The hardest part about fundraising for GiveWell

May marked my three-year anniversary as a Philanthropy Advisor at GiveWell. It’s a job I adore (as I’ve written about here and here), and I’ve recently been tasked with the exciting process of interviewing candidates for our growing team.
One of the best questions I’ve been asked in this process is: What’s the hardest part about fundraising for GiveWell? The short answer: GiveWell is funding constrained, but we can’t point at a specific opportunity and say, “If you donate now, here’s the impact your donation will actually cause.”
Instead, our answer is fairly abstract, and pretty far from traditional fundraising language. We tell donors that we would spend additional money on opportunities at or above our cost-effectiveness bar (which translates to saving a life for about $5,000), but we’re unable to explain in advance precisely what we will allocate additional funds to. That answer isn’t as compelling as telling someone a vivid story about how their money alone would allow us to fund a great program we’ll otherwise have to decline, but it has the advantage of being completely accurate and true.
It’s natural that people aligned with GiveWell’s approach would ask about the true impact their funds unlock, and also about what would happen if they don’t give. After all, these are key questions1To learn more about how we fund, check out our “How We Work” blog series. jQuery(‘#footnote_plugin_tooltip_14984_1_1’).tooltip({ tip: ‘#footnote_plugin_tooltip_text_14984_1_1’, tipClass: ‘footnote_tooltip’, effect: ‘fade’, predelay: 0, fadeInSpeed: 200, delay: 400, fadeOutSpeed: 200, position: ‘top right’, relative: true, offset: [10, 10], }); we think about as a funder. Donors make careful decisions about how much to give, when to give, and where to allocate gifts according to their priorities; to make those decisions, they need to know what we’d do with their money and what we would be prevented from doing if they don’t donate.
But the GiveWell research process doesn’t lend itself to easy answers to these questions. So indulge me, if you will, in an extended metaphor:
I’m at the grocery store shopping for a huge dinner party. I choose everything on my list, get to the checkout, and realize I don’t have enough money to cover my selections. I choose a few things to put back, and then the kind bystander behind me magnanimously steps up to

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