Lifetime Impact of a GiveWell Researcher
Entry question
What is could be the lifetime estimated impact (in $
donated) of being a EA GiveWell researcher?
Epistemic Status: Off by a factor 10 (#fermiestimates)
TL;DR
This is a fermi estimate and shall be treated like that. Everything is an estimate, there are many uncertainties and geometric means have been used to bring the limits down to one number.
Lifetime Impact of a GiveWell Researcher: $
8m
Introduction
I am curious to know what sort of impact a EA GiveWell Researcher
has. I choose GiveWell, as there is a very “clear” dollar figure on how
much money they “influenced” (at least according to them). With this
essay, the lifetime impact of an entry level researcher starting in
2021, and working for another 35 years, is estimated. The following
components help put together the final figure:
Organization Level
 Impact of GiveWell in 2021
 Growth rate of GiveWell’s impact for the next 35 years
 Counterfactual impact of GiveWell
Researcher Level
 Impact attributed to an entry level researcher in the first year (2021)
 Growth rate of researcher’s impact
 Counterfactual impact of a Researcher
The rest of the essay deals with the above components and the final lifetime impact calculation.
Note1: Fermi estimates are in general factor 2 or even factor 10 off. In many cases this might just be enough.
Note2: This estimate does not consider several factors such as probability of EA loosing its momentum, probability of getting fired and not being able to contribute as a researcher etc.
Impact and Growth Rate of GiveWell in 2021
GiveWell estimates how much money they move every year and
publishes them on their website. For example, in the year 2019 GiveWell
estimated that they moved $
172m. In order to estimate the
impact of GiveWell in 2021, a bit of extrapolation of data is
needed. For this extrapolation, the growth rate is used.
To predict the growth rate in the coming years I believe it would be reasonable to base it on the money moved from 2015 to 2019 instead of 2007 to 2019. This is because it appears that in the recent years the growth has sort of “plateaued” (see table below) and this might be more representative of the future.
Thus, the compound annual growth rate for the money moved between
2015 and 2019 comes out to be 9.4% ((172/120)^(1/4)1
). It’s really
hard to predict the change in growth rate for the coming years. For
simplicity’s sake, a constant growth rate of 9.4% for the next 35
years, is assumed.
Year  Money Moved ($ ) ^{1} 
Growth 

2010  1.5m   
2011  5m  233% 
2012  10m  100% 
2013  16m  60% 
2014  28m  75% 
2015  120m  329% 
2016  118m  2% 
2017  149m  26% 
2018  161m  8% 
2019  172m  7% 
Impact of GiveWell in 2021
As for the impact of GiveWell in 2021 it is estimated to be
$
205m (172*(1.094)^2
), based on a growth rate of 9.4% and the
money moved in 2019.
Counterfactual Impact of GiveWell
The counterfactual impact of GiveWell is the difference in impact between the “Actual Scenario” (world with GiveWell since 2007) and the “Counterfactual Scenario” (world without GiveWell since 2007).
In the counterfactual scenario, it is expected that a GiveWelllike organization would have formed anyway, 310 years later (than when GiveWell was founded)^{2}. It appears likely because, many “similar” organizations (such as Charity Science Health, Rethink Priorities, Open Philanthropy, The Life You Can Save etc.) have formed since then (between 2010 and 2020), involving costeffectiveness estimates and philosophies such as “doing the mostgood for a dollar”.
While comparing the actual and counterfactual scenario, we compare the two scenarios with the same amount of money but only varying costeffectiveness depending on the scenario. As a result it is expected that when money doesn’t go to GiveWelllike organizations, it goes to some random organization which is guessed to be within 1 to 1/50th times as costeffective as GiveWell.
The counterfactual impact for the year 2021 is calculated as follows:
As part of the actual scenario, GiveWell is estimated to move $
206m
with costeffectiveness of 1. As part of the counterfactual scenario
GiveWelllike organization is expected to move $
118m ^{3} with
costeffectiveness of 1, in that year. The remainder $
88m (206m 
118m$
) is used by “other” organizations at oneseventh (geometric
mean of 1 and 1/50) the costeffectiveness of that of GiveWell. The
difference between the actual and the counterfactual situation comes
to be $
75m. And finally, the counterfactual impact as a function of
the money moved in the actual scenario is 36%.
The below table summarizes the counterfactual impact for the different years. For years beyond 2021 the counterfactual impact essentially starts to become a constant value of 31%. This 31% is used in the final calculation as a constant.
Year  AS (m$)^{1}  CS GWlike (m$)  CS nonGWlike (m$)  ASCS  CS as % of AS 

