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GiveWell, or Give 'em Hell?
December 31, 2007 10:44 AM   Subscribe

Is This Transparency? OP with very slim, one-year posting history asks a question about finding a good charity in AskMe, just prior to year-end tax-decision time. Newly registered responder posts a newly formed charity-aggregator/evaluator organization, without mentioning that he is, apparently, one of the two founders. Self-promotional setup leading to self-link? Or am I being too cynical?

[update, 1/3/08: a summary of events is being developed on the wiki. --cortex]
posted by Miko to MetaFilter-Related at 10:44 AM (1415 comments total) 172 users marked this as a favorite

Oh snap, good eyes. The question and "answer" were posted from the exact same IP. deleted, banned.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 10:51 AM on December 31, 2007


Ugh. IP addresses for comments from geremiah and Holden0 in that thread match. I was hoping you were being too cynical, but it doesn't look like it.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:51 AM on December 31, 2007


Simultaneous posts = proof that banning is the most stimulating part of this job.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:52 AM on December 31, 2007 [20 favorites]


Also, the same person bought both accounts.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 10:52 AM on December 31, 2007


Ha, awesome. Bet he thought he was being clever with that, huh?
posted by puke & cry at 10:54 AM on December 31, 2007


Is this how justice is going to work in 08?
posted by localhuman at 10:55 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Sheesh, the irony! They're going to find the honest charities for us.
posted by Miko at 10:56 AM on December 31, 2007 [5 favorites]


Good eyes Mike!
Mike, did you bother to look at what Holden0 linked to? Granted, they don't look at enough causes, but they did a bunch of work to figure out who's good and published it. That's what I'm looking for. Telling every individual donor to go to mounds of research, or to forget it because they don't count enough, seems stupid and wasteful if there are websites out there (and there should be) doing the legwork and sharing it.

If anyone has more sites along the lines of givewell.net, please share.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:57 AM on December 31, 2007


Mike Miko, Girl Detective!
posted by scody at 11:00 AM on December 31, 2007


omg, on top of all this dishonesty, they named their "charity" for the .net version of a huge medical/visa campaign that resides at the .com version of the domain. Seems kind of like two dudes that thought "hey, what can we half-ass online and make money off under the guises of charity?"
posted by mathowie (staff) at 11:02 AM on December 31, 2007 [7 favorites]


That's slimy, even for self-linkers.

My skin is all crawly.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:02 AM on December 31, 2007


Awesome detective work Miko!
posted by special-k at 11:04 AM on December 31, 2007


That was so cool.
posted by dirtdirt at 11:08 AM on December 31, 2007


Miko rocks!
posted by small_ruminant at 11:08 AM on December 31, 2007


Further on Givewell, here's the smarty pants fellas who pulled the stunt:

Holden Karnofsky graduated from Harvard in 2003 with a degree in Social Studies, and spent the next several years in the hedge fund industry. He founded GiveWell in August of 2006, as a part-time collaboration between 8 friends struggling with their personal donation decisions, and left his job to become full-time Executive Director in June of 2007.

Elie Hassenfeld graduated from Columbia in 2004 with a degree in Religion, and spent the next several years in the hedge fund industry. He was one of the original 8 part-time volunteer members of GiveWell, and in August of 2007 he left his job to become full-time Program Officer at The Clear Fund (our grantmaking entity). While Holden is responsible for the project as a whole, Elie is devoted to research: evaluating grant applications and determining how to help people as effectively as possible.

Gotta laff at two ivy league hedge fund boyz running this little game. And gotta wonder if they aren't looking to make a dishonest dime or two here too. And the putting on airs across that site is really hilarious. Frankly, I would not trust a pair of hedge-funders with a penny of my charitable money. But by pulling this stunt, they reveal they are just like all their rich kid pals.

If anyone wishes to call this little incident to the attention of the Board of Givewell here's the list:

Board of Directors

Bob Elliott (Chair) was one of the original 8 members of GiveWell, as well as co-founder of the national nonprofit Global Justice (not eligible for a Clear Fund grant).

Virginia Zink (Vice-Chair) is a former Head of Institutional Sales at ING Australia, and one of our project's major financial supporters.

Greg Jensen (Treasurer) is co-Chief Investment Officer at a major hedge fund, the former supervisor of both Holden and Elie, and one of our project's major financial supporters.

Holden Karnofsky (Secretary) - bio above.

Lucy Bernholz is President and Founder of Blueprint Research and Design, author of Creating Philanthropic Capital Markets, and maintainer of the Philanthropy 2173 blog.

Tim Ogden is Chief Knowledge Officer of Geneva Global, a philanthropic consulting firm devoted to results-oriented grantmaking in the poorest regions of the world.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:09 AM on December 31, 2007 [8 favorites]


Just wait until you see their manifesto.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:10 AM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


and I really hope that this thread shows up high when people 'research' GiveWell.
posted by dirtdirt at 11:10 AM on December 31, 2007


Note to self - when attempting to scam Metafilter for self-promotion, don't fucking call out Miko's answers in-thread. For her retribution is swift, and terrible.
posted by nanojath at 11:11 AM on December 31, 2007 [17 favorites]


Hm. Someone who has never ever posted to MnSpeak previously just posted a comment about Givewell. I will leave it, because you are allowed to self-link in comments, but I wonder if they are astroturfing Web pages.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:12 AM on December 31, 2007


I am really angry about this. I took the question really seriously and spent a fair amount of time on my responses, which are now gone along with the other ones, many of which had a lot of good info in them. I thought he sounded like a putz. Good call Miko.
posted by nax at 11:12 AM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


hooray
posted by synaesthetichaze at 11:14 AM on December 31, 2007


Yeah nax, I'm really bummed out as well because I thought your answer was really great and useful to someone like me who has very little idea how charitable giving looks from the other side. GRAWR scammers!
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:19 AM on December 31, 2007


And at least if those folks google themselves, they'll come across this thread and find out what kind of "board" they belong to.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:20 AM on December 31, 2007


A decisive victory for the cabal.
posted by clockwork at 11:21 AM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


Hey Miko and Nax, I learned a ton from your comments in that thread. Perhaps you could repost them here? Despite the idiots who ran the scam, y'all's answers are very helpful for potential donors.

And even had you not called out givewell's bullshit as a self-link, your comments would have guided me away from having anything to do with them. Shows you know what you're talking about. Bravo.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:26 AM on December 31, 2007


Miko's got skillz.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:27 AM on December 31, 2007


What dicks. I'm also pretty impressed that you need an Ivy League education to learn how to spell 'refridgerators'...
posted by AwkwardPause at 11:29 AM on December 31, 2007


Gotta laff at two ivy league hedge fund boyz running this little game.

Previously.
posted by mykescipark at 11:29 AM on December 31, 2007


Here is the Givewell blog

http://blog.givewell.net/

You can leave comments. I just did, with a link back to this thread. Maybe this way the "board" of the organization will become aware of what the "founders" are up to.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:31 AM on December 31, 2007


Sorry, that's
http://blog.givewell.net/
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:32 AM on December 31, 2007


LOL.

These dudes made it into The New York Times. Pictures and all.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:33 AM on December 31, 2007


Man that's slimy.

Question-and-answer from same IP might be a nice thing to flag automatically for review?
posted by Skorgu at 11:39 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Very clever, these Shinto priestesses. Good work, Miko.
posted by Cranberry at 11:39 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yep, a web search of givewell shows that at the very least they know how to spread the word, and it appears they're in a big end of year push. They're showing up in a ton of blogs, and getting more traction from the Times article.

It's really a shame that both Nax and Miko's comments are part of that deleted thread, as they both offer valuable information about charities. If their responses don't fit elsewhere, it might be a good idea to post them in this thread, and/or sidebar this thread.
posted by SteveInMaine at 11:42 AM on December 31, 2007


You're right. I tried to promote GiveWell, and you caught me, and I deserve to be banned.

I just want to clarify that this is not about trying to make money or scam people. GiveWell is an honest attempt to help people make informed giving decisions. We don't ask that anyone trust us on anything; all our reasoning is out in the open. We are certainly not trying to ride the Highmark card; I can document that we've had givewell.net since more than 6 months before they released their product or published a thing on givewell.com.

I tried to get the word out there in a way that wasn't right. It was a lapse in judgment. It was terrible. I really hope that you can understand the difference between this mistake and running a scam.
posted by holden00 at 11:44 AM on December 31, 2007


If their responses don't fit elsewhere, it might be a good idea to post them in this thread, and/or sidebar this thread.

Or just delete any comments referencing GiveWell, leaving the post to stand.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:44 AM on December 31, 2007


"...GiveWell is an honest..."

Ho ho ho! Hee hee hee!
posted by dirtdirt at 11:48 AM on December 31, 2007


We don't ask that anyone trust us on anything

I don't think that's going to be a problem!

*joins throng of worshippers at Miko's altar*
posted by languagehat at 11:49 AM on December 31, 2007 [5 favorites]


I really hope that you can understand the difference between this mistake and running a scam.

I really hope that you can see that you wasted people's time and abused the trust of this community. People have actually been pretty civil here most likely because you don't also seem like a scam artist, but it puts the question more up in the air than it really should be. Or, to toss your own words back at you...
To me there is a necessary link between transparency and quality. Transparency is more important than evaluation, more important than anything really, if you believe in your own fallibility.
I really don't see people here as being the ones who are lacking in understanding.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:51 AM on December 31, 2007 [9 favorites]


Is it just me or did they just wipe their whole blog?
posted by puke & cry at 11:51 AM on December 31, 2007


Well, well. Holden, you have an ivy league education from the same school where I once earned my A.B. As I recall, we had a "moral reasoning" requirement back then (which is how I had my encounter with the grotesque Harvey Mansfield).

Surely you know that lying once means that everyone will henceforth think you a liar, right? This is exactly why Miko was right to call out givewell in the thread simply because its founders are too young.

Y'all tried to play us. But you poked a tiger. A very smart tiger. You had better be squeaky clean in every other respect, because some of us intend to find out, and watch you in the future. It's nice to believe a couple of spoiled kids would chuck the Cristal and Lexus set and give their all for charity. But you just made it a lot harder to believe.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:51 AM on December 31, 2007 [6 favorites]


Yep, wiped the blog clean. So much for being honest and admitting their mistakes. I'd posted a link to this thread in the comments of several articles there.

Wouldn't want the truth coming out, would we?
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:53 AM on December 31, 2007


Holden, surely you can understand that choosing to do something as unethical and deceptive as what you did here—even if it is objectively yards away from someone running a Three Card Monte on the corner—is pretty damned troubling in the context of a charitable organization.

Noboby is mistaking you for Hitler, here, but this sort of crypto-stumping is the sort of thing people associate with slimy scammers rather than charitable orgs for good reason.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:53 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Is it just me or did they just wipe their whole blog?

It's not you — they wiped it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:54 AM on December 31, 2007


GiveWell is an honest attempt to help people make informed giving decisions.

Except, of course, for the part where you post fake questions and answers in an effort to advantage of the generosity of AskMetafilter in order to pimp your website. And when you're called on it on your own blog, you delete comments, and apparently, wipe the blog in an attempt to cover it up. Honest. Transparent.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:54 AM on December 31, 2007


GiveWell is an honest attempt to help people make informed giving decisions.

Fuck you, Holden.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:54 AM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Oh shit, the fucker showed up again to do damage control.
posted by puke & cry at 11:54 AM on December 31, 2007


And as for the difference between a "mistake" and a "scam," I'd say it is a difference in *intention.* You *intended* to deceive us by using language that did not reveal your own ties to the charity you were pitching, as well as by posting a self-link in the first place. So that's not a mistake; it's a lapse in honesty and judgment, and it only elicited an apology because you got caught.

Character shows.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:56 AM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Maybe someone should contact the author of the NYT piece and clue her in to this aspect of the Givewell story.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:56 AM on December 31, 2007 [10 favorites]


Is there a website somewhere where one can post this in order to give spammars a black mark on their e-reputation?
posted by By The Grace of God at 11:57 AM on December 31, 2007


This rocks. Go, Miko!
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:57 AM on December 31, 2007


Has someone already emailed all this stuff to the reporter that wrote up the NYTimes piece?
posted by mullacc at 11:57 AM on December 31, 2007


Blog seems to be around still, folks. We can charitably presume badly-timed server hiccup on that one.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:57 AM on December 31, 2007


On preview, monju beat me to the punch.
posted by mullacc at 11:58 AM on December 31, 2007


If anyone would like to call this episode to the attention of Stephanie Strom, who wrote the NY Times article (assuming it's not one of Holden's aliases), please click this link:

here

Then click on "send an email to Stephanie Strom." The NYT story was such a glowing puff piece that I think it might be worth it to let the author know that she missed part of the story. The part where the heros are dicks.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:01 PM on December 31, 2007


Mmmm... I have a taste for these all of a sudden. Good, and good for 'ya - until you read the ingredients, that is.
posted by SteveInMaine at 12:02 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


BTW, I just did send the Times reporter a link to this, but it couldn't hurt for her to get a few more.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:02 PM on December 31, 2007


Looks like the blog is back, minus the 'recent comments' widget that had been on the front page.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 12:02 PM on December 31, 2007


Their Alexa rank is in the 700k range. Weak.
posted by delmoi at 12:02 PM on December 31, 2007


"Y'all tried to play us. But you poked a tiger. A very smart tiger. You had better be squeaky clean in every other respect, because some of us intend to find out, and watch you in the future. It's nice to believe a couple of spoiled kids would chuck the Cristal and Lexus set and give their all for charity. But you just made it a lot harder to believe."

I agree with every word of that.

I don't know what to say. I am low on sleep and I'd like to think that had somethign to do with it. I did a horrible thing, I did it without thinking much - to me it was the equivalent of shouting. But it was horrible, I feel horrible, I absolutely understand your wish to now keep a close eye on me (and I encourage it), and I want to know if there is anything I can do to make it up to the Metafilter community.

I don't have a lot of money. I am not from the Cristal set. I spent 3 years at a hedge fund and gave enough to charity that I wanted to know more about what I was doing. So I can't offer a lot of money, but I can offer a donation to Metafilter from my pocket. I'm not offering this in return for your ceasing your criticism, I'm offering it to make up for abusing the rules. Would that be appropriate? Would anything else?
posted by holden00 at 12:02 PM on December 31, 2007


And while they may not have wiped the blog, they are working furiously to remove comments that link back to this thread. More are being added, but my original ones (which were civil in tone) have been removed.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:04 PM on December 31, 2007


What would be appropriate is a public admission of what you did and a link to this thread on your blog. That would be better (for YOUR business, which is an analyst and trades on accountability) than if the NYT reporter gets to it first.
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:05 PM on December 31, 2007


And then he tries to buy us off.

Man, I might hafta start drinking early. What fun.

I have a saved copy of one of the blog page with fourcheesemac's comment showing if anyone needs it.

Whee. Happy New Year!
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:05 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Seriously, you JUST again seemed shady, by offering to bribe the metafilter community! Money doesn't solve everything.

Also it's usually better politics to negotiate with the mods outside of the mob-filled thread. :)
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:06 PM on December 31, 2007


Your apologies ring pretty hollow, Holden, when you have a company that insists on the value of transparency, but are simultaneously erasing comments on your blog that reference this thread.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:07 PM on December 31, 2007


And ... they just put the 'recent comments' widget back. Do you think we're stupid, Holden?
posted by monju_bosatsu at 12:08 PM on December 31, 2007


I didn't wipe a single comment. We were playing with the blog format, bad timing, I have put it back as it was. I didn't remove a single comment.

Hopefully you can understand what it means to have a lapse in judgment. The lapse was quick and relatively thoughtless. To me, the best thing I can do is recognize what I did wrong, do what's necessary to make up for it, and move on. To me, that makes more sense than abandoning 12 months of sweat and blood because of a relatively thoughtless and temporary lapse in those principles that I now fully recognize adn want to admit and make up for.
posted by holden00 at 12:08 PM on December 31, 2007


I can offer a donation to Metafilter from my pocket. I'm not offering this in return for your ceasing your criticism, I'm offering it to make up for abusing the rules. Would that be appropriate? Would anything else?

Sure, here's the routing numbers to my savings account. When can I expect the first payment to come in?
posted by Pollomacho at 12:08 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


To me it was the equivalent of shouting

NO, THIS IS THE EQUIVALENT OF SHOUTING

What you did was the equivalent of lying.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:09 PM on December 31, 2007 [30 favorites]


We may be a mob, but this time of year this really hits home. Many of us are considering our end of year giving, which has to be *exactly* why Holden and co. ran this scam on us in the first place. Many of us also believe in new, web-based ways of doing old things -- Charity 2.0, as Lucy Bernholz, one of Givewell's board members, calls it.

I think a little mob action is not out of place at all here. In a way this is *worse* than three-card-monte on the streetcorner or someone scamming MeFi to sell crap. There's a pretense to good intentions and honesty and accountability here. This makes all of us more cynical about giving money to charity in general, not just to these guys, I think.

And the mods, bless their wise souls, are in no position to tell the rest of us what to think about Givewell or anything else.

I personally would be happy to see a reflective mea culpa piece about this on the givewell blog, written by Holden, and admitting fully what went down here. That would do it for me. Just sayin'.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:10 PM on December 31, 2007 [10 favorites]


Forget the donation. Someone suggested it to me, I see how it is perceived as a bribe, and I take it back.

If I wanted to hide your comments I would have deleted them. The hiccups with the sidebar were not that.

I am now asking you:

1. Do you agree that it's better for me to treat this as a lapse in judgment - yes, in the very principle I believe in most - do what I can to make up for it, and move on trying to promote the principle of transparency?

2. If so, what should I do? I am open to roughly anything.
posted by holden00 at 12:11 PM on December 31, 2007


Well, it's healthy and realistic to think that we can affect the reputation of your business. Your behaviour on Metafilter can indeed have a negative impact on givewell, and rightly so. Unfortunately the scandal-horse has just left the barn. The comments have gone out to the Times and probably lots of other people relevant to your business. What's left for you is an expression of contrition and an explanation (the ones you've made here are good) on YOUR website. Seriously, transparency is as transparency does, and with proper behaviour and marketing of your response to your error, you can recover from this.

So take a deep breath and say you're sorry on your blog. It'll be better received if it's there first than if it's there after a reporter or three call you about it.
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:12 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Fourcheesemac: your proposal makes sense. Do others agree?
posted by holden00 at 12:12 PM on December 31, 2007


Cunts. In. Hats. Fedoras, I bet.
posted by puke & cry at 12:12 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


A full, public mea maxima culpa on your own site is good policy. This is not a minor lapse in judgment. This was an attempt to put one over on a community of 40-some-odd thousand, and that is a very, very grave error for a relatively young business to make. Especially a Web-based business, and one that trumpets the importance of transparency.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:13 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


I honestly feel sorry for your predicament here Holden, however, Holden, you aren't making things better for yourself right now. Get some rest. Talk to Matthowie in a personal email later. That is the way to clear up the mess, perhaps, with time people will return to their Wii's and forget this ever happened.

If you truly are trying to do what you say, good luck to you. If you are the scmmer that people suspect, you deserve far more retribution than MeFi is capable of dishing out.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:14 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Maybe you can't buy these guys off, holden00, but I have a lot of loans to repay for my stint at Columbia. Email is in profile. Have Paypal.
posted by mds35 at 12:16 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Digg this.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 12:17 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


Mea culpa posted. Is it honest enough? Please let me know what you think.
posted by holden00 at 12:18 PM on December 31, 2007


Also, if you or someone from your company is astroturfing, and I'm not saying you are, it must be stopped immediately. You will be found out, and it will be an even bigger black eye that this. Go back to the sites that have been astroturfed and come clean. Mention it in your mea culpa. If there has been any additional whiff of deception in your dealings with others on the Web, it has to end and come out now, from you. Because it will come out.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:18 PM on December 31, 2007


Here's the mea culpa.

I'll be tracking the progress of your blog and company for the next year and seriously wish you good luck for an honest and prosperous 2008. Don't do that again!
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:20 PM on December 31, 2007


Well, no one thinks you are going to roll up givewell and go away. At least I don't. But a dent in your reputation is appropriate punishment for doing something that sullies your reputation, don't you think? Stop being a baby about it and asking us what you should do. Own up to it on your own site's blog and let us know when you do. My opinion, anyway.

I went to your college (and worked my own way through, by the way), and teach at another Ivy League school now. I've seen way too many spoiled brat kids who think they will change the world while getting rich, and too many of the same kind of kids resume-padding efforts to do "good work" to believe you're not one of them. A whole lot of them buy domain names and pronounce new paradigms on their websites.

Hedge fund work of the sort done by recent Harvard grads, even at the bottom of the ladder, pays about $150-200K a year. You may not be rich or from money, but in three years you earned more than some of us will make in a decade or more, or many of the recipients of the charity you are soliciting will see in a lifetime of hard toil. Beyond that, most of us have formed the impression of the kinds of self-promoting, entitled people who work as hedge fund managers after getting elite educations at places like Harvard and Columbia to be doubtful about your altruistic intentions in starting something like givewell to begin with. All you've done is confirm the stereotypes. You may not deserve them, but welcome to reality.

So if you want to learn from and admit your "mistake," do so. But there are consequences to dishonesty, and you're looking at them. Sometimes it's the little lies that do us in; they tend to make people think there are big lies somewhere below the surface.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:21 PM on December 31, 2007 [41 favorites]


I asked what I should do because I can recognize that I'm not thinking well right now. The suggestion to own up to it on the blog was a good one. I should have thought of it. I should not have done this. I am sorry.
posted by holden00 at 12:23 PM on December 31, 2007


See, thing is, you can't apologize to us any more than you could buy us off (or fool us). There is no 'us' that you are dealing with! On Metafilter, or in the world in general. It's just many individuals, some will forgive and forget, some will snark, some will remain vigilent.

When the entire conceit of your project (I was going to say 'business' but I am feeling charitable (heh)) is how to figure out who to trust, and yet you cannot master that basic fact in your own dealings with the people who you hope to have trust you, what you need to do, in my humble opinion, is figure out why you are doing this.
posted by dirtdirt at 12:24 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't know what to say. I am low on sleep and I'd like to think that had somethign to do with it.

Of the many things that wane with fatigue, I never knew that ethical fiber was one of them.

Offering money... ho man. You are a piece of work, my friends.

Someone please contact the NYT for a follow up piece. They will absolutely love the "outed by the online community sleuths" angle. Seriously, with all the trouble we've already got in routing donations to charities ethically, effectively and efficiently, I don't think we need these characters operating in the sphere any longer. It's time to end some careers, here.
posted by scarabic at 12:24 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Time to close this thread?
posted by found missing at 12:24 PM on December 31, 2007


Yes, please.
posted by Evangeline at 12:25 PM on December 31, 2007


Happy new year everybody!
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:26 PM on December 31, 2007


Piling on is fine, but there is no more room on the pile.
posted by found missing at 12:26 PM on December 31, 2007


I read your mea culpa, Holden. It works for me. Appreciated.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:26 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


I'm starting to feel bad for the guy, even though I haven't heard anything from paypal yet.

Do we need to torture the poor sleep-deprived guy any more? He seems humble enough. We're just gonna look like a bunch of pricks when the NYT article comes out.
posted by mds35 at 12:28 PM on December 31, 2007


Before this thread is closed, I'd like to mention that I'm soliciting funds for my Home for Wayward Girls. Donations appreciated, PayPal in profile.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:29 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


When there is no more room to pile on in hell, the pile-oners will walk the earth.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:29 PM on December 31, 2007 [5 favorites]


Wow a civil ending. Well that may change but for now I'm keeping these rose tinted glasses on.
posted by wheelieman at 12:31 PM on December 31, 2007


If my hinting about for cash donations comes off as unseemly, I'd like to mention that I am in the market for a new Mac.
posted by mds35 at 12:32 PM on December 31, 2007


Before this thread is closed, I'd like to mention that I'm soliciting funds for my Home for Wayward Girls. Donations appreciated, PayPal in profile.

Incidentally, I'm soliciting "wayward girls" for my home.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:33 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


I'm waywarding solicits for my.. oh, the hell with it.
posted by box at 12:34 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


When there is no more room to pile on in hell, the pile-oners will walk the earth.

Put another round in that pile over there! Look! She's a twitcher!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:35 PM on December 31, 2007


I am taking money for the Buy Me an iPod Touch so I can Hack It fund!
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:37 PM on December 31, 2007


Upon reflection, Holden, does your BOARD know about your astroturfing? ah well, they will do now..
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:39 PM on December 31, 2007


Hey, what did y'all get for christmas?
posted by found missing at 12:40 PM on December 31, 2007


I absolutely understand your wish to now keep a close eye on me (and I encourage it), and I want to know if there is anything I can do to make it up to the Metafilter community.

*Delete your accounts here.

*Go away.

*Never return.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:40 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


I absolutely understand your wish to now keep a close eye on me (and I encourage it), and I want to know if there is anything I can do to make it up to the Metafilter community.

*2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme

*2GB memory

*500GB hard drive1

*8x double-layer SuperDrive

*ATI Radeon HD 2600 PRO with 256MB memory
posted by mds35 at 12:43 PM on December 31, 2007


I got a swiss army knife, although not that brand. It is kind of hard to open all the different blades, etc., but I expect they'll be easier to open with more use.
posted by found missing at 12:44 PM on December 31, 2007


Hey, what did y'all get for christmas?

I got a bribe from a charity.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:44 PM on December 31, 2007 [9 favorites]


nice
posted by found missing at 12:45 PM on December 31, 2007


Heya -- I've gotten the sleep-deprivation excuse more and more often from my Ivy League undergraduate students in recent years for "lapses in judgment" (usually minor but significant episodes of plagiarism). It's in fashion. It's the kids these days. I guess they don't sleep because they are so busy saving the world while getting rich at the same time.

