Holden Karnofsky & GiveWell

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.


  1. Basti says:

    I would add that some people should not go crazy if some young startup/ngo founder makes some stupid mistakes.

    I heared about Givewell for the first time around christmas and immmediately became enthusiastic. Holden (and Elie) did not only write by far the best non-profit blog I have read so far, but also came up with this very interesting concept for more transperancy. Once again I was jealous because the third sector in the USA is so far more developed than the on in Germany (where I am from).

    Unfortunately this has changed since. The way Holden was treated afterwards and the way people called for his “head” really saddened me. So what’s the moral of the story? Never make mistakes and if so, at least don’t tell anyone? Never take risks? Never leave Wall-Street? Never criticize people even if it is for good reason since they might call for your head as soon as they have a chance?

    Anyway, I liked your post. Seems pretty balanced, although I obviously don’t think that Holden deserved to loose his position as director.

  2. Dave Atonement says:

    Perhaps you need arrogant, risk takers and experienced, wise people. But I don’t need arrogant people at all. I need humble risk takers. What is the benefit of arrogance that makes it necessary for you?


  3. Dave, I don’t like arrogance in the people I interact with. And I wouldn’t rank arrogance as an attribute I want to see more of in general. But the entrepreneurial nature of a start up requires people who think unbelievable highly of themselves. I think that Holden could have picked less fights and tried to “play well with others”. But I also think that philanthropy needs (and is already going through) a a headlong crash with market-driven forces that will bring it face to face with people who think they can do everything better.

    There’s probably a better word than “arrogance” for what I’m trying to communicate. Any ideas?

  4. Basti, I think the reason Holden had to step down was because his ethical mistakes involved hiding certain information about himself and he was leading an organization that was promoting transparency.

    That being said, I think that removing the entrepreneurial founder of a start up this early in the orgs history is going to be almost impossible to overcome.

    However, I would hire Holden in a heart beat if I can an organization that could use his skills. That’s why I suggested that a large foundation should “acquire” GiveWell.

  5. Philippe Bradley says:

    Holden certainly *did* have to step down – someone who is prepared to risk the reputation of an entity in the nonprof just to so a few more MetaFilter punters visit it, is by definition an incompetent leader/ figurehead, not to mention an asshat, having vastly misunderstood what the important assets of his venture are. You couldn’t put “trust” and “reputation” on a Google Finance page, that’s for sure. But it damn well ought to feature somehow!

    Even so, it’s good that he remains involved. I’d imagine that this won’t actually change much, internally – perhaps, for the good of GiveWell, it shouldn’t.

    Nobody involved, and nobody watching, is likely to ever make that mistake again, and perhaps it’s good (nay, great) for the rest of this burgeoning movement to get its scars and scary stories now, rather than later on when there’s less chance for lessons to be learnt across the board, for good.

  6. Erich Riesenberg says:

    What’s sad is the people who praise Givewell don’t even take a critical look at Givewell’s so called analysis. Givewell posted massive superficial spreadsheet data dumps, period. I asked Holden how he reached conclusions which differed materially from what the organizations themselves said and he could not recall, and he did not think it worth inquiring of the nonprofits. Lazy and superficial.

    All that Givewell really did is weed out nonprofits which are willing to submit a grueling proprietary application.

    Trusting Holden’s opinion because he bullies people and claims to care is pathetic.

  7. Matt says:

    Basti, this wasn’t one mistake. This was a premeditated and misleading campaign by Holden and Elie spanning most of December. By calling it a mistake, you’re buying into Holden’s “I was sleepy and messed up” defense, which is obviously false. See here: http://mssv.net/wiki/index.php/Givewell

    As for the GiveWell model, it has its flaws. I’d like to see an organization publicly evaluate charities based on their effectiveness – and by publicly, I mean completely transparently, sharing its methodologies. I don’t think GiveWell is up to the task, though – their analysis is lacking, and their scope is much smaller than they claim.

  8. Basti says:

    @ Matt
    As far as I understood, Holden and Elie made probably less than 20 comments without totally identifying themselves (if they really wanted to mislead they would probably not have used holden0 as a username). If I got that wrong completely, please clarify. If not, I would argue that it can be called a mistake.

    Regarding Givewells model I won’t say that it is perfect, but they brought in some new ideas and asked some very important question. Maybe that has all be done before but this is the first time I and a lot of other people heared about it and that in itself is worth something.