…  …  …  …  …  … 
2015  120  1.5  118.5  101.6  84.64% 
2016  118  5  113.0  96.9  82.08% 
2017  149  10  139.0  119.1  79.96% 
2018  161  16  145.0  124.3  77.20% 
2019  172  28  144.0  123.4  71.76% 
2020  188  120  68.2  58.5  31.06% 
2021  206  118  87.9  75.4  36.6% 
2022  225  149  76.3  65.4  29.03% 
2023  247  161  85.5  73.3  29.74% 
2024  270  172  97.8  83.8  31.06% 
…  …  …  …  …  … 
2029  423  270  153.3  131.4  31.06% 
2030  463  295  167.7  143.8  31.06% 
…  …  …  …  …  … 
2059  6,295  4,014  2,281.2  1,955.3  31.06% 
2060  6,888  4,392  2,496.0  2,139.4  31.06% 
2061  7,537  4,806  2,731.1  2,340.9  31.06% 
…  …  …  …  …  … 
AS –> Actual scenario with costeffectiveness 1
CS GWlike –> Counterfactual scenario with costeffectiveness 1
CS nonGWlike –> Counterfactual scenario with costeffectiveness 1/7
Note: Cost of operation of GiveWell is not taken into account as
it is a small sum. For example, it is estimated that the cost of
operation for 45 people ($
110k per person) shall be $
5m. Contrast
that to it’s 206m expected to be moved in 2021 (a mere 3%). So this is
skipped confidently.
Note: Also the effects of the displacement chain are not considered for simplicity’s sake.
Impact Attributed to an Entry Level Researcher in the First Year
In the year 2015, GiveWell estimates that an entry level researcher
had 10% of the impact of a cofounder and that there were 9 cofounder
equivalents ^{4}. In other words an entry level researcher was
estimated to be responsible for 1.1% (10%/9
) of the total impact (in
2015). But this is not the whole story.
With more people joining GiveWell, this percentage gets diluted. In
2015 there were 25 “equivalent staff members”, where as in 2021 there
are 45 “equivalent staff members” ^{5}. The resulting contribution
would thus be much less. Let’s assume this contribution is inversely
proportional to the total number of staff. Then, the impact
attributed to an entry level researcher in the first year (2021) is
0.6% (1.1%x25/45
).
Growth Rate of a Researcher
The growth rate of a researcher is split into 2 factors. The first being the growth rate associated with the ‘increase in experience’, which leads to higher researcher’s contribution. And the second being the growth rate associated with ‘increase in number of staff’ of GiveWell, which decreases the researcher’s contribution as years pass.
For the “growth rate associated with increase in experience”, the yearvariable is held constant (and hence the number of staff is constant) and the difference between entry level researcher and cofounder is observed.
In 2015, a cofounder is estimated to be responsible for 11%^{4} of
the impact that year and an entry level researcher at 1.1% (as
mentioned above). If it takes an entry level researcher 1020 years
(geometric mean: 14 years) to reach cofounder level, then growth rate
per year due to increase in experience (alone) is a whopping 19%
((11%/1.1%)^(1/n)1
). (It is assumed further that the growth rate
falls sharply to 0% after reaching cofounder level.)
Item  Value 

Entry level researcher  1.1% 
Cofounder equivalent  11% 
Number of years  14 
Growth rate due to increase in experience  19% 
For the “growth rate attributed to increase in staff”, the average increase in the number of people per year in GiveWell is estimated. This increase is assumed to be negatively proportional to growth rate attributed to increase in staff.
From 2015 to 2021 the number of staff has increased from 25 to 45
^{5}. This implies an increase per year of 10% per year
((45/25)^(1/6)1
). This implies a growth rate attributed to increase
in staff of 10%
.
Counterfactual Impact of a Researcher
The researcher positions seem very competitive now (with ~1% acceptance rate). If the entry level researcher manages to be 515% (geometric mean: 9%) better than the next researcher in line (perhaps by Deliberately Practicing), then that would be the factor multiplied to the impact attributed to a researcher. This would then produce the counterfactual impact of the researcher.
Note: I tried considering a “complex model” taking into account
displacement chains (explained in the appendix), but the
improvement was almost nothing (few $
100k) compared to the final
value, so it has been moved to the appendix. Adding it here only made
the explanation unnecessarily complicated.
Bringing it all together for 2021 to 2056
The different factors computed so far are listed below:
Organization level

Impact of GiveWell in 2021 =
$
205m 
Constant growth rate of GiveWell = 9.4%

Counterfactual impact = 31%
Researcher Level

Impact attributed to an entry level researcher in the first year (2021) = 0.6%

Growth Rate due to increase in experience = 19% between 2021 and 2035, and 0 otherwise.