I think he's learned a lesson here, and I very much suspect that givewell's bottom line will reflect the real punishment this will engender, which is mistrust from the very people he tried to convince to donate. Credibility is such a valuable thing in life, and online, and really they are the same thing. But for a charity, in any setting, it's the only thing that matters.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:46 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


"I'm offering it to make up for abusing the rules."

I don't think you understand. You didn't just abuse the rules, you, and your partner, abused the trust of many people. And you got found out. Deal with that in whatever way you seem fit. I doubt more sleep and money would make you any less of a weasel.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 12:49 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, I understand where he's coming from. I get less than eight hours of sleep a night and I also have lapses in judgment. Once, after a six-hour night, I invaded Cuba.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:51 PM on December 31, 2007 [45 favorites]


I do think that making a public statement in a forum where most visitors would not otherwise ever need to be aware of this unethical choice sets Holden a step above the run-of-the-mill scammers, who typically try to cover as much of the evidence as possible and disappear.

But I hope Holden understands that this is not merely "protecting our turf" or anything like that. Because of the potentially dramatic promotional power versus cash expenditure ratio, abusing voluntary discussion platforms is a real and persistent problem that in a very real way damages a whole burgeoning new approach to public conversation.

The whole principle of a service like GiveWell is for quality to rise on its own merits. Respect that principle and keep it clean from now own, Holden.
posted by nanojath at 12:52 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


So I can't offer a lot of money, but I can offer a donation to Metafilter from my pocket.

Woo-hoo, pinstripes and fedoras for ALL (followed by girly coos)!!!
posted by ericb at 12:54 PM on December 31, 2007


"Lapse in judgment": Posting the question to "fish" for the givewell answer, without revealing your connection/intentions.

Another possible "lapse in judgment": Replying to the question (as asked by someone else) without revealing your connection.

DOING BOTH: Premeditated, manipulative, brazen site abuse. Not just in poor taste (like astroturfing) but out and out lying on top of a lie.
posted by availablelight at 12:55 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


For posterity, here's the link on Lifehacker that Holden acknowledged in the comments of the givewell mea culpa post.
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:57 PM on December 31, 2007


Why is he even still able to post? Shouldn't the banhammer have swung by now?
posted by konolia at 1:08 PM on December 31, 2007


He opened a third account, konolia, and Mathowie and Cortex clearly immediately started hitting the bottle in the flush of a good hard banning. No moderation for the rest of New Year's! Anarchy!
posted by nanojath at 1:10 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


"Once, after a six-hour night, I invaded Cuba."

LOL. I think we missed each other by minutes.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 1:11 PM on December 31, 2007


Given the interesting developments of the last couple of hours, I would suggest one thing to you, Holden00. If you are sincere about a career in philanthropy, you need some humility in the form of some good, ethical consultants to help keep your strategies in line and to develop a marketing plan, business plan, and philanthropic philosophy before going forward. What's clearer to me than anything else about your organization is that you are (all) inexperienced. You have a nice idea - you want to operate as a sort of certifying organization for charities, saving your donor/clients the time they would need to properly research sizeable donations - but it's not a new idea, and there are a lot of people -- a field's worth of people - who know vastly more about it than you appear to. The rookie-ness of your mistake is a signal that you aren't ready to handle people's money in significant amounts.

You might benefit from contacting the Center on Philanthropy and considering one of their seminars or querying them for a consultant list. Also, consider expanding your board, making sure you add people with legal experience as well as nonprofit leadership experience. Someone from a journalistic form of media would also be a good choice, to vet your plans for business promotion.

Admitting your mistake and moving on is all you can do, although I agree that it's a method that the privileged are often able to do smoothly while others are stuck with consequences. In this instance, you may very well experience real, irreversible consequences. Or you may find a way to construct this as a responsible fundraising activity, or work with clients who don't care how you do what you do - but in any case, it has the potential to be a very important learning experience which should impact your management decisions in future.

If I've been extra sensitive on this point, it's because I am employed, and have been all my life, in non-profit organizations. I'm honored to work in a values-driven field and believe that the public trust is a serious responsibility. It can be abused, and if your methods don't get a bit cleaned up, you are running the risk of abusing tax dollars and carefully earned funds given in good faith to help change the world.

Good luck.
posted by Miko at 1:11 PM on December 31, 2007 [45 favorites]


I cannot believe how seriously people take this stuff.
posted by smackfu at 1:13 PM on December 31, 2007 [10 favorites]


If anyone would like to call this episode to the attention of Stephanie Strom, who wrote the NY Times article (assuming it's not one of Holden's aliases), please click this link:
posted by fourcheesemac

Done. Suggest all 60,00 of us do the same.
posted by Cranberry at 1:13 PM on December 31, 2007


I'm sure it does good for the people helped, but "resume padding" charity work irritates the hell out of me. Reminds me of the Blair Hornstine type. I mean in reality there is no reason to judge the good work done by people based on their motivations, but at the same time it's just kind of gross.

And these guys are paying themselves $65k each for their trouble. I realize that's less then they could be making, but at the same time I feel like they're probably just doing this for the networking and promotional opportunities, rather then a real desire to change the world.

And go back and read the thread, he didn't just promote Givewell, he actually criticized Miko for pointing to charity navigator, and said "what Holden0 linked to ... That's what I'm looking for". It wasn't just a simple spamming attempt, it was actively deceptive. Sock puppetry and all. People can and do get fined by the SEC for doing that about companies they are involved in.

Those are not the kinds of things that someone who is truly passionate about making the world a better place would do.

And plus, all they're doing is is supposedly making the process more "efficient", and then taking their cut (the $130k in salary, plus operating expenses) out of the supposed efficiencies generated. Just like Enron! While at the same time imposing more paperwork on the charities they are supposedly helping.

I wonder what their own metrics are for how much more efficient they actually make the donor-recipient-person in need process. But with at least $130k in salary, they are going to have to bring in and put out a lot of money to make the extra step even remotely valuable.
posted by delmoi at 1:14 PM on December 31, 2007 [19 favorites]


I cannot believe how seriously people take this stuff.

If you don't make much money, but you have given some of it to a non-profit for a cause of personal interest to you, would you find it unreasonable to be concerned who receives it and how it is spent?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:20 PM on December 31, 2007


Belated (fuck, a few hours late to a super-active thread and I feel the need to throw in "belated") Booyas to Miko.
posted by CKmtl at 1:21 PM on December 31, 2007


Miko: you are right that we are inexperienced. We got help from as many experienced people as we could early on, but we are trying to ramp this up more now.

Yes, I opened a third account so I could respond and apologize. Please don't ban this account unless *it* does something ban-worthy. I won't use it for any purpose but this conversation.

Yes, I engaged in sock puppetry. The final comment from my old account (geremiah) was the worst. That was a pure emotional reaction to Miko's comment.

All of this is true, yet saying that it means I can't be genuine in my wish for a better world sounds to me as simply incorrect as saying that you can't be a good person if you've done something wrong. Every value I hold is a value I've compromised in a moment of weakness, including the values most important to me. I wish that weren't true, but it is. The fact that I made this horrible mistake does not change the reason I started GiveWell.
posted by holden00 at 1:22 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


And go back and read the thread, he didn't just promote Givewell, he actually criticized Miko for pointing to charity navigator, and said "what Holden0 linked to ... That's what I'm looking for". It wasn't just a simple spamming attempt, it was actively deceptive.

He also bashed Charity Navigator on the LifeHacker comment. Gaming the MeFi system to get exposure for your site is one thing, but actively pretending to be an objective bystander and posting negative comments about a competitor is much worse in my opinion. Hopefully Holden is honest when he says that he realized his mistake, and hopefully anyone else reading this thread who thinks about doing this will realize how wrong it is. Do not abuse the anonymous nature of the internet to deceive people.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:22 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Yes, I must say that by any metric, a charity that takes in $300K in its first year, only to spend $150K on program services, $130K on salary, and the remaining $20K on unknown, is not what you're looking for in a charity. That's a 50% administrative cost, astronomical, only 50% on program services. And then, think about the amount of money it costs on the recipient's end to answer the 'intensive questionnaire' - more investment that does not produce direct aid.
posted by Miko at 1:27 PM on December 31, 2007 [8 favorites]


burnmp3s and others: this may sound stupid to you, but my goal in not disclosing my identity was not to appear "objective." It was simply to not be automatically discarded as a spammer. I simply figured that if I put "the project I founded" people would look right away. I wanted what I was writing to be judged on the merits.

I've made a lot of comments about GiveWell using my name (Holden) while not putting the fact that I founded GiveWell in the comment itself. The reason is that it didn't bother me if people found out I was the founder - I just didn't want them automatically discarding/ignoring my comment.

Now that I see how people have interpreted this, I realize how stupid and wrong it was. I'm not giving this explanation to show that it was right, just to clarify the stupid and wrong things that were going through my head.
posted by holden00 at 1:27 PM on December 31, 2007


Delmoi, I just did the same thing (re-read the thread) and felt the same way about the active and repeated promoting (and dissing of the other charity monitor). Also, I have to wonder how many times this has already happened on other sites without people like nax and Miko. (Some examples have already been posted here.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 1:29 PM on December 31, 2007


He tried to threadjack a different Lifehacker post with the same question about a half hour after his AskMe post.
posted by jamaro at 1:29 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


Another astroturf setup on Lifehacker (separate from the one mentioned above).
posted by monju_bosatsu at 1:30 PM on December 31, 2007


Oops, jamaro beat me to it.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 1:30 PM on December 31, 2007


You know, when you are stuck at the bottom of a hole, it's probably time to stop digging.
posted by konolia at 1:32 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


I'm surprised more people aren't gaming AskMe. Have you noticed how fast questions get into the top 10 on Google? I asked about beer glasses yesterday and right now my question is on the first page for "belgian beer glass" and all useful variants. It would be totally worth it to sign-up and suggest your shop as a place to go.
posted by smackfu at 1:32 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


You know, I personally don't have a problem with people suggesting their own businesses in response, as long as they are transparent about the fact. Of course, if their business really isn't a good solution, they'll probably be raked over the coals for it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:35 PM on December 31, 2007


holden what you did here was simply prove me (and others) wrong in all the moralizing about what good intentions the vast majority of charities have. Thanks bunches. You have now given the members of this community the idea that, in fact, one should be suspicious of charities, because they are run by either idiots or scammers. Not sure which category you fit into.

It is such a daily uphill battle for those of us fighting the good fight, and then you come in here with your "good intentions" and "lapse in judgment" and want us to say , oh that's okay buddy, you haven't been getting much sleep boo hoo hoo.

Fuck you man. I need you like I need a splinter under my fingernail. Happy fucking New Year.
posted by nax at 1:36 PM on December 31, 2007 [12 favorites]


Well there are no more fingernails in hell, then splinters will ...

Oh, fuck it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:39 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


This whole thing makes me feel sad and yucky, so I try to ignore it, and yet I cannot deny that I yearn to come back and pile the fuck on. It so clearly warrants it, but there is no joy left.

Sigh.
posted by dirtdirt at 1:39 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


You know what would be really awesome? If this guy wasn't holden at all, but one of his competitors, and this whole thing is just a massive double-reverse reputation whammy.
posted by smackfu at 1:41 PM on December 31, 2007 [18 favorites]


Every value I hold is a value I've compromised in a moment of weakness, including the values most important to me. I wish that weren't true, but it is. The fact that I made this horrible mistake does not change the reason I started GiveWell.

My opinion: You made a mistake and apologized for it, both here and on your charity's blog where it will be remembered by your critics forever. That's enough of a hair shirt. People here should show a little more charity.
posted by rcade at 1:41 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


I'm beginning to think that Harvard neither graduates nor employs many ethical people.

Yeah, I'm not sure if this is confirmation bias or what, but it seems like past leaders were extremely concerned with what it meant to have good moral character and what it meant to have virtue. While today's lessons-for-the-would-be-successful seem to be about self-promotion and learning to game the scoring system. But I dunno, maybe it's always been that way.

(I say this as someone who, in 1994, belonged to the Key Club, Students Against Drunk Driving, and every other zero-time-commitment organization that existed for padding one's college application.)
posted by salvia at 1:45 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]



I'm surprised more people aren't gaming AskMe. Have you noticed how fast questions get into the top 10 on Google?


It would be worth considering for Matt to not "no-follow" the givewell thread, right now it is not on the front page of google for "givewell" but I think it would be if not treated like a normal deleted thread.

Though maybe that is just vindictiveness. Holden00 seems eager to make amends and in the spirit of the season perhaps a second chance to live up to the generous sentiments givewell purportedly stands for.
posted by Rumple at 1:50 PM on December 31, 2007


Is it just me, or does there seem to be a bit of a conflict of interest in Givewell's activities? On the one hand, they are setting themselves up as an arbiter of what charities are effective and what charities aren't effective. On the other hand, they are acting as a charity themselves, soliciting donations that they use to pay themselves and make grants. How can these guys be deemed impartial if they are competing for, and paying themselves with, the same donations?

Am I missing something here, or is Givewell's "business plan" a recipe for trouble?
posted by jayder at 1:52 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


I'm beginning to think that Harvard neither --

Oh, and I meant my comment as a general "how does education for would-be leaders today compare to yesteryear?" derail, rather than as a diss on Harvard or Holden00. (I went to an Ivy League school too, if it matters.)
posted by salvia at 1:55 PM on December 31, 2007


Givewell? Nothing but a bunch of phonies.
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:57 PM on December 31, 2007 [8 favorites]


jayder, that's the usual general working model for a public foundation. The problems can arise when the program services (actual charitable efforts funded) take a back seat to the foundation's self-sustaining activities. Foundations can serve some excellent purposes: assembling experts in a given charitable area, who can better advise the grant program; conducting research (which GiveWell plans to emphasize); creating powerful, large donations from individual, small gifts; and gathering several aid areas under one recognizable, and hopefully trustworthy, brand umbrella (for instance, a famous one, the Pew Charitable Trusts). The donor gives money and invests his or her trust in the foundation's knowledge, judgement, and history of impact in a program area. The foundation, in turn, does its best to apply the funds most effectively.
posted by Miko at 2:00 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


The problems can arise when the program services (actual charitable efforts funded) take a back seat to the foundation's self-sustaining activities.

A strong board is important.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 2:05 PM on December 31, 2007


Miko, thanks for that explanation. That makes sense.
posted by jayder at 2:10 PM on December 31, 2007


Holden, if you are still reading this thread: you need to detailed-ly catalogue and link each of your astroturfing attempts in your blog post, and demonstrate (I'm not sure how) commitment to never doing it again and understanding why it is wrong. Full transparency on yourself.
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:12 PM on December 31, 2007


Wow, taken in combination, those comments on LifeHacker linked above are incredibly incriminating. Yesterday he disingenuously asked "I'm looking to make a donation by New Year's and can't find a website that gives any useful guidance" and only a few hours later he was knocking Charity Navigator with "Really tired of seeing this website trotted out there as 'the answer for smart giving.' ... I'd much rather see more websites like www.givewell.net.". This is not just a minor lapse in judgement; this is a consistent pattern of using deceit to promote givewell.net and to detract from Charity Navigator.
posted by nowonmai at 2:17 PM on December 31, 2007 [15 favorites]


I was prepared to be charitable in my judgment until I read the lifehacker thread derails posted by monjo_bosatsu and jamaro. Really, dude, lack of sleep is no fucking excuse. You did this intentionally and repeatedly on multiple Web sites. I'm one of those who'd never heard of GiveWell - too bad for you that this is my first exposure to it.
posted by desjardins at 2:20 PM on December 31, 2007


Doesn't this seem like the sort of thing that people used to resign over?
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:21 PM on December 31, 2007 [21 favorites]


Lucy Bernholz, a member of the Board of Directors of Givewell.net blogs about Givewell at http://philanthropy.blogspot.com/2007/02/givewellnet.html without identifying herself as a board member.

I donl't know if she was a member of the Board of Directors as of the posting date in February but she has not updated her blogspot profile to reflect that information. She should probably rectify the omission.
posted by vapidave at 2:25 PM on December 31, 2007


Yes, I opened a third account so I could respond and apologize. Please don't ban this account unless *it* does something ban-worthy.

I hate this kind of reasoning- it's so loopholey/Enron-ish.

posted by small_ruminant at 2:28 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


Shh. The third account might hear you and freak out.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:29 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Strangely, the name and the concept both appear to be rip-offs of a much older Australian charitable foundation.
posted by Rumple at 2:32 PM on December 31, 2007


Frank Abagnale, is that you!

Seiously, Holden is a con man and what we're seeing is Plan B for when he gets caught.
posted by rockhopper at 2:35 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Jesus Christ, some times I just fucking love Metafilter. Nice catch, Miko.
posted by Bookhouse at 2:36 PM on December 31, 2007


And in that alternate astroturf setup on lifehacker metioned above, someone named "Penguino" responds with a link to the FIRST lifehacker thread, where we conveniently get the riff about givewell.

http://lifehacker.com/338969/fun-ways-to-live-longer#c3496408.

Check it out.

Also, givewell.com.au appears to be an entirely unrelated Australian entity that would (on first appearance) give the impression of doing exactly what givewell.net purports to be doing. It looks a god deal more settled and older, also on first impression only. So on top of everything else, we have a potential international trademark dispute here to entertain us as well.

Cool.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:42 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Rumple beat me to it, sorry (the Aussie givewell). Credit is due.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:43 PM on December 31, 2007


The budget is informative.

$145.00 NYU course: Moving into Nonprofit Personnel Training

$2,000.00 Recruiting expenses Recruiting

More detail here would be nice. Seems as though the two staff were partners already; who was being recruited?

$10,000.00 Website design & development Public info Website

For that website?

$5,000.00 FMA - Budget development process Accounting

For this budget?
posted by Miko at 2:43 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


I hate this kind of reasoning- it's so loopholey/Enron-ish.

Yep - I love how he's telling the admins what to do. And that his banning just amounts more or less to getting a clean name and a fresh start. And damn it - don't fuck that up unless I do something else wrong!
posted by scarabic at 2:47 PM on December 31, 2007


This is not just a minor lapse in judgement; this is a consistent pattern of using deceit to promote givewell.net and to detract from Charity Navigator.

Evidently he's very sleep-deprived.

And can I just say: FUCK YOU AND YOUR SLEEP DEPRIVATION EXCUSE, HOLDEN. I'm here at my job editing multiple books on killer deadlines with about 3 hours of sleep under my belt, and if some huge fucking mistake gets through I don't get to plead sleep deprivation when it's my head on the chopping block. My sister -- a fellow Harvard alum, Holden, by the way -- has 3 kids under the age of 8, a full-time job as the chair of her college's history department, and crippling chronic pain; she hasn't had a decent night's sleep since you were in high school. By your reasoning, she ought to be engaging in major lapses of judgment befitting the Bush administration's Iraq strategy -- yet somehow (somehow!) she manages to keep her professional and personal judgment intact. So you really want to do the world a favor? Stop being the fucking poster boy for a generation of spoiled fucking narcissists with an endless supply of excuses, and this might be the last of the ass-kickings that get delivered to you by those of us in the real world who remain wholly unimpressed by your Special Snowflake status. But otherwise? GODDAMN.
posted by scody at 2:51 PM on December 31, 2007 [100 favorites]


memo to self: buy scody a beer
posted by Rumple at 2:55 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


@Miko - did you notice how the entire budget was approved minus the trip to Africa? I've been looking through the other ClearWell meeting docs but I'm not sure what the trip was about.

I don't know if she was a member of the Board of Directors as of the posting date in February but she has not updated her blogspot profile to reflect that information. She should probably rectify the omission.

She's been above board about her role with GiveWell in later blog posts, my guess is she's just sort of clueless about the usefulness or importance of updating her profile.

I'm still a little confused how this organization manages to do both things -- report on charities and fund charities -- well. The only way to get evaluated is to apply for a grant from them if I'm reading the docs correctly. This is fine in theory, I mean you can set up any hurdles you want, but it does mean it's a totally different animal than Charity Navigator which is really trying to report on the broad world of charitable giving. I can get how it's like the United Way or Pew as Miko says above, but if that's the case, then it's not really like Charity Navigator, or rather that's not its major focus.

It's simple to pick apart the budgets of other people, but there is a real difference between transparency in the world of non-profits and charitable giving where all this stuff is public and above board -- in an online world no less -- and just trying to be a good person in a more general sense. I have no doubt that holden thought maybe he was trying to be the latter group generally but then fell way short in the "million internet eyes on the problem" way where data gets collated and analyzed by a hundred people at once. That's the sort of power you want to harness for your teeny non-profit, and that's the sort of thing that makes people do stupid stunts like this, but it's likely to backfire more often than succeed for exactly the reasons it's so appealing to try in the first place.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:55 PM on December 31, 2007


Holden, I know you used your real name here, but in comments like this it's probably best to explicitly state your association with GiveWell.
posted by lalex at 2:55 PM on December 31, 2007


Eh, the request to not have the holden00 account banned makes reasonable sense in context. I can't imagine he'd intend to use it for anything other than what he says: commenting in this thread. And as bumpy a ride as this has been, I think that hearing from him—and having him be involved in this discussion and maybe get better enclued as to the nature of the transgression than he would have been just watching from the outside (if he'd even had the patience too, in such a position)—is a positive aspect of what's gone down here.
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:57 PM on December 31, 2007


Wow. MeFi mob justice strikes again. Good catch Miko.
posted by eyeballkid at 2:58 PM on December 31, 2007


He's on boingboing, too. Seems to have a thing against Heifer International, though he claims to "know nothing" about them. Which is strange for someone who runs a foundation that researches charities.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:01 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


in comments like this it's probably best to explicitly state your association with GiveWell

Or this.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 3:01 PM on December 31, 2007


Hmm, also gotta wonder about the second (lower-case) "holden" who registered there four days ago just to post a followup comment pimping givewell again.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 3:05 PM on December 31, 2007


or this.
posted by jamaro at 3:06 PM on December 31, 2007


Wow.

Honestly, an entire MSM article could be written about this.. some pretty fancy detective work.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 3:07 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


At what point do we find out that kaycee nicole or u n owen are on the givewell board?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:09 PM on December 31, 2007 [5 favorites]


If the NYT follows up, Holden has probably permanently crippled his organization through these shenanigans.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:11 PM on December 31, 2007


At what point do we find out that kaycee nicole or u n owen are on the givewell board?

Yes, they serve on the board, along with airnxtz and Laurie Garrett.
posted by jayder at 3:12 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


or this.
posted by jamaro at 3:06 PM on December 31


He says "they quote me" and his name is holden. It may not be explicit in the comment but its a matter of clicking the link.

Don't go overboard here.
posted by vacapinta at 3:14 PM on December 31, 2007


Christ, what an asshole!
posted by blasdelf at 3:14 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Great job Miko!
posted by Sailormom at 3:15 PM on December 31, 2007


Don't go overboard here.
posted by vacapinta at 3:14 PM PST on December 31


My point is he should be explicit in clearly identifying his association in the comment. His last paragraph is oddly passive voice. It's not going overboard to expect that and given that he made that comment a half month in advance of his blunder here, the slope got pretty damn slippery fast.
posted by jamaro at 3:20 PM on December 31, 2007


Good work Miko! Bad work, GiveWell.net!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:22 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yes, they serve on the board, along with airnxtz and Laurie Garrett.

I just realized that my comment placing Laurie Garrett alongside Holden and airnxtz, is not merited by anything Ms. Garrett did. I was just throwing out a couple of folks from metafilterhistory threads, but I realize now that I lumped her in with two people who behaved dishonestly. In the rush to "make a funny" I was unfair.

As Laurie Garrett might advise, I should step away from the computer now.
posted by jayder at 3:26 PM on December 31, 2007


Holy crow, nobody told me the NYT article had a picture (that's Holden on the left).
posted by box at 3:26 PM on December 31, 2007


Few things infuriate me like the self-justifying apology, the one that goes: "I'm so sorry for what I did. What I did was inexcusable! . . . now here are all my excuses." For fuck's sake, just admit what you did, clearly and specifically, and then apologize. Then shut the hell up already.

The self-justifying apology does not primarily aim to admit culpability or express regret; the real purpose is to attempt to preserve one's self-image and get people to say, "Wow, way to step up! Look at you, admitting that you were wrong. What a mensch!"

BullSHIT. It is not heroic to apologize when you have, in fact, done something reprehensible, especially when you apologize only after being caught and being told outright by several people that you had better say something before a reporter outs you.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:26 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


Wow! This is an amazing thread. Bravo everyone!
posted by maryh at 3:29 PM on December 31, 2007


I love it when a plan comes together.
posted by puke & cry at 3:31 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


I, for one, wouldn't expect much from the New York Times in the way of follow-up, investigative or otherwise, considering how much more valid information this thread had given about the way GiveWell.net is run than the original article did. And look at how much trouble the "Paper of Record' had figuring out Metafilter on a social level. Plus they've just hired Bill Kristol, whose ethical deficiencies dwarf holden00's. (Maybe Kristol hasn't gotten any sleep since the '80s) Okay, the NYT paid Matt to write for them a couple times, but if it were a GOOD newspaper, he'd be the one with a weekly column.

If you want to spread the warning about GiveWell.net, let's just hold our noses and use the New Media method. I know there are more than 23 of us who also belong to Digg, so DIGG THIS.
posted by wendell at 3:31 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Yes, or maybe those of us who know more perspicacious web reporters should send this thread on.

I'm rather sorry about my semi-nice response to him above, now..
posted by By The Grace of God at 3:32 PM on December 31, 2007


Or this.

