June 2016 GiveWell board meeting

Contents

Summary

I pre­sent a rough tran­script of the June 2016 GiveWell (The Clear Fund) board meet­ing and provide light com­men­tary. Topics dis­cussed in the meet­ing in­clude:

  • More de­tails of Open Phil’s split from GiveWell

  • GiveWell’s staff growth

  • In­crease in ex­ec­u­tive com­pen­sa­tion (i.e. Holden’s and Elie’s salary) from $150,000 to $175,000

  • Staff com­pen­sa­tion, and var­i­ous ways (such as hiring strat­egy) in which GiveWell has ma­tured as an organization

I’ve tried my best to mark these parts in the “Rough tran­script” sec­tion be­low us­ing sub­sec­tions.

The “Com­men­tary” sec­tion at the end gives my take on some of the top­ics.

Introduction

I’ve been in­ter­ested in GiveWell board meet­ings for a few months, mostly be­cause of my gen­eral in­ter­est in GiveWell it­self as an or­ga­ni­za­tion that looks into top­ics in global health that in­ter­est me and pub­lishes char­ity recom­men­da­tions and con­ver­sa­tions in that area, and that many EAs look up to and look to for where to di­rect their fund­ing; EA in turn in­ter­ests me for its prox­im­ity to the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity and for its pur­ported goal of try­ing to do the most good pos­si­ble. I have found that some of the board mem­bers do a good job of push­ing back on Holden and Elie – cer­tainly a bet­ter job of it than many pub­lic writ­ten cri­tiques!

How­ever, the au­dio for­mat – though sup­ple­mented by PDF at­tach­ments – makes these board meet­ings difficult to con­sume. Text is also eas­ier to search through and search for.

The two other board meet­ings I have spent some time go­ing through (to­gether with Vipul Naik) are the Oc­to­ber 2015 one and the March 2016 one, with the March 2016 one be­ing more in­ter­est­ing. My notes on these are not pub­lic yet as of Au­gust 17, 2016.

My main mo­ti­va­tions for pub­lish­ing this page (i.e. be­yond just con­sum­ing it my­self) are to:

  • Make the board meet­ing con­tent more accessible

  • Bring at­ten­tion to the board meet­ings (which are only an­nounced on the “Newly pub­lished GiveWell ma­te­ri­als” feed and not the GiveWell blog), to show that they con­tain both im­por­tant and in­ter­est­ing in­for­ma­tion, as my im­pres­sion is that there is not much pub­lic dis­cus­sion of these board meetings

Some other points:

  • The offi­cial board meet­ing page for this board meet­ing links to the au­dio as well as at­tach­ment PDFs. I have also tried my best to link to rele­vant at­tach­ments at cer­tain points in the tran­script be­low.

  • It was difficult for me to tell who is talk­ing some of the time. I could tell when Holden or Elie is talk­ing, but the board mem­bers were difficult to tell apart. For this rea­son, I have left some of the speaker mark­ers as “Male board mem­ber” or “Fe­male board mem­ber”.

  • I’d like to thank GiveWell for be­ing trans­par­ent enough to re­lease (most of) the au­dio of their board meet­ings. As far as I know, this is quite a rare thing to do for an or­ga­ni­za­tion (though I would love to find similar record­ings for other or­ga­ni­za­tions). The board meet­ing au­dio could even be use­ful to other non­prof­its as a guide to con­duct­ing their own board meet­ings.

  • For more on the best prac­tices and le­gal re­quire­ments sur­round­ing board meet­ings and records, see 4E on page 5 of the IRS’s “Gover­nance and Re­lated Topics – 501(c)(3) Or­ga­ni­za­tions” and also “Non­profit Q&A: What needs to be in­cluded in our Non­profit Board Minutes?”

  • A list of board mem­bers can be found on GiveWell’s peo­ple page. The board mem­bers have var­i­ous back­grounds, in­clud­ing peo­ple with sig­nifi­cant ex­pe­rience work­ing at and man­ag­ing non­prof­its. The board does not seem to be dom­i­nated by peo­ple who pub­li­cly iden­tify as move­ment EAs; in­deed, at least one (Rob Re­ich) has writ­ten a cri­tique of EA in re­sponse to Peter Singer.

