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18 posts from January 2008

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

GiveWell, R.I.P.?

January 05, 2008

I've mentioned GiveWell in this blog before (here and here) and was surprised earlier in the week when I ran across this mea culpa posted by GiveWell co-founder Holden Karnoksky. At the time, I'd never heard of MetaFilter, only knew "AstroTurf" as a noun, and thought a sock puppet was something you used to sell pet food online. As for Holden's "lapse of judgment"? No big deal. The kid made a mistake but fessed up up to it almost immediately in a public forum. If only our politicians and business leaders were half as forthcoming.

A lot has changed in five days, and it's beginning to look as if Holden's fondness for questionable viral marketing techniques could cost him and GiveWell co-founder Ellie Hassenfeld their jobs and maybe result in the plug being pulled on GiveWell itself. To understand why, you should read through the 85 (!!) comments that have been made in response to Holden's original "I messed up" post.

So what is MetaFilter? And what did Holden do to incur the wrath of so many people who hang out there? Apparently, MF is a large online community (50,000+ paying members) built around a sort of blog-of-blogs concept. The site, which anyone can contribute a link or comment to, exists (in MF-speak) "to break down the barriers between people, to extend a weblog beyond just one person, and to foster discussion among its members." Fair enough.

And Holden's transgression? Here's how the MetaFilter wiki describes it: "Givewell is a charity organization that was called out in this metatalk thread for astroturfing in this AskMe thread. As the MetaTalk thread progressed, it was discovered that one of the directors of GiveWell, Holden Karnofsky, had participated in similar astroturfing on other sites and engaged in other unethical practices, by his own admission. The MetaTalk discussion also expanded from the specifics of the astroturfing episodes to include criticism about GiveWell's other practices and its model of philanthropic oversight." Oops.

I won't rehash the details of what happened next -- the MF wiki does a more than adequate job of that. I will note that within hours of Holden's post, Tim Ogden, managing editor of the Beyond Philanthropy blog, chief knowledge officer of philanthropic consulting firm Geneva Global Inc., and a GiveWell board member, had come to GiveWell's defense. (A fact that seemed to enrage more than a few contributors to the MetaTalk thread.) And by Thursday, Lucy Bernholz, author of the Philanthropy 2173  blog and also a GiveWell board member, had been ensared by the controversy.

As usual, Lucy handled herself admirably and responded to the comments left on her blog in response to this post asking for reader feedback about the situation with candor and equanimity.

And that's where things stand at the moment. According to Holden (in a comment under his Dec. 31 post), the GiveWell board plans to meet about the situation as soon as it can and will decide on the appropriate action to take regarding his astroturfing. The decision, along with an audio recording of the meeting will be posted to the GiveWell as soon as it becomes available.

In the meantime, I have a few observations of my own. Take them in the spirit in which they're intended -- and note that PhilanTopic has a moderated-comments policy.

  • Viral marketing (the point of which seems to be to deceive the gullible and unsuspecting) is an idea whose time has passed;
  • Online communities are a poor substitute for the real thing;
  • Unless you live in Myanmar or Zimbabwe, anonymity is the refuge of cowards;
  • Arrogance will always come back to bit you in the a**;
  • Self-righteousness, in any context, is a singularly unattractive quality.

-- Mitch Nauffts

The Year in Review

January 03, 2008

Apologies for the lack of posts the last week or two. The end-of-year/holiday season is a busy time -- for all of us. We'll be back to a more regular schedule soon.

In the meantime, I wanted to let you know that PND's year-end wrap is live. Here's how we framed the issue in our intro:

Philanthropically speaking, it would have been difficult for 2007 to top 2006. The latter opened with New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region struggling to get back on their feet after the one-two combination delivered by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Then in June, legendary investor Warren Buffett announced that he planned to give the bulk of his fortune, some $31 billion, to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, already the country’s largest.

But while it may have been quieter than the year that preceded it, 2007 was not without its important developments and signal achievements. From the growing interest in pressing global challenges such as climate change and poverty alleviation, to the development and increased acceptance of alternative forms of giving, to a renewed focus on impact and effectiveness, 2007 demonstrated once again that philanthropy, at its best, is about generosity, compassion, and the desire to create a better world for ourselves and the generations to follow.

As the year comes to a close, the editors of PND honor that spirit while looking back at some of the important philanthropic stories and personalities of 2007.

And this is what we identified as the year's top "stories":

  1. Impact, Effectiveness Top Foundation Agendas
  2. Hurricane Katrina, Two Years Later
  3. Philanthropy and Climate Change
  4. International Development Paradigms Re-Examined
  5. Internal Revenue Service Revamps Form 990
  6. The Changing Landscape of Philanthropy
  7. Noteworthy Gifts
  8. People in the News
  9. 2008: Preview of the Year Ahead

Obviously, ours is a subjective selection and arrangement of events. So how'd we do? Did we get it right, or close to right? If not, what did we miss? What will 2007 be remembered for, philanthropically speaking? And what do you think 2008 will bring?

We'd love to hear you thoughts.

-- Mitch Nauffts

Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."


    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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