Wow, this guy is running around the internet actually bashing other charities, ones that do real work rather then trying to be the non-profit version of Enron (or T. Rowe Price I guess). On luxist he bashes DonorsChoose, saying "how do you know if they're any good?" He does the same thing with Heifer International, meanwhile his own charity has a 50% administrative cost!

What a sleaze bag. I mean I don't like bashing a guy involved in Charity work, but man.

Also, does anyone else think his supposed mea-culpa seems off key? I mean it's not like he's out there saying "I felt I had to do it because our program really was the best way to help people, and I just go overenthusiastic" He's essentially saying "What I did was wrong, and I'm so so sorry". But if it's that obviously wrong, why on earth did he do it in the first place? And all over the internet, on multiple sites, over (I'm assuming) multiple days, even to the point of denigrating his competition, which was actually doing good things in the world?
posted by delmoi at 3:33 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Wow, this guy is running around the internet actually bashing other charities

That's what's really fucked up about this, in my mind.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:35 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Now I'm web-surfing along with the rest of you, and I can't believe the number of stories on these guys and their baby nonprofit (about which I had never heard previously). Not just NYT, but NPR, WSJ, CNBC, on and on.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 3:38 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Now I'm web-surfing along with the rest of you, and I can't believe the number of stories on these guys and their baby nonprofit (about which I had never heard previously). Not just NYT, but NPR, WSJ, CNBC, on and on.

Lazy journalists love being handed stories. That's about 90% of P.R. right there.
posted by delmoi at 3:40 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Don't mess with the 'Filter.
posted by konolia at 3:42 PM on December 31, 2007


You ask me to do a completely detailed disclosure of all misleading self-promotion. This is the extent:

1. The AskMeFi post.

2. The two comments on Lifehacker.

3. This morning I sent 10 emails to bloggers, from an gmail account that I had recently created for a new employee, with a 1-sentence plug for GiveWell. The email did not mention the employee's affiliation and was a deliberate attempt to plug GiveWell without the affiliation showing up, even though it used the employee's real name. I did not initially disclose these in my blog comment because I had literally forgotten. I have just finished thoroughly searching the Web, my inbox, and my brain for everything I might not have thought of. I now believe I have found everything.

4. Numerous comments in past weeks that I made under the name Holden and that Elie made under the name Elie, but that did not explicitly disclose our backgrounds as founders of the project. No other handles were used prior to this weekend.

I will edit all these into the frontpage blog post after posting this comment. As I have said, I made a tremendous mistake, but I appreciate if you would finish reading this comment before drawing your conclusion about what it reflects about me.

When I call this a single "lapse in judgment," I don't mean that I blacked out and did something in 3 seconds. I deliberately posted plugs that I thought would not *immediately* be read as plugs. At the same time, I did not try hard to hide my identity from someone who wished to dig into it (I didn't do any monkeying with the IP address, etc.) I didn't think of myself as pretending to be an objective, trustworthy party. I didn't think anyone reading my comments would assume that they are objective or untied to particular interests, or would trust them without checking things out for themselves. I just wanted people to be interested enough to check things out for themselves. But now that I've seen the reaction, I can completely see what I did wrong. I was not familiar enough with AskMeFi (despite having posted here a few times before) to realize how much people believe in the community and trust its members, even anonymous members. Therefore, I did not recognize that I was abusing trust.

I can now completely see that putting my personal connection less than up front was a horrible thing to do. I can honestly say that I will never do it again.

If you want to get into a conversation about GiveWell on the merits, I'm happy to do so, but that isn't the focus of this comment.

As I said before, everything I value about myself is something I have compromised before in a moment of weakness, and I hate this, but it’s true. I hope you agree that this mistake was one of bad judgment; that I’m fully owning up to it and won’t do it again; and that even if this isn’t as good as never making the mistake in the first place, it’s enough to give me a second chance.
posted by holden00 at 3:46 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


You know, I think maybe you just need to go out and get a real job, then give your own money to a good charity.
posted by konolia at 3:48 PM on December 31, 2007 [47 favorites]


Lazy journalists love being handed stories.

Especially around the holiday season, which is pretty slow from a news standpoint anyway.
posted by jason's_planet at 3:48 PM on December 31, 2007


Wow, this guy is running around the internet actually bashing other charities

That's what's really fucked up about this, in my mind.


Agreed. I work in money (sort of- long story), but if I bashed our competition in any public sphere, my boss would have my head on a platter. We absolutely do not do business that way. And this is all for charity. Astounding.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:49 PM on December 31, 2007 [7 favorites]


Few things infuriate me like the self-justifying apology, the one that goes: "I'm so sorry for what I did. What I did was inexcusable! . . . now here are all my excuses."

I plead guilty of doing that myself, but trying to mitigate my guilt in the minds of readers is just one of the reasons. Writing down the chain of events that result in a serious mistake/misdemeanor does help me gain perspective as to where and how I went wrong and how to avoid it in the future. It's also educational in a "don't do what I did, kids" way, and self-shaming, especially if more than one stupid act along the way is involved. Then there are the times that you genuinely regret the side-effects of your action while defending its original intent - yes, my "email kerfuffle" is one example of that.

But coming up with a deceptive excuse like "lack of sleep" while apologizing is NOT acceptable. If he'd said something like "we've been working constantly on getting the word out and have been frustrated by the lack of 'viral' publicity we've gotten, so decided it was necessary to seed our own, and when we did it elsewhere without blowback, we tried it here", THAT would have been not an excuse but an explanation. I just doubt that holden00 would ever admit to that much.
posted by wendell at 3:53 PM on December 31, 2007


I didn't think of myself as pretending to be an objective, trustworthy party.

Why, therefore, should anyone think of your company as objective and trustworthy, in its critical evaluation of any other charity?

I think you still do not get it: It's not about your apology, it's about what your behavior reflects about what your organization claims to stand for, and the (un-)ethical manner in which it — you, as its proxy — conducts its business.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:53 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


and that even if this isn’t as good as never making the mistake in the first place, it’s enough to give me a second chance.

You don't get to make that judgement. The market will. If you believe in transparency you'll trust it.
posted by By The Grace of God at 3:55 PM on December 31, 2007


Metafilter: Journalism 3.0
posted by localhuman at 3:55 PM on December 31, 2007


A second chance to do what? Shill some more?

You only used your old account for AskMefi leeching!

Are you expecting us to believe you want to be a productive member of our community?
posted by blasdelf at 3:56 PM on December 31, 2007

"- Ivy Orator Holden Karnofsky offered wry counsel to the famously driven Harvard students.

"There's a saying here at Harvard: 'Friends, classes, sleep; pick two.' I recommend double sleep," he said. -"
posted by peacay at 3:57 PM on December 31, 2007 [5 favorites]


Oops... should've previewed. Apparently, he is admitting to that much.
posted by wendell at 3:58 PM on December 31, 2007


Just out of how can you justify bashing other charities, such as in this luxist thread?

Man, I don't like to be a judgmental person, but on a personal level I'm basically disgusted. I mean, if it were for a business i would understand, if be annoyed It's against the rules here but at least I would understand the motivation. The motivation with business is supposed to be "I want to make as much money for myself as I can"

But the idea with Charity is the idea that you're supposed to be helping people, making the world a better place, and so on, and these actions don't seem commensurate with that motive. So that's why it seems like your motivation must be something else, like networking, wanting meet rich donors, feeling powerful with respect to other charities that would have to suck up to you if you got a lot of money (In one of your blog posts you call other charities "hubristic" for not wanting to fill out paper work for you)
posted by delmoi at 3:58 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


Holy crow, nobody told me the NYT article had a picture (that's Holden on the left).

The other one is pretty cute. I'd hit that.

I'd also hit Holden, with the biggest fucking clue-by-four you've ever seen.

Sorry, dude, I'd love to give you the benefit of the doubt, I really would. But you're only admitting to things after people here are pointing them out. That's really bad faith. Everything you've done has been incredibly poor form.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 3:58 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Hey homeboy, why don't you shut the fuck up already? There is an old saying... I would rather keep my mouth shut and let people think I am an idiot than open it up and prove it.

But thanks for proving it again and again and again. Perhaps you have a future as the Energizer bunny... he keeps going and going and going...
posted by Duncan at 4:00 PM on December 31, 2007


My forgiveness was premature, it seems. I'll withhold until all the facts are in.
posted by mds35 at 4:01 PM on December 31, 2007


This morning I sent 10 emails to bloggers, from an gmail account that I had recently created for a new employee, with a 1-sentence plug for GiveWell. The email did not mention the employee's affiliation and was a deliberate attempt to plug GiveWell without the affiliation showing up, even though it used the employee's real name. I did not initially disclose these in my blog comment because I had literally forgotten.

Okay, this is some out-of-control stuff. I think this person really needs to step back and take a leave of absence. Maybe meet with a psychiatrist and describe the last 8 weeks.* Seriously.

*Mental health stuff is no excuse for bad behavior. It's up to this person to deal with their situation and not be an amoral asshole. Nevertheless, it seems as though this person (not sleeping, running around from here to there, sending out 10 emails with no memory) needs to be assessed.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 4:02 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


Our forgiveness means nothing. It is our money that matters. And, right now, I now what charitable organization will have access to none of it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:03 PM on December 31, 2007


Oh hey, I'd also like to say.. good on MeFi for initially giving this douche the benefit of the doubt. That is, until is spectacular levels of douchery came out.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 4:06 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Argh. 'Initially' as in after his 'minima mea culpa'.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 4:06 PM on December 31, 2007


The bizarre thing to me is that if I were to imagine the lamest possible movie stereotype about what overpaid type-A Ivy-league hedge-fund-analyst twentysomethings would behave like if they woke up one mornning at a non-profit, it would be more or less exactly like this.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 4:08 PM on December 31, 2007 [15 favorites]


These guys are paying themselves nearly half of the charity income when all is said and done, run about bashing other charities, and used to play the hedge fund scam. Is there a single honest or respectful thing about them?
posted by five fresh fish at 4:10 PM on December 31, 2007


Mea Culpa. A short film by Brian Eno & David Byrne, ca. the early 80's. Not safe for epileptics.
posted by delmoi at 4:10 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


This will holden00.
posted by Tuwa at 4:11 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


You know what would be really awesome? If this guy wasn't holden at all, but one of his competitors, and this whole thing is just a massive double-reverse reputation whammy.

Better yet, it's Miko using a sockpuppet account to try to win Mefite of the year balloting. It's a December surprise!
posted by Horselover Fat at 4:13 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


I agree that this keeps getting deeper and any letting-it-go is premature. That's a lot of sneaky viral comments, and a strange explanation, for sure.

And all of that MSM coverage, wow. You couldn't buy that kind of coverage for a startup. To think you'd trade that kind of tailwind for the risk of a little viral PR on the net, just wow. I doubt those news organizations will retract or correct, though some of us probably ought to at least *alert* the non-NYT ones. But the charity is now hobbled for all future PR purposes. Never again will they be able to count on generating a puff piece in a major MSM outlet with a press release about these do-gooder former rich kids, for fear that the reporter might google them and discover this history. What a waste of a tremendous success at PR out of the gate! It shows that Miko is right -- these are amateurs playing at doing something big with no experience and little knowledge. *That* is the true generational characteristic on display here -- the arrogance of 20-somethings who grew up with everything and few limits or constraints or consequences for misbehavior in the age of instant wealth and stardom, call it the Facebook effect or whatever. You'd think a board of directors, a good narrative, and a $10K website (I agree, for *that* website? sheesh!) made you a player on a stage filled with big operations and serious professionals, and then right out of the gate you blow the whole thing with a dumbass move that no first year law associate would dare to make without expecting a basically derailed career. In almost any business, someone doing this at any level would be fired, or expected to resign.

I wonder whether givewell was not so short on donations this Xmas, and counting so much on a successful holiday season to carry them forward, that they freaked out and in desperation went to the internet mat trying to earn enough to even cover their $65K salaries for the boys.

I wonder, I wonder. But in any case it is a sharp reminder that one should never be fooled by a modestly professional looking website into believing there are serious professionals behind an operation. And now givewell's founders and board (bound to be deeply embarrassed, and most of them work in higher levels of the nonprofit world as consultants, for whom reputation is everything) will reap the consequences of relying on the internet to mask deficiencies in underlying structure. What the internet can give, it can take away, dudes. Watch and learn.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:15 PM on December 31, 2007 [12 favorites]


You know, I'll bet they were chuckling about how brilliant this idea was when someone said, "...and the best part is, we'll even give some of the proceeds to charity!" and then everyone burst out laughing.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:16 PM on December 31, 2007 [21 favorites]


Holden, you've got the goods to become a major player in the scam artist world. Don't worry, this will all blow over and you'll go back to being the Don lapre of charity.
posted by rockhopper at 4:22 PM on December 31, 2007


cortex, I see how your decision to allow him a third account for posting a mea culpa was well-intended. It appears to have been a case of give-him-more-rope now. But that's probably a good thing. Without his follow ups, this thread would not have turned into the scar-for-life it deserves to be.

At this point, forgiveness on the part of MeFi is moot. What? Is he going to try to be a member here again? No, it's the forgiveness of associates, present and future, that is going to be key for him. Especially the Michael Arringtons of the world who could hang his name out to dry. He is thanking his stars right now that tomorrow is a holiday, one that tends to damage peoples memories.
posted by scarabic at 4:23 PM on December 31, 2007


I withdraw my previous benefit of the doubt and substitute plain old doubt.
posted by Rumple at 4:23 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


That crap about using a new employee's name to shill for the organization is the worst. Worse than the standard astroturfing behavior on AskMe and elsewhere. It's some other person! Their name! Identity! WTF?

I'm glad this is all going down, 'cause you needed a serious lesson in waking the fuck up.
posted by wemayfreeze at 4:23 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


That crap about using a new employee's name to shill for the organization is the worst.

That is bizarre. That's not some sock puppet, it's an actual person, who could have been held accountable for those emails.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:26 PM on December 31, 2007


heh, this thread is now #12 google search return for "givewell"
posted by Rumple at 4:26 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Or SockEmployee. I don't believe jackshit this guy says.
posted by heyho at 4:27 PM on December 31, 2007


And how does he get access to that employees account? Did the employee give their permission? Or, more likely, did the employee exist in the sense that a sockpuppet exists?
posted by Rumple at 4:28 PM on December 31, 2007


Turns out there was more room on the pile!
posted by found missing at 4:28 PM on December 31, 2007


http://www.give.org/

The better business bureau has been doing what givewell is doing for a long time, and they are very good at outing charity scams. Perhaps they should be alerted.

Also, get ready to puke:

"Hedge-funders use their skills for good, not evil" (NY Magazine)
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:28 PM on December 31, 2007


Sadly, givewell + "dented can store" yields no results.
posted by mds35 at 4:30 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Fuck it. I'm sticking with the Red Cross. They helped me out after Hurricane Katrina. They actually called me a few months ago, just to check up on me and see if I needed any additional assistance. I have a big debt to them. A lifetime debt. I don't need Hedge Fund Ivy Leagers to tell me where my money should go, and take a chunk of it for doing so.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:31 PM on December 31, 2007 [5 favorites]


I just emailed NYMag with the link to this thread. let's see what happens.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 4:34 PM on December 31, 2007


If you want to get into a conversation about GiveWell on the merits, I'm happy to do so

Well alrighty then.

Even if you want to buy this ridiculous idea that nonprofits should be judged like businesses--which is like ranking religions based on their market penetration--your methodology is insulting. I'm sure when when Bain or McKinsey gets hired to evaluate a new business space they send out fucking questionnaires in order to find out who's hot or not. The naive arrogance of this whole operation--not to mention the burden you put on development directors who are too busy trying to raise money in order to make real social impacts--is unbelievable. The self-promotional shenanigans are just icing on the cake.

P.S. Just read your slam on DonorsChoose that someone pointed out on the Luxist blog. That's ridiculous. Those guys are doing great work and funding children's school supplies is a pretty unimpeachably *good* thing to do. Not everyone approaches charity like they're Warren Buffett. Sometimes people want to fund something local, or personal, or that makes them feel good . . . impact is not always a systemic/global metric.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 4:36 PM on December 31, 2007 [7 favorites]


Givewell just reminds me of Sitwell from Arrested Development.
posted by every_one_needs_a_hug_sometimes at 4:37 PM on December 31, 2007


I just emailed NYMag with the link to this thread. let's see what happens.

NYMag just deleted FourCheeseMac's link to this item.

They also disabled comments for their little puff piece.
posted by jason's_planet at 4:42 PM on December 31, 2007


I just emailed a prominent blogger acquaintance of mine about this. Hello, SV!
posted by mds35 at 4:42 PM on December 31, 2007


Oh, wait. It's back.
posted by jason's_planet at 4:44 PM on December 31, 2007


I posted a comment in the NY mag article thread as well. It requires a login, but it's an even puffier piece than the NYT piece it supposedly reports on in typical meta-media fashion.

The story these guys have been selling is "hedge fund kids turn to doing good, there IS hope for the 20-something generation," etc. It's designed to appeal at this time of year, when people are thinking about giving for tax deduction purposes (already in itself a little ironic, no?), as is stated explicitly in the article. These guys have leveraged their own privileged status to create celebrity and fame for themselves, and I very, very much doubt it is for the $65K paycheck, which to them sounded symbolically "low" for Their Kind. Notice how the New York magazine piece also picks up on that theme, a little ironically. I suspect the idea was to create a startup .net company -- interesting idea, for sure -- and then sell it out for a handsome profit or parlay their celebrity into consulting gigs in the corporate giving world, which is very lucrative and cronyish (I have reasons to know it well). A great story is how you raise money, but also how you publicize the giving away of your money.

It's a little bit "Startup.com" deja vu, no? Startup.net, technically, but if we sell the movie rights it should be "Startup.org" so people really get the irony. Now who shall we cast as Holden and Ellie? I know for sure that I want Miko played by Hallie Berry, ok?

Here's the NY Mag piece excerpted -- it's short.

Here's a heartwarming holiday story. Today's Times profiles Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, two 26-year-olds who quit their jobs at a Westport hedge fund to start a foundation that puts charities through a rigorous cost-benefit analysis and then rates them on their effectiveness. It's called GiveWell, and it's apparently causing quite a stir in the nonprofit community. Yes, they sort of sound like they might be kind of jerks . . . . . The point is this: Wouldn't it be nice if all finance folks used the qualities inherent to them — arrogance, aggression — to doing something good? Yeah, we're looking at you, Dan Loeb."


Then there is this remarkable piece on a blog called The Agitator. Worth a read for anyone following the drama, where we read the following stirring words by Tom Bedford:

If Give Well sticks at it, they'll make a huge contribution. Not so much via their own direct giving, but rather through their provocation and the public sharing of their analyses, successes and failures (and I'm confident that if Give Well becomes dissatisfied with one of their charitable investments, we'll hear about it!).
And if Holden Karnofsky, in particular, sticks at it, maybe he'll become the Warren Buffett of savvy philanthropic investing, with all of us looking forward to his annual shareholders meeting and letter!
Holden, you deserve a raise!

posted by fourcheesemac at 4:47 PM on December 31, 2007


I wonder if the new employee was found with the $2k spent on recruiting?
posted by k8t at 4:48 PM on December 31, 2007


holden does at least admit to calling it "pimpin'"
posted by Rumple at 4:52 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


Rumple: "holden does at least admit to calling it "pimpin'""

Oh, man, that's priceless. Heckuva a job, Karnofsky.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 4:55 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Interestingly for a charity, he is in favour of increasing administrative costs:

I don't think reducing administrative and fundraising costs should be a priority. At all. Increasing overhead so you can study the problems charities are working on, and how well-suited their strategies are to address these problems, has far more potential to improve results than reducing overhead so we can spend a few extra bucks on strategies that haven't been critically evaluated.
posted by Rumple at 4:57 PM on December 31, 2007


Following up on _sirmissalot_: There are already well-established guidelines for evaluating charities' effectiveness. You're not using them. Why not?

And, while I'm at it: In your mea culpa, you don't mention the posts on Consumerist, Luxist, etc. Did you forget about these like you forgot about the ten emails you forged, or is it your feeling that making these comments wasn't part of the, uh, ball of lies? Did anybody else at Givewell know that you were doing these things? And when did you learn that there's an established Australian group that's very comparable to yours in name and mission (but not, thankfully, credibility)?
posted by box at 4:57 PM on December 31, 2007


Amazing. Jaw-dropping. Insulting.
I've emailed NPR connections about this, as they have been doing a series on charitable giving.
And I managed that on little sleep.
Tap out holden. You're on the mat.
posted by Heatwole at 4:59 PM on December 31, 2007 [5 favorites]


Not everyone approaches charity like they're Warren Buffett.
And if Holden Karnofsky, in particular, sticks at it, maybe he'll become the Warren Buffett of savvy philanthropic investing

Actually, what I've heard is that one benefit of Berkshire Hathaway being heavily invested is that a business can quit focusing on hitting quarterly numbers, which seems to be the opposite of what Givewell is asking for (regular reporting on results, with little emphasis on long-term or more qualitative changes). _sirmissalot_'s critique comes from a similar angle (the heavy reporting burden they're placing on nonprofits). The best confirmation of all this that I could find in six seconds is here:
Reading the book [Warren Buffett CEO], many of the managers talk about how they love working for him and being a part of Berkshire. They have access to all the capital they need, Buffett doesn't bother them, they don't have analysts or press to deal with, they don't have to meet quarterly earnings goals, and they can focus on the long term.

posted by salvia at 5:00 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Biographical information here: he made 200k annually at the hedge fund; givewell to be the "hedge fund for charities"; he's a "charity nerd."
posted by Rumple at 5:03 PM on December 31, 2007


Holy crow, nobody told me the NYT article had a picture (that's Holden on the left).

I see your picture and raise you a CNBC video.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:03 PM on December 31, 2007


$200k! Thank you, 2007, for one final reminder on the final day of the year that this world is not a meritocracy.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:04 PM on December 31, 2007


Wow. An interesting cat named Greg Simon at a blog called "Fastercures" has already been on this for a while now, calling out givewell for dissing the competition online. So Holden, you were already warned - more than a week ago.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:05 PM on December 31, 2007


Here's a fun interview excerpt:
Question from Peter Panepento:
You have been criticized by some because of your age and the fact that you often speak brashly. Do you see yourself toning down your approach -- or do you think an aggressive style is needed for the type of change you're pursuing?

Holden Karnofsky:
Yeah, I'm kind of obnoxious. I mean, I try to be nice when it's important to be nice, but most of the time, I just try to be myself, because that makes it much easier to have the passion and energy I need to do something difficult and worthwhile.
www.philanthropy.com/live/2007/12/karnofsky/
posted by k8t at 5:06 PM on December 31, 2007


Yeah, I'm no longer buying the mea culpa as adequate either. Givewell has been pwned by MeFi, for sure, but this was a well deserved hanging.

The only real question is whether these guys are stupid, crazy, naive, or criminal.

I imagine Holden has now stopped posting on the advice of counsel. If I were Givewell's counsel, I'd have him roasting over a spit right now.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:08 PM on December 31, 2007 [5 favorites]


To be precise, he makes $68,600.00 at givewell.
posted by Rumple at 5:08 PM on December 31, 2007


This thread is awesome. The little grey cells of Mefi's Detective Squad are without question the Beszt of the Web.
posted by rtha at 5:11 PM on December 31, 2007


I would just like to point out that "givewell" is an anagram of "I veg well", in case Dave Barry is reading.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 5:13 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


I mean, I try to be nice when it's important to be nice, but most of the time, I just try to be myself, because that makes it much easier to have the passion and energy I need to do something difficult and worthwhile.

Heh. And who wants to bet a hedge fund that the Parents Karnofsky named Little Mr. Authenticity after Holden Caulfield, that great slayer of phonies?
posted by scody at 5:13 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Now this is what I call a New Year's Rockin' Eve, baby.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:16 PM on December 31, 2007


The only real question is whether these guys are stupid, crazy, naive, or criminal.

It's arrogance. It's a lifetime of being told how smart and special they were, of getting over on high school teachers, professors, employers, donors . . .

And then they encountered MetaFilter.
posted by jason's_planet at 5:16 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


Well, to be fair, based on information by the Center on Philanthropy Panel Study, only 34 families would have to donate their average annual contribution to charity to pay for Holden's salary. I'm sure, in his mid-20s, with no significant background in working in charities, and with a level of experience on the Internet that is so limited that apparently he first heard the word "astroturfing" today, he's worth it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:16 PM on December 31, 2007


This is a more detailed givewell critique of charity navigator. Apparently holden writes good press releases.
posted by Rumple at 5:20 PM on December 31, 2007


Never Trust Anyone Under 30 -- that's my new million-dollar t-shirt slogan. Who wants to bankroll me? I can promise to run my venture with the utmost transparency on days following at least 7 to 8 hours of refreshing sleep! My business plan currently involves taking cash investments, payable to the Chock Full O'Nuts can under the porch where we hide the spare key.
posted by scody at 5:25 PM on December 31, 2007 [7 favorites]


I would like to point out that "Holden Karnofsky" is an anagram of "Naked Folks Horny."

I hope I've added something here.
posted by found missing at 5:27 PM on December 31, 2007 [8 favorites]


Who wants to bankroll me?

I'm intrigued by your idea and would like to receive your prospectus.
posted by clevershark at 5:29 PM on December 31, 2007


Weird coincidence that the Christmas present prepaid health care visa cards recently discussed on the blue are from givewell.com (no connection)(?)
posted by Rumple at 5:31 PM on December 31, 2007


Holden, you are charity-screwing, evil scum. I sincerely believe this world would be a better place without you; it undoubtedly would be better off without people who behave as you have.

