Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving, examining the best places to work among social good businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Denver: And tonight, you’ll be going out to Oakland, California to the headquarter offices of GiveWell. They search for charities that save and improve lives the most per dollar. We’ll begin with their Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Elie Hassenfeld, and then hear from some of the other members of the team.
Elie: We want to be an example to the nonprofit sector. We’re not… in the for-profit sector, companies are in competition with each other. In the nonprofit sector, we’re not in competition with anyone. We are working together. If someone could create a better GiveWell and do our job better than we do, we should go out of business. That would be great. That wouldn’t be bad. We want to put as much information out there in public to both help other organizations be more effective, but also to demonstrate that transparency is a better way for the nonprofit sector to operate because it will make it easier for all of us to accomplish our goals more effectively.
Tracy: GiveWell, broadly speaking, its mission is to use reason and evidence to make as big of an impact on the world right now as possible. The longer I’ve been at GiveWell, the more I realized that when there is a blind spot, GiveWell can correct its path and go in that direction. It is certainly a lot of work and it’s certainly very difficult, but that trust in the trajectory can certainly smooth over a lot of the day to day things that are difficult.
Michael: There is a clear understanding of where we currently are but also never-ending push to continually improve upon what we’re doing and become a better organization – whether that’s experiments in our outreach work to be able to move more money to cost-effective charities or it’s new experiments and research in order to find even more cost-effective opportunities to give in addition to where we’re already giving.
Gaby: They’re actually very transparent and I loved it. I think it’s great. I think it makes it so that people are not passive-aggressive. I think there’s a lot of direct communication. People say how they feel and you actually get – you fix problems because of that. You’re just so much more time-efficient and I think people are really on the same page because you’re just encouraged from day one to be open about everything that you’re feeling.
Tracy: Even though the types of communication can be casual, I think the actual things that we are communicating, these substantive ideas are extremely rigorous, and we try to be as comprehensive and intense about each one of those things as possible – whether it’s the big picture decision over where do we direct millions of dollars of funding, or even very small things like do we prefer this phrase or that phrase, and have a vote over it. And some of the discussions about minutia in language have been some of the most in-depth discussions that I’ve been a part of at GiveWell, and everyone is hopefully comfortable expressing their opinions because I think we all really care about being as correct and as rigorous as possible.
Natalie: I think there’s just a lot of benefits of transparency for the people we interact with outside of GiveWell in terms of explaining to donors and partners why we make the recommendations we do and adding what we’ve learned to the space, so that others can use it as well. But the way I really sort of feel it day to day is through the process it makes us go through of writing down and justifying our decisions, and through that process, often realizing that we haven’t fully explored some piece of work. We don’t actually fully buy into a reason for doing something, and there are additional ways of looking at it that we should think about and so that has been very helpful. I think one of the most common pieces of feedback I have gotten here is, “Can you summarize that? Can you bring that to a higher level? And if you’re not able to sort of make clear what your major reasons are for something, then you haven’t done the job of the research.”
Catherine: We have a public page on our website where we talk about big mistakes that we’ve made as an organization. So that’s something that we really commit to sharing publicly with everyone. And it’s actually a really common thing that we hear about when people first come across our website, that it really stands out to them that we have a tab that’s right at the top along with our top charities and all the other information that is a list of major organizational mistakes we’ve made.
Natalie: So one thing we really try to do is have transparency between managers and the people they manage. So that the sort of rule of thumb is if someone like the executive director comes in and asks both of those people separately, “How do you think you’re doing job-performance wise? What is your job satisfaction?” that both people would answer the same thing and both would be accurate. I’m sure that we’re not always quite making the mark on that, but it’s something we really strive for.
Tracy: What is the process that most closely mimics the roles and responsibilities that we would like this person to feel? So if it’s on the research side, we want to have a process that actually can tease out a lot of the softer, harder to define research skills that we think are very important to being a really great contributor at GiveWell. When we try to define them with words, I think it can often be pretty vague and hard to understand. We really value strong communication and really strong critical thinking skills, which I think are pretty hard to grasp in the abstract, but throughout the process we try to make that more tangible by assigning research projects that can tease out some of these skills.
Gaby: You get paid for these assignments…like that is huge. I think this is the only organization that I’ve had experiences with personally and also my friends, just anecdotal stuff that it’s like, “Oh, I’m actually getting paid for these work assignments.”
