Understanding GiveDirectly’s finances

Last updated December 20, 2019

Non-profit finances can be opaque and complex. We want GiveDirectly’s to be straightforward. Below we explain what we spend, how we do it, and how you can keep us honest. We’ll update this page each time we release our annual financial statements and 990 filing. For more on the impact of our spending, please see our summary of the evidence on cash transfers.

Financial statements and 990 filings

Do we spend funds efficiently?

Our spending has increased dramatically over the last few years. What has stayed constant: cash transfers (i.e., the funds that wind up in the hands of recipients) make up the vast majority of what we spend, with a small portion of our budget going towards the cost of delivering cash transfers, and an even smaller portion towards fundraising. Our $30M basic income project drove the sharp increase in committed cash transfers in 2018.

We manage the organization as two distinct business units, (1) cash delivery (Cash transfers plus delivery cost) and (2) raising funds to deliver as cash, with a core performance metric for each.

Cash transfersAmount of cash committed to recipients. Efficiency: Cash transfers / (Cash transfers + cost of delivery)
Delivery costsAll costs associated with delivering transfers (FX fees, staff time, rent, etc.)Efficiency: Cash transfers / (Cash transfers + cost of delivery)
FundraisingAny time spent talking to donors or press, updating the website, etc.Cost per dollar raised: Spending on fundraising / revenue raised

These business units are worth separating because:

  1. They’re usually funded by different donors (more),
  2. They’re logically separable (e.g., we could take fundraising spending to zero, leave a static website up, and continue to deliver cash), and
  3. Strong performance looks different for each.

We review each of these metrics in more detail below.


We define efficiency as the total cash transfers committed to recipients divided by all of the funding we spend on cash transfers and the costs of delivering those cash transfers. Efficiency is the proportion of each donated dollar that ends up in the hands of recipients. For the non-cash portion (“delivery costs”), we include everything that’s not fundraising: ranging from parts of our NY office rent and time spent by our senior management, to the salaries of field officers going door to door to sign people up to receive cash, to the withdrawal fees recipients pay mobile money agents in order to withdraw funds.

Over time, our organization-wide efficiency has declined modestly, but continues to be quite high. We’ve made two long-term decisions that have driven the decline:

  1. Investing in increasing GiveDirectly’s capacity to deliver more cash. Through investments in technology and our team, we’ve made a conscious effort to increase our capacity to deliver more funds to people in need. These investments aren’t free, but as we receive more funding (especially, flexible funding), we expect our efficiency to increase.
  2. Implementing “special projects” that are less efficient but are more likely change how the aid sector operates as a whole. Over the last several years, we’ve chosen to conduct over a dozen randomized controlled trials and about as many non-experimental special projects. The goal of these projects is to influence the development sector broadly (e.g., by setting a benchmark) by generating evidence and spurring conversation. These projects are often less efficient than our other programs (“Rolling” below) because (1) they may entail smaller total amounts of money transferred to households, (2) they can be more complex or require coordination with more third parties, and (3) there are project-level fixed costs that can be a greater proportion of smaller projects.
Annual spending

Cost per dollar raised

We measure how well we invest in fundraising through dividing how much we spend on fundraising by revenue raised. Over time, while our revenue is more volatile than our spending, it has typically grown with increases in funds invested and we’ve maintained a ratio of roughly $0.05 spent per dollar raised.

Annual spending

GiveDirectly’s performance on this measure ranks in the top half of elite non-profits.

Note: these non-profits are a mix of well known non-profits and ones who work in areas similar to those where we work. All received 3-4 stars from Charity Navigator. For GiveDirectly, the value shown is from 2018. For others, it reflects a 5 year average (in keeping with Charity Navigator’s methodology).

What about “overhead”?

The traditional way to determine whether a non-profit is efficient is to look at whether its “overhead” is appropriately low. Those taking this approach usually define “overhead” as the amount spent on fundraising and “global management and general” divided by total spending. Unlike efficiency, “overhead” doesn’t actually tell you how much value reaches the people we’re trying to help.