Rough transcript

Note: This sec­tion was pro­duced us­ing the au­dio of the board meet­ing. I’ve tried my best to ac­cu­rately con­vey what was said dur­ing the meet­ing, but there may be er­rors. If you would like to quote from the meet­ing, you should prob­a­bly listen to the au­dio your­self, be­cause (1) you will provide an ad­di­tional san­ity check that the quote is cor­rect, and (2) this rough tran­script is not ex­act.

Re­elec­tion of board members

The meet­ing agenda has some rele­vant in­for­ma­tion.

0:55: Holden and Elie pro­pose that board mem­bers re­elect them­selves. Done in­de­pen­dently through email. Other votes said to be done dur­ing the meet­ing (2:30), but it’s not clear to me – as some­one who doesn’t have ac­cess to all of the au­dio – that all of the votes did in fact take place dur­ing the meet­ing.

Bud­get discussion

At­tach­ment D, “Bud­get re­view and pro­posal”, is a spread­sheet con­tain­ing de­tailed bud­get in­for­ma­tion.

3:50: Elie: We rec­og­nize this is a tough level to en­gage with re­gard­ing bud­get.

5:48 Brigid: Ex­penses don’t line up.

6:13: Elie: Ac­tu­ally May 2016 – April 2017; higher ex­penses if you in­cor­po­rate the later months.

Staff growth and de­tails of hiring method

At­tach­ment D, “Bud­get re­view and pro­posal”, is a spread­sheet con­tain­ing de­tailed bud­get in­for­ma­tion, which is rele­vant to this sec­tion.

7:15: Male board mem­ber: Bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of staff work? Break down staff by func­tion. 38 full-time staff. And be­tween GW and Open Phil.

8:04: Elie: 15 – Open Phil; 15 – GW; 8 – op­er­a­tion staff (shared). 23 ex­penses Open Phil, other 13 for GW. We’re mov­ing to­ward sep­a­rat­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tions. But we haven’t done that yet so it’s just a rough es­ti­mate.

8:35: Male board mem­ber: No time record of this split? Is the rest (ig­nor­ing the 8) re­search from higher to lower?

9:25: Elie: 2 for GW out­reach. The rest is re­search of one type or an­other, for ei­ther GW or Open Phil. In­clud­ing pro­gram officers to en­try-level re­searchers.

10:00: Male board mem­ber: In­terns in­cluded?

10:07: Elie: Not in the 38 head count. 9 in­terns dur­ing the sum­mer; rarely dur­ing the rest of the year.

10:30: Male board mem­ber: What’s the ra­tio­nale for the growth? Any bench­mark to de­cide how much to hire? Is there any ob­serv­able cor­re­la­tion be­tween the hires and any out­put/​con­tent/​GW fans?

11:10: Elie: This growth to hire is “con­ser­va­tive” in the sense that it is very un­likely more than 53 peo­ple across both or­ga­ni­za­tions as of June 2017. Still feel ca­pac­ity-con­strained for GW; Open Phil is differ­ent. No highly-spe­cific staff-growth plan. A lot of un­cer­tainty about how much staff should grow (12:09). 12:18: Be­fore: wanted to hire more, ac­tively tried to add to head-count; now: suc­cess­fully hired a bunch, now un­cer­tain about whether to con­tinue, and only want to do it when we have some­thing we want to fill. Holden adds that GW has not in­creased be­cause there are fewer se­nior peo­ple. (13:00) A lot of the growth is Open Phil, which we’re try­ing to split off.

13:35: Brigid(?): From the out­side, it could look ques­tion­able!

14:22: Elie: So many of the peo­ple we hired are so new that we had to put in se­nior staff time to train new peo­ple. Now we’re com­ing to the end of that so we will re­visit how and whether GW re­search should con­tinue to grow.