I hope this jackassed stunt of yours costs you dearly. You do not deserve the advantages your parentage have granted you.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:35 PM on December 31, 2007


Sure, wishing him dead isn't too extreme. Carry on.
posted by found missing at 5:37 PM on December 31, 2007


I don't really believe that this is the first time this has been done on MeFi. I think it's done by slightly web-savvier people all the time.

Holden Karnofsky, or whoever he is, didn't take any steps to cover his tracks at all; that implies that he really didn't understand how MeFi works or what kind of community he was using to spam his organization. There is spam all over the Internet: green card lawyer spam, blog spam, comment spam, Ron Paul spam, banner ad spam, Google ads spam, all kinds of spam. If this had been done with malice aforethought, he'd've used different IPs and payment methods - and I do believe a Harvard grad and ex-hedge-fund-manager could figure that out.

For someone unfamiliar with MeFi to mistake MeFi for a totally automated community where this kind of thing would be acceptable for the $10 it brought in, isn't really that grotesque an error. I'd say put away the pitchforks.

I also think this is not at all an unusual phenomenon on MeFi. I will go out on a limb and say that in my estimation it likely accounts for 5% of the posts on the Blue and the Green, and that the people doing it are sophisticated enough to make themselves undetectable. I would not be surprised to learn that some MeFi regular posters, usernames you and I would immediately recognize, earn money for just a small fraction of their contributions, the ones that link or reference sites that someone paid them to link or reference.

Finally, I took Harvey Mansfield's class too, and I think he would not have disapproved of this. He would have disapproved of getting caught.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:38 PM on December 31, 2007 [13 favorites]


Must . stop . reading . Holden .

Hi Daniel, I would appreciate some input on how it is that GiveWell fell off your list. I know there is a lot of competition, but as someone who believes GiveWell to be the best existing opportunity to make the world a better place (by helping the lion's share of the world's well-meaning capital find a home), I'd like to know what keeps you from agreeing.

Bad online communities (flaming, chaos, randomness) outnumber good ones 300:1, but the good ones grow and take over the web and become famous through natural selection.

1. GiveWell: The World's First Transparent Grantmaker. My project. If I didn't honestly believe this to be the most promising opportunity in existence to help the world, I wouldn't be leaving a great job for it.

posted by ClaudiaCenter at 5:40 PM on December 31, 2007


so that's why I get all that neurosurgery spam, dammit.
posted by Rumple at 5:41 PM on December 31, 2007


I make a small fortune off every post I make that relates, in some way, to Ed Wood. Between the Criswell, Tor Johnson, and Mae West posts, I already own a home in the Bahamas, from which I live a luxurious life of listening to camp gay records from the 60s, looking at old photo studio portraits, and reading tales of the devil taking a bride.

Ah, Metafilter, what a life you've given me.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:41 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


I get a dollar every time someone sues.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 5:43 PM on December 31, 2007


Guys, if ClaudiaCenter is right and there are also some mental health issues going on, we do need to tone down the f*** off and die type commentary. I don't want to turn on the news tomorrow and see where this fellow jumped off a building or something.
posted by konolia at 5:46 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


If this had been done with malice aforethought, he'd've used different IPs and payment methods - and I do believe a Harvard grad and ex-hedge-fund-manager could figure that out.

I disagree. I don't think it ever crossed his mind that there are people out there as clever as he thinks he is.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:47 PM on December 31, 2007 [6 favorites]


ikkyu2, I think a lot of us disagree with your generous intepretation here, on principled grounds, but you did state the case well for leniency. It's too late for much of that, of course. But just because Holden was naive about the techniques for clever spamming doesn't mean he isn't a spammer; and much worse than that, as many have said, he's doing this in the name of charity, not profit. His organization appears to be half-assed and pretending to be serious, and as nas and Miko have pointed out so eloquently (and Jessamyn too), his getting caught (I agree that's what Mansfield's problem would be) undermines people doing legitimate and important and often relatively thankless work in the same area in more professional ways. Since you're a doc, I'd say it's a little like a PA hanging out a shingle advertising surgical services, then screwing up a surgery -- sure, a minor surgery, but now we know the deal behind that shingle and we are a little less trusting of surgeons in general to police their own.

I also do not share your cynicism about the percentage of mercenary postings to MeFi. I almost never feel something is being pitched to me directly, really.

As for Mansfield, yeah, he would say Holden is having a manly experience now, a ritual trial by fire from which he can emerge stronger. God, I despised that class and the man who taught it, even then -- he's of course since gone on to prove himself the Sid Vicious of academia.

Out of curiosity, did your years in Cambridge overlap the existence of the Mug and Muffin in Harvard Square? I was there for its demise, to date myself.

Happy New Year.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:50 PM on December 31, 2007


Well, he was right to get the hell out of (i) hedge funds and (ii) Westport, Connecticut.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 5:51 PM on December 31, 2007


Number 4 on the Goog!
posted by wemayfreeze at 5:53 PM on December 31, 2007


Holden, you just have to resign from Givewell, effective immediately. The internet never forgets, and the only way that Givewell can escape from what you have done is by jettisoning you.

Happy New Year.
posted by LarryC at 5:54 PM on December 31, 2007


I'd say put away the pitchforks

Journalists have been fired for sockpuppetry (sockpuppeting?), right? To me this is not so different given that it's a non-profit, generally, and one that asserts that it's the Most Transparent Evah.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 5:54 PM on December 31, 2007


Please. This guy isn't crazy, he's just an asshole. Big difference.
posted by puke & cry at 5:57 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Also, what is up with that we're-badass-mofos-coming-through-a-chain-link-fence shot (the NYT article photo)?
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:58 PM on December 31, 2007


Sidebar! Sidebar! Sidebar!

Metafilter: Use our research.
posted by ryanrs at 5:59 PM on December 31, 2007


Journalists have been fired for sockpuppetry (sockpuppeting?), right?

Yup, and if this was a publicly traded company, he could be in for some SEC sanctions. Speaking of which, is it possible that this little shanannagan violated any applicable laws?
posted by delmoi at 5:59 PM on December 31, 2007


Agreed, puke and cry. Even his humble apology was well done, if possibly disingenuous.

It's the rationalizations that need scrutiny, of course. But they don't seem crazy, just panicky. I have a feeling this is a very bad day for Holden K, and as the day has worn on he has seen his long-developed project coming apart at the seams. He has a partner, a board, presumably some investors or donors -- that's a lot of people to get very angry at you when you are a 20-something smartass kid, especially because the accolades and puffery have been SO prominent and effusive in the MSM this season. I'm sure there are lawyers involved now, and angry emails or calls circulating. I'm sure that Holden realizes that his partner and board are realizing that he has to go to save the organization from a death blow to its reputation at a critical point in its emergence as an enterprise.

It's gotta suck. I feel sorry for him, sort of. And then I remember that he trashed other legitimate charity aggregators and review sites, and has undermined his whole industry's credibility -- again, Miko's comments are compelling on this subject above.

Something has happened in our culture, in big ways (Alberto Gonzalez) and small (Holden K.) where you can get away with anything if it is followed by a mixture of denials and mea culpas without consequences.

Sad.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:06 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]



this is probably the worst moment of a very easy life for someone right now
posted by localhuman at 6:10 PM on December 31, 2007 [7 favorites]


You know what I blame this on the downfall of? Society.
posted by found missing at 6:10 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


I believe he should be shot, his skin flensed from his body, and the image of the body sidebarred. Clearly the only step that can be taken to satisfy the High Standards of the Metafilter.

While I realize people are getting a terrific adrenaline buzz from this whole thing, it's all a little over the top. Resign his position? Perhaps he should turn himself in, ask to be brought up on some charges, maybe even cut off his right hand for you all.

Sheesh. :)

Happy New Year!
posted by disclaimer at 6:14 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


I get a dollar every time I use a Simpsons phrase.
posted by found missing at 6:15 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


The worst moment of a very easy life is better than the best moment of a lot of the lives this guy is screwing so he can claim 50% of the take. That's what really chokes me: he's using charity as a cover for his own greed. That's beyond sick.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:16 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


very easy life

Could be. We don't know that. Holden is his first name, not his last (so NY Mag's snark was really below the belt and wrong about this). He could -- like me -- have come from a modest middle class background and still made it to Harvard and thence (unlike me, but very typically for middle-class boys who make the Ivy Leagues) to hedge-fund-land. It is, for me, sufficient to note that he has enjoyed a high level of privilege *since* Harvard, judging from the $200K income he supposedly forsook to take on this project, necessitating a cut to a paltry $65K, admittedly very middle class for NYC, though quite enough for a single guy to live decently on even in NYC.

But the richer point is that the "privileged kids do good" narrative has been the selling point for the project -- the very reason for all that puffery in the MSM. So if Holden, as he says above, is NOT from money, then he has been playing the part to create a buzz for GiveWell.net.

He doesn't need to have been born with a silver spoon for class to be an interesting issue here.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:20 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


T-this is disgusting. Perhaps charity ratings sites need a charity ratings site ratings site.
posted by subbes at 6:20 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


this is probably the worst moment of a very easy life for someone right now

One can only hope.
posted by delmoi at 6:20 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


But just because Holden was naive about the techniques for clever spamming doesn't mean he isn't a spammer; and much worse than that, as many have said, he's doing this in the name of charity, not profit.

I don't agree that spamming in the name of charity is worse than spamming in the name of profit. To my mind, it seems that if there's a difference at all, it's probably slightly marginally better.

Self-links are against the rules here. They result in a ban. This person being discussed tried a self link that wasn't obviously prima facie a self-link, and he got caught and got banned. He then apologized, which is better than I can say for some other self linkers who flamed out amusingly. But for example, can you imagine New York magazine or NPR mustering a sense of moral outrage about this?

Imagine the headline: "Harvard hedge fund jock turned charitable fundraiser hyperlinked to his own organization on popular weblog!" People hate Harvard grads and hedge fund managers because they're wealthy, powerful, and oppress the rest of humanity; but I am having trouble seeing anyone outside this community giving the first flying fuck about this issue.

What I do care about is the fact that with just a couple more credit cards, people, and IP addresses, this kind of thing can be done easily.

I also do not share your cynicism about the percentage of mercenary postings to MeFi. I almost never feel something is being pitched to me directly, really.

That only proves it's working as intended.

Honestly, I'm tempted to say "I've done it myself," but I haven't, because I don't really have anything I'm trying to sell. However, I've thought about doing it, and I came to the conclusion that if I ever had something to sell, gaming the MeFi self-link prohibition would be a trivial exercise. That suggests to me that it's probably already been done, and not just a handful of times, but all the time, because MeFi is a site that's auto-insta-indexed by Google and there is a free long tail.

I can recall a handful of times where I passed up an AskMe post just this month - opened it, read it, closed it straightaway - because it tripped my spam/bullshit detector. The post in question was one of them. The reason I don't call these out is because, assuming the person in question had the intelligence of an 11 year old and the desire to cover his tracks, it would be completely impossible to prove. (Although I'll go so far as to call this one out now, as a particularly egregious example of what sets off my B.S. detector.)
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:22 PM on December 31, 2007 [8 favorites]


Don't blame Holden, he just learned it from John Mackey.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 6:23 PM on December 31, 2007


Yo, disclaimer. "Resign his position" would be exactly the right thing to do, and hardly an excessive response to this episode in any normal professional context. I agree that the violent stuff is over the top and demeans the seriousness of this issue, but serious it is. Read Miko's posts above again and see if you don't agree that a resignation is in order. If he worked at a law firm or a consulting firm or for that matter a *hedge fund* and through similar thoughtless conduct caused this much reputational damage to the firm, he'd probably not work at anywhere near the same level in the same industry ever again. Surely, in fact. Why should a business model based on trust and claiming to be doing good work be any less professional? Should it not be *more* professional and ethical in its conduct as an enterprise than a profit-making business?
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:25 PM on December 31, 2007


this is probably the worst moment of a very easy life for someone right now

Meh, the crisis will last two days before he moves on to something else. Hell, Blair Hornstine got into a better ranked law school than I did.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 6:26 PM on December 31, 2007


While I realize people are getting a terrific adrenaline buzz from this whole thing, it's all a little over the top. Resign his position? Perhaps he should turn himself in, ask to be brought up on some charges, maybe even cut off his right hand for you all.

Would you give money to a charity headed by someone who thinks that dishonest behavior is no big deal -- and also attempts and buy his way out of trouble by proposing to donate money to the web site that's calling him on the dishonest behavior?

A charity's reputation is only as good as that of those who run it.
posted by clevershark at 6:26 PM on December 31, 2007


Distasteful all around, including infantile namecalling and blackheartedness in this thread.

The only thing that really bothers me is the suggestion that these Givewell people 'need some humility in the form of some good, ethical consultants' -- if there really are such things as 'ethical consultants', then it's too goddamn late, and the only solution is to give up and move to the goddamn woods, where the dictates of your own conscience preclude the need to hire other people to simulate the missing parts of your own humanity.

What a depressing way to kick off the new year.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:27 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


Oh, incidentally, I never heard of Mug and Muffin, so I probably was not there then.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:30 PM on December 31, 2007


But Ikkyu2, the issue goes well beyond Metafilter and a simple rule infraction here. This thread has uncovered a systematic use of deceptive viral marketing techniques aimed not only at driving traffic to givewell, but at trashing the legitimate competition. And all of it has revealed an organization that appears to be very poorly run despite surface appearances, yet asks people for a very high level of trust. Holden has been all over the internet playing this game, and all over the mainstream media claiming to be revolutionizing an industry out of pure altruism and trashing the way people who have devoted much more of their lives to it do their professional business.

We can disagree, of course.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:30 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


So that everything is clear and up front: I am Tim Ogden (for real) and I sit on GiveWell's board.

1. There is no doubt that Holden made a major mistake here in particular and that he and Elie carried their promotion of GiveWell too far.

2. Holden notified the board of this tonite.

3. I can assure everyone here that the board of GiveWell will be discussing this in short order. Speaking entirely for myself, I believe this to be a quite serious issue because of the conflict between what Holden did here, and the goals of GiveWell to encourage more information, more transparency and more real accountability in charitable giving.

4. That being said, it is quite difficult to figure out exactly what happened in the thread since it has been deleted. If a mod could email me the contents of the original thread, I would appreciate it. I, of course, am also asking Holden for this but I'd like something direct from the mods if possible.

5. I was aware of some of Holden and Elie's promotional efforts well before this (see for instance here where I am the first commenter sending people to a site where I was the editor and wrote the profile in question and Elie follows later. I had also seen some comments left on other sites where Holden did not specifically identify himself as being associated with GiveWell and it did not immediately strike me as a problem. I think those comments and what happened here are materially different.

6. There is one occasion where I have been associated with a promotion of GiveWell where my position on the board is not noted -- on the site associated with the show WealthTrack. I told the producers of the show of my association but they decided it did not need to be posted.

Now, I want to respond to some of the overwhelming cynicism here. While the cynicism is entirely deserved based on Holden's actions, it leads to the wrong conclusions.

1. I can personally vouch for the unimpeachable intentions of Holden and Elie in starting GiveWell. They are truly committed to trying to improve charitable giving by asking very needed questions about effectiveness. That does not mean that the various puff pieces about them in the press are deserved -- but it does mean that they are truly and honestly doing what they think is best to help other people. Debating whether they are doing that in the right way is very welcome and you will see plenty of that debate hosted on the GiveWell blog.

2. GiveWell is focusing on asking questions of charities that need to be asked. There is a deep fallacy in the thinking that an organization that "trying to do good" is deserving of money and an organization that is spending a good deal of money trying to find the best charities and tell others about their research is not. The fact is that giving money away well requires significant investment of time and money. Hopefully the internet is changing that but the jury is still out.

3. The fact is that far too many people throw up their hands and give money to known brands or based on metrics that only evaluate overhead costs. If no one is willing to stand up and say that such thinking is not only wasteful, it is counterproductive, than we will never have the kind of charities that we need. The fact is that the best charities today do not find it any easier to raise money than the worst ones do.

4. No matter the charity, there is nothing wrong, and everything right in asking: "How do you know that what you are doing actually helps?" I see no issue in criticizing either Charity Navigator, any other charity advice site or any charity who cannot answer this question. To my knowledge, neither Holden nor Elie ever said that any of charities was not a good charity -- they simply asked the question: how do you know?

5. Keep in mind that one of the reasons that the community here has been able to "dig up" so much information on GiveWell is that the organization is truly transparent. I would encourage each one of you to, for instance, listen to the recordings of our board meetings. I challenge you to find any other organization in the charitable field with the transparency that GiveWell provides -- and if you do, please let me and others know (though not by creating sock puppets).

6. While I was not there when the name of GiveWell was chosen, it was discussed and there was no attempt to highjack the good name or good will of any other site.

7. GiveWell does not ask the charities it evaluates to provide quarterly information, etc. It asks each charity for information about its effectiveness then makes unrestricted grants to the charities it chooses. Of course, those evaluating companies don't use questionnaires -- there are other sources of information. In the charity world however, information on the effectiveness of charities is not available. The only way to begin assembling that information is by sending out questionnaires.

I will close by noting that none of the above is meant as a defense of Holden's actions here. The ends do not justify the means. However, as I once read on an Elliott's Amazing bottle cap, "An idea should not be held responsible for those who claim to believe in it." You should not judge GiveWell by my comments, other comments here, or Holden's actions. You should judge GiveWell by visiting the site and closely examining what the organization has been doing.

Best Regards and Happy New Year.

Tim

(For the record, I do not receive any compensation for serving on the GiveWell board and I am paying for my own account here to post this comment. Holden did not ask anyone from the board to do so. )
posted by timogden at 6:30 PM on December 31, 2007 [20 favorites]


Still waiting for the apology clarifying the clarification of the apology.
posted by spiderwire at 6:31 PM on December 31, 2007


I suspect that makes you younger than me, Ikkyu2. Damn you!
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:32 PM on December 31, 2007


Tim, threads that are "deleted" here are usually not totally deleted; they're just not readily available from the index of posts. You can read the thread in question here.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 6:35 PM on December 31, 2007


Keep in mind that one of the reasons that the community here has been able to "dig up" so much information on GiveWell is that the organization is truly transparent.

No, it's because holden didn't cover his tracks properly. A lie of omission doesn't mean "OK until someone calls you out on it." He had a conflict of interest that should have been disclosed, and there's no way to reverse that effect on the many people who may have read his various comments and won't ever have a chance to correct the misperception he created, or the goodwill of the other charities that he needlessly bashed.

Simply asking "do you know?" is the online equivalent of push-polling; sending someone to your own website without disclosure is manipulation, period.

This is a transparent attempt to bring the big boys in here to stop the firestorm. Let Holden come back and defend himself if his intentions are as good as you say.
posted by spiderwire at 6:36 PM on December 31, 2007


1. Now, I want to respond to some of the overwhelming cynicism here. While the cynicism is entirely deserved based on Holden's actions, it leads to the wrong conclusions.

2. I will close by noting that none of the above is meant as a defense of Holden's actions here.

Please explain to me how (1) does not contradict (2).
posted by spiderwire at 6:38 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Frankly, I don't care about his intentions. And isn't that what GiveWell's whole approach is -- that the fact that charities mean well isn't enough, but, in order to deserve our support, they must demonstrate right action? There is no way this is not a massive black eye for the GiveWell.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:41 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


I gotta admit, the "donate to metafilter" thing is just like "accidentally" handing a folded 20 under your driver's license to a cop. You think it might be a clever way to get out of a situation but it's really more than likely to get you into a hotter cauldron.

This is pretty disheartening all the way around. Most disheartening is that, realistically, nothing is going to change for Holden or lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-charitable.com . Though the consumerist might be pretty peeved for being gamed, once they find out.
posted by maxwelton at 6:42 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


That article from the NYT is a perfect example of the kind of privileged-class puffery and PR that has in recent years really turned me off to that paper. "2 Young Hedge-Fund Veterans Stir Up the World of Philanthropy". Indeed! They've stirred it up real nice, now!

Kudos to Miko. I hope the NYT comes out with, I dunno, some sort of followup based on events that have transpired here.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:42 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


This thread has uncovered a systematic use of deceptive viral marketing techniques aimed not only at driving traffic to givewell, but at trashing the legitimate competition.

It's uncovered a systematic use of viral marketing techniques. I don't think it's any more deceptive than any other kind of marketing. I certainly understand that for any effective, well-run organization to gain the success it deserves, it needs to use effective marketing.

And all of it has revealed an organization that appears to be very poorly run despite surface appearances

Well, I don't agree with that at all. I have no affiliation with GiveWell - never heard of it before, know nothing about it, haven't visited their site or tried to learn more - and I am not saying it's well run. But just because one of the founders tried to use a viral marketing technique doesn't make it poorly run. Doesn't make it well-run either. Doesn't say anything about how it's run.

On preview, Tim Ogden writes some things that, if they're true, actually seem to suggest that the organization may be run better than their competition. Again, I don't know, and I clearly care far less than he claims to.

Does anyone else find it odd that a wealthy, well-connected, presumably Manhattan-based charitable board member has nothing better to do at 9:30 pm on New Year's Even than join MeFi just so he could post to this thread? I know it's about time I got in the shower; my own West Coast New Year's holiday starts at 8:15 pm.

happy new year, everyone!
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:43 PM on December 31, 2007


happy West Village new year to you too . . . we've still got two hours you know. and here in New York the party don't start until the ball drops, anyway.

Actually, after years making a living as a musician and viewing New Year's Eve as a work night, I take great pleasure in ignoring it now.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:48 PM on December 31, 2007


6. While I was not there when the name of GiveWell was chosen, it was discussed and there was no attempt to highjack the good name or good will of any other site.

timogden, thanks for posting. Anyway, because I've seriously been wondering . . .

I'm not a trademark lawyer, but is it just OK to take the name of an existing enterprise in another country that does a lot of the same work? What's up with that? DIdn't your lawyers search for givewell.com.au, around since 1997? Or is it legally and ethically OK since they are in another country?
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:51 PM on December 31, 2007


You should judge GiveWell by visiting the site and closely examining what the organization has been doing.

All that's missing is ad revenue. How about skipping the lecture and dealing with the root of your problem?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:53 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


The 50% thing has me wondering: perhaps it would be well to examine the way other charities operate. I'll bet many take a percentage off the top that would surprise us.
Or not, whatever.
posted by rockhopper at 6:55 PM on December 31, 2007


You want the truth?

ITS FUCKING DRACULA PEOPLE.

Most of those "charities" are blood banks. Think about it, won't you.
posted by dgaicun at 6:55 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


Slandering, or bringing into serious doubt the ethics of any business which is similar to yours, or simply directing people away from charitable organisations and towards your own (3rd party) organisation is contemptible. Holden should be absolutely held to account for that, if nothing else. Don't badmouth the competition, prove your own worth. It's so utterly basic.
posted by h00py at 6:56 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


To Tim and anyone else who wants a quick rundown of the "evidence":

As monju_bosatsu said, the original fake question on Ask MetaFilter is archived.

There were also posts submitted to LifeHacker, Consumerist, and Luxist, in which Holden posted comments promoting GiveWell without disclosing his relationship with GiveWell. He also criticized DonorsChoose and Charity Navigator in the Luxist and LifeHacker posts, respectively. It looks like the comment from LifeHacker has been deleted by the mods there since someone pointed out this thread.

Holden also posted his own summary of what he did.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:57 PM on December 31, 2007


The real shame of this is that he showed so much promise when he directed Pi.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:01 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


Does anyone else find it odd that a wealthy, well-connected, presumably Manhattan-based charitable board member has nothing better to do at 9:30 pm on New Year's Even than join MeFi just so he could post to this thread?

Not once he got wind of what the MeTa Junior Detective Squad came up with, that's for damn sure.
posted by tristeza at 7:03 PM on December 31, 2007


OT, can't resist: I'm not a trademark lawyer, but is it just OK to take the name of an existing enterprise in another country that does a lot of the same work?

No, but it wouldn't be a good case in this instance, either. Generally trademarks are intended to prevent confusion between goods and services, not company names. The only federal legislation on the matter is the Lanham Act, which IIRC doesn't provide for the registration of trade names. The international law is scarce since it's essentially a question of deceptive-trade-practices and it'd be difficult to prove that an organization in a different country was free-riding on your company's goodwil. In this case the test would be very, very literal, especially since the name is arguably relevant to what the organizations do, which makes it per se less defensible. IANAL, YMMV, etcet.

posted by spiderwire at 7:03 PM on December 31, 2007


I'd just like to post a quick note since this (charities and measuring effectiveness) was a partial focus of my dissertation last year. Basically, the gist is that NGOs (this also applies to charities, my focus was NGDOs) are praised because they are seen as being particularly effective at offering services to the poor, relative to the government sector and (usually) the private sector. However, donors aren't just going to give money away willy-nilly. So they impose on these NGOs requirements to gauge that NGO's effectiveness. This has a number of really lousy effects:
  1. It encourages managerialism in the NGO -- they become pressured to behave more like businesses, which often clashes with both the culture of the NGO and its development practices
  2. It prejudices towards larger NGOs which can devote more time to documentation, monitoring, and reporting (some smaller NGOs have said that almost half of their time is taken up in data collecting and filling out evaluations)
  3. It discourages development which can not be quantisized, which means that NGOs which might have been focused on less tangible work like capacity building or empowerment feel pressured to do something more "concrete" like digging a well, which may solve temporary problems but won't lead to long term community improvement
  4. It creates a strong power imbalance between NGOs and donors. NGOs feel a lot of pressure from higher up, and regional field offices similarly feel pressure from international headquarters (usually located in the West) to follow a more central line of action even if it does not match the actual needs on the ground
Obviously, it's important to make sure that the charity that you do end up giving to is not corrupt and is using your donations for good. But it is equally important to recognize that a good deal of development funding only appears to be spent well, and is generally only a better metric of how well an NGO is able to adapt to the informational requirements of their donors, not necessarily to the voiced (or unvoiced) needs of the community they are supposed to serve. Just something to keep in mind.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:04 PM on December 31, 2007 [26 favorites]


Interesting, Deathalicious, and thank you. In the social sciences, the evaluation of grant effectiveness is routine, and has had some of the same deleterious effects, especially a privileging of quantitative data and techniques that are not always appropriate, and a short-term thinking about significance that is not always conducive to the best work. But everyone knows that both public and private foundations and funding agencies measure the effect of their expenditures in all kinds of ways. It's just not a very radical idea.