    Besides I am very interested in any organisation that is more transparent in the way they make decisions than Givewell. Who else is offering the board meetings as an mp3, who else makes their thoughts publicly available through a well written blog, who else provides more information why they think one charity is better than another?

  9. Matt says:

    We disagree on the meaning of mistake, then. Saying “I was sleepy and made a horrible mistake” in reference to events that happened throughout three whole weeks doesn’t raise any red flags for you? What about sending emails in the name of a different GiveWell employee, which Holden admitted to? What about attempting to buy off online critics? By the way, using the name “holden” is a poor defense – it’s clear from the context of those comments that Holden didn’t want to be immediately recognized as the founder of GiveWell, instead wanting his comments to be viewed as something other than the marketing pitches they were. He said this himself.

    As for GiveWell’s transparency, that’s a great attribute. But transparency always takes a backseat to effectiveness – that’s why they’re called charities, not clarities.

  10. Basti says:

    Of course one can argue if it was one, two or twenty mistakes. I just think that they were not that severe and that the board should not have removed him from his position. Besides I just mentioned the holden0 username to show that he wasn’t really malicious. If I really want to hide my identity, I wouldn’t use my real name (or parts of it). Nevertheless he made a stupid mistake (or ten), I won’t argue about that.

    Concerning transpaerency I don’t think that this will allways lead to less effectiveness. Actually I think that usually the opposite is true, especially if you are non-prfit. If you mess around and are transparent, someone will notice, make it public and you will have less donations to mess around with in the future. In a less drastic way transperancy could lead to someone pointing out your ineffeciency and you change your way of doing things (become more efficient).

  11. Matt says:

    Mistakes, to me, makes them sound like accidents, or minor errors. I don’t view them as such, given the seriousness with which ethical lapses should be treated in the nonprofit sector. I can see your point of view, though, in that these mistakes could have been much worse. Keep in mind that one of the ways they could have been worse is if Holden’s pattern of behavior was allowed to continue.

    “In a less drastic way transperancy could lead to someone pointing out your ineffeciency and you change your way of doing things (become more efficient).”
    That’s what I’m hoping will happen in this case. However, I do think that GiveWell has trumpeted its transparency in a way that actually deflects attention from its results. I’d like to know if others feel the same way – have GiveWell’s promises of transparency become a greater focus than their actual work?

  12. Matt & Basti,
    I think Holden’s actions were not a mistake as in, “oops, I didn’t mean to do that, sorry”. They were a mistake as in an error in judgment. A sever one which I know Holden feels terrible about. But errors in judgment have consequences and Holden is living with his.

    I do agree that GiveWell’s transparency was a greater focus than their results, but I think that was the right focus. Every foundation, every grantmaker, every donor in the world is engaged in charity evaluation. When you give to a nonprofit you are implicitly deciding that it is the best choice for your money. What was different about GiveWell was they made their decision making transparent so that other donors could benefit from their research.

    I think that GiveWell worked very hard to produce the best results they could, but at the end of the day the important thing was that they showed that there is a hungry market for nonprofit evaluation being made publicly available. I hope larger foundations with more resources and experience follow suit. They are doing the same work that GiveWell was, they just won’t share their knowledge with anyone.

  13. Matt says:

    “What was different about GiveWell was they made their decision making transparent so that other donors could benefit from their research.” . . . but I still don’t see any evaluation of the benefit of GiveWell’s research. This is why the focus still needs to be on results – transparency is useful as a means of viewing results. Holden’s put all this information out where we can see it, so let’s *look* at it. If their research is shabby, superficial, narrow, or unhelpful (guess what my opinion is), then it does no good to see every last little bit of it.

    I find it a little disconcerting, Sean, that Holden slips up, and your first response is that GiveWell needs to be bigger and better-funded. An episode like this ought to lead to criticism and examination, and “more funding” – I think I’ll pat myself on the back here for not spelling it MOAR like a rabid 4-channer – is neither of those things. I’ll assume good faith here: I think you’re very dedicated to the very worthwhile cause of transparency, and view this episode as an opportunity to promote transparency. I simply think that you can do that without supporting GiveWell, and that GiveWell doesn’t deserve your support.