14:55: Holden: There is a low-hang­ing fruit dy­namic. Some re­ally ex­ten­sive efforts that haven’t re­sulted in any new top char­i­ties. We have ideas about how to gen­er­ate new top char­i­ties but if you want the top char­i­ties to be as good as the cur­rent ones – or even in the same ball-park – it’s high-risk long-term high-en­ergy high-in­ten­sive kind of stuff (15:28); there is a ques­tion about whether this is worth it.

15:42: Male board mem­ber: Can you talk about the types of peo­ple you have hired? Where do they stand? What per­centile of abil­ity/​ex­pe­rience/​pay?

16:11: Elie: Helpful to talk sep­a­rately about Open Phil. For GW re­search, most of the peo­ple are are en­try-level, out of col­lege. 6 months to 2 years to train. That’s the 25th to 75th per­centile.

16:50: Male board mem­ber: Where do you hire from?

16:58: Elie: Col­lege grads who go to top 25 schools who are in­ter­ested in effec­tive al­tru­ism. Same is mostly true of op­er­a­tions staff. Pri­mar­ily en­try level gen­er­al­ists. We now know what we need and hope to fill (17:10). Plan to not hire as many of those types, to hire more spe­cific roles. In­stead of hiring a gen­er­al­ist to learn ac­count­ing, to hire some­one who knows that (17:36).

17:58: Male board mem­ber: How many have you brought in who are not en­try-level?

18:02: Elie: Very few. Open Phil has bunch of se­nior hires.

18:50–19:14: Male board mem­ber: How much of it is them com­ing to you vs you go­ing to them?

19:18: Elie: Hard to say, but very gen­er­ally most peo­ple are in­ter­ested in us, rather than us post­ing on job boards, for GW.

19:33: Cari(?): Differ­ent for Open Phil.

19:38: Holden: GW is more difficult to hire for in some ways, it’s got its own style, its own mis­sion, its own kind of in­tel­lec­tual way of un­cov­er­ing things and of dis­cov­er­ing things. Open Phil feels more like a lot of the hard work goes in on the cause se­lec­tion. A lot of the most idiosyn­cratic things about us are around the cause se­lec­tion, and it be­comes eas­ier to say there are cer­tain qual­ifi­ca­tions that would pre­pare some­one for a role here.

20:14: Fe­male board mem­ber: Is the rea­son peo­ple are new be­cause the older peo­ple moved on to Open Phil?

20:21: Holden: There is some of that. Tran­si­tion that took place start­ing in 2013. Alexan­der, Howie, and I – Alexan­der and I have done that for a while now.

21:10: Elie: Just go­ing through our first round of turnover, where peo­ple who we hired 3 years ago are de­cid­ing to move on. In con­ver­sa­tions with us, doesn’t seem like good long-term fit for them. Un­til re­cently hasn’t hap­pened at all. Sur­prised.

Rele­vant here is Milan Griffes, who worked at GiveWell from Au­gust 2014 to May 2016 and who re­cently pub­lished a post about his ex­pe­rience, where he lists “the ob­ject-level work didn’t al­ign well with my in­ter­ests” as a rea­son for leav­ing GiveWell.

24:47: Male board mem­ber: The way I think of it, GW has a CEO and it’s Elie, Open Phil has a CEO and it’s Holden. Is that ac­cu­rate?

25:14: Elie: Suc­ces­sion plan­ning? Think it’s helpful to move through the top­ics and then come back to open-ended top­ics.

26:00: Male board mem­ber: Where do you guys see the up­per thresh­olds of GW/​Open Phil on head­counts?

26:23: Elie: I don’t have a use­ful an­swer. It’s pos­si­ble GW is the same size or smaller, or all growth hap­pens on the out­reach side. And we re­ally don’t know right now.

27:20: Fe­male board mem­ber: Now you have 8 months of re­serves. Talk about this in con­text of growth.