PS -- Spiderwire, you may not be a lawyer, but you do a damn good impression. Thanks for that.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:11 PM on December 31, 2007


PS -- Spiderwire, you may not be a lawyer, but you do a damn good impression. Thanks for that.

That's what law students are for -- doing impressions of actual lawyers.

Iii'm just going to whistle innocently and walk away now.

posted by spiderwire at 7:18 PM on December 31, 2007


I don't have a lot of money.

Yes you do. You worked at a hedge fund. Unless you were the janitor, shut up.
I mean, seriously.

Paging Quarter Pincher.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:31 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thanks for stopping by, Tim.

So, the most charitable (heh) scenario I can paint is:

- hotshot Ivy league guys work for a few years making 200k in a Greed is Good environmnent
- ensuing arrogance promotes self-talk that their skills are transferable
- genuine charitable instinct enters into unholy alliance with youth, experience, limited background
- treating charities as businesses allows identification of a market niche -- a go between entity (givewell) inserted between donor and charity and/or paid to consult
- blinded by business approach, they don't see this as skimming but as "quality assurance"
- transfer of values from Greed is Good world allows for unquestioning implementation of unremarkable spamming techniques in a new environment whose currency is trust
- distrust ensues

It reminds me of how many of my graduate students proceed. They get a BA, then they work as consulting archaeologists for a few years, gaining valuable skills and experience doing dirt archaeology, writing reports, etc. They then come back to do graduate work, better prepared in many ways, and yet, with a very unfortunate attitude that focuses on "deliverables" and "cost benefit" and not on scholarship, thoroughness, curiosity, research design, etc. Getting it done, rather than getting it right. Curing them of the unacceptable tics from the other world, while retaining the benefits of their experience and businesslike approach, is often one of the hardest parts of the supervision process.
posted by Rumple at 7:32 PM on December 31, 2007 [12 favorites]


for new years' eve, mefi turns into LGF
posted by Firas at 7:42 PM on December 31, 2007


"Harvard hedge fund jock turned charitable fundraiser hyperlinked to his own organization on popular weblog!"

It's not a question of hyperlinking the indictment reads:
  1)  Posting sockpuppet crap all over the internet
  2)  Denigrating legitimate charities
  3)  Taking almost 50% of donations as salary

Anyway.
3. I can assure everyone here that the board of GiveWell will be discussing this in short order. Speaking entirely for myself, I believe this to be a quite serious issue because of the conflict between what Holden did here, and the goals of GiveWell to encourage more information, more transparency and more real accountability in charitable giving...

5. Keep in mind that one of the reasons that the community here has been able to "dig up" so much information on GiveWell is that the organization is truly transparent. I would encourage each one of you to, for instance, listen to the recordings of our board meetings.
So I take it you'll record the board meeting where you discuss Holden's viral antics? And we all get to hear it? Should be fairly entertaining.
posted by delmoi at 7:45 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


mathowie writes "Also, the same person bought both accounts."

Subtle.

Skorgu writes "Question-and-answer from same IP might be a nice thing to flag automatically for review?"

Going to be tons of hits, questioners often provide follow ups. Plus location centric questions are going to get hit for people sharing a firewall. One only has to take a look at the number of Meta enquires about "Why am I seeing someone else's username as logged in on the main page".

smackfu writes "I cannot believe how seriously people take this stuff."

Ya, Canter and Siegel got a bum rap too. Okay, maybe not. This is a key abuse of the system and should be punished harshly. The banning and this thread are a good response.
posted by Mitheral at 7:46 PM on December 31, 2007

1. Now, I want to respond to some of the overwhelming cynicism here. While the cynicism is entirely deserved based on Holden's actions, it leads to the wrong conclusions.

2. I will close by noting that none of the above is meant as a defense of Holden's actions here.


Please explain to me how (1) does not contradict (2).
Wrong conclusions regarding GiveWell, not Holden's actions.
posted by ryanrs at 7:54 PM on December 31, 2007


Just popping in to say that Miko and the MeFi Detective Squad are the Best of the Web, and this thread is a thing of beauty. Rock on.

Oh, and happy new year.

posted by Quietgal at 7:57 PM on December 31, 2007


How is this like LGF? This was a flagrant abuse of this site's trust and turns out to merely be the condiment on a nice steamy shit sandwich. While there are a very few stupid responses upthread, most have been well-articulated and certainly nothing like the reaming givewell should receive in the real world, which, I guarantee, they won't get.*

* The kind of people who give significant money to charity are Holden's people. They're not about to critically examine an enterprise as touchy-feely good as this seems on the surface to be.
posted by maxwelton at 7:59 PM on December 31, 2007


I can personally vouch for the unimpeachable intentions of Holden and Elie in starting GiveWell (Tim Ogden, GiveWell board member, above)

Let me try to impeach them, anyway. Here's the way it looks: Holden and Elie are each making $200,000 at a hedge fund and "quit" those jobs to start Givewell and make $65,000. Now, nobody in their right mind does this, unless (a), they actually got fired, or laid off, from the hedge fund, or (b) they decided to seek their own fortune and expected Givewell to quickly ramp up to pay them even more than they were making at the hedge fund. The latter is somewhat unrealistic, but perhaps not to 26-year-olds with or without a Harvard education. My guess, however, is that the hedge fund dumped them, and that this idea they had at least seemed like a way to make a living.
posted by beagle at 8:04 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


Holden and Elie are each making $200,000 at a hedge fund and "quit" those jobs to start Givewell and make $65,000. Now, nobody in their right mind does this, unless

Actually, it's likely that the hedge fund job sucked (one's soul and hours), although it paid well. It is very possible for someone to choose to leave that kind of existence for less than 1/2 the money.

Everyone who works where I work makes about 1/3 to 1/10 of what they would make in the private legal market. And not because we got fired from the private sector. (Nearly all of our senior lawyers are listed as "super lawyers" in this sorta bogus-marketing but peer generated annual listing.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:12 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


beagle: I have to say that I don't see how any of that looks bad. Regardless of what conditions they left the hedge fund, you're accusing them of hoping to grow a successful business? After all, that's what this is about. One focused on evaluating charities, for sure. But still a business.

I agree with ikkyu2 for the most part. There has been a few too many comments here which reek of an instinctive hate of privilege for its own sake.
posted by vacapinta at 8:12 PM on December 31, 2007


Wrong conclusions regarding GiveWell, not Holden's actions.

Uh, he's a founder, board member, secretary, executive, one of two salaried employees, and a public face to the company. Assuming standard corporate law applies, he has actual authority to bind the corporation and even special fiduciary duties as secretary (i.e., the secretary is the one who defines who the officers are). His actions reflect directly on the organization in a legal and public sense, and even moreso in a field whose currency is trust. Therefore, his actions bear directly on conclusions about GiveWell, and Mr. Ogden's defense of those actions is most assuredly a statement regarding the conclusions to be drawn about GiveWell.

Put more briefly, stating that the conclusions being drawn are wrong and then proceeding to criticize the basis of those conclusions is most definitely a defense in any reasonable sense of the term, and it's intellectually demeaning both to assert that those conclusions are wrong and that their defense, is, in fact, not a defense.

Regardless, I think that your parsing is generous at best, and it shouldn't have to be in this situation. The last thing that Mr. Ogden should be doing here is doublespeaking and prevaricating (e.g., "the board didn't ask me to do this" -- though we know that the entire board has been notified about it and is taking it oh-so-seriously) and handing out kitschy bottlecap wisdom, but that's exactly what he came here to do. The original mistake is only being made more embarrassing by the succession of horribly botched attempts at damage control.
posted by spiderwire at 8:16 PM on December 31, 2007 [8 favorites]


Hey guys, happy new year. Go out.
posted by tristeza at 8:22 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


You should not judge GiveWell by my comments, other comments here, or Holden's actions.

how about we judge givewell by who they hire - and fire?

actions speak a lot louder than words
posted by pyramid termite at 8:23 PM on December 31, 2007


I tend to agree that the anti-Zuckerberg mentality here is a bit off, but it's not entirely misplaced either.

Whether or not the seething about privilege is entirely on-target, privilege carries responsibility, especially if you're running a charity that purports to pass judgment on other charities, and you proceed to pseudonymously bash other charitable organizations.

The founder's unimpeachable intentions plus five bucks will get them a cup of coffee, but that won't pay for their salaries.
posted by spiderwire at 8:23 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Hey guys, happy new year. Go out.

Yeah, go out in the cold and get blown up by stray fireworks? No thanks. This is more interesting.

Happy New Year!

posted by spiderwire at 8:24 PM on December 31, 2007


How is this like LGF?

No, I don't think Mefi is like LGF. That's why I hang here after all. But this "time to end careers" aesthetic is really a turn off. Also there is a strange streak of "omg ivy this, hudge fund that", which also leaves me cold. I'm also reacting to this strange thread linked from this one where there's like a 10:1 pileon over a relatively maturely argued point. wtf guys. make love not vitriol ♥
posted by Firas at 8:33 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


...the unimpeachable intentions of Holden and Elie...

Ah, but the road to hell is paved with unimpeachable intentions...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:45 PM on December 31, 2007


make love not vitriol ♥

A bit of dust on my monitor made that heart look like a lopsided chicken, and, for a brief glorious moment, I knew this new year would be a good one.
posted by Ms. Saint at 8:54 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


Wait a minute... is this the year of the lopsided chicken?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:56 PM on December 31, 2007


Or...

dust on your monitor,
all we are is dust on your monitor....
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:57 PM on December 31, 2007


Happy 2008 Mefites and lurking board members of GiveWell!

It's midnite. Where are my flapjax?
posted by CKmtl at 9:02 PM on December 31, 2007


Wait a minute... is this the year of the lopsided chicken?

Happy New Year! It's going to be The Year of the Rat in 2008, appropriately enough:
Intelligent and cunning at the same time, rats are highly ambitious and strong-willed people who are keen and unapologetic promoters of their own agendas, which often include money and power.
posted by dhammond at 9:02 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


We'll all be fortunate to get out of this thing without being hit by errant gunfire.
posted by puke & cry at 9:05 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

You should not judge GiveWell by my comments, other comments here, or Holden's actions. You should judge GiveWell by visiting the site and closely examining what the organization has been doing.
So what you're saying, Tim, is "don't judge us by what we say, or what we do - judge us by the quality of our copywriters and spinmeisters!"

For a business whose very raison d'être is the aggregation, measurement, codification, and apportionment of trust, you seem to have a very backwards understanding of how and where people distribute their trust...
posted by Pinback at 9:05 PM on December 31, 2007


It's midnite. Where are my flapjax?

Actually, I'm glad you asked me that. I'd like to recommend FlapjaxFinder, a pancake-aggregator/evaluator organization that will help you find the best flapjacks available, and not only at midnight, but at any hour of your choosing. We can help you (for a reasonable fee) find the pancakes you need, and we do it better than anyone else in the field.

posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:11 PM on December 31, 2007 [14 favorites]


So what you're saying, Tim, is "don't judge us by what we say, or what we do - judge us by the quality of our copywriters and spinmeisters!"

I took that to mean "Judge us by our results, as documented on our website." which seems fair enough.

All the initial posts, aggregating and linking to the various decepetive forum posts around the web were interesting revelations. This word-by-word dissection of a public statement, however, is rather fruitless over-analysis.
posted by vacapinta at 9:15 PM on December 31, 2007


Excellent -- I'm looking for something in a blueberry flapjack. What can you recommend that has the most efficient cost-to-blueberry ratio? Plumpness, juiciness, and relative purplitude of the berries are additional key performance factors, and I think you should require the various flapjack purveyors to provide valid, reliable, double-blind outcomes assessment results for these on the questionnaire. Also, please to let me hear the recordings of your IHOP taste-testing sessions.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:19 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Au contraire, FlapjaxNavigator evaluates all available pancakes and (for a small fee of a dollar pancake per pancake purchased) advises on stacking (aggregating is so Web 1.0), syruping, buttering, cut-with-forking, and all aspects of Pancake2.0 netiquette. At FlapjaxNavigator, our highly-paid team of well-intentioned staff will assemble (and, helpfully, dissemble) a winning stack that makes FlapjaxFinder's services look like the naive product of bumbling amateurs.
posted by Rumple at 9:24 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


This is the only time since joining MeFi that I'd wished I had a sockpuppet, to chime in with a glowing review of FlapjaxFinder and a scathing indictment of FlapjaxNavigator. That would be so perfect.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:26 PM on December 31, 2007


I had a true charity scam today: someone tried to charge $900 to Oxfam on my mastercard.

I don't understand how what Givewell is trying to do is any different from what United Way already does so well (except that United Way actually funds deserving charities).
posted by mattbucher at 9:28 PM on December 31, 2007


I've seen two people from the company so far apologise for making the mistake of trying this shit on here at Metafilter, but have not yet seen anything that makes me think they consider the rest of it even a problem, let alone something they feel sorry about. Yeah, astroturfing and self linking is against our rules and community norms, that doesn't mean that doing the same slimy stuff elsewhere is A-OK. Which to me shows either a greater lack of judgement than they realise or a lot more cynicism than I'm comfortable with.

And New Years was last night, catch up people.
posted by shelleycat at 9:30 PM on December 31, 2007


FlapjaxNavigator is, in my objective view, a superior implementation of the pancake-aggregation model. FlapjaxFinder is run by a rather musty collection of do-gooders who just want to aggregate pancakes with no intention of ever eating one. Let alone eat the largest pancake with the most butter and syrup, alone, in the kitchen, quietly, while the room-mates are cleaning the bathroom. ha ha ha ha ha

At FlapjaxNavigator, I understand the know how to devour pancakes with gusto! Who better to advise on how to stack them than someone with sticky fingers from gorging on pancakes?!
posted by gnome de plume at 9:35 PM on December 31, 2007


Sam Jain's not on the board, is he?
posted by maxwelton at 9:52 PM on December 31, 2007


Ooh, I want flapjacks. With a few blueberries and butter and syrup. Sigh.

I'm home sick, huddling under my blankets. Sniff, snort, ca-phlegm.

I had that ikkuyu2 feeling about this post. But when I looked at the answers I decided, well, I donno.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:56 PM on December 31, 2007


Every time stuff like this happens, I start to really wonder what could happen if somehow circumstances result in us banding together to do something historic on a grand level.

I think I know what it is - I think mefi is kind of like the beginnings of an ideal country. Not perfect by any means, but a staggering amount of intelligent people, a sense of right and wrong, a blistering wit and a place where there seems to be true acceptance of the weirdness that is uniquely you, in a good way. Or maybe it's just reverie from the New Year.

Anyway, charity boys, get your act together. Seriously. This is going to have much more of an effect than you realize. Excellent work, Miko.
posted by cashman at 9:57 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: The beginnings of an ideal country.
posted by melorama at 10:32 PM on December 31, 2007 [5 favorites]


I am increasingly skeptical and disgusted. Everything about this is screaming "scam" to me.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:37 PM on December 31, 2007


before: I sincerely believe this world would be a better place without you
later: I am increasingly skeptical and disgusted.

five fresh fish, I think you have nowhere to go in the increasingly skeptical and disgusted department beyond having basically wished for the non-existence of the givewell guy. Time to chill out a bit mate.
posted by peacay at 10:47 PM on December 31, 2007


Much further out than inevitable
Halloween is thy game
Sky King is come
and Wilma's done
Uncertain as it is uneven.

Give us today hors d'oeuvres in bed
as we forgive those
who have dressed up against us.

And need us not enter inflation
butter, liver, onions and potatoes
for wine is a shingle,
and a mower, and a story
for your father

Alright
posted by Sailormom at 11:02 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Agreed, peacay. Comments like that are one of the few things that could make Holden & Co. look like the more reasonable party. Remeber, those NYT reporters are a lazy bunch.
posted by ryanrs at 11:09 PM on December 31, 2007


I don't think it's any more deceptive than any other kind of marketing.

I went out, saw fireworks, laughed at drunk people screaming into their cellphones, came back and found the above hard to believe. A guy goes around the web pretending to be a disinterested observer while hyping his company (which has *already* gotten a ton of easy press - jeez) and insulting the competition, and that's not "any more deceptive than any other kind of marketing"?

Puh-lease. There's plenty of marketing that doesn't rely on an obvious lie about your identity. What kind of idiot needs to be reminded that's not ethical behavior on the net?

Anyone who *doesn't* think twice about what Givewell's up to after this is being foolish.
posted by mediareport at 11:21 PM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


New company name: GetWell.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:27 PM on December 31, 2007


mathowie writes "Oh snap, good eyes. The question and 'answer' were posted from the exact same IP. deleted, banned."

Whoa ... how did that become 363 posts? This writers strike is really wreaking havoc.

Joking, of course. Now I'll shut up and read some of it to find out for myself ...
posted by krinklyfig at 11:30 PM on December 31, 2007


Cell phone and credit card companies generally don't bash competitors by name. Even telemarketers tell you who they are at some point during the call.
posted by ryanrs at 11:31 PM on December 31, 2007


I took that to mean "Judge us by our results, as documented on our website." which seems fair enough.

Aaaand...that's where these two comments from Miko come in. I'd love to see Tim or Holden respond to those.
posted by mediareport at 11:31 PM on December 31, 2007


Self-links are against the rules here. They result in a ban. This person being discussed tried a self link that wasn't obviously prima facie a self-link, and he got caught and got banned. He then apologized, which is better than I can say for some other self linkers who flamed out amusingly. But for example, can you imagine New York magazine or NPR mustering a sense of moral outrage about this?

I agree, and I'm sure they won't. The self-linking really doesn't bother me- like ikkyu2, I'm sure it happens more than we realize by people sophisticated enough to, well, not backtalk Miko, for starters. Some of the other stuff- bashing other organizations, using a co-workers e-mail address to send pitch e-mails- is more questionable, but is not really developed enough to make for a great story.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:58 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Mmm ... well, now I see. Maybe these guys aren't ready for charity work yet. The fact that they put it on the table when called on their game tells me that they're more green than diabolical. But they still talk like they're pumping up the hype machine for a business rather than an ostensible force for good in the non-profit world. There's a reason that Buffett gave so much to Gates and not to some inexperienced former hedge fund managers in their 20s with little more than a website and raw enthusiasm. And if any kind thing can be said about Bill Gates, it's that he is taking a serious approach to the problem of giving effectively. I don't like Bill's software, but I've seen his approach to his foundation, and the guy is really getting somewhere with this. But GiveWell? I'd recommend the people who founded it work for some existing foundations and charities for a while before leaping in and "shaking things up." Maybe Gates has some openings?
posted by krinklyfig at 12:14 AM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


ikkyu2 writes "magine the headline: 'Harvard hedge fund jock turned charitable fundraiser hyperlinked to his own organization on popular weblog!'"

How about, 'Harvard hedge fund jock turned charitable fundraiser astroturfed popular weblog!' Or, 'Hedge funder turned charity analyst revs up hype machine on weblog'. This is sort of inside baseball, web-culture centric, but so is the foundation. Astroturfing has been reported in the mainstream before, at least as a phenomenon. Hey, El Reg would probably pick it up ...
posted by krinklyfig at 12:21 AM on January 1, 2008


It's really a shame that in the wake of this whole chain of shenanigans on the part of givewell, miko's and nax's useful and edifying comments in the original thread are now lost for posterity. Something good was lost there, and this is not well.

I'm glad I had the chance to read them, though, and I am inspired to donate and contribute in aid of promoting the net good (increased awareness of charitable options) versus the net bad (increased suspicion and cynicism regarding charitable efforts) generated by this regrettable incident. I'm going to start with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, a group I stand in awe of, and which, as kimdog points out in the lost thread, also has a very high rating from Charity Navigator.

btw, Charity Navigator is looking for a new president. They should hire our Miko. :)

Happy New Year, everyone!
posted by taz at 12:29 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


miko's and nax's useful and edifying comments in the original thread are now lost for posterity. Something good was lost there, and this is not well.

That's a very good point, taz. Perhaps in this rather unique case, the admins might consider a little New Year's gift to the site and post an edited/excised version of the thread, linkable from the sidebar, that would reincarnate the good parts of that thread while leaving the selflinks and deceit in the oblivion where they belong. In that way, the spammers and selflinkers won't have taken something away from us, and the time and effort spent by Miko and others in the thread will not have been in vain.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:52 AM on January 1, 2008


I considered asking The Powers for that New Year's giftie, too, flapjax, but didn't think about the sidebar - it's a great idea.
posted by taz at 1:01 AM on January 1, 2008


Who here like pie?
posted by blue_beetle at 2:04 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


I like pie! Check out this pie website! pie.com!
posted by blue_beetle at 2:04 AM on January 1, 2008


There's no pie at all on pie.com.au - which strikes me as suspicious. We need to get to the bottom of this pie situation.
posted by taz at 2:28 AM on January 1, 2008


We need to get to the bottom of this pie situation.

Obviously, we need to enlist some of our crustier MeFites. Astro Zombie? Meatbomb?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:45 AM on January 1, 2008


I am forced to retain a slice of the pie larger than half of the whole, because I have my needs too, y'know. Sod the poor.
posted by Abiezer at 3:22 AM on January 1, 2008


I spent the whole night at the bottom of a pie and need to get some sleep. And then I need to document this evening for posterity.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:38 AM on January 1, 2008


Who here like pie?

I prefer leg. Are we going to eat him?
posted by Meatbomb at 3:53 AM on January 1, 2008


I am forced to retain a slice of the pie larger than half of the whole, because I have my needs too, y'know.

As the application materials (see page 64, paragraph 6, subpart 12 of the instruction manual) indicate, I'm afraid I must also insist that the pie-distributing organizations to which I donate these .4 pies cut and serve the pies to diners in those same proportions. This is just one of the completely unbiased and in no way self-serving set of space-age criteria used in my Patented Pie-Promotion Process®.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:54 AM on January 1, 2008


Hey! I just tried it, and FelliniBlank's Patented Pie-Promotion Process® really is the best thing since... since... sliced pie!
innocently posted by Definitely not an employee of FelliniBlank at 4:01 AM on January 1 [+] [!]


huh. Maybe I too should try FelliniBlank's Patented Pie-Promotion Process®.
posted by taz at 4:50 AM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've just like to come clean and say that I have at times tried to act like someone who's maybe better than he is (not on this site, but on another one that I visit), so I don't know if I'm any better than Holden (although I've never crticized a charity, or spammed a website, or created an account for personal promotion (although I did have another account here over a year ago whose name or login id I can't even remember now, which I had to discard, because the question that I'd used it for (it was maybe my third or fourth post), wasn't phrased correctly--I'd asked it on behalf of a friend, and I didn't make that clear until a few of the posters had decided to answer me, and languagehat took me to task for that, and I felt too embarrassed to use that account again))--so I'm not sure if I'm the right person to say this, but good work Miko, nax, fourcheesemac and everyone else who was involved.
posted by hadjiboy at 5:16 AM on January 1, 2008


THIS WAS AWESOME
posted by poppo at 7:13 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Happy New Year's, metafites. Try not to hate America so much in 2008.
posted by Anne Coulter's Butt Plug at 7:18 AM on January 1, 2008


Obviously, we need to enlist some of our crustier MeFites.

Fuck it, we're calling in the Team.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:37 AM on January 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


I suspect that makes you younger than me, Ikkyu2. Damn you!

fourcheesemac, if it's any consolation, when I graduated the Mug and Muffin was still going strong. Now get off my lawn, you whippersnapper!

(P.S. I myself never took Mansfield's class, but in my era he was widely known as Harvey C-Minus Mansfield. Wonder if that's still the case.)
posted by GrammarMoses at 7:37 AM on January 1, 2008


I find it also hard to believe that Givewell was unaware of the Australian charity aggregator of the same name, given that one of Givewell's board members is:

Virginia Zink (Vice-Chair) is a former Head of Institutional Sales at ING Australia, and one of our project's major financial supporters.

Hmmm.

And as Holden wrote in the original thread:

[being] "not a fraud" is a tiny, tiny, tiny piece of being good."

Ah yes, but what a piece it is. As you will now learn, since we now know that whatever Holden and his company really are, they are not "not a fraud."

I'm sorry, I just know too many other Holdens from a few too many years of teaching Ivy League undergrads. I *was* an Ivy League undergrad, too, so I am not simply piling on about privilege. I agree with the several posters above who have said the real issue concerning wealth and privilege here is how one handles them. THe *entire* spin for GiveWell has been that it is an example of privileged and wealthy kids doing something good with their social power for a change. That has gotten them the kind of good press that most startups -- profit making or charitable -- would never expect to get in a million years, no matter how innovative, effective, or clever they were. Read all the articles linked above. The world was delighted that these privileged fellows were turning their skills to charity.

This tale sullies that story irreparably. It really does. It shows that spoiled brats don't really change. Not all privileged kids are spoiled brats. But these ones seem to be.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:49 AM on January 1, 2008


Hey Grammar Moses -- thanks!

He was till C- Mansfield in my day, by reputation. Motherf*cker gave me a clean "A" though, I think because I never backed down in my opposition to his readings of Kant and Machiavelli. He must have thought I was "manly."

