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GiveWell, Act 2

January 08, 2008

Today's New York Times reports that the board of GiveWell "acted last week against [GiveWell] founder Holden Karnofsky, demoting him from executive director to 'program officer' and saying it was witholding $5,000 of his salary and using the money to pay for him to take a professional development course" ("Founder of a Nonprofit Is Punished by Its Board for Engaging in an Internet Ruse," Stephanie Strom, Jan. 8, 2008).

The article goes on to say the GiveWell board will contact all donors who had contributed to the organization since December 1 and offer to return their money. It also references an apology taken from a statement by the full board posted to the GiveWell blog on Sunday, January 6: "The board believes that the acts of misrepresentation that were committed are indefensible and are in direct conflict with the goals of the organization." The rest of the article gives a straightforward accounting of the events that led to the board's action.

In a separate statement (scrolling required), GiveWell board chair Bob Elliott and treasurer Greg Jensen offer a defense of Holden based on their "greater personal experience with him than other board members’." The statement reads, in part:

We would like to make clear that the actions that Holden took to conceal his identity were improper and indefensible, as were his attempts to ameliorate the situation by offering a financial contribution.

While in this situation Holden acted improperly, we would like to emphasize that we believe Holden’s commitment to the GiveWell cause is genuine. Those who have commented that his involvement in GiveWell is an attempt to run a scam on the public or to gain financially are simply wrong. His substantial sacrifices financially and personally to take GiveWell from an idea to a reality demonstrate his passion for the values of the organization.

In addition, we would like to emphasize that we believe and have seen in action his stated commitment to the values of openness and honesty. While there are many incidents where Holden did not clearly identify his affiliation with the organization, we view these actions to be the result of his core mistake of thinking improperly about how to represent himself when communicating online.

In our previous professional and personal experiences with Holden, he has shown directness and honesty with those around him, and demanded the same from others. He has acknowledged weaknesses and worked with sincerity to improve those limitations. And, in the past when he has realized that his behavior or thinking was wrong, he not only been willing to change his mind and accept explicit personal responsibility, but take steps to ensure that similar action does not happen again....

Comments posted at the GiveWell blog in reponse to the board's statement/actions have been mixed. Meanwhile, over at GiftHub, Phil Cubeta has captured some of the lessons learned from the controversy in this thread.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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