    For example, their metric for causes in Africa: cost-effectiveness at saving lives *as measured by the organization* – what’s more, measured for whatever program the organization *chose* to report on. And roughly half the organizations GiveWell contacted didn’t bother filling out their forms, so GiveWell did zero analysis on them – yet they still try to claim that they find the best nonprofits for each cause, period. When GiveWell does bother doing its own analysis, rather than simply crunching numbers from organizations’ reports, it ends up with (in its own words) “extremely rough” estimates. There’s more criticisms to be made, but I think the philanthropy-blogging community should pick up that slack, not me.

  14. Alison says:

    Calling Holden Karnofsky good for the argument of transparency in philanthropy is like calling James Frey good for biographical publications about addiction.

    I wouldn’t call him a risk taker either. Misrepresenting himself wasn’t a risk, it was stupid and careless and yes, arrogant. But not arrogant in the fearless way, arrogant in the elitist way.

    True, this story is not about the merits of transparency, but rather about the ethics of online behavior. But this standard wasn’t ambiguous. He just screwed up. And I think his weak apology made things worse.

    Regarding my original reference, this situation isn’t much different. Embellishing his autobiography wasn’t nearly as unforgiveable as lying about it and maintaining its veracity. He lied, lied about lying and then incurred the wrath of Oprah. Oddly enough, it was the latter two that caused the problems, not the original lie.

    What does this mean for the world of philanthropy? In my opinion, not much in the long term. We’re all a-buzz about it on the blogs, but even this will eventually die down. Transparency will be a hot issue for a while, and everyone will scramble to make sure they are transparent and consistent – and that everyone knows they are transparent and consistent.

    So temporarily, this brought the issue front and center, which I suppose can be spun as a good thing. But inevitably, this will evolve into no more than an industry anecdote and story to tell at board meetings about how NOT to conduct outreach online.

  15. Alan Hovar says:

    Holden has not “stepped down.” He has been (non-transparently) “demoted” to “program officer,” with a “financial penalty” equal only to the few grand it will cost to put him through an ethics course.

    The irony here is that there really is NOTHING all that new about what Holden (and Elie Hassenfeld, who has inexplicably not been punished or called out in any of this) were doing. There are many similar efforts going on, many of them much more professional and better funded and managed. Please read the Metafilter “Metatalk” thread where Holden was outed for a long discussion — including many NPO professionals — for the details. This is puffed up and inflated Holden-kissing nonsense, as if he and Elie had invented the idea of accountability or measurement of impact.

    Indeed, an Australian organization called “Givewell” has been doing this since . . . . 1997. Not only are Holden and Elie online liars; they are concept lifters, at best.

    What this really shows is that the corporate “hedge fund” mentality which diminishes ethics and privileges arrogant young people claiming they are going to change the world with attitude rather than professional development will bring down the NPO world into the muck of corporate dishonesty, where PR rules everything.

    Keep defending him. He didn’t lose his job. The response by the Givewell board is total smoke and mirrors. Some of us will not let this die, at all, and will follow whatever becomes of “Givewell” around until it is out of business. This was more than a dumb kid making a mistake. This was dishonesty by a 27 year old professional with corporate experience. Stop acting like he’s a teenager or did not abuse the public trust.

  16. Erich Riesenberg says:

    In the body of the thread Sean described the genesis for Givewell: 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.

    Then Sean writes: I do agree that GiveWell’s transparency was a greater focus than their results, but I think that was the right focus.

    Wow, again, as is typical for this group of bloggers, diverge and divert. Rather than try to point out some success Holden had in analysing nonprofits, which Sean originally said was the puprose, he cheers on Holden’s brash, condescending attitude.

    Note, Sean writes there were no decent resoures for we unfortunate donors. The condescending attitude of Sean, Holden, Phil, and others towards the people in the industry who have actually made it easier for donors such as myself to analyze nonprofits is reason enough to ignore them. If they had anything to contribute, they would do it, rather than insult others.

  17. Erich Riesenberg says:

    Sean also wrote: 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.

    Oh my word! This should make anyone laugh. What exactly would an acquiror get with Givewell? A few rambling spreadsheets?

    Seriously, Sean, you can’t write something like that and then say Givewell’s biggest contribution was its hypocritical call for transparency. If you are telling us Givewell has something worth being bought, you owe it to your devoted readers to tell us what Givewell taught anyone about properly analyzing nonprofits.


  18. Anne says:

    As of September 2008, Holden has been quietly reinstated as GiveWell Board Secretary. So much for placing him in a position where he can be supervised, much less punishing him for a serious lapse in judgment.