June 2016 GiveWell board meeting
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.
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.
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.
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). 2⁄3 expenses Open Phil, other 1⁄3 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.