We’re proud of the progress The Life You Can Save made in 2014, and we’re excited to share our review of the year. Our goal is to provide you with a well-rounded picture, so we’ve provided a qualitative assessment of what went well and what didn’t, as well as a more quantitative look at our key metrics.
To justify our activities, The Life You Can Save needs to move significantly more money to effective charities than we spend on our own operations. In 2014, we're confident that we moved over $700,000 to our recommended charities, almost 3 times what we spent.
We believe it’s important to track these “headline numbers,” but they don’t tell the full story. During 2014, we made substantial investments that we expect will pay long-term dividends. The redesign of our website and new content like the Impact Calculator and our Giving Game pages are terrific examples.
We’ve also made investments in relationships that are beginning to pay off. A year ago, many of our internal conversations focused on finding ways to make our case to high-net-worth donors and in media outlets. Today, we’re reaping the benefits of these opportunities and focusing more on how to maximize their impact. In an upcoming blog post, we’ll explore how we plan to do that in 2015, as well as the challenges we still face.
The Year’s Positives
- We made huge improvements to the look and feel of our website. Coming into the year, our website had limited content, which was generally hard to find and had a lot to be desired aesthetically. We’ve overhauled the design of the site to make it more attractive and more user-friendly. We also made huge strides in expanding the amount and variety of content, including significant improvements to our blog and newsletter. Through A/B testing (experimentally testing different website designs), we’ve also identified and implemented subtler improvements. For instance, we used experimentation to determine which images convert most effectively and what color buttons on our site users are most likely to click. We also redesigned the user interface to enhance conversion.
- Our web traffic in a typical month grew by roughly 160% relative to 2013. The Search Engine Optimization (SEO) improvements we’ve made to our site and the new content we’ve added have made it more likely that search engine users will find us. We’ve also implemented our free Google AdWords allotment (though traffic from this source converts at a much lower rate than other sources).
- Our Giving Games program has expanded into exciting new areas. 2014 marked the year our Giving Games philanthropy education program moved beyond universities. We ran Giving Games with businesses, high school students, a MOOC, and church groups. Prominent researchers have also begun using the Giving Game model to investigate giving behavior.
- We’re in more regular and more productive contact with our recommended charities. These improved relationships help us coordinate our promotional efforts and keep the information on our website accurate and up-to-date. We’ve also hosted conference calls where all our recommended charities can share ideas and experiences.
- Our amazing volunteers made huge contributions. With only three full-time paid employees, volunteer support is critical. In 2014, Rhema Hokama took responsibility for our blog and Robin Raven took over our social media efforts. Our Impact Calculator never would have been possible without the assistance of numerous volunteers, nor would have been a host of other projects.
The Year’s Negatives
- Our fundraising showed promise, but remains a major priority for 2015. We’re confident that we moved over $700,000 dollars to our recommended charities in 2014, on expenses just under $250,000. We’ve made good progress in developing contacts with high net worth individuals and their financial advisors. However, we still have important work to do in order to secure the funding needed to bring our operations to scale.
- Peter Singer was less visible in 2014 in media providing immediate traffic to The Life You Can Save. While Peter was engaged in projects that did not directly promote The Life You Can Save, those projects, like his upcoming book and the publicity that surrounds its publication, continue to spearhead the effective altruism movement. In 2013, by contrast, Peter released a TED Talk that’s been viewed over a million times and was invited to write well-timed op-eds in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
- Our public relations efforts struggled, requiring a pivot. Our initial PR plan was to mine our networks for media contacts, but little materialized from these efforts. Heading into Giving Season, we decided to retain some PR expertise on a contract basis. We will continue to evaluate this decision, but the initial progress suggests this could be a promising way to gain media exposure without relying on Peter.
- We didn’t communicate our activities to our audience as well as we should have. Looking back over the last year, we didn’t provide enough updates on what we were doing and why. This blog post and a forthcoming post explaining our plans for 2015 are our initial attempts to remedy this.
Detailed Look at Key Metrics
Our conservative estimate is that we moved around $720,000 to our recommended charities in 2014. Our charities can directly track approximately $634,000 of that total through our ongoing web donation tracking ($547,000) or large specific gifts that could be attributed to The Life You Can Save ($87,000). We conservatively estimate that we moved about an additional total of around $85,000 to charities that we are currently unable to track.
