Our approach to processing undesignated donations

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Though GiveWell donors typically indicate how they would like their donations to be designated—e.g., for the support of one or more specific recommended charities, or for granting at GiveWell’s discretion—we occasionally receive donations without any designation information. It is important to us that donors understand our process for handling these donations: as a general rule, we treat all undesignated donations as unrestricted gifts, which means they will most likely be used to fund GiveWell’s operating expenses.

In this post, we will:

  1. Discuss undesignated donations more in-depth and outline our rationale for treating them as unrestricted gifts.
  2. Explain how our thinking on processing these types of donations has evolved over time to better meet our donations processing goals—to make it easy for donors to communicate their designation preferences, be transparent about where donations are allocated, and keep our administrative costs low.
  3. Provide information on how to make sure that, as a donor, your designation preferences are communicated to us.

If you have any questions about the designation of a future or past donation to GiveWell, please email us at donations@givewell.org.

What is an undesignated donation?

GiveWell grants most of the donations we receive to our top and standout charities. Donors usually indicate which organizations they prefer to support with their donation—we refer to this as a designation. On our donation forms, donors can choose one or more recommended charities, grants to recommended charities for granting at our discretion, or unrestricted (which we will likely use for GiveWell’s operating expenses).

Donors giving online through our website must select one or more designation options when making a donation. However, we occasionally receive donations through other payment methods—e.g., checks, wire transfers, securities donations, or donations through employer giving platforms such as Benevity—that do not include any designation information.

Our current process and how our thinking has evolved

As a general practice, when a donor does not communicate a designation to us, we treat their donation as unrestricted funding. If the donor has provided us with an email or physical address, we send them an email or letter and ask if they would prefer to have their donation designated differently.

Our initial process when receiving undesignated donations was to designate them according to the donor’s past giving history (when applicable). For example, if a donor had previously given in support of Against Malaria Foundation and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, we would designate their subsequent donations accordingly.

However, in practice, we learned that the process of determining a donor’s pattern of giving is often time-consuming and prone to error. Donors may support a variety of charities with donations in varying amounts, and since our recommendation for what charities to support changes over time, it is reasonable to expect that donors’ preferences for where to allocate their gifts would also change from how they’ve given in the past. Due to the subjective nature of this process, we found it required a significant amount of time and resources to be spent on donations processing and auditing.

Another option for undesignated donations that we considered was allocating these gifts to our discretionary fund for recommended charities. We believed that donors might expect undesignated donations to go toward GiveWell’s most up-to-date recommended allocation. We have not systematically surveyed donors, but our impression from speaking with donors in the past is that some donors expected undesignated donations to support our recommended charities (at our discretion), while others preferred that we decide whether to allocate their donation to our operations or to our recommended charities.

A desire for a more standardized and transparent process led us to our current approach. Allocating gifts without clear designations towards unrestricted funds simplifies our donations and accounting processes, which in turn lowers the administrative cost of these processes. It also provides donors with more agency to choose another designation, if they wish—we are less likely to grant out unrestricted gifts to one or more of our recommended charities before donors have a chance to follow up on our no-designation email or letter and request a different designation.

How to communicate or modify a designation

To ensure that your donation to GiveWell is designated according to your preference, please be sure to email us back at donations@givewell.org if you receive an email or letter from us that indicates your donation did not include a specific designation.

To ensure that your designation preferences are communicated to us at the time when we receive your donation:

  • Be sure to fill out and enclose this form with each check you send. It is also helpful to add a note about the designation on the check itself. (If you are a recurring check donor and find it burdensome to fill out the check form with each donation, you may communicate your designation preferences for future donations via email at donations@givewell.org. Some online banking platforms will also allow you to add a memo to a recurring check payment that will appear on each check.)
  • If giving by bank transfer, please fill out this form before donating and indicate your designation preference.
  • If donating securities, please fill out this form before donating and indicate your designation preference.
  • If donating through an employer giving platform such as Benevity, be sure to select the charity or charities you would like to support, or indicate this in the comment section along with your donation.
  • If you are donating through a donor-advised fund (managed by, e.g., Vanguard or Schwab Charitable), please be sure to include your designation in the paperwork you submit to recommend a grant to GiveWell. You may also communicate your designation to us via email at donations@givewell.org. Note that we treat donations from donor-advised funds that are designated “Where it is needed most” as unrestricted funding.
  • When submitting paperwork for a matching donation from your employer, be sure to specify how you would like the match to be designated. We treat all employer matches without a clear designation as unrestricted funding.

Donors are always welcome to email us at donations@givewell.org with any questions about the designation process or to communicate a designation for their future donations.

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