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Svetha Janumpalli at EA Global: A Tale of Two Incentives

June 15, 2023

Last month, New Incentives’ founder and CEO, Svetha Janumpalli, spoke at EA Global London, a conference organized by the Centre for Effective Altruism and members of the effective altruism community. EAG events bring together a wide network of people who have made helping others a core part of their lives. Speakers and attendees share new thinking and research, coordinate on important projects, and work together to solve pressing problems.

Svetha described the power of two kinds of incentives: the conditional cash transfers (CCTs) that New Incentives provides to caregivers to get their children vaccinated and the “new incentives” cultivated by GiveWell and the EA community that nudge nonprofits to focus on verifiable impact and cost-effectiveness.

She told the story of starting New Incentives with $300 and no fancy degrees and explained some of the highs and lows of nearly a decade of piloting, testing, learning, and pivoting to find a proven intervention that cost-effectively saves lives. 

“Cost-effective and scalable programs don’t just happen. It takes determination to follow the data, grit to develop world-class monitoring systems and processes, and unwavering resolve to iterate until you get it right.” 

Svetha talked about how the process of searching for the most effective intervention was driven by an “ecosystem incentive.” At one point, New Incentives tried one approach—using conditional cash transfers to incentivize women with at-risk pregnancies to deliver in health facilities—but the program was not cost-effective at scale and didn’t have the intended impact. 

“We decided to phase out the program. This was a difficult period. Our entire team had invested in this program and felt emotionally attached to it, but I was inspired by GiveWell's objective decision-making and ability to avoid the sunk-cost fallacy.” 

GiveWell and others in the EA community provide funding that is linked to maximizing impact and cost-effectiveness—these incentives shaped New Incentives’ values and behavior and ultimately led the organization to incentivize childhood immunizations.

She then shared what it takes to run and scale a program that’s one of the most cost-effective ways to save a life—by peeling back the curtain on the organizations’ monitoring systems and processes. New Incentives tracks 121 program monitoring indicators that provide a constant pulse on areas such as enrollments, retention, vaccine supply, safety and security, expense reporting, audits, recipient satisfaction, and CCT adherence.

“Disruption is often not a term associated with nonprofits, except when it comes to novel ways of raising funds, like growing a mustache. The disruption is often not at the level of transparency, cost-effectiveness, and operational capabilities.”

New Incentives is turning heads in the global development space as larger actors are starting to take notice and are intrigued by the organization’s granularity of data and the verifiable impact.

At the end of her talk, Svetha urged the EA community to continue supporting programs like supporting direct delivery programs:

“I hope this community will double down on supporting the direct delivery programs that are saving lives today…. Not only are we confident these programs are cost-effectively improving health outcomes and saving lives, but there’s also a ripple effect that I believe is starting to influence larger actors.”

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