28:00: Elie: Best guess is GV will fund 100% of Open Phil costs. So GW-spe­cific fund­ing will sur­pass bud­get needs. So in hold­ing pat­tern. Since this big ex­pense of Open Phil is go­ing to come off. Tried to com­mu­ni­cate this to donors (to 29:00).

29:20: Male board mem­ber: Ma­jor eco­nomic down­turn? What would hap­pen? Sin­gu­lar­ity starts (joke)?

29:52: Elie: We haven’t done ma­jor as­sess­ment. But ma­jor back­ers have suffi­cient as­sets. 30:07: If we caused the catas­tro­phe – the equiv­a­lent of Me­taFilter but in 2017 – that could ob­vi­ously cause us un­known dam­age. Holden: Peo­ple need to be­lieve in us to sup­port us through that kind of thing.

32:10: Male board mem­ber: Strange cat­e­gories for the bud­get. $12k in travel?

34:28: Elie: Stan­dard en­try-level salary is $50k. We even pay peo­ple higher than Holden and Elie, to pay mar­ket value.

34:55: Male board mem­ber: This pre­sen­ta­tion not helpful in pro­vid­ing mean­ingful over­sight. I don’t feel like I’m do­ing my job as a board mem­ber.

35:28: Elie: It’s up to you if you wanna vote now. How can we im­prove how we func­tion. I agree with what Tim is say­ing. I agree that you can’t en­gage with it in a mean­ingful way right now.

Ex­ec­u­tive compensation

See also At­tach­ment F, “Ex­ec­u­tive com­pen­sa­tion re­view and pro­posal”, as well as in­for­ma­tion on the le­gal re­quire­ments sur­round­ing ex­ec­u­tive com­pen­sa­tion ap­proval (see 4A, which starts on page 3).

36:10: Elie: We should now move to ex­ec­u­tive com­pen­sa­tion. Changed the amounts, the rest of the doc­u­ment is ex­actly the same.

38:00: Male board mem­ber: I’ve always strug­gled look­ing at these figures. Should I add the two (Holden and Elie) to look at them to­gether? What’s up with “co-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor”? With the im­pend­ing split, should we vote for just one ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor?

38:38: Elie: At the end of 2017, we ex­pect 1. That’s why we show CEO and COO salaries. It seems rea­son­able. Data not always available.

39:38: Holden: Offi­cially next year we should up­date the salary com­par­i­sons.

40:55: Holden: If do­ing ex­tra work would mean only make the work higher and we’re not ask­ing for more, we’re happy to skip.

41:13: Male board mem­ber: You guys are in a funny po­si­tion be­cause you’re try­ing to pre­sent this as ob­jec­tive re­al­ity, but is this what you want?

41:32: Elie: You should look at this as what we want.

42:55: Male board mem­ber: Re­place­ment costs of CEO might be higher than in­creas­ing salaries (con­tin­u­ing op­er­a­tions). Suc­ces­sion plan?

43:26: Holden: Salary is not a ma­jor thing there.

44:18: Holden: We look at our pay, we look at what we want. We come up with a num­ber that feels good to us. Be­ing more thor­ough would only lead to a higher num­ber. 44:54: We would do more thor­ough re­search if we felt it was nec­es­sary.

45:26: Unan­i­mous ap­proval (af­ter pause in record­ing).

48:40: Elie: Vir­tu­ally all con­tent is backed up in mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions. There are things we are will­ing to lose, since not ab­solutely catas­trophic to do so.

Re­la­tion­ship with Good Ventures

See also At­tach­ment E, “Nar­ra­tive sum­mary of rev­enue changes and fore­casts”, which dis­cusses fund­ing from Good Ven­tures.

49:30: Elie: GV check-in top­ics. The rea­son we do this is Cari is in the office. One con­cern is if Cari – a big fun­der – be­ing in the office is caus­ing prob­lems. Things con­tinue to go well; just plan­ning to take ques­tions.

Au­dio cuts at 50:18.

50:30: Holden: GW is not de­pen­dent on GV, even af­ter split. More like we’re part­ners be­tween Holden and Cari. Big is­sue if one of us left. Open Phil would take ad­van­tage of part­ner­ship, or run in a stripped down way. 51:59: Cari and Dustin aren’t tied down, they have their own thing (GV).

