Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Givewell: Tested by their own values

The Givewell firestorm (actually more of a small birthday candle) continues.

My reaction: Givewell is Naive, Inspired and Arrogant. But that does not detract from what they are trying to accomplish. Transparency is not the same as Saint Hood. I've seen private foundations and major nonprofits do FAR more unethical things than trying to generate publicity under false pretenses.

Heck, I wish all the MetaFilter busy-bodies that keep emailing me and posting comments to this blog would turn their attention to the far more egregious behavior in the sector. But since their attention span isn't long enough to do investigation, they need intermediaries to queue up issues or folks like Holden to do stupid human tricks.

For the record: I already know Holden is pissing people off and exhibits poor social skills... now I can add exhibits poor judgment to the list. But that doesn't take away from the fact GiveWell is doing something valuable.

Which brings me to the point. Givewell is starting to feel the impact of its own principles. The Metafilter candle storm is what happens when you open up your operations to the masses. It will make the Givewell staff make better decisions in the future.

Hopefully the next candle storm can happen in an online community with a bit more civility and a bit more background knowledge... rather than just mindlessly spanking Givewell, the community will leverage Givewell's openness to make it better.

PS Sentiments like this piss me off: "My sincere hope is that GiveWell is irrevocably tarnished by this behavior." Check the Metafilter thread for 100s of examples. Why wouldn't someone think that my sincere hope is that GiveWell is irrevocably transformed by the reaction to this behavior and turns into an organization I'd be willing to support.

PPS I kinda like the soap opera aspect of this whole thing. I sincerely hope that after spanking Holden the board can look at this episode as evidence that the idea behind the organization is solid. Then everyone can go out and have a beer and a laugh.

2 comments:

A. said...

The Metafilter candle storm is what happens when you open up your operations to the masses.

No, it's what happens when you commit extensive identity fraud to promote your organization, including the outright theft of a GiveWell employee's email account (admitted directly by Holden).

And it's what happens when you rise quickly on the basis of your social connections and a compelling story (hedge-fund boys turn skills to good, a storyline beloved in the mainstream media, apparently), yet you lack basic social or professional experience or skills to do the world-changing work you very aggressively proclaim you will do better than all the may professionals already doing it with much more seriousness.

I don't understand the defense here. Givewell's making public of their records is not so unique or novel. Most foundations and charities are required to report the essential information. Givewell's auditing process, as has been argued in detail by several non-profit professionals in the Metafilter thread, was deeply flawed and unfair, and the same work *is* being done -- and has for a long time -- by other organizations (including one in Australia that's been around for 10 years called . . . GiveWell!)

You should get the details straight before you flip this over and blame the messengers for discovering the depth of GiveWell's incompetence and the fraudulence of Holden Karnofsky's and Elie Hassenfeld's actions.

"Busy bodies?" Maybe. But GiveWell *is* now effectively toast, and I don't think that's an unfair result because it sets an important example to others who enter the non-profit space with such arrogance and incompetence and dishonesty.

Would you give money to an organization headed by someone known to use fraudulent schemes to promote his organization? Not me.

Finally, you celebrate GiveWell's commitment to transparency. That's on the surface. What Holden did (and Elie) amounts to a flagrant abuse of the same principle; they attempted to be as non-transparent as possible. How can we ever trust their rhetoric again?

David Geilhufe said...

Givewell's making public of their records is not so unique or novel.

I have yet to see a grant making organization fully publicize their evaluation methodology, actual evaluation documents and submissions from applicants.

Most foundations and charities are required to report the essential information.

What is the "essential" information is the core issue here. If you are comfortable with the pre-revision 990, no problem.