Me, I always thought he was a closet case. And rather less brilliant than he thought himself to be.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:56 AM on January 1, 2008


Well, "rather less brilliant than he thought himself to be" could apply to a wide majority of Harvard faculty. As for students past and present, its applicability is left as an exercise for the reader.
posted by GrammarMoses at 8:15 AM on January 1, 2008


mattbucher writes "I don't understand how what Givewell is trying to do is any different from what United Way already does so well (except that United Way actually funds deserving charities)."

What Givewell is doing is fine. The actions of Holden on this and other websites? Not so much.
posted by Mitheral at 8:29 AM on January 1, 2008


You guys got me looking up this manly Mansfield fella, and loathsome as he seems to be politically, my hat's off to him on the grade inflation thing after reading about his "ironic" grading system:

By contrast, Mansfield’s 'ironic' grade—the only one that will appear on official transcripts—will follow average grade distribution in the College, with about a quarter of students receiving A’s and another quarter receiving A-minu[s]es"

Can that be right? Normal grading among Harvard College undergrads is 50% of the class always receives an A? Wow, that explains a lot.
posted by mediareport at 8:33 AM on January 1, 2008


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posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:36 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh who HASN'T been to the Mug & Muffin really....?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:45 AM on January 1, 2008


What Givewell is doing is fine. The actions of Holden on this and other websites? Not so much.

That's giving the benefit of a reasonable doubt. Holden runs Givewell, a charity, but he seems to think nothing of engaging in a blatantly dishonest way of spreading the word around.

It's a bit like a travelling salesman who has a "complete stranger" (who's obviously no stranger at all) try out his product in front of a crowd in order to generate demand. Like, say, the opening scene of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. My first instinct would be to say that this sort of setup goes back to the days of snake-oil salesmen, but I'm sure it's been one that predates elixir sales by centuries.

Only in the internet age you don't even need a second person to run this little game.

I can't pass judgement on Givewell because I haven't studied it, but there's serious cause to be worried about the operations of a charity run by a guy who sets up this little scam just to get the word out. What will he do the next time he has a period of very little sleep? -- and frankly that's a bullshit excuse, because as a former hedge fund trader this guy should be used to months and months of little daily sleep by now.
posted by clevershark at 9:04 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


I also think this is not at all an unusual phenomenon on MeFi. ... I would not be surprised to learn that some MeFi regular posters, usernames you and I would immediately recognize, earn money for just a small fraction of their contributions, the ones that link or reference sites that someone paid them to link or reference.

Wow, generalized community slander. I would be surprised, and I'm a pretty cynical guy. But then, you said you considered spamming AskMe yourself, so I can see how you'd think that.

Finally, I took Harvey Mansfield's class too, and I think he would not have disapproved of this. He would have disapproved of getting caught.


So this Mansfield guy is a sleazy asshole. There are a lot of sleazy assholes in the world. What does that have to do with anything?

Great thread; it amazes me that some people think it's the pitchfork mob who are letting down the side. This guy deserves pitchforking if anyone does.

Meanwhile, pass me some of that FelliniBlank's Patented Pie-Promotion Process®!
posted by languagehat at 9:05 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Obviously, we need to enlist some of our crustier MeFites.

Fuck it, we're calling in the Team."


Having direct access to the database must be fun.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:07 AM on January 1, 2008


So not knowing who Tim Ogden is, I decide to check out his employers website http://www.genevaglobal.com/

I'm not exactly getting how this puts anyone in white hats. These people aren't philanthropists -- they run financial services that cater to the philanthropic sector. From my reading, leaving the hedge fund isn't an act of altruism, but the pursuit of a growing market opportunity as Givewell promotes its USP in the attempt to establish a new start up in that sector. Like anyone paying themselves at a start up, they start up with a small salary at the beginning, but as they grow, their salaries will become competitive with the rest of the sector. Old boy network contacts seem to be helpful in giving them a leg up in that process, but that just isn't fast enough for our young heroes.

I'm on the Board of Directors of a couple of non-profits here in the UK. Not only are salaries no worse than they are for commensurate skills and abilities in the rest of this region. The UK may be different to the USA, but here almost none of our income comes from donations, and almost all of it comes from successful competition with the public sector for contracts, and so the salaries need to be competitive to hire decent staff. And the terms and conditions are often much better in some ways.

Bottom line: this stuff seems to have less to do with charity, and much more to do with money, power and building a competitive advantage in your sector by any means necessary.

Someone please correct me if I'm missing something here?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:10 AM on January 1, 2008 [5 favorites]


Another board member at Givewell.net, responded in a blog comment as follows:
Lucy Bernholz said...

OK So far as I can tell - but I haven't fully looked into this yet - Holden has now managed to piss off a bunch (a few?) people over on a site called MetaFilter. Since the poster of the above comment did so anonymously, I know nothing about his/her beef, connection, role at MetaFilter. The complaint appears to be rampant self-promotion, violating the rules of the MetaFilter community. Holden has been "rampantly self-promoting" from the day I met him, has pissed off old-line philanthropy for this reason as well, and I find it simply odd that it makes folks mad. Maybe they just envy his consistent promotion of GiveWell?

I'll try to make sense of what the MetaFilter complaint is all about and get back to you - however, I have to ask, "since when did rampant, overt, self-promotion" become a crime? I've never liked it myself, but it seems to be about as American as apple pie...

As a board member I'll look into this. I wish the poster - who seems to be mad at Holden for pretending to be someone else in order to draw attention to GiveWell had not chosen anonymity from which to make his/her accusation...

Ah the irony of the hot-under-the-collar web world.
I commented on Ms. Bernholz's blog that the problem is not self-promotion. The problem is an organization that can't manage their own PR and marketing with honesty is trying to advise potential donors concerning whether charities are well run. If your organization is not well run, you really have no business determining whether other organizations are well run. How would you know?

If you can't figure that out, don't quit your day job.

Twelve hours later, my comment has not yet been approved for publication on Ms. Bernholz's blog. I'm curious to see if these wanna-be do-gooders can handle gentle criticism or prefer total control all their public relations (with no input from the public).
posted by McGuillicuddy at 9:22 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


mediareport: Can that be right? Normal grading among Harvard College undergrads is 50% of the class always receives an A?

I call it Lake Wobegon Syndrome.

Something tells me that the Style-section types who blurbled all over this weasel* are not going to take kindly... to a bunch of cranky bloggers who had the audacity to point up their journalistic laziness. As future Councillor / Assemblyman / Congressman / Senator Karnofsky would probably tell you, "Giving well is the best revenge."

*No offense to actual weasels intended.
posted by hangashore at 9:22 AM on January 1, 2008


THe *entire* spin for GiveWell has been that it is an example of privileged and wealthy kids doing something good with their social power for a change.

Moreover, since, as we know, Karnofsky himself penned and mass distributed ZOMG "the best press release" EVAR!, which apparently is what led to the manic avalanche of puff pieces, he is personally responsible for having defined himself and his partner that way. Just about every article or blog post out there about GiveWell, especially those that were produced by this end-of-year promotional flurry, focuses significantly less on the organization than on the noblesse oblige of its putative rockstar founders -- and several posts elicit response comments from The Great Man himself. The guy's so busy taking on all blog comers that I honestly don't know when he gets the time to do the rest of his job.

This is why Ogden's "non-defense" of Holden (judge the organization apart from his actions, on its own merits, says the fellow who apparently has just left his former gig to become a partner in a PR or communications firm) as well as the calls for him to resign or be fired as if he's just a cog in the wheel are perplexing to me. Toss Holden and go on without him? How? This whole thing is his baby, isn't it? For weeks and months, he has opportunistically, and probably very gratifyingly, been crafting this image that GiveWell = Holden -- and now everyone else over there gets to swallow the pie just desserts of what can happen when you cynically market an organization as a cult of personality (disorder). Yeah, the guy is a liability, but do you really envision him altruistically leaving the stage and letting others make hay out of his idea?

Unfortunately, I doubt the consequences will amount to much since these "let's apply hedge fundy go-go sleep-deprived* aggression to philanthropy" thinkers and their fans, by their own declared principles, find integrity a less compelling value than "results," as Lucy Bernholz's clueless comment bears out.

*When I was young, "sleep-deprived" was a popular euphemism, but I'm sure that's no longer the case.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:27 AM on January 1, 2008


This story's "self-promoting Ivy leaguer with no moral fiber or common sense" angle reminds me of the Aleksey Vayner saga. Seriously, maybe this dude Holden should team up with Vayner; they seem made for each other.
posted by jayder at 9:53 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


five fresh fish, I think you have nowhere to go in the increasingly skeptical and disgusted department beyond having basically wished for the non-existence of the givewell guy. Time to chill out a bit mate.

Sorry, but the actions of these creeps has me feeling, quite literally, like vomiting.

What we have here are a group of privileged people who, rather than engage in honest work for an honest dollar, are instead lining their pockets with people's charitable contributions.

Clearly their expectation is to turn their "charity" website into a seven- or eight-figure cashflow stream, out of which they can take over half of that money. Holden and company are doing this so they can get a half-million-dollar paycheque within the next few years. They see what the Big Charity CEOs get, and they want it.

It's bad enough that there are already popular charities that spend more on their own executives than they pass on to the poor and suffering. Take the Red Cross and its outrageous $2 million compensation for its past CEO, for instance. That kind of money could have saved tens of thousands of people from suffering, but the selfish bastard would have none of that.

I fail to see any redeeming factors in Holden's goals and behaviour. He's out for #1, and he's doing it in a sleazy manner. Screw him.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:55 AM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


I wrote Lucy a nice non-anonymous comment on her blog.
Ah the irony of the hot-under-the-collar web world.

Hi -- I'm not anonymous, I'm one of the moderators of MetaFilter and I got to spend some of my New Years Eve watching this unfold and making sure it didn't get too crazy. My name is Jessamyn West and I live in Vermont.

Probabably the best place to get an idea of what happened is from the GiveWell blog where Holden explains that he he asked a question in our Q and A community Ask MetaFilter and then registered a second account so that he could "answer" it with another account that was not obviously linked to the first. This second account hyping GiveWell was also not linked specifically to GiveWell which is also sketchy. Promotion is one thing and not against the rules. If Holden had just stepped in and said
hey I run this cool non-profit" a lot of this could have been avoided. The fake answering stuff is a violation of our policies. The fact the the head of your organization is using this deception to get the word out is pretty shady in my opinion. That's a smaller issue than the bigger picture however.

It appears that, over the course of his explaining this lapse in judgement that resulted in this whole thread on MetaFilter and his apology on the GiveWell blog, that he has also done similar things, many times, on other blogs. This went on to the point where he, by his own admission used a "new employee account" [i.e. someone else's email address, if I'm understanding this correctly] to send out promotional information about GiveWell under someone else's name. Holden specifically said this

"I sent 10 emails to bloggers, from an gmail account that I had recently created for a new employee, with a 1-sentence plug for GiveWell. The email did not mention the employee's affiliation and was a deliberate attempt to plug GiveWell without the affiliation showing up, even though it used the employee's real name."

Again, if he was a shoe salesman, or someone else involved in the hypercapitalist world of sell sell sell, that would be one thing. He's not. He's involved in philanthropy and not just any philanthropy but an endeavor that promises on its own web site "complete transparency." He's also a high ranking member of that company, not some street team member. In my opinion, these sorts of shenanigans to not only promote GiveWell but to cast aspersions on the competition makes the organization look shoddy and like it's not walking the talk.

While I forgive your not having read or possibly analyzed what happened in the MetaFilter thread, I just want to assure you that while there are definitely a few heated exchanges, that at its core the issue here is not that Holden broke the rules of a web community, but that he used unethical tactics to promote the GiveWell organization, got caught, and did not give particularly convincing apologies or explanations.

Feel free to do whatever you feel is right. MetaFilter is just a web community at some level, but the fact that this extends to fraudulent emails, many more comments on other websites and a general strategy of deception should be deeply troubling to the people who want to sustain and build GiveWell's reputation and ability to do good works.

For those of us who have been interacting and working with web communities for the greater part of a decade, I'm dismayed that people who are newer to the playing field see this as just another way to game the web to hype themselves. There's much more to it than that, on all sides.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:57 AM on January 1, 2008 [74 favorites]


Wow, Jessamyn. Way to encapsulate it all perfectly. I hope she reads your comment.
posted by Locative at 10:07 AM on January 1, 2008


Also, I know what I'm saying is somewhat hyperbolic. There is a chance — a remote chance, IMO — that I'm utterly wrong about Holden & Co's goals. Perhaps they're not Kaycee Nicole-ing/Blair Hornstine-ing the web. Perhaps they really do intend to maintain moderate incomes and ensure most of the money does make it out to the people the donations are intended to help. Perhaps they're all goodness and light.

But I really, really doubt it.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:10 AM on January 1, 2008


I've been following this thread since its inception, and I'm struck by three things:

(1) The harsh criticism of geremiah/Holden0 for his clearly wrong original astroturfing behavior.

(2) The intense invective directed at holden00 for doing something very few astroturfers ever do around these parts: going out of his way to apologize for and explain his behavior, and attempting to engage with the criticism that this engendered.

(3) The immensely harsh, ad hominem, and needlessly personal vitriol directed at Holden and his colleagues because they have Ivy League educations and worked at hedge funds for a little while.

It seems to me that (1) is completely justified. He broke the rules in a particularly disingenuous and egregious way, and deserves all the criticism he gets.

It seems to me that some of (2) is questionable at best, and that one unintended consequence is that it will discourage other rule-breakers from trying to constructively engage their critics in the future. I don't know Holden personally, so I can't judge him as a person, but his responses in here strike me as relatively measured and contrite - albeit verbose and at times self-serving - and don't justify some of the over-the-top vitriol directed his way.

Finally, it seems to me that (3) reflects very poorly on this community indeed. If people are so damn upset by rich kids with a lot of money, save your invective for the ones who have stayed in their overpaid hedge-fund jobs and don't give a shit about charities or helping the world. I'm not sure exactly what is accomplished by ad hominem attacks on people who appear to be trying to help out those less fortunate - no matter how misguided, self-serving, or incompetent they are.
posted by googly at 10:14 AM on January 1, 2008 [22 favorites]


Whee! Why bother looking into the problem before commenting on it when you can just a) minimize it to just "a bunch/few of pissed off people on a website", and b) coyly allude to them being 'unamerican'?
posted by CKmtl at 10:14 AM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Hey, let's stop bashing rich kids in not for profit. That is pretty much the ONLY TYPE OF KID you find staffing not for profits. Trust me, the children of Mexican immigrants and Polish dock workers and the maid are all in law school (but I'll bet their kids end up in nfp!). In fact rich kids (broadly defined, I'm not talking Caroline Kennedy here, though I could) do an awful lot of unheralded charity work in this world. These are kids whose parents taught them that the ethical thing to do is to give back. They are amazing people who want to make a difference, and they are not trying to get articles written about themselves. They didn't start out as hedge fund managers either. They're just good people.

They are not calling the NYT to crow about their amazing sacrifice. They are just getting degrees in nfp management, and going out and taking $30,000 a year jobs with horrible hours, no privileges or bennies and digging in the dirt because they've been taught, and understand, that it's the right thing to do.

Couple comments: jayder you've hit the nail on the head regarding re-granting organizations. They are in fact competing with the agencies they purport to help for the same grant dollars. It is however a standard "business model" in philanthropy--this is how community foundations and federated campaigns like United Way operate--and is a problem for small organizations that don't qualify for regranting because of structure, budget size, low profile or simply lack of sophistication. But I'm afraid we can't hang this one on holden00's door.

Regarding sites like Charity Navigator and yes, givewell, I think that their intentions are excellent, but that they need to be, as I said in the original thread, the *second* step. It is the responsibility of the donor to identify first the cause s/he wants to support, and then some likely recipients and THEN start investigating. If your gift is small, I'm sorry, but take that leap of faith and give your $100 or $250 or blessed $15 to someone YOU think is deserving. For multiple zeros, really, call the charity's management and ask to talk to them. Get involved, even if it just means going to the annual benefit. Better yet, make a 5 year commitment to an organization and tell them so. Knowing that we can count on your $1000 or even your $100 is a way to really make a difference with your charitable giving.

What none of these sites can do is judge "effectiveness" because it's just too vague a term. Here is where a business model can be useful. Look for standard business best practices-- do they have an annual report? Do they file 990s in a timely fashion? Do they release 990s in a timely fashion when you call and ask for them (nfps are required to do so--you don't have to be a donor). Do they answer the phones? Do they have a street address? have they been in existence for more than 5 years? Do they have an on-going deficit? Do you know other people who give (i.e. do business with) to them?

Aaggh- I did it again. I do run on. Thanks.
posted by nax at 10:19 AM on January 1, 2008 [7 favorites]


I'm not sure exactly what is accomplished by ad hominem attacks on people who appear to be trying to help out those less fortunate - no matter how misguided, self-serving, or incompetent they are.

Agreed. My perspective is that if you want to make a difference -- whatever your particular angle or approach is -- giving people as few reasons to dismiss you out of hand as possible is a a good first step. Compared to many other Meta threads on similar topics, this one has been pretty civilized, but I think from the outside people are still going to focus on the "fuck off" comments when they want to support their own assumptions and not the "um, there really IS a problem here..." issues that so many have ably stated.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:28 AM on January 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


The one thing you can never buy back is your good reputation. Everyone has control over their greatest asset, their good name. Jessamyn hit the nail on the head in her post above talking about the bigger issue. It is about ethics and tactics. He trashed his own good name.

When I first starting reading this thread last night, I was going to write to leave the guy alone. He is young and made a mistake and tried to apologize and correct it even if the apology was stilted and evasive at best. However, I now feel that as more information has come out about Holden's tactics, he does not deserve a pass here.

Actions speak louder than words. Talk is cheap. What Holden did shows his true character. More so, it is a pattern of actions. It is not one single mistake here at MetaFilter. He has shown a pattern of deception for his own gain. While charity may benefit from this deception if he raises more money, it is like a con artist who agrees to donate half his take to charity. He is still a con artist and deserves to go to jail. Also, I bet the charities that are the recipient of GiveWell's largess would rather forgo the money knowing how it was obtained than be on the receiving end of tainted money. Make no mistake about, this is tainted money.

I don't know that GiveWell can recover from this mess. Holden is a founder and a key employee. The concept is a good one though and maybe it should be restarted under a different name with a different set of owners and employees.

Holden is young. He has led a privileged life in terms of access to opportunity. Ivy League education and a hedge fund employment are opportunities that few get. Sometimes recipients of those opportunities develop a sense of entitlement. This MetaFilter community lashing has certainly brought about a dose of reality. What is the punishment that fits this "crime"? I do not know. I suspect Holden is living the appropriate punishment and that his partners will mete out final justice.

I generally give youth the benefit of the doubt. Everyone deserves a second chance. If Holden can demonstrate true contrition and find a way to show that his actions were and will be limited to this one time period, he too deserves to start fresh.

Good luck, son. Come back and let us know how you are doing in a year or so.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:35 AM on January 1, 2008


There seems to be the impression in the Times piece and in Lucy's post, and perhaps elsewhere, that it is the very fact that these guys are young, arrogant, rule-bending go-getters that will help them succeed with Givewell. I don't buy it, and I think this whole thing disproves it as well.

If you are an asshole for the right reasons you are still an asshole.
posted by dirtdirt at 10:42 AM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


This whole thing makes me sad. Helluva way to start a new year when the last one brought and bought more cynicism.
I too, have worked in non profits and with non profits for years now. And it's true that it can eat you alive, but usually after years of being on the front lines of trying to make effective change. So many of the comments above hit the nail for those of us who have truly tried for whatever cause. You, holden and your board should try that out. Seems like there is a community here that can help set you up. Omiewise should be here.
Until then, your "organization" is insulting.
In all my years of screwing around on the WWW, and watching shit unfold, I really feel like someone from GiveWell should come to my house and apologize to my face.
And maybe then I'll say,"OK".
posted by Heatwole at 10:59 AM on January 1, 2008


What I would like to know is if this will really affect Holden and Givewell, or will this just end up with fellow board members playfully scolding Holden and all things back to normal? At least from the board side of things, it seems like the latter is the more pressing possibility.
posted by Atreides at 11:01 AM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


And yeah, like jessamyn said, I'm not anonymous either. Full name and email in my profile.
posted by Heatwole at 11:03 AM on January 1, 2008


From The Agitator, which looks like it has been covering GiveWell for a month or so:

I Was Master Of The Philanthropy Universe, Until ...

I screwed up bigtime.

This is probably how Holden Karnofsky, prime mover of the Give Well blog is feeling today.

.....

The evidence suggests that HK is an immature, under-informed, smart-ass. There's no excuse for his attempt to generate fake interest in his blog. A lot of folks in the philanthropy world will be grinning at this turn of the screw.
.........
So today I'm deeply disappointed that HK couldn't be content with his considerable fame lately in the mainstream media. He's dug himself a deep credibility hole that will be tough to climb out of. He'll need to work overtime prove his integrity.
......

Thanks to the folks at MetaFilter, we know that, for now, we can't look at HK quite the same way. He's tarnished his reputation, even for those of us who are receptive to his message. One really bad judgement like this -- not just a "lapse," but a deliberate deception -- we might tolerate (some of us, anyway ... see below); but another episode like this and he's toast.

posted by Rumple at 11:09 AM on January 1, 2008


It strikes me that a young, arrogant, rule-bending person would have responded to all this in something like the following:

"I apologize for breaking the rules and for my deceptive posts here. I did not realize how fully developed a community Metafilter was and what I was getting myself into.

My sole intent, like any other young enterpreneur, has been to work hard to get the word out about my company and what we are trying to do. I believe strongly in our goals, our plan, our mission. This strong-headedness has probably led me to push harder than I should have. My intent was not to decieve but to inform.

I hope Miko and others will not let this incident prevent from them taking a good hard look at givewell.net and what we are trying to achieve. In this regard, I welcome your feedback.

Thank you and goodbye Metafilter. Again, I apologize for this transgression. I can honestly say it has given me a broader view of how to balance getting the word out about the company while maintaining honesty and transparency. This experience has been humbling for me."

...and then disappeared. With no blog post apology.

So, no, I dont think Holden has behaved arrogantly. A bit of youth and reckless ambition perhaps but thats not an entirely bad thing if it can be harnessed productively.
posted by vacapinta at 11:10 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


permalink to The Agitator piece, above.
posted by Rumple at 11:13 AM on January 1, 2008


Also from that Agitator piece:

P.S. Most of HK's critics on MetaFilter are anonymous ... and you know how The Agitator feels about anonymity (it sucks)! As is usually case, anonymous critics can get rather vitriolic and righteous. There's no shortage of venom in this MetaFilter outing. And almost no evidence that most of the critics have read any of Give Well's material. Which doesn't stop them from imputing all sorts of sins to HK. Let me be clear ... there's no defense for HK's deceptions. But it's unfortunate that one needs to read through so much bile to get to the facts.
posted by found missing at 11:15 AM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Perhaps perhaps perhaps. But vacapinta, he's not even close to being you.
He's made a concientious effort to deceive, and now making every effort to apologize that he can conceive.
posted by Heatwole at 11:15 AM on January 1, 2008


This was overkill and ugly.
posted by Mid at 11:19 AM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


One really bad judgement like this -- not just a "lapse," but a deliberate deception -- we might tolerate (some of us, anyway ... see below); but another episode like this and he's toast.

He's already done this multiple times, on multiple blogs. "Another episode like this" is well past.

I am surprised our tenacious MeFi Investigative Squad hasn't dug up the dirt on the other board members. They're almost certainly going to prove every bit as hinky as Holden.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:20 AM on January 1, 2008


Holden has been "rampantly self-promoting" from the day I met him, has pissed off old-line philanthropy for this reason as well, and I find it simply odd that it makes folks mad. Maybe they just envy his consistent promotion of GiveWell?

Jesus, lady. If you say "Hi, my name is Holden Karnofsky and I'm the smartest guy Harvard ever graduated! I made a bundle at a hedge fund and I can make a bundle for charities, but first I want to find out which ones are really worth supporting, and I'll bet you do to—so check out my site and you'll be convinced it's the way to go!"—that's "rampantly self-promoting." If you say "My name is Random Guy X and I would like to know about what are good charities!" and then you say "Hi, my name is Random Guy Y and I've got a great site for you! And by the way, these other charity sites SUCK!!"—that's fraud. And if you can't tell the difference, you're as bad as he is. Net result of your clever response to the burgeoning scandal: I have an even worse impression of Givewell. Way to go.
posted by languagehat at 11:21 AM on January 1, 2008 [16 favorites]


Having travelled all day yesterday, I've only now completely caught up.

The astroturfing disturbs me. Good on holden0/00 to come clean, but I really think the people he needs to come clean with is the board.

Most of the invective seems deserved, though I cringe at the anti-Ivy attitude. My wife is an Ivy League grad, but her family was working class Southerners, and she was the only person in her high school graduating class to leave the state for college (and I think less than half even went to college). She earned her way in. Most people who get into Ivies aren't legacies.

As for the 50% overhead, it's right on the border between "poorly managed charity" and "scam," but this is also a brand-new charity. If they were bringing in $3M instead of $300K, $150K would only be a 15% overhead -- a very good number. I worked once upon a time for a highly-regarded, nine-digit NPO/NGO. And yet, they had 36% overhead. (They're now down to 26% thanks to the rise of the Internet.) Being larger doesn't necessarily mean you have a better economy of scale.

If I were a donor, I'd be asking GiveWell three things:
1. What's your plan for increasing donations while keeping overhead at a minimum?

2. What is the ultimate role for GiveWell -- a watchdog/recommender for charitable giving, or a charity? Because you can't do both simultaneously effectively.

3. Are you going to get people with long-term experience running NPOs/NGOs on your board within the next six months?

If I didn't get a positive answer from any of these questions, I wouldn't give again.