How does this compare to last year?
In 2013, we estimated that we moved just shy of $600,000 to our recommended charities, which would suggest we increased our money moved by eight percent last year if both estimates were correct. However, in 2013 we were only able to track donations to AMF ($400,000) and had to estimate totals for all other charities.
In 2014, we significantly improved our ability to track donations, and are currently gathering data from nine charities with more hopefully on the way soon. So we’re considerably more confident in our 2014 estimate than our 2013 estimate.
In comparing 2013 and 2014, it’s also important to note that we received an unusual amount of exposure in 2013 in the form of Peter’s TED Talk and his New York Times op-ed, and his piece for the Washington Post (discussed in more detail in the traffic section). In December 2013, the Times also highlighted Peter’s work and The Life You Can Save in a holiday-themed feature on charitable giving.
Reasons why we may be overestimating our impact
- People who gave through our site might have given to effective charities through other means if our site were not available.
- Some of our influence is no doubt due to work Peter has done/is doing rather than due to The Life You Can Save as an organization.
- Our money-moved totals don’t distinguish between our recommended charities. This could be misleading if one assumes there are significant quality differences across charities.
Reasons why we may be underestimating our impact
- Our numbers don’t capture all the donations we influence. We’re primarily capturing donations from people who donate on a charity’s site after being referred there from our site. For some charities, we also track donations made on their site from users who indicate that they heard about the charity from us. Our charities regularly report that they believe the donations they measure understate our actual influence.
- We’re not counting any future donations, only donations that have actually been made. So our figures don’t assign any value to someone taking our pledge, donations we expect Giving Games participants to make in the future, or donations that develop from relationships we’re currently cultivating.
- We’re not including any money we influenced to outstanding charities outside our recommended list.
- When estimates are required, we’ve tried to be conservative.
In 2014, our website had roughly 215,000 sessions (most of them from new users), an increase of 65 percent relative to the previous year. A bit less than half of this increase was driven by our implementation of Google AdWords.
Looking at monthly traffic numbers, the picture becomes a bit clearer. On a steady basis, our monthly traffic appears to have roughly tripled (or doubled if we exclude AdWords) in 2014. However, our traffic in the crucial December “Giving Season” fell dramatically in 2014 relative to the previous December.
The explanation behind our relatively weak Giving Season is a simple one per above: we received high profile media mentions in 2013 that did not repeat in 2014. In December 2013, Peter’s Washington Post op-ed and the New York Times feature on holiday charitable giving alone accounted for roughly 12,000 visitors to The Life You Can Save. And while we were mentioned in Gawker articles in both years, the 2013 article drove almost 4,000 more visitors to our website. Our unusually high-profile media attention in 2013 explains the vast majority of our decline in giving season traffic in 2014.
Considering the year as a whole, we think we’ve made significant progress in our ability to sustainably drive traffic to our website.
Pledges and Subscriptions
In 2014, we placed more emphasis on acquiring subscriptions for our newsletter, and less on acquiring new pledges. These changes are reflected in the prominence we give to the solicitations on our website. This seemed like a natural shift given who our audience is: about 80 percent of our traffic comes from new users, and our priority is establishing a lasting relationship with those new to effective giving. We’re skeptical of the value of pledges we can acquire simply by orienting our homepage around a pledge solicitation, as we did for much of 2013.
We gained 1,566 new subscriptions in 2014, roughly a 30 percent growth rate. We made some changes late in the year that improved conversion rates, which should help improve growth going forward.
There were 707 new pledges in 2014, which represented a significant slowdown relative to previous years as we expected.
Our Giving Games program continues to grow at a rapid pace: we had almost 5,000 participants in 2014, a 127 percent increase over 2013. In an upcoming series of blog posts, we’ll take a closer look at our key Giving Game metrics and discuss why we’re so excited about this program.
 Examples of donations we’re missing: people who donate directly on a charity’s site but don’t self report where they heard about the charity; people who donate through other platforms (e.g. GiveWell, donor advised funds, Charity Science, etc.); donors who are motivated to give after seeing a charity share our recommendation on social media, etc.
 While they didn’t drive much traffic, we did get some media exposure during December 2014 including: the Forbes blog, the Giving Tuesday blog, WUSA9, Gawker, and the Jim Bohannon Show.