GiveWell vs. The Ford Foundation

I really like The GiveWell Blog and Project. They actual dare to rip on Network for Good, criticize their fee structure and then when Katya Andresen (Network for Good’s head of marketing, who also blogs at Nonprofit Marketing Blog) stops by to comment on their post, they have the audacity to tell her she better update her website… And she agrees.

The GiveWell Project is the pissed off donor model. They don’t like what they see and so they’ve taken it upon themselves to start research charities and then use a wiki format to report to the world what they find. I don’t agree with everything they write. But it is refreshing to see donors blogging instead of consultants and advisors (like me) telling everyone what donors want.

One of the major issues in philanthropy today is that donors and foundations often have to duplicate the due diligence process of figuring out what actually works. Large foundations put a tremendous amount of effort into understanding what works and what doesn’t when it comes to grantmaking. Unlike in the competitive for-profit world, there is no downside to foundations sharing the knowledge they have gained with all other donors. The GiveWell project is doing what few large foundations have figured out how to accomplish. They are sharing their research, in real time, with anyone who cares. As far as I can tell the members of the GiveWell project are relatively inexperienced in philanthropy, they have other full time jobs, and they have a level of scorn in their writing that will turn some people off.

But guess what? It doesn’t matter. Lots of donors feel the way the GiveWell team does. And both nonprofits and other donors can benefit from following the work they publish for everyone to use.

Why don’t all major foundations have a public wikis where they can share their research? Or better yet, why don’t association of foundations have wikis that can be freely edited by various members? According to The Foundation Directory, there are 80 foundations in the United States that list autism or autism research as a field of research. Might they not all be doing similar work? Might not a set of best practices or a shared knowledge set emerge if they freely shared their research with each other?

According to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, there is a “secret” report circulating on capital hill that examines the failures of The Ford Foundation’s efforts to reform higher education in Russia. A secret report on what works or doesn’t work? Why in the world should information like that be secret? Why doesn’t The Ford Foundation have this report posted on their website with an aggressive marketing campaign to make sure other foundations can learn from their mistakes?

Why are the young members of the GiveWell project doing more to improve our shared knowledge base than The Ford Foundation?


  1. Wow, thanks so much for the post. GiveWell is the first piece of cooperative, donor-created social media on philanthropy research that I’ve heard of. It really can’t be denied: the donors are in charge now.

  2. I’m a big GiveWell fan…it’s a blog worth following closely. The dialogue is substantive and I look forward to seeing what comes from their project.

  3. Yongho Kim says:

    Well, many nonprofits are inexperienced in many aspects except their actual field work. Probably a similar issue is at hand with foundations – too afraid to try risky strategies and too busy with traditional fundraising work to think about it anyway.