individual donors in 2012.

2012 review and plan (published in February and March 2013)

This was published as a set of six blog posts:

  • GiveWell's progress in 2012. This summary post highlights major developments of 2011, including strengthening our partnership with Good Ventures, strong growth in money moved, progress toward more systematic and replicable research process, and slower than hoped progress on hiring and cause broadening.
  • Self-evaluation: GiveWell as a donor resource.
    • We continued to feel that our research has identified outstanding giving opportunities for individual donors.
    • We did not solicit any new external reviews of our work in 2012, and we did not formally revisit the goal of doing so.
    • We added GiveDirectly to our list of top-rated charities in November 2012, after a thorough review that included a site visit and review of the evidence for unconditional cash transfers. We also conducted further investigations in the area of global health and nutrition.
    • We have not been able to devote as much time to GiveWell Labs as we would have liked, and progress has accordingly been slower than anticipated. We plan to prioritize work on GiveWell Labs more highly in 2013.
  • Self-evaluation: GiveWell as a project.
    • On net, the size of our staff rose by one part-timer. As of February 2013, we had three full-time and one part-time analyst, along with the two co-founders. We intend to make hiring a priority in 2013.
    • Our capacity has improved significantly because of the maturation of existing employees.
    • Our research process has become better systemized.
    • Although analysts have taken on more responsibility, we remain reliant on GiveWell’s co-founders for significant core research work.
    • Improving the presentation of our research has remained a low priority.
    • We intend to raise the priority of GiveWell Labs, which will hopefully broaden the donor base we are able to reach and result in significantly more money moved.
  • GiveWell’s plan for 2013: a top-level decision and Update on GiveWell's Plans for 2013. We face a trade off for time spent on (a) charities that meet our traditional criteria vs. (b) broadening our research to include new causes. We believe that we are hitting diminishing returns on our traditional research. For (a), in 2013, we plan to limit our work to updates on current top charities, reviewing exceptional opportunities that others bring to our attention, and hiring staff to take on work related to finding more charities that meet our traditional criteria. The remainder of our time will be devoted to exploring new causes.
  • GiveWell annual review for 2012: details on GiveWell’s money moved and web traffic.
    • GiveWell tracked $9.57 million in money moved based on our recommendations, a significant increase over past years.
    • Our #1 charity received about 60% of the money moved and our #2 and #3 charities each received over $1 million as a result of our recommendation.
    • Growth was robust for every donor size.
    • Web traffic continued to grow.
    • GiveWell’s website now processes more than twice as much giving as GuideStar’s and about 80% as much as Charity Navigator’s.

2013 review and plan (published in February and March 2014)

This was published as a set of six blog posts:

  • GiveWell's progress in 2013. This summary post highlights major developments of 2013, including continuing strong growth in money moved, major progress on capacity building, substantial progress on GiveWell Labs, and a change in thinking about our traditional work.
  • 2013 Progress on GiveWell’s traditional (“top charities”) work.
    • We kept our research up to date, including major updates on our top charities, and added a new top charity.
    • We ultimately spent significantly more senior staff time on our traditional work than we had anticipated, which we felt was necessary to maintain the quality of our research.
    • Media attention to our traditional work has increased, and we now see it as both more important and more challenging to sustain this work in the future.
    • We hired 6 additional research analysts, which should enable us to increase the capacity devoted to our traditional work in the future.
  • 2014 plan for GiveWell’s traditional (“top charities”) work.
    • Last year, we reduced the amount of senior staff time necessary for GiveWell’s traditional work, and we hope to reduce it further this year by continuing to train staff to take over the roles filled by senior staff in the past.
    • We will continue to publish updates on our past top charities.
    • Our plan for our traditional work is substantially more ambitious than what we planned last year. Given our current capacity, we anticipate being able to consider 5 or more potential top charities and 5-10 additional interventions (details of which charities and interventions in the blog post).
    • We are also undertaking more experimental work that might lead to additional GiveWell top charities in the future.
  • GiveWell Labs – Progress in 2013 and Plans for 2014.
    • Progress in 2013 included: developing a cause selection framework, getting basic context for assessing causes within policy-oriented philanthropy and scientific research funding, completing 19 shallow investigations and 2 medium-depth investigations, starting work on semi-deep dives for two causes, and cross-cutting work to learn about major foundations and philanthropy's track record.
    • We have two major goals for 2014:
      • Making serious commitments to causes in US policy and global catastrophic risks. This is a stretch goal (there is a substantial probability we will fail to hit it).
      • Making progress on understanding scientific research funding and foreign aid to enable us to make serious commitments by year-end 2015.
  • General plans for GiveWell as an organization in 2014.
    • We tentatively envision GiveWell Labs becoming a separate organization, with a separate name, eventually. In the near term, we expect to take only minor steps toward this, including renaming GiveWell Labs.
    • Fundraising remains a priority.
    • We do not plan to prioritize outreach in 2014. We will continue to prioritize research.
  • GiveWell annual review for 2013: details on GiveWell’s money moved and web traffic.
    • GiveWell tracked $17.36 million in money moved to our top charities based on our recommendations, a significant increase over past years.
    • GiveDirectly received about 60% of the money moved ($10.5 million) and our other top charities each received $2.1-2.5 million as a result of our recommendation.
    • Growth was strong for donors giving less than $10,000. Money moved from donors giving $10,000 or more decreased. We believe the decrease in money moved from large donors is likely to be temporary – due to donors deciding to wait to give or to reallocate part of their giving to support GiveWell's operating costs.
    • Web traffic continued to grow.
    • GiveWell’s website now processes slightly more than Charity Navigator’s, up from about 80% last year, suggesting that the growth we have seen is due not to generalized increases in online giving or use of charity evaluators, but rather to GiveWell-specific factors.
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