If you are not already aware of the GiveWell “astroturfing” and “sock puppet” scandal, you can read the official statement from the board here, Holden Karnofsky’s explanation here, and the New York Times coverage here. You can also read the extensive comments on the GiveWell posts.
Holden Karnofsky screwed up. He promoted GiveWell in a way that was dishonest and he deserves to have lost his job as executive director of GiveWell.
People who care about a new and better philanthropy have just suffered a major setback. Holden had brought mainstream media attention to concepts like transparency, nonprofit effectiveness and the idea that foundations can and should make their grantee evaluations public.
Holden’s dishonesty was contained to the way he promoted GiveWell online. There is nothing about the core concept of GiveWell that is dishonest.
Boy, what a disaster. Holden Karnofsky and GiveWell go from media darling (with coverage in the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, CNBC, NPR, Chronicle of Philanthropy and Chicago Tribune) to the dumpster in the span of 10 days. Holden’s actions deserve the condemnation they ignited from the users at MetaFilter, but it is important we recognize two distinct things are going on here: Dishonest marketing practices and an honest attempt to produce much needed, publicly available, nonprofit impact evaluation. It is important to note that none of the mainstream media attention came about from Holden’s astroturfing. The stories were not about an online groundswell around GiveWell, they were about the innovation of publicly available charity evaluation on par with stock market research. You’ll see that none of these media outlets will correct their stories because Holden’s missteps were in the marketing of his product, not in the product itself. The mainstream media stories were about GiveWell’s product, not their marketing expertise. In the New York Times story about the scandal, Stephanie Strom (who wrote the profile of GiveWell 10 days earlier) never suggests that anything about the GiveWell product was a scam.
Holden started GiveWell when he realized that there were no decent resources for donors who want to identify which charities are doing the best job in a certain area. He became so passionate about this problem that he quit his job and started GiveWell to fill the void. The void he wanted to fill is real and critically in need of filling. Like any small startup, GiveWell was successful in some ways, less so in others. Holden is an incredible focused, brash individual and his style of communicating made him many friends and enemies. I would suggest that without his brash style, GiveWell would have gotten very limited attention. But his brashness created problems. I called on him to change his style over the course of the last year. Once he got mainstream attention, I told him that since he was now the poster child for transparency, he needed to understand that he was representing a concept and that all of his actions would be viewed by others as part of what “transparency” means.
Then Holden was exposed for a breach of ethics in online behavior. Most people have never considered the ethical implications of “astroturfing”. Essentially, Holden used the fact that the “persona” that you are online can be manipulated so that you appear to me more than one person. Many people use multiple identities online, but Holden did so in order to make it appear as if multiple people were talking about GiveWell while in fact (in these cases) Holden was having both sides of the conversation.
But this breach of online ethics does nothing to diminish the importance of GiveWell’s work or the organization’s core concepts. If Apple hired people to go online and post message about how poorly their Windows based computer performed, this would be dishonest. But it would not suggest in any way that Apple’s product was bad. It is a case of dishonest marketing, not a dishonest product. The real shame is that the GiveWell concept is so strong that Holden did not need to use dishonest marketing to further his cause. GiveWell was getting much deserved recognition from people who never came across examples of his astroturfing.
I’m really worried.
I’m worried that as much as Holden’s hyperactive focus on transparency brought attention to the concept, his ethical missteps will allow foundations to decide that they do not need to be transparent.
As Phil Cubeta wrote on the subject:
There is absolutely no good reason that the effort should die. But, the scene got so wild on line over the Holden thing that I am concerned that conservative risk averse philanthropy people will be less likely to venture on line, lest something dreadful happen. I do not believe that they should go back into safe spaces, but I do fear that they will use this as a rationale – “Did you see what those Barbarians did to one another? Who wants to expose our dignified organization to that kind of kerfuffle? We have better things to do than mix ourselves up in that. Let’s have our event be offline, invitation only, and no bloggers.
The message of Holden’s ethical issues and the resulting fallout is NOT that transparency, evaluation or “open source philanthropy” is dangerous in any way. The message is that no matter what your mission is, the ethics of online behavior are still evolving and you should be guided by the idea that you should not do anything online that you would not do offline. The GiveWell scandal is a story about online ethics, not a story about transparency in philanthropy. While it is ironic that Holden, while promoting transparency, hid his identity, his actions do not point out a fallacy in the concept of transparency but rather highlight how important it actual is.
I don’t know that GiveWell can survive without Holden as executive director (although he has been retained as a program officer). As much as I like Holden personally (we have no official connection and have never met in person, but we’ve traded many emails and blog comments), I don’t care so much about whether GiveWell survives as I care that the concepts it was promoting survives. If you’ve been following the series of posts and comments on this blog about nonprofit info inside of Google Finance, you’ll understand the big missing piece needed to allow for effective allocation of philanthropic capital to high impact nonprofits is extensive qualitative research of the kind GiveWell was trying to produce.
I think that if we had fully functioning philanthropic capital markets, what would happen right now is a large foundation would acquire GiveWell. The Hewlett Foundation or Edna McConnell Clark would swoop in and make GiveWell a small division of the foundation. They would then provide the experience and mentoring that GiveWell needs. And they would dramatically increase funding for the project.
Philanthropy needs more people like Holden Karnofsky. People who are willing to try new things, demand better from the field, and stick their neck out. The Holden Karnofsky’s of the world need the current philanthropic leaders to not run scared from change or mock their immaturity, they need the current leaders to embrace them and provide them with the experience and mentoring that they need.
Making the world a better place is hard work. We need arrogant, risk takers and we need experienced, wise people if we are ever going to make a difference.