The Business of Giving Visits the Offices of GiveDirectly

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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: This evening, we’re headed over to Irving Place of Manhattan to visit the New York offices of GiveDirectly. GiveDirectly aims to reshape international giving by sending money directly to people living in extreme poverty. And when Fast Company recently named their 10 most innovative nonprofits, GiveDirectly popped up as number two on that list. So, I thought we would go over there to find out what makes them tick.

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Piali: At GiveDirectly, we are pretty ruthlessly focused on the execution and high-quality execution at that, and really creating clear accountability around the metrics that we think are going to shift the needle in terms of the changes that we want to affect in the sector. And so a lot of the times, what that really comes down to is  actual dollars put in the hands of poor households that we’re enrolling in our program and not KPIs that are incidental to that but really that core metric of getting money to very poor people.  We’re looking at ways to embed that more explicitly in terms of how we think about compensation and performance and bonuses for people so that we can really get everybody marching to that tune. I think that’s really a core part of how we think about success and good culture at GiveDirectly.

Max: Like in our world that prioritizes data, we have, for instance, internal dashboards via Segovia and Tableau and other software that basically shows how well we’re doing against various specific metrics and they’re like coded different colors and you can very clearly see how the team is performing against certain metrics. We also have this dashboard in our office, for instance, that shows how many recipients, how much money we’ve raised, what that converts to in terms of how many recipients we’ve served, and so these constant reminders of both performing against metrics and then also using data to determine whether or not we’re succeeding.

Matt: It’s been really interesting for me and my time here at GiveDirectly to employ a different set of values to my work and to think about a hypersensitivity to transparency and to complete respect for our recipients, so that really what I need to do here is just tell it like it is, tell the truth in as direct and simple of a way as possible at all times. There’s no spin, there’s no hyperbole, there’s no exaggeration of how exciting our programs are. We really have a deep cultural value of honesty and transparency and just telling people what the real story on the ground is.

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Caroline: Working at GiveDirectly basically over the last nine months have been quite an experience for me. This is something that has been quite uplifting for me because when you come into an organization as a staff, one thing that you look for is not too [keen], but a challenge that is worth your time, something that challenges your brain, something that challenges your career path and pushes you to work harder each day. It is exactly what I’ve got here at GiveDirectly.

Piali: We’ve made it kind of an explicit value and principle to not be the kind of culture that gets bogged down in excessive e-mails and meetings. I think we view those as purely instrumental tools to getting to good decisions and moving things forward. So we’re pretty strict and default to asking the question of “Do we need to gather these five people together or can we throw something in the Google Doc or exchange an email in way that can get through a decision much more quickly?” I think folks that have joined the team from bigger companies or from different environments are often kind of heartened initially to see that because of that, decisions get made quite quickly and I think that’s been critical to our ability to grow fast and iterate on the product in a way that we have.

Matt: For me, the biggest driver of our culture is actually our hiring strategy and it’s something that we spend a lot of time thinking about and iterating on. We have a general policy here to kind of skew more towards people with more of a generalist background, people who are highly intelligent, have proven that they can produce really strong work in a variety of different context throughout their career but don’t necessarily come from the nonprofit sector and don’t necessarily have a 10- or 20- or 30 years of deep domain expertise in the specific functional realm that we’re looking to hire for. We tend to hire people who are a little more generalist, who we then trust that they kind of figure it out.

Joe: It’s a sort of technical, analytical process of taking in all the data we take on recipients and saying “who should we follow up with again to make sure we got it right?” This was a real PowerPoint deck we’ve seen in a call recently and I just started sending it to candidates and saying “I want to talk about this when we have a chance to talk.” We’d go there and I’d of give a little bit of an explanation and we talk through does it make sense, how would you approach this problem, where do you think Well (the person who made the presentation) is making a mistake or not. And I found both of those to give you a good sense of how they approach problems and how they think.

Max: I think the culture is intellectual and casual and very open. In the way that Matt was describing like here are the types of people that generally GiveDirectly hires and that stay at GiveDirectly, that naturally produces this sort of generalist…everyone is interested in what other people are doing in like a probing, sort of curious way. I think that’s really cool. I think it’s very friendly. People are very supportive of other people.

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Joe: The other thing I’d add on culture is there’s a sort of intensity to it. We care a lot about quality in basically every facet of what we’re doing and the bar for a good email to donors or a good interaction with recipients or even a sort of a good decision on just about anything I think is really high that we value a certain level of strong reasoning, a certain level of quality in how we write about GiveDirectly or quality in what our finances look like, and I think that pervades every different part of the organization.

Denver: I want to thank Paul Niehaus, the President of GiveDirectly, for allowing us to visit their offices, and to those who participated – Max Chapnick, Matt Johnson, Caroline Teti, Piali Mukhopadhyay, and Joe Houston. Come to denverfrederick.wordpress.com to hear this again, and while you’re there, we’ll have a link to my full interview with the President of GiveDirectly, Paul Niehaus.

The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving

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