I would suggest they get a real PR/marketing person to prevent crap like this from ever happening again, but that board is filled with PR people -- surely they should know better. OTOH, they're PR people -- they probably don't.

I think Jessamyn's comment sums up things perfectly. This Lucy woman's disconnect with the situation here really shows again the inability of many older PR/marketing people to understand the new paradigm -- and the ethics of working within it.

Hey, let's stop bashing rich kids in not for profit. That is pretty much the ONLY TYPE OF KID you find staffing not for profits.

NPOs, like educational institutions, pay squat. Major NPO/NGO heads make $200-300K a year; your average NPO head makes much less than that.

If you're a young Hispanic kid from a working class background, which sounds better to you: Working your tail off academically to major in finance so you can be rewarded with a $100-200-300K investment banker position, or working your tail off academically so you can be rewarded with a $25-35-45K administrator position with a non-profit health clinic? I'm not denigrating altruism in any way. I'm just suggesting that giving equal opportunities, you're more likely to choose the money. After all, you can always donate money.

It is however a standard "business model" in philanthropy--this is how community foundations and federated campaigns like United Way operate

The United Way isn't necessarily bad -- it streamlines giving pretty effectively. Small charities like getting one check instead of having to process 100. The problem, as you say, is with the UW competing with other charities for the same grants. The UW relies on these grants to pad their administrative budget.
posted by dw at 11:22 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


five fresh fish writes "It's bad enough that there are already popular charities that spend more on their own executives than they pass on to the poor and suffering. Take the Red Cross and its outrageous $2 million compensation for its past CEO, for instance. That kind of money could have saved tens of thousands of people from suffering, but the selfish bastard would have none of that."

Hmmm. Seems most of their CEOs in this century have made a six figure income, which is not unusual for the size. He was controversial, but if you look at their financial picture for 2002. Their total income for that year was $3,982,066,000. Even assuming that fiscal year was a banner one because of 9/11, and even if the salary were $2 million, the Red Cross clearly does not "spend more on their own executives than they pass on to the poor and suffering." Obviously, that's far from true - their administrative costs for FY 2001-2002 totaled of 4% of their budget. If you're talking about Mark Everson, yeah, the guy didn't seem suited for the job for many reasons. The Red Cross has problems, but even if their execs are getting paid too much, they're still not even close to taking the lion's share of the money.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:22 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Evidently "The Agitator" defines "anonymous" in a way which is mysterious to me. This may not be the case of everyone but if you google "clevershark" (which, frankly, is the very least that a web-savvy person can do) there are all sorts of references pointing right back to me. Dismissing the criticism here as "anonymous and potentially dishonest" is very crafty and disingenuous of The Agitator, and makes me wonder what's going on there.
posted by clevershark at 11:23 AM on January 1, 2008


Well said, el hat. That board is obviously stacked with well connected folks who are in cahoots, either socially or financially.
posted by Heatwole at 11:26 AM on January 1, 2008


Clearly their expectation is to turn their "charity" website into a seven- or eight-figure cashflow stream, out of which they can take over half of that money. Holden and company are doing this so they can get a half-million-dollar paycheque within the next few years. They see what the Big Charity CEOs get, and they want it.

to spend $150K on program services, $130K on salary, and the remaining $20K on unknown, is not what you're looking for in a charity. That's a 50% administrative cost, astronomical, only 50% on program services.

I'm no defender of astroturfing, sockpuppetry, or anonymously bashing competitors. But I don't understand all the critique of their spending patterns. Every nonprofit spends a lot of their money on staff. They define the staff expenses as "program activities" - because they are; the staff was hired to carry out the projects and activities.

From what I can tell, Givewell is similar. Givewell is a nonprofit that creates and carries out an evaluation methodology for charities. Their research and its public availability seems to me to be a worthwhile thing. Their staff spends a large portion of their time on that activity. (I'm no fan of their empirical outcome bent and on preview, agree with nax on that point, but that's another debate and more of a difference of opinion.)

I looked at the budget linked above, and the breakdown of expenses is something like this --
Grants Themselves: $140,000
Research & Public Info: $77,000
-----
Admin & Overhead: $35,000
Fundraising: $7,000

If you assume the first two are "program activities," then those make up 84% of expenses, while the latter two are 16%. It might be generous to consider the grant money that they pass through as a program expense, I don't know. If you don't include grants themselves, then the program/admin split is 65/35.

Does anyone know, at a small foundation, how their amount granted compares to the salaries for the program officers who review and administer the grants? That would be an interesting comparison. But since they make all the info they gather publicly available, I'd also believe them if they said that wasn't the right comparison. I see them as a nonprofit whose main activity is research. (The irony is that such a nonprofit probably wouldn't meet the "saving lives" outcomes they themselves require to consider a group deserving of their money, but there's that other debate again.) They could even defend the grants being considered a program expense because they are offered so other nonprofits consider it worth their while to send GiveWell all this information.

So, where does the money come from for these various expenses? On the page where they recommend the "winning" charities, donations go directly to those charities (ie, it doesn't look like GiveWell is taking a cut). You can also donate to GiveWell directly. I would feel more comfortable if they put a firewall between the funding for their research activities and the funding for the grants they make, especially in light of other shadiness that raises suspicions. On their "donate to us" page, they say "we have already raised enough money from core donors to cover the cost of our operations over the next year. Your donation will only be used to expand the size of our grants," which is good but makes it sound like happenstance. They could get money for their research activities from foundations or maybe members, so that random "donate now" internet money can go directly to outgoing grants. A firewall like that would help reduce these "just lining their pockets" attacks. But in general, I don't think there has been any evidence for those suggestions.
posted by salvia at 11:30 AM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


I am surprised our tenacious MeFi Investigative Squad hasn't dug up the dirt on the other board members. They're almost certainly going to prove every bit as hinky as Holden.

You have Google, just like all the rest of us do. Go for it.
posted by dw at 11:30 AM on January 1, 2008


And almost no evidence that most of the critics have read any of Give Well's material. Which doesn't stop them from imputing all sorts of sins to HK.

What will tell me more about givewell -- the puff pieces on their own web site, or the scuzzy behavior of their co-founder and the brush-offs from their board members?
posted by maxwelton at 11:33 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Seems like in way of many apologies, that should be an easy thing to explain. In a transparent manner.
posted by Heatwole at 11:34 AM on January 1, 2008


I agree that ad-hominem attacks are unwarranted and unhelpful, and I apologize for implying Lucy Bernholz is a "wanna-be do-gooder".

However, when I looked at Ms. Bernholz's web presence I was not terribly surprised to find that she has also been involved in "pimping" GiveWell.net. In this June 4, 2007 Huffington Post column, she mentions GiveWell.net with no disclosure of any connection to that organization. In the June 22, 2007 board meeting minutes (.doc), Lucy Bernholz is stated to be present as a board member.

It is very possible that Ms. Bernholz was just very quick in accepting a seat on the board of GiveWell. However, taking a seat on the board of managers of a new organization with less than 2 weeks of research seems to lack the due diligence I'd normally expect of responsible and serious professionals. Such recklessness is not the best characteristic for a philanthropical consultant.

It is also possible Ms. Bernholz was considering the offer of a seat on the board, and decided that this was unworthy of disclosure. Or that Huffington Post considered it unworthy of disclosure.

But it also seems within the realm of possibilities that self-serving promotion and non-disclosure is business-as-usual for the brain-trust at GiveWell.net.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 11:37 AM on January 1, 2008


it's unfortunate that one needs to read through so much bile to get to the facts.

Yeah, well, it's unfortunate that folks like Holden have been making the Web a shittier place for years. Bile is always bitter, sure, but it's a *very* understandable reaction to what Holden did, and, I'd add, a necessary one.

And the "But other folks won't apologize now!" argument is very weak. The *only* time this kind of person apologizes is when they get caught and recognize they now have a PR problem. No reduction in bile is ever going to change that.
posted by mediareport at 11:43 AM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


This thread manages to be both the best and the worst of the web.
posted by every_one_needs_a_hug_sometimes at 11:47 AM on January 1, 2008 [7 favorites]


vacapinta writes "So, no, I dont think Holden has behaved arrogantly. A bit of youth and reckless ambition perhaps but thats not an entirely bad thing if it can be harnessed productively."

If you look more at his activities, this is less like a fluke than a pattern. It speaks poorly to his self-appointed role in this endeavor.

You know, if I were going to hire someone as a tech where I work, those qualities might even be desirable. Not so much as a founder and executive of a charity foundation/aggregator. I sincerely believe he needs to ... how do I put this respectfully? ... grow up a bit before taking on this sort of role. Life experience and especially direct experience working for charities and non-profits would serve him very well. He talks about humility and transparency on the blog, but it's so hypocritical to throw that out there and then behave like this. If people cannot trust the founders of such an organization, how can they trust the org? Without trust, what does the organization have? They don't have to be saints, but they do have to act like mature adults and approach their jobs seriously and with respect to others working in the field, otherwise they will have problems.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:55 AM on January 1, 2008


So I thought I'd try using that Google mechanism and discovered this neat link. So we probably have seen Holden's comments at this Boing Boing thread, where he dismissed Heifer International and Charity Navigator. Going further down, the other member of the team, Elie Hassenfeld throws out a one sentence comment with a link concerning Heifer International that leads to a blog entry at Beyond Philanthropy, discussing an article at Financial Times written by Tim Ogden, board director for Givewell, and Chief Editor at Beyond Philanthropy.

Its not clear who authored the blog entry, and while the original article did not name Heifer International specifically, the blog entry does. The question then is was Ogden aware that Holden and Elie were posting on the boingboing thread or not, in ways to demean Heifer International, directing individuals to his own publication's negative treatment of the charity?
posted by Atreides at 12:06 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


The worst thing about this episode for Givewell, is that it will destroy any chance of good will through word of mouth that they can get for some time. Whenever anyone familiar with this incident sees Givewell discussed elsewhere, this incident will be brought up, and any positive comments will be cast into doubt.
posted by grouse at 12:08 PM on January 1, 2008


Net result of your [Lucy Bernholz's] clever response to the burgeoning scandal: I have an even worse impression of Givewell. Way to go.

Seriously. Admitting to not having more than the vaguest clue about what happened and yet getting your snark on in a quick off-the-cuff, very much on-the-record, statement is a really poor way for a board member to handle a PR implosion.

Instead of saying "I don't know what's going on, but [minimization of problem], [aspersions cast on critics] and [flag-wrapping generalities]", you should have left it at "I don't know what's going on. Will look into it and get back to you." That would've been... what's that buzzword again?... Oh, yea. Professional.
posted by CKmtl at 12:11 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Elie strikes again in two comments at the Wall Street Journal's The Wealth Report, suggesting the use of Givewell.net along the same lines as Holden, but without vitriol. As for identification of who he is, at best its obscure, at worse, not at all.
posted by Atreides at 12:19 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Elie pulls an AskMeta at Marginal Revolution blog in a thread with recommendations as "Best of" the year sort of deal." He brings up the question, "Best charity?" when the subject hadn't been discussed, and after several charity recommendations, Elie then name drops (with address) Givewell.net.


It would appear that this was a concerted campaign between both Holden and Elie.
posted by Atreides at 12:27 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


These sort of "scandals" (someone other than us would have to care for it to be a genuine scandal) always make me wonder what the purpose of a board of directors is. Is it to be yes men, to "be the back" of the CEO and immediately swoop in with defenses and excuses when the management fucks up? Or is it to look after the best interests of the company itself and provide, oh, some governance and guidance?

In well-run organizations, it's hopefully more of the latter. In poorly run organizations, more of the former.

It's also interesting that organizations like this are more than happy to use the web to bring in money and generate publicity, but when it comes to accountability are more than happy to dismiss the web as "LOL losers amirite?"
posted by maxwelton at 12:29 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Who's going to be left Holden the bag?
posted by chlorus at 12:35 PM on January 1, 2008


Elie attacks Charity Navigator on the Buzz Builder blog, while suggesting Givewell as the alternative.
posted by Atreides at 12:35 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Reading through all this I can't see a reason to spare givewell even an inch around this.

Spamming and lying and ivy-league bashing (what the hell is that about?) aside, they're basing their PR on the supposed brilliance of a man who

a) *claims* to be stunningly ignorant ("astroturfing" in quotes? Give me a break)

and

b) As ikkyu2 points out, truly *does* lack the sophistication of an 11 year old when it comes to the internet.

So it is this man's judgment that will be evaluating whether charities are valuable or not?

I honestly do not need to know any more about the situation. There are plenty of good charities and charity aggregators out there, and it's easy enough to find one without this liability.

In short, I'll be flagging givewell and moving on.
posted by tkolar at 12:40 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


I dropped a comment on the boingboing entry. Still waiting for my comment on Lucy's blog to be approved.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:41 PM on January 1, 2008


Yeesh. Transparency, according to Elie:

To the people recommending best charity - any particular source or reasoning for these picks, like along the lines of a www.givewell.net ?

Clicking his first name usually redirects you to GiveWell's site, but the use of just his first name and the lack of an upfront acknowledgment that he's tied to GiveWell (except for that "we" in the first WSJ comment) is not quite the "we have used our own names" Holden claimed it was. Not if you're a big believer in transparency, anyway.
posted by mediareport at 12:45 PM on January 1, 2008


You know, the more I think about Lucy Bernholz's response, the more my anger displaces from Holden (and young go-getters like him) to her (and hardened flacks like her). The fool in the trenches, dashing ahead and shooting at anything that moves while hollering gung-ho slogans learned from the movies, is bad, but at least he might learn something new; the generals sending fools like him out to do their dirty work are never going to learn anything, and their response to criticism is cynical denial, cynical coverup, or cynical pseudoapology if the first two fail. I doubt Holden is going to take a serious fall for this, and I'm not even sure I want him to—someone else will step right in to take his place, and the world will not be improved. What I want is for the entire PR industry to suffer a scandal so overwhelming, so repugnant to even the laziest TV-sucking goofball, that it will implode and people will start putting a premium on honesty rather than glitz. I know, I know, ain't gonna happen, but a man can dream.
posted by languagehat at 12:47 PM on January 1, 2008 [7 favorites]


The Red Cross has problems, but even if their execs are getting paid too much, they're still not even close to taking the lion's share of the money.

My apologies: I did not mean to imply RC spends most of its money on its administration's salaries.

I am disgusted that the (past) Red Cross CEO, after being caught with his dick in an employee, gets a golden parachute. Countless volunteers are what it takes to make that organization run, and does he do anything honourable to respect that? No, he takes his millions and runs, pretty much avoiding any real consequence for his misdeeds.

Grrr.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:48 PM on January 1, 2008


dw-- I think you and I agree. I guess I sounded like I was complaining about poor kids going for the money-- I think that's perfectly appropriate; rich kids can go into the helping fields because they have the luxury to do so. In general I try not to judge people's personal choices in this way. So my fault for poorly expressing myself. As far as federated and community campaigns; again I have no complaint with the model, just that it's a reality that small organizations compete for funding with these entities. No judgment, just a statement of fact.

salvia I had the same reaction to their financials. $70K is a nice healthy salary and I could get my self-righteous "you should be starving for your cause" juices flowing over it, but neither their financials nor their website sent up any red flags for me. They seem to have a lot of very well paid staff for such a small, young organization, but not suspiciously so. They seem awfully arrogant in their language and approach for such a young organization, but again, I can be pretty damn arrogant and self righteous myself.

My entire beef here is that I feel like an utter idiot for taking holden0's question at face value, and giving it a serious answer, and if he was even reading the responses he was taking us all for fools. And, he's dealt a real blow to nfps inasmuch as people are already suspicious of the industry (hence his own site for god's sake), and now he's just demonstrating the worst ethics that people fear.
posted by nax at 12:48 PM on January 1, 2008


It will be interesting to see what ramifications this tempest has outside of our little teacup.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:50 PM on January 1, 2008


As for Givewell, the more I read about its directors, the more convinced I am that it is entirely a get-rich-quick scheme. Charitable, my ass.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:52 PM on January 1, 2008


Another Holden, possibly even more famous.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:54 PM on January 1, 2008


They should just buy giveup.net and move on to the next scheme.
posted by Heatwole at 12:56 PM on January 1, 2008


It will be interesting to see what ramifications this tempest has outside of our little teacup.

I keep thinking this too. I can't see how it wouldn't, but when I try to think through the machinations of how it might, it doesn't seem like it will add up to much, which is a real shame.

I am impressed, however, with most of you. There's money to be made here somehow, you guys are a really bang-up research service. The MeFiBI, perhaps. 60 MeFinutes.
posted by nevercalm at 1:00 PM on January 1, 2008


Hey! We're #6 when you Google GiveWell. That's pretty neat.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 1:02 PM on January 1, 2008


Hey! We're #6 when you Google GiveWell. That's pretty neat.

Really? I don't see it. Last time I googled Givewell, this thread was #3, but now it doesn't show up at all. Can someone with more google knowledge than I have please explain how this happens?
posted by found missing at 1:09 PM on January 1, 2008


Another Holden, possibly even more famous.

aptness abounds:

Pencey was full of crooks. Quite a few guys came from these wealthy families, but it was full of crooks anyway. The more expensive a school is, the more crooks it has - I'm not kidding.
-
People never believe you.
-
People always clap for the wrong things.
-
Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.
-
People never give your message to anybody.


And, who names their kid "Holden" after the Catcher in the Rye became standard reading for teenager?
posted by Rumple at 1:13 PM on January 1, 2008


Love the Alex Reynolds reference at the blog.
posted by juiceCake at 1:53 PM on January 1, 2008


Why isn't this in the sidebar? Seems like the kind of thread most MeFi readers would like to know about.
posted by klue at 1:54 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


I wonder if the Australian GiveWell will try sue them? They must do some business in the U.S.
posted by delmoi at 1:54 PM on January 1, 2008


From Atreides first link, the article title is: "Why the Rich Are Losing Trust in Charities".

Maybe Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds can help us clear the air some more.
posted by Duncan at 1:55 PM on January 1, 2008


I really want to stop here and underscore dw's comment, with some regard to salvia's comment. There are many more hard questions to ask here.

I think many people are focusing on Holden's misrepresentation of himself, which I do deplore. It's a completely unethical tactic. In the world of business, I understand that this sort of thing may be casually brushed off as all's-fair-in-love-and-war, but remember that the independent/NPO sector is different. It is expected to meet a more stringent set of standards, because it consists of public trusts. In other words - they are using your money; your tax-free donations, your tax dollars themselves, and your tax dollars as delivered through state and federal granting agencies. Abuses of public funds are more serious, and more impactful, than abuses of private funds. U.S. taxpayers are, in a very real sense, paying for Holden's time when he posts and sends mail under false identities.

But completely apart from the issue of promotional tactics and ethics, some people seem to be saying that this charity looks perfectly all right. It doesn't to me. It's worthy of critical examination. dw's questions about the organization's strategic plan (where is it, by the way?) are very important. What GiveWell calls "challenging old-line philanthropy" to me looks very much like a pleasant gloss on creating a new 'philanthropic' model which attempts to justify extremely high administrative costs (salaries) based on the value of the research service provided. The question is: how valuable is this research, really?

Much of the GiveWell rhetoric focuses on the point that they believe percent of donated funds spent on program activities is a false measure of effectiveness. There is some truth to that, and yet, it is the single thing which donors care most about. The standard in the field is to look very carefully at organizations whose administrative costs amount to more than 20% of the budget. There are many exceptions to that rule of thumb - some charities, by the very nature of their work, have a higher administrative burden, and as a NPO employee I certainly believe that salaries should be set at at level that is an attractive living wage, if not competitive with similar private-sector jobs. But this group is boldly asserting that their more-than-double industry-standard high administrative cost will be worth it, because the 50 cents on your dollar that they ultimately donate will be to a charity with demonstrated effectiveness, as determined by them, people without expertise in the fields they are donating to. Were I a major donor, I'm not sure I'd buy that argument.

First of all, it's quite easy for you as a donor to determine effectiveness yourself through your interactions with the charities you support. The information is readily available directly from the public organizations. Complete information may not indeed available directly through Charity Navigator or GuideStar, but they are under no obligation to share their research. I also agree that a 990 is not a sufficient means of determining efficacy, but it is definitely a sufficient means of identifying red flags, determining the salaries of the most highly paid staffers, and comparing program services to administrative costs. Charity Navigator itself states that it does not consider the information it provides sufficient to call a charity "effective" and makes it clear that further efforts are needed to determine efficacy. In addition, as a result of Sarbaines-Oxley, 990 reporting will be changing in the next year to make the forms far more detailed and informative. One 990 I will find interesting to read in the new form will be GiveWell's.

As others have pointed out, the efficacy question is a serious one. Most NPOs are already reporting their efficacy all over the place. You don't do it in so many words on your 990, no; but you do do it in your annual report, in your reports to your trustees, in reports to federal, state, and private grantmakers, and often to the media. It's not as though charities are generally obfuscating or that no one is holding them accountable. The reports I have to make twice a year to IMLS and HUD, for instance, are quite thorough and specific. It does take time to administrate these grants - a very large amount of time. In fact, federal grants ask you to calculate the time spent writing grant reports and engaging in correspondence, budgeting, and other additional work which the grant brings with it, and include that in the project costs, which are funded. Getting grant money costs money - money which then goes to salaries and materials rather than directly to service.

GiveWell is creating yet another new entity for organizations to be accountable to. They are asking for evaluative activities and administrative time without, apparently, paying for it. Let me be clear that in the world of NPOs, $25-$40000 grants are rather small. Administrative costs or the development and delivery of a detailed program evaluation could eat 10-25% of that amount easily.

I would very much like to see a sample GiveWell questionnaire to grantees, but can't find one on their site. If they require anything like the number of hours it takes to service a federal grant, they may be significantly reducing the amount of aid they provide to the grantee organizations. Grantee organizations, I suppose, can determine whether it's worth the time for the amount in real dollars they will be able to apply to service.

So basically, I am just not sure they are really contributing anything meaningful to the donation marketplace, or doing anything other than diverting dollars which could otherwise go through any number of responsible, effective organizations as determined by you, the donor, to their own pockets in the form of salary. Cloaking that in language about a 'new form of philanthropy' does not convince me that it is at all worthwhile or even honorable. They should be carefully watched, and time will tell whether they are indeed creating a more effective, accountable environment for charities, or adding another layer of red tape to the process of seeking needed funds while lining the pockets and padding the resumes of its staff and board.

Charitable organizations are granted 501(c)3 status by the government in the expectation that they will provide a useful service not currently provided adequately by the government. They are exempt from paying income taxes on revenue taken in. They are also exempt in most states from paying sales taxes, and are able to solicit tax-deductible donations, The status entitles organizations to apply for grants restricted to charitable organizations. The permission that we, as the public, have given them to do this is important to me.

People might find interesting that The Independent Sector has formulated and put forward a model universal code of ethics for nonprofits.
posted by Miko at 1:58 PM on January 1, 2008 [44 favorites]


Right in front of my eyes. In the same comment thread at the Wall Street Journal's The Wealth Report, Tim Ogden is the very first commenter, posting to direct readers to his BeyondPhilanthropy site.

Here, Ogden responds to a blog, but does identify himself and his site.

And here, he puts his website into his signature.

It makes me wonder if the Holden and Elie learned this advertising strategy from Ogden, but while Ogden for the most part remained transparent, his young associates failed to fully comprehend how to correctly imitate.
posted by Atreides at 2:04 PM on January 1, 2008


Spot-on, Miko (as usual), and beautifully written (ditto). I wonder if there would be any chance that you could adapt it to submit to the NY Times for publication? Or any of the other MSM outlets that previously featured Givewell?
posted by scody at 2:09 PM on January 1, 2008


At a minimum, Holden has engaged in a great deal of behavior that can simply be called out as being stupid. Stupid as in lying, stupid as in a cheap representation of his alma mata, stupid as in 'this guy is one of the #'s 1-10 in Givewell?', and stupid as in he has engaged in this type of behavior in the past before stupid.

And of course, this is just supposed to be humanity being human, and life should roll on as usual. Uh, no. He should be given a prompt boot, at least from being a named and recognized Givewell CEO. Seriously, if Givewell is so pure and transparent; why is a person like Holden still there? Does the Givewell community have to wait for this type of behavior to happen a 6th or 7th time?

I do not give hugs to bad people.
posted by buzzman at 2:13 PM on January 1, 2008


This thread is the greatest ever. I have two things to add.

#1: I haven't used the "I got no sleep" excuse for bad behavior since daycare.
#2: Charity starts at home. If you're worried about transparency, give locally so you can actually be there when your donation transubstantiates into benefits for those less fortunate.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:16 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


miko, it sounds like you're sticking by your 50% calculation. ("more-than-double industry-standard high administrative cost") Will you please explain why? To come out with that percentage, you have to count their salaries as admin expenses. I think most nonprofits count some portion of salaries as program expenses (the portion of that staff member's time spent on program activities, which is also how Givewell appears to do it).
posted by salvia at 2:16 PM on January 1, 2008


How did this thread get wiped from google results? Where are you nerdoyens when I need you??
posted by found missing at 2:20 PM on January 1, 2008


How did this thread get wiped from google results? Where are you nerdoyens when I need you??

Showing as number seven here *shrug*. Fresh results are often unstable, it'll likely jump around for a while before it sticks.
posted by shelleycat at 2:24 PM on January 1, 2008


salvia, salaries should always be a separate line item. program expenses are direct cost.
posted by Heatwole at 2:24 PM on January 1, 2008


dw-- I think you and I agree.

Yeah, I think we do too, nax. And I wasn't impugning your comment, rather expanding on it. So no need to apologize.
posted by dw at 2:24 PM on January 1, 2008


Showing as number seven here *shrug*.