Our biggest concerns about “overhead” –– and why we don’t report it as an organization –– are:

  1. It’s open to manipulation. Partly, the distinction between what’s spent on “program” and what’s spent on “management” is open to manipulation, and –– as many have noted –– it’s not clear why “overhead” spending on high quality management should be penalized relative to spending on program services.
  2. It can hide costs of bureaucracy. Also, because sub-grants to other organizations count toward program services, organizations that primarily re-grant what they receive after taking a cut for “overhead” will look efficient, even though they may help comprise a heavily intermediated system which leaves little of value left over for the people it’s meant to help.

That said, while we don’t think it’s is a particularly useful concept, GiveDirectly’s lean model scores very highly on traditional “overhead” measures.

non-profit overhead compared

In the appendix, we provide additional detail to help compare “overhead” and efficiency, as well as the numbers presented in our 990 filing with our audited financials.

What we spend on

2018 spending

Aside from cash transfers, where does the money go?

As you’d guess from our efficiency numbers, the vast majority of our operations spending goes toward cash transfers.

2018 spending delivery costs only

What are our delivery costs?

Our delivery costs are spread fairly evenly between personnel, software, and shared costs from our country and NY offices, as well as regional or global management time.

The table below provides examples of each line item:

Line itemExplanation
Sub-grant for UBI research costsWhile we typically don’t route research funding through GiveDirectly, we raised and delivered funds to Innovations for Poverty Action to cover part of the research costs for the basic income project.
Global operations shared costsSpending on management or data investments that support cash transfer projects across multiple countries, but do not support fundraising. Allocated by budget proportions.
Non-US/UK country office shared costsCountry-level costs split between projects in that country (e.g., Nairobi office rent). Allocated by budget proportions.
Global management shared costsTime spent by managers on overarching organizational leadership and organization-wide costs like corporate insurance. Allocated by budget proportions.
US shared costsUS office rent and team events. Allocated by expected headcount between cash transfer projects and fundraising.
Mobile money, banking, & FXMobile money and banking costs are typically offset by strong FX conversion performance.
Supplies & equipmentComputers, office equipment, and gear for our field officers.
RentRent for offices near where we’re enrolling people
Software & telecomSoftware to integrate with mobile money providers and other technology costs.
TravelAirfare and allowances for staff spending their time on a project.
Professional and service feesLegal, accounting, or consulting fees charged directly to a project.
Personnel expenseSalaries and benefits for people charging their time directly to a given project.
Cost per $1,000 delivered

Costs to serve one household

Assuming an average transfer size of about $1,000 per recipient, it cost about $113 to serve a recipient in our rolling one-time grant program and $128 to serve a recipient in one of our special projects.

2019 budget

2019 budget transfers and delivery costs

For 2019, our budget looks fairly similar, though the total spending, and the amount of spending going toward special projects, is lower because we completed the bulk of the work for our $30M basic income project in 2018.

Fundraising spending

Most spending on fundraising goes toward people costs: team time spent on speaking with funders, creating content, and managing and developing technology required to raise funds for the poor. In 2019, we budgeted to spend more on our revenue team.

Spending on fundraising

Do we spend funds quickly?

Another good question about GiveDirectly’s finances is whether there is a long delay between when we raise funds and when we deliver them. We plan our operational pacing using projections of future fundraising to minimize this lag, so the answer is typically no.

As you can see below, the main exceptions to this were in 2015 and 2016. In 2015 we received a one-time $25M grant specifically earmarked for longer term projects, while in 2016 we raised funds for the $30M UBI project, most of which were spent in 2018. Otherwise, our spending tracks our revenue reasonably well.

Room for more funding

In 2018, GiveDirectly committed $32M in cash transfers in Kenya alone. If we delivered $30M in each of the six poorest countries where we work, we’d deliver $180M a year, and we have the capacity to expand to more countries if funding permitted. But in 2019, we’ve only raised enough to commit about $34M in cash transfers across all of our operations. We’ve proven the ability to deliver cash in new places, and there’s no reason we can’t reach many more of the poorest people in the world. As GiveWell estimates, “GiveDirectly could productively use several hundred million dollars more than we expect it to receive.” Achieving greater scale would enable us to reach more people more efficiently, and it would carve out a bigger space for people in poverty to control more of the aid and philanthropy budgets meant to help them.


For further details of GiveDirectly’s financials as captured in GiveDirectly 990s and annual financial statements, along with the calculations for efficiency and overhead see this spreadsheet.