52:35: Male board mem­ber: Does Open Phil plan to so­licit fund­ing other than GV?

52:37: Holden: Yes, but we’re still a long way from spend­ing Cari and Dustin’s money. We’re just re­ally try­ing to in­crease room for money moved. There’s donors I could go to (53:37) but they’re not the size of GV. It would be a mas­sive pro­ject if I wanted to get to­gether enough donors to be like an­other GV. But even­tu­ally (54:24) we’d want to do it.

Pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion of the board

56:56: Elie: Alexan­der is here. (57:13) Sugges­tion Rob had is to make sub­com­mit­tees for differ­ent top­ics. Board pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion, mak­ing meet­ings more effi­cient. Plan is to fol­low-up in­di­vi­d­u­ally af­ter the meet­ing.

1:01:59: Male board mem­ber: Un­clear what goals I’m try­ing to provide as a board mem­ber. A bunch have in­vested in Holden and Elie’s vi­sion. We’re not spend­ing a lot of money on GW but send­ing it off to oth­ers, so less con­cern. What is the goal of the board? Is it as a sound­ing board for the CEOs to help them in their vi­sion?

1:07:48: Lots of stuff about the role of board mem­bers and “pro­tect­ing the mis­sion” and so on.

Fu­ture of GiveWell

1:08:10: Male board mem­ber: I worry that GW mo­men­tum might stall be­cause a lot of where effort was most in­vested is be­ing taken out (as Open Phil).

1:09:10: Elie: Most of the big donors don’t know Open Phil ex­ists, don’t care it ex­ists. They know GW, and that’s what they love about it.

1:10:10: Holden: Fine by me even if GW just gets a new char­ity ev­ery 10 years and just ex­ists and grows with­out do­ing any­thing to­tally new.

1:12:00: Elie: Big­ger donors are more so­phis­ti­cated and ask the so­phis­ti­cated ques­tion of “What should the re­sources be de­voted to what­ever the GiveWell product is?”. It might just take one full-time staff to main­tain GW. And that’s a great out­come.

1:13:00: Holden: It’s pos­si­ble that GW is just a pro­ject that fulfils an im­por­tant func­tion with a man­age­able amount of staff and the money moved could keep grow­ing more than the op­er­at­ing ex­penses keep grow­ing, which would be great.

1:14:14: Elie: I don’t think the challenge is this new­ness in philan­thropy as much as a gen­eral worry or skep­ti­cism that GiveWell is do­ing its job if the recom­men­da­tions stay the same. Maybe there will come a time when that be­comes a prob­lem.

1:15:00: Male board mem­ber: There are a num­ber of things GW could do that would be ex­ten­sions of what they’re do­ing cur­rently.

1:15:50: Holden: I think there’s a few differ­ent paths for what GW does in the next few years. Keep do­ing what it’s do­ing? Or do more ad­vo­cacy, con­sult­ing, or out­reach? Or find ways to have more top char­i­ties (not Holden’s fa­vorite)? Fa­vorite: try to seed the next top char­i­ties. That’s what we’re do­ing with GW ex­per­i­men­tal work.

1:16:55: GiveWell Labs is dead → Open Phil.

1:17:15: Elie: GiveWell ex­per­i­men­tal: could fund star­tups, mon­i­tor­ing, RCTs, etc., but with the goal of get­ting a new GW top char­ity. Could live in Open Phil long term.

1:23:22: Holden: Com­ments on which of the “four paths” for GW are best?

Com­peti­tors to GiveWell

1:24:14: Male board mem­ber: Any com­peti­tors to GW from out­side? I know there are a few that “feed on” what GW is do­ing.

1:24:27: Elie: No, not re­ally.

1:24:51: Elie, on Im­pactMat­ters: Dean Kar­lan et al. have deep dives on or­ga­ni­za­tions and ask similar ques­tions, but not as deep as GW, and not clear it will lead to recom­men­da­tions for donors.