Tracy: It was a very open-ended assignment. We didn’t have lots of really concrete constraints about like: Here are the five questions you need to answer. It was really just what is the policy that GiveWell should have? And when we’re able to compare all of the applicant’s submissions, it can be a lot easier to see this person really grasps the most important factors of what it’s like to work at GiveWell or this person would be able to mesh really well with the people who will report to them or the person who manages them and be able to potentially steer GiveWell in a direction that we think would be productive as an organization. I guess the last relevant thing during the hiring process is that we also try to incorporate some of these softer things by giving applicants at the end of the process a chance to work closely with either senior management or someone who will probably be their manager once if they are hired.
Michael: One dimension on which diversity, equity, and inclusion is important is to have more people in the organization with lived experiences in the places where we fund, so in low- and middle-income countries, having lived experience in those places. I just really want to emphasize that we have two characteristics about our recruitment process that make it particularly amenable for people to apply who come from non-traditional backgrounds or come from having lots of lived experience or growing up in low- and middle-income countries. The first and most importantly is we sponsor visas. This is huge. A lot of us employers do not sponsor visas. We do sponsor visas. We are willing to sponsor visas for the right candidate. And so, this makes us able to compete on a global labor market when oftentimes many other employers are not competing on a global labor market.
Tracy: We fly out all of our remote employees to our office out in the Bay area for one week every quarter. I think we’ve done a pretty good job at developing work processes that are inclusive for people who are not in the office. In addition to people who are based in New York, many of the staff here also work frequently from home or elsewhere that’s just not the office. So, we’re very used to having meetings where half the people call in. It doesn’t feel like a burden to try to loop in people via video or phone. We also have these things called “Beams.” They’re like a screen that can be moved around the office remotely. So, someone on their laptop in New York can video conference into this screen and move the screen around the office to get to whatever meetings that they have. And I think during the actual conversations at the table, they can pivot and look at the person who’s talking rather than being a fixed screen where they are just hearing some disembodied voice off to the side.
Catherine: I think one thing that makes meetings here really good is that they happen with purpose. So you get the agenda going in, there’s preparatory reading that everyone’s on the same page about how much of it they need to do. And then, at the start of each topic that’s covered in a meeting. The person who’s leading a topic will give a high-level summary. And then everyone has an opportunity, both before the meeting and typically for a few minutes during the meeting, to add their questions to a shared workplace tool is called Asana, and you can vote for questions that you’re most interested to hear answers to. So, it’s kind of democratic like that the questions that most people want to hear about, we’ll start there. And then there’s also opportunity to kind of freeform follow-up.
Natalie: So one of my favorite moments of the last few years is that this year marked my 10th year at GiveWell and we had a little lunch with my team to mark the occasion. The team had put together a cost-effectiveness model of the impact of working at GiveWell for 10 years and had traced out what the difference in cost-effectiveness was between the organizations that we supported because of our research versus the ones that we likely redirected that funding from and the amount of time that went into it. And it was a really sort of exciting to see what you can achieve through that research and was definitely motivating and touching to get that from the team.
Catherine: So we have kind of one way that we can recognize people in an ongoing way that’s sort of very easy to do but is very exciting when you’re recognized there or see something there – we use Slack to communicate as an office and we have a Wins channel. So when someone does something great, it gets posted in Wins. We probably have something in wins a couple times a week.
Michael: We do like on Fridays, for example, we have this fun little game on Slack called Wikipedia Game where we try and find the fastest route between the GiveWell Wikipedia page and like some random Wikipedia page. So that’s like a fun little activity. One member of the team, Olivia, has been really adamant about like advocating for monochrome Monday where everybody dresses in monochrome on Mondays.
Natalie: Nerdiness is definitely celebrated. We have another Slack channel. It’s the Welcome to GiveWell channel where it’s really all about celebrating nerdiness.
Denver: I want to extend my thanks to all those who participated in this piece: Catherine Hollander, Gaby Quintana, Tracy Williams, Michael Eddy, and Natalie Crispin. To hear this again, read the transcript, or see pictures of the participants and the offices of GiveWell, simply come visit denver-frederick.com where we’ll have a link to my full interview with Elie Hassenfeld, the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of GiveWell.
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