Growth Rate due to increase in staff members = 10%

Counterfactual contribution of Researcher = 9%
Taking them into account brings the counterfactual impact of a
researcher to $
8m (could be off by a factor of 10). The following
table shows part of the Google Sheets document used to compute
the final outcome.
Year  Impact  Counterfactual  Impact attributed  Counterfactual  Total 

of GW  impact of GW  to a researcher  impact of  
a researcher  
(m$)  (%)  (%)  (%)  (m$)  
2021  206  31%  0.60%  9%  0.03 
2022  225  31%  0.64%  9%  0.04 
2023  246  31%  0.69%  9%  0.05 
2024  270  31%  0.74%  9%  0.06 
2025  295  31%  0.79%  9%  0.07 
…  …  …  …  …  … 
2030  462  31%  1.11%  9%  0.15 
2031  506  31%  1.19%  9%  0.17 
2032  553  31%  1.28%  9%  0.20 
2033  605  31%  1.37%  9%  0.24 
2034  662  31%  1.46%  9%  0.28 
2035  724  31%  1.57%  9%  0.32 
2036  792  31%  1.41%  9%  0.32 
…  …  …  …  …  … 
2055  4,367  31%  0.19%  9%  0.25 
2056  4,777  31%  0.17%  9%  0.25 
Note: Milan Griffes estimates here that as an entry level
researcher he expects to make an impact of $
90k (back in 2016). This
is onethird the estimate for 2021 as per the above calculations.
Why I can only be a factor 10 confident
First of all these are all forecasts, there are a ton of assumptions, such as the constant growth rates, the entire counterfactual scenario being “made up”, counterfactual impact of a researcher being 9%, etc. I don’t think a more complex model is the solution. Even a really complex model of the growth rate will have it’s own untestable assumptions by virtue of it being a forecast.
It is very hard to verify this on any level. For example, GiveWell estimates that in 2015 an entry level researcher contributes 10% of a cofounder. I don’t know how accurate this is and how they are testing this assumption over time.
Many numbers are crazy sensitive. Just consider that the
counterfactual contribution of a researcher changes to 1% instead of
the 9%, then the final estimate falls from $
8m to $
800k. And we
will “never really know” what the “true” value is. The estimation gets
even harder with organizations like Rethink Priorities for example,
where they produce research and are not really “moving money”.
Appendix: Counterfactual Impact of a Researcher
The counterfactual impact of a researcher is the difference in impact between the “Actual Scenario” where there is an extra researcher and the “Counterfactual Scenario” which is without that extra researcher.
A model table is shown below attempting to estimate the difference in
impact between the 2 scenarios. In the actual scenario we have
researchers $R_{1}$
to $R_{n}$
and people who EarnToGive:
$R_{n+1}$
followed by $E_{2}$
to $E_{n}$
. In the counterfactual
scenario we are missing $R_{1}$
and the whole chain displaces
upwards accordingly. EA
is the amount of impact associated with
being a researcher and ETGX
is the EarningToGive impact of
different people. And the final counterfactual impact is given by
$R_{n}R_{n+1}$
x EA + $R_{n+1}$
x ETG1.
Actual  Counterfactual  Impact  Difference 

$R_{1}$ 
$R_{2}$ 
1x EA  $R_{1}R_{2}$ x EA 
$R_{2}$ 
$R_{3}$ 
1x EA  $R_{2}R_{3}$ x EA 
…  …  …  … 
$R_{n1}$ 
$R_{n}$ 
1x EA  $R_{n1}R_{n}$ x EA 
$R_{n}$ 
$R_{n+1}$ 
1x EA  $R_{n}R_{n+1}$ x EA 
$R_{n+1}$ 
0  ETG1  $R_{n+1}  0$ x ETG1 
$E_2$ 
$E_2$ 
ETG2  0 
…  …  …  0 
$E_n$ 
$E_n$ 
ETGN  0 
    Total  $R_{1}R_{n+1}$ x EA + $R_{n+1}$ x ETG1 
There are two components to the counterfactual impact of a
researcher. The difference between the extra ($R_{1}$
) and the
displaced researcher is the first one: $R_{n+1}$
) ($R_{n}R_{n+1} x
EA$
. The researcher positions seem very competitive now (with ~1%
acceptance rate). If the extra researcher ($R_{1}$
) manages to be
515% (geometric mean: 9%) better than the displaced researcher, then
the impact will be 0.09 x EA
.
In addition, the displaced researcher’s EarningToGive ($R_{n+1}$ x
ETG1
) will also contribute to the counterfactual impact. Assuming the
person is European and is willing to donate 10% of his salary, this
would roughly mean an EarningToGive base of $
4000 with a growth
rate of 5%.
Footnotes

(80000hours also does something similar to estimate their counterfactual impact by assuming they changed someone’s career path by a few years). ↩

The impact of GiveWelllike organization is simulated by shifting GiveWell’s impact by 5 years (geometric mean of 3 and 10 years). So in 2021 GiveWelllike organizations’ impact is basically GiveWell’s 2016 impact. ↩

“(Cofounder time was given a score of 1 but time spent by newer staff was scaled down significantly; for example, we multiplied time spent by entrylevel staff in their first year at GiveWell by 0.1.)”— GiveWell
“The table shows that our overall capacity has increased significantly since 2012 (from approximately 3 cofounder equivalents then to 9 today).”— GiveWell

Well in 2015 there were 21 people and 10 board members (not sure how much work they do). Let’s round it to 25 people.
In 2021 GiveWell has 41 staff and 6 board members. We round it up to 45 people.—GiveWell ↩ ↩^{2}