1:25:37: Holden: Slo­gan on their web­site: “Choose a cause with your heart, then give with your head.” So it’s like 31 fla­vors. Between Char­ity Nav­i­ga­tor and GiveWell. But they give recom­men­da­tions based on what you already want.

1:27:27: Elie: Holden has been the main blog­ger for the past 10 years, so now that he’s work­ing on Open Phil, get­ting some of the other staff to par­ti­ci­pate in that has been challeng­ing.

1:28:55: Elie: Non-GV money might go down be­cause so much de­pends on what the top donors are do­ing. 80%+ re­ten­tion? But this might be un­der-re­ported.

GiveWell staff compensation

1:29:43: Elie: GW staff com­pen­sa­tion. For a long time it was driven by a startup mind­set. We ac­tively re­cruit peo­ple who will earn less than what they could earn el­se­where. Which worked well. But as staff ma­tured, we did mar­ket-value com­par­i­sons for roles that we had. Pri­mar­ily the same stuff as we did for ex­ec­u­tive com­pen­sa­tion. That plus liv­ing cost ad­just­ments. We’ll do that this year, but hard to see in the bud­get. No sig­nifi­cant changes or low­ered salary. We’re grow­ing from ex­plic­itly ex­pect­ing peo­ple to make less to be­ing more rea­son­able.

1:32:50: Elie and Holden: No rea­son to ex­pect GW and Open Phil will have sep­a­rate takes on this salary thing. GW ex­penses could grow as we get out of this “startup mode”.

1:33:55: Elie: Very roughly in the 10%–20% range for raises.

1:34:05: Holden: Peo­ple are gonna raise fam­i­lies in the Bay Area.

Commentary

My gen­eral im­pres­sion re­gard­ing the split of Open Phil from GiveWell is that it will make track­ing cer­tain things about GiveWell eas­ier. For in­stance, there seems to be some con­fu­sion about ex­actly how many staff mem­bers GiveWell has, and how much of the bud­get goes to them, which will be­come clearer af­ter the split. At the same time, some board mem­bers ex­pressed con­cern that with a large part of GiveWell be­ing taken out as Open Phil, GiveWell might lose mo­men­tum (though Holden and Elie seem to deny this). For my part, it’s not clear to me that Open Phil will have the same stan­dards for trans­parency that GiveWell cur­rently has, so that with Open Phil offi­cially sep­a­rate from GiveWell, it might be­come im­pos­si­ble to ob­tain in­for­ma­tion of that sort we have on it now (through board meet­ings, for in­stance). There are some other in­di­ca­tions of this; for in­stance Holden writes:

Ex­plain­ing our opinions in writ­ing is fun­da­men­tal to the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject’s DNA, but we need to be care­ful to stop this from dis­tort­ing our de­ci­sion-mak­ing. I fear that when con­sid­er­ing a grant, our staff are likely to think ahead to how they’ll jus­tify the grant in our pub­lic writeup and shy away if it seems like too tall an or­der – in par­tic­u­lar, when the case seems too com­plex and re­li­ant on diffuse, hard-to-sum­ma­rize in­for­ma­tion. This is a bias we don’t want to have. If we fo­cused on is­sues that were easy to ex­plain to out­siders with lit­tle back­ground knowl­edge, we’d be fo­cus­ing on is­sues that likely have broad ap­peal, and we’d have more trou­ble fo­cus­ing on ne­glected ar­eas.

Re­gard­ing staff growth and ex­ec­u­tive com­pen­sa­tion, see my pre­vi­ous efforts at try­ing to track those at my pages on those top­ics:

Licensing

GiveWell’s work is li­censed un­der the Creative Com­mons At­tri­bu­tion-NonCom­mer­cial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States li­cense. As an adap­ta­tion con­tain­ing a rough tran­script, this post in­her­its this li­cense.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Vipul Naik for his in­put while I was writ­ing this post. All im­perfec­tions are my own.

The writ­ing of this post was spon­sored by Vipul Naik.