Sorry to obsess, but I don't see it. I see blogs linking to this thread in the search results, but the thread itself no longer appears as a result itself (it did before. it was as high as #3).
posted by found missing at 2:28 PM on January 1, 2008


I see it as #6.

Googlebombers: to your stations

posted by Rumple at 2:31 PM on January 1, 2008


Seventh google result right now, no?
posted by AwkwardPause at 2:31 PM on January 1, 2008


Holy crap. It's back. I'm losing my mind.
posted by found missing at 2:32 PM on January 1, 2008


salvia, salaries should always be a separate line item. program expenses are direct cost.

No, I don't mean as a line item. I mean as a column or worksheet -- a category -- within which there are outgoing program expenses (what you refer to) and also salaries to do that program work.

I seriously don't think any nonprofit would have <20% admin expenses if every single salary in the place was considered "admin." (The receptionist's would be, yes, but not the 100% of the biologist's or the caseworker's or whatever specialist they're employing.)
posted by salvia at 2:34 PM on January 1, 2008


salvia: I won't presume to speak for Miko, but my personal take is this: Givewell doesn't actually deliver any programs. They don't do anything that directly helps any of the intended recipients of the programs they claim to evaluate. You could argue that Givewell is a charity that people donate to in order to fund their research, i.e. that their research is their program. I'd agree that Givewell would be operating like that, if they solicited donations for their research specifically. Unfortunately, they aren't doing that: they are soliciting donations to e.g. fight global poverty and then they are using 50% of that money for their admin and research costs.

Right now, on the Givewell site, they claim that all donations "over the next year" will go directly to grants because they have received enough to cover operating costs, but there is nothing to indicate whether this will be true in the future. We also don't know if the people who donated previously knew they were paying 50% for admin and research costs and 50% for actual grants.
posted by ssg at 2:37 PM on January 1, 2008


I blame sleep deprivation. :p
posted by found missing at 2:37 PM on January 1, 2008


Salvia, what usually happens is that salaries are broken out as "direct costs" and "indirect costs." Direct costs are time spent delivering the service the charity exists to perform - in GiveWell's case, research and grantmaking. Indirect costs are all other activities - PR, marketing, promotion, recordkeeping, planning. So in order to arrive at a more precise estimation, I'd have to see the breakdown of the two staff members' time so that I can understand how much time was actually spent doing the research (in this case, developing a questionnaire - I would wager that filling out the questionnaire takes a lot longer than developing it) and administering grants vs. how much was spent building the website, blogging, and writing press releases.

I agree that high indirect costs can be reasonable at times, but unless we had a time budget or unless they listed direct vs. indirect costs on the website, I can't know how the division breaks down. I do, however, know that 20% of overall costs on non-direct administration is generally a good benchmark, and if an organization has more than 20% going out in salary unrelated to program, you should ask why their activities require so much administration. Many grants even specify that no more than 20% of grant funds can be used toward indirect costs. This is to ward off skimming money from the trust. This article from Foundation explains cost breakdowns well and also discusses indirect costs usefully. As dw says, GiveWell could have out-of-balance salaries because, as a startup, it has higher development costs. So the need to see a three- or five-year plan for them is huge. How will their salary structure evolve as their total budget increases?
posted by Miko at 2:39 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Also, for the record, I'm not anonymous. ;)
posted by Miko at 2:40 PM on January 1, 2008


Well, boys & girls, I reckon this is it - nuclear combat toe to toe with the WellGives. Now look, boys & girls, I ain't much of a hand at makin' speeches, but I got a pretty fair idea that something doggone important is goin' on here. And I got a fair idea the kinda personal emotions that some of you fellas may be thinkin'. Heck, I reckon you wouldn't even be human bein's if you didn't have some pretty strong personal feelin's about WellGives. I want you to remember one thing, the folks back home is a-countin' on you and by golly, we ain't about to let 'em down. I tell you something else, if this thing turns out to be half as important as I figure it just might be, I'd say that you're all in line for some important promotions and personal citations when this thing's over with. That goes for ever' last one of you regardless of your race, color or your creed. Now let's get this thing on the hump - we got some flyin' to do.
posted by Heatwole at 2:50 PM on January 1, 2008


It is also interesting to note that, for Givewell to have any direct positive impact on the problems they claim to help (e.g. global poverty), Givewell's selected charity would have to be twice as effective as comparable charities that someone could just donate to directly without doing any more research than they did to select Givewell. That's a high standard to meet and I'd want to see some pretty clear data that Givewell does this (and I don't see that on their website).
posted by ssg at 2:52 PM on January 1, 2008


To continue with my current obsession, "Givewell" shows this thread on the first google page as noted above. However, searching "Give well" does not show this thread at all, even though givewell.net is the first two hits.
posted by found missing at 2:52 PM on January 1, 2008


Holy crap. It's back. I'm losing my mind.

Google has more then one search server, and they get updated at different times. Old things will be stable, but new things will jump around from query to query.
posted by delmoi at 2:54 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Miko, what about the budget on this page? Check out the second tab, where they break out salaries into the following three categories: Research & Public Information, Admin, and Fundraising. That's how I got the numbers in my comment above, which support either an 85/15 or 65/35 split between program/admin. There's no supporting time log, but presumably the salary split is based on some assumptions about how they spend their time.

I just think we should be as fair as possible, so the parts that are sleazy can really stand out.

(fwiw, I work at a nonprofit and manage one department's budget, though I'm still fairly new to nonprofit management-type stuff.)
posted by salvia at 2:58 PM on January 1, 2008


It is also interesting to note that, for Givewell to have any direct positive impact on the problems they claim to help (e.g. global poverty), Givewell's selected charity would have to be twice as effective as comparable charities that someone could just donate to directly without doing any more research than they did to select Givewell.

This occured to me as well. When you think about it, the entire Givewell org is 100% admin costs tacked onto whatever charity they pass money along to, if I understand correctly.
posted by Bookhouse at 3:04 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


For the record: now that I actually have spent a little time on the GiveWell site, the GiveWell blog, and I've taken a careful look at the replies by Lucy and Tim of the GiveWell board; I'm not impressed at all.

"Sleep deprivation"? "Everything that is true of me is something that has been untrue of me in a moment of weakness, and that includes the value of honesty, which remains the most important one"?

Come now. We are adults, Holden, and there is the disposition of millions of charitable dollars at stake here, dollars that have the potential to save many thousands of human lives, avert countless tragedies and human suffering. I agree with everyone above: this is no kind of way to run a railroad, nor a 501(c).

If a person is still trying to learn what honesty and sleep deprivation mean in life, that person needs to find an entry-level job, not the job with the great responsibility that Holden Karnofsky currently has.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:05 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


What GiveWell calls "challenging old-line philanthropy" to me looks very much like a pleasant gloss on creating a new 'philanthropic' model which attempts to justify extremely high administrative costs (salaries) based on the value of the research service provided. The question is: how valuable is this research, really?

I read that, and the first thing that came into my mind was one of those newsletters that trumpets their ability to pick winners. If you spend $100 a year on this newsletter, you can always know which stocks to buy that will provide the best returns. (And in a sense, this astroturfing is vaguely reminiscent of those penny stock spams I get every day in my inbox.)

But anyone can do their research themselves. Why should they contribute money to an organization that will apparently do that work for you -- and at the same time skim off as much as 50 cents of your dollar off for "expenses" and also apparently require significant regulatory hoops for the organization to keep up with that, as Miko says, will require overhead to maintain?

Since my organization lives and dies on grant money, I'm sensitive to something we call "indirect costs" -- the expenses required to make sure the research goes on unfettered by things like electrical bills, lab space, or grant management. Right now NIH is giving about 50% indirect costs to us, so for every research dollar paid to a prof or a center, we get 50 cents to keep them in heat and light. One of the problems we've found with private foundations is that they don't understand these expenses. Granted, the org I'm with has built itself almost entirely on indirects and not enough on other ways to keep the org running, but we recently had a bit of a roux with a private group because they believe that 10 percent indirect costs would be completely reasonable to manage their mounds of paperwork on top of paying the rent on the research project's lab.

And as I see it, GiveWell is giving ZERO percent indirects. The money is expected to help the people it's supposed to help, but the operating costs would have to come from elsewhere, and managing that pile of paper will have to come out of some other donor's pocket.

In the general NPO/NGO world, that won't fly. If people don't like that model to give to, well, there's Kiva, which is well-regarded and successful.

But I read all this stuff and think what GiveWell is trying to do is what hedge fund people are trying to do -- game the system. They think they can outresearch you. And maybe they can. But at the same time there's the United Way, which does virtually the same thing, only with less paperwork and less overhead.

But at the same time, why do I need their "charity investment" advice? There's Google. There are annual financial reports online for every 501(c)(3) in the US. For evangelical Christian organizations, there's the ECFA.

What GiveWell is trying to do is be Morningstar and Long-Term Capital Management at the same time. There's a reason Morningstar doesn't do investments.

(PS: Not anonymous.)
posted by dw at 3:07 PM on January 1, 2008


Now let's get this thing on the hump - we got some flyin' to do.

Yay, Heatwole is going to ride the Googlebomb!

Miko, care to give us a rendition of "We'll Meet Again?"
posted by dw at 3:09 PM on January 1, 2008


If we want this to show up in the Google results for "give well" as well as "GiveWell", then we need to be using the words give well a few times in our comments. So Give Well, or just give, well, because something's gotta give. well.

(Please please please, let's replace "This will wendell" with "This will GiveWell"...)
posted by wendell at 3:15 PM on January 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


My take on it is they do give money through the 'Clear Fund' (are they Scientologists as well?, which is a separate entity from Givewell per se, but, a condition of their grants is that the recipients adhere to a rigorous reporting protocol including givewell's effectiveness metrics (in addition to any other reporting the charity has to report to which, considering the small amount of mney givewell gives, would include many other funding sources and government requirements). givewell then publishes these charity's detailed reports on their website, and their long-term goal is to set up a database of major charities who have reported back according to givewell's standard.

If this is correct, then the small grants are basically a trojan horse by which givewell extracts data on each charity - grants as a cost of doing business in the self-identified philanthropist watch-dog market niche.

In reference to the budgets being discussed, it would be important to consider whatever distinctions are made between givewell and the clear fund as possible accounting loopholes. Their mantra that lots of overhead is a good thing is thereby suspicious.

In a word: they're the Haliburton of the charity business.
posted by Rumple at 3:21 PM on January 1, 2008


You know what's hilarious? Holden could have plugged his site here in a way that it wouldn't be immediately dismissed. That was the big problem that drove him to astroturf us, right? So it's not really like he was trying to find his way around a vexing problem and just made a bad choice. He was making a concerted effort to deceive anyone who read that thread into thinking regular ol' Mom and Pop Americans were singing the praises of his little project. Not only that, but he was monumentally bad at it.

Holden, what is wrong with GiveWell's set up that you can't be above board when plugging it? It sounds like there is something fundamentally wrong with your project that you feel a need to compensate for by fabricating positive word-of-mouth. I dunno, I can't really give you the benefit of the doubt because when you had the opportunity to give this whole community the same thing you decided to trick us because you thought we were stupid enough to fall for it. Good job dude.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 3:21 PM on January 1, 2008 [5 favorites]


I agree with the spirit of what you're saying, completely, salvia, but I checked out the budget yesterday, and the thing I'd be wary of is consolidating "research and public information" and how they have classified expenditures.

The budget sheets are projections, not actuals. In the "Conceptual Expenses," they classify "Envelopes, label printing, letter printing," "postage," and "address labels" as "Research." These expenses should not actually be included in direct costs. They are certainly not research; they are indirect costs.

10 grand of the "Research and Public Info" line was projected for the website, which is not a direct program activity though they also have it classified as one. In the operating budget, $7500 of the web development is classifed as "Research and Public Information," while $2500 is charged to the Fundraising account. There should not be this difference between the two detailed budgets, because GiveWell is saying that the Conceptual and Operating budgets are only different breakdowns, not projected vs. actual. If that is not the case, it should be more clearly stated on the site.

In general, budgets are useful, but they are more useful with a narrative. Annual budgets should always include a narrative. Annotations would also be very, very helpful in order to make the Clear Fund clearer. Why was the trip to Africa cancelled, as Jessamyn rightly asks? Annotations could provide specifics about each activity.

I also find it kind of weird that there's nothing in here about site visits to the charities or meetings with their management. You would expect mileage reimbursements at the very least. Is this all, completely, done on paper? What verification or evidence is there that the charities' self-reporting is accurate? If none, then this really isn't a superior service to what the feds do.

(I also love that the bulk of the "research" line has so far consisted of using GuideStar to identify potential charities. GuideStar operates in a very similar fashion to Charity Navigator, causing me to wonder why they haven't undergone the bludgeoning from GiveWell that Navigator has. If these organizations' reports are so inadequate, it's interesting that they form the basis for GiveWell's identification of candidates.)

And, to support fourcheesemac's suspicions of a year-end push to make budget, it looks like they were $19,800 short of their projected $300K revenue as of the end of Nov.

I agree that there's no Red-Cross-bilking smoking gun here, nothing truly alarming and small dollars all around, but thinking like a donor, my evaluation of this group would be:

a) they are new, small, inexperienced, and unfocused
b) their administrative costs are much too high because they are straddling the line between being a research organization and a grantmaking foundation,
c) their classification of "research" activities is too general, and
d) the impact of dollars donated through their service is too dilute.

None of that's illegal, though. I guess I am just wanting to point out that even if the organization's worst crime is hiring a bad CEO and the rest is aboveboard, it's still not a project I'd give a high evaluation to.
posted by Miko at 3:30 PM on January 1, 2008 [7 favorites]



But I read all this stuff and think what GiveWell is trying to do is what hedge fund people are trying to do -- game the system.


dw: in the link in the comment above, holden explicitly refers to givewell as a hedgefund for charities.

These guys were hedge-fund kiddies. To the man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.

And the world gets nailed. he'd hit that
posted by Rumple at 3:33 PM on January 1, 2008


Oh who HASN'T been to the Mug & Muffin really....?
posted by jessamyn at 8:45 AM on January 1


Anyone who first came to Cambridge after about 1986, Jess . . . you date yourself as (maybe) nearly as old as me! But of course I am also a native Cantabridgian.

Those of you saying this is overkill are wrong. We've outed a bunch of slimy self promoters who are *clearly* in it for themselves and not for "philanthropy," but who have garnered a huge amount of great press and goodwill by pretending otherwise, in preparation to take MONEY from naive people who think they are philanthropists. That is the clear implication of the facts here.

As for the Ivy bashing stuff, again I say that I a) went to Harvard and b) teach at another Ivy now. I for one am certainly not Ivy bashing except from very direct personal knowledge of the culture of privilege (and exemption from accountability) I have seen almost ALL of my adult life among the sorts of Ivy League boys who go on to hedge fund gigs, which BY NO MEANS comprises all students at places like Harvard. Or even all rich kids at hedge funds. Holden, however, reminds me of a hundred others I have known or taught personally, easily. And we're exempting Ellie here at our own risk -- clearly GiveWell is hoping to spare one of their two wiz kids the treatment, but to me it is very obvious that both kids and the entire board of GiveWell -- you hear me Lucy and Tim? -- are involved in the same dishonest charade here. Every one of them exudes, once you look into their public records, self-promoting sliminess. There, I said it.

I don't smell philanthropy here. I smell a con.

GiveWell.org has nothing to do with helping other people except incidentally. Anyone who has been paying attention here and knows the first thing about the world Miko describes so beautifully can see that. They are a bogus operation, in my opinion. Not sure yet what the scam is, but it's a scam for sure.

And it's disgusting. We're doing a good thing here. Not beating up on some poor little kid. And Tim and Lucy will eventually learn what any serious professional in the corporate world should already know, which is that you don't fight true charges with bullshit countercharges and bluster. You admit the mistake, fire or otherwise impose consequences on the perpetrators, and clean house publicly and immediately. Every hour they wait, this will get worse for them, and all they can do is howl and protest and pretend it's trivial. They have been absolutely awful at damage control here, just as they were absolutely awful at controlling Holden's "PR" efforts. Like I said above, they have thrown away a FORTUNE in goodwill with this episode, even if they retain some of it from people who think all Holden did was break the rules on Metafilter, which is by no means all he did.

Miko, your long post above, like all the others you've posted, was amazing. I've learned a great deal from reading your posts and I'd love to see you lead an effort to develop some official Metafilter charities or something. I'd give, for sure, with complete trust I was dealing with a professional if you were involved.

Jessamyn and Cortex also do this community proud again, as always. Wow.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:34 PM on January 1, 2008 [15 favorites]


[sighs, puts money back under mattress]
posted by JanetLand at 3:34 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


If this is correct, then the small grants are basically a trojan horse by which givewell extracts data on each charity - grants as a cost of doing business in the self-identified philanthropist watch-dog market niche.

This by itself is actually kind of an interesting idea, and I'm not sure I see a problem with it in theory. The thing is, for something like that to work, it would require credibility, transparency, independence, and integrity. And, well, you see how they handled that.
posted by almostmanda at 3:40 PM on January 1, 2008


Google's algorithm is believed to discount fast meteoric rises in inbound links, assuming that someone is gaming the sytem.

Also, your own personal search history can come into play in the results. They try to customize them based on your past searches (that's why all my results are porn).
posted by Mick at 3:40 PM on January 1, 2008


wendell writes "(Please please please, let's replace 'This will wendell' with 'This will GiveWell'...)"

No, no, no. You're just trying to pass that off on someone else. It's not very eponysterical.

Anyway, GiveWell should become its own word now. Like, when you're describing an organization founded in the spirit of business designed to compete with altruistic enterprises in order to grab a piece of the pie, such as privatization efforts, and especially when there is a high degree of jackassery exhibited by people involved in it. Accuweather, in their failed bid to compete with the NWS, can be accused of GiveWellery, or something like that. You could say about them, hey, those Accuweather guys really pulled a GiveWell, didn't they? Interestingly enough, the bill was introduced by Santorum, whose activities managed to earn him his own word.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:40 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Is that GiveWell on the sheets?
posted by found missing at 3:43 PM on January 1, 2008


Oh man, the Jessamyn-Cooter renaming event has just been delayed til February.
posted by shelleycat at 3:45 PM on January 1, 2008


Lucy Bernholz's comments on her blog regarding this whole Give Well matter are completely unprofessional and unbefitting someone who is a member of a board, especially one that's non-profit. Holden at least had the decently to admit that he had been caught and that it was wrong. Lucy Bernholz claims that she'll "look into it" but based on her casual sniping of our complaints and her nonsensical pseudo-allegations, I do not expect much transparency for either her, nor the organization. In that regard, I think her actions are quite reprehensible thus far, and behavior such as this will continue to reflect poorly on GiveWell.
posted by dhammond at 3:46 PM on January 1, 2008


krinklyfig: What accuweather was trying to do was called Rent Seeking. What GiveWell is doing seems close to rent seeking as well, but not precisely, because they weren't trying to get laws changed, just public perception.
posted by delmoi at 3:52 PM on January 1, 2008


And we're exempting Ellie here at our own risk -- clearly GiveWell is hoping to spare one of their two wiz kids the treatment, but to me it is very obvious that both kids and the entire board of GiveWell -- you hear me Lucy and Tim? -- are involved in the same dishonest charade here. -fourcheesemac

Fourcheesemac, if you look at the links I posted above, Elie has engaged in the same tactics, if at best, to a lesser degree. Neither of the two are innocent, and it certainly isn't the result of not enough sleep.
posted by Atreides at 3:56 PM on January 1, 2008


(I'd just like to note, while acknowledging the incidental irony in my comment, that the more we fill up this thread will useless banter, the less useful it becomes because the most informative, pointed comments get washed away with all of the noise. Good information is being lost here by filling this thread with idle banter. Not many people are going to read 500+ comments when they first come across this page.) And a shoutout to Jessamyn is in order for her great summation here.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 4:00 PM on January 1, 2008


Can someone with more google knowledge than I have please explain how this happens?

Google is a few thousands of servers spread far and wide. Updates take time to traverse Google's own network.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:03 PM on January 1, 2008


Lucy Bernholz's comments on her blog regarding this whole Give Well matter are completely unprofessional and unbefitting someone who is a member of a board, especially one that's non-profit.

Absolutely correct, dhammond. I was astounded to see her comments, and it was the moment when I realized what GiveWell really had to be -- the moment I stopped giving them ANY benefit of the doubt as an organization not fully represented by Holden's actions. At least Tim Ogden struck the right tone in his initial post here. Lucy Bernholz, if she is a professional consultant as she claims, just made a huge mistake vis a vis her own reputation.

Any of us who have actually worked in or around or in search of serious corporate philanthropy -- and I have -- can see these are a bunch of loose cannon amateurs playing at being serious professionals and hoping to build portfolios as gurus of *online* philanthropic development and consulting -- that is, with a specific emphasis on the internet context. Unfortunately, as I said above, you live and die by the net if that's where you want to do business. GiveWell will *never* be exempt from suspicion now. Holden's nonsense, and the even greater nonsense that has followed from it, are public record on the same internet GiveWell sought to dominate as a charity aggregator and evaluator. I suspect the funding for this enterprise came in, in part, because of the youth of Holden and Elie and the common belief among older folks with money to burn that young people may lack other kinds of professional experience or conditioning, but do have 'net savvy that can be turned into gold if correctly marshaled. There are notes of that "whiz kid" language specific to the 'net (and not just hedge funds) in some of the press coverage.

That is why Holden was so concerned with driving traffic to GiveWell, and took for granted that he could use standard spammer techniques to do so. His reputation as a net savvy dude was on the line -- I'm willing to bet that despite all the PR, GiveWell was not meeting targets for fundraising or website traffic. I said above that I think GiveWell is a squirrely version of a web startup operation, and I stand by that. It has all the signs of it.

Unfortunately, among the other things these guys are bad at, website development and internet marketing are high on the list. They overestimated themselves, and their backers overestimated them because of their youth. Not even bothering to create new email addresses, or post from different IPs, or cover their tracks in other ways -- stuff any 13 year old would know -- really speaks volumes to their failure as *web* professionals, not just *finance* or *philanthropy* professionals.

I do find this episode fascinating.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:04 PM on January 1, 2008 [4 favorites]


Seizetheday, point taken. Someone with a popular-ish blog should write up a crystal clear summary of the charges and evidence and post it, and we should link to it frequently in subsequent comments.

Anyone willing?
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:07 PM on January 1, 2008


Also, $300,000 is freaking chump change, anyway. Even more evidence that these guys are rank amateurs playing at being professionals.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:09 PM on January 1, 2008


And I misspoke a bit above -- I do not mean to imply that "web professionals" would use smarter techniques to drive traffic dishonestly, but that they would know *how* to do so, and if they were true professionals (like our own dear leaders, I'm sure) they would know *that* these methods were not only dishonest, but reputationally risky to a hugely successful startup operation that had garnered a ton of MSM puff press. Of course, there are also professional con artists. And these guys don't seem quite in that league either.

So what we really have here is a case of some folks who got way too big for their britches, way too fast.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:15 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, $300,000 is freaking chump change, anyway. Even more evidence that these guys are rank amateurs playing at being professionals.

That was one of the funniest things about this. Here these guys and their stenographers in the media were saying they were "shaking up" the philanthropy world, pissing people off, and so on when in fact they were a drop in the bucket. There is a trend toward measureability and so on that I've heard of, and that some people don't like, but these guys tried to personify that, and act as though they were the drivers. Or something.
posted by delmoi at 4:15 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


On 12/10/2007, Holden0 was astroturfing Huffington Post (first comment). Naturally, there is no mention of his connection with GiveWell.net.

For all the talk in Give Well's marketing material (.pdf) about transparency, Holden Karnofsky seems to have willfully forgotten that the need for transparency applies to his charity too. To quote from "The Case for Clear Fund":
The Clear Fund is the world’s first charitable grantmaker that is devoted to transparency in its decisions....

True transparency means information is not just available but accessible, coherent, and understandable....

Complete transparency means more than making our information sources available. It means making our logic clear and our materials truly usable even to the casual reader.
So transparency is very important, unless you are trying to avoid being dismissed as a self-promoting shill.

Anyone looking for more information on what information GiveWell and Clear Fund requests from grantees should review the PDF linked above.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 4:19 PM on January 1, 2008


Good point delmoi. There is a very slow trend towards measureability/accountability, and the non profit world needs it. There is too much book cooking and changing red ink into black out there, it's amazing. Really, GiveWell coulda been a needed model institutional device for measurement for that if they really knew WTF they were doing. It takes alot of time to build a successful NP. They should expected longer to find a way to measure it. I mean c'mon1 year?
posted by Heatwole at 4:29 PM on January 1, 2008


delmoi writes "krinklyfig: What accuweather was trying to do was called Rent Seeking. What GiveWell is doing seems close to rent seeking as well, but not precisely, because they weren't trying to get laws changed, just public perception."

Yeah, I know. I was just being a bit silly.
posted by krinklyfig at 4:33 PM on January 1, 2008


To me, what they've done is worth some money and is not just useless overhead. (I'm not sure it's worth what it cost, I'd have to know more.) They built a website listing all the charities working in two fields, they solicited and compiled those charities' evidence of efficacy, and they summarized some conclusions. Nobody else finds this a valuable service? The fact that they're paying salaries to people for doing this is not what bothers me.

What does bother me, as someone who works for a nonprofit, is the claim that they can objectively evaluate charities and pick winners. For one thing, organizations have opted out. They've gotten responses from a small fraction of organizations in each category. The implication that they can tell you who is best (when they have only studied maybe 25% of the groups) should be replaced with something more tentative.

For another thing, I don't believe that there's a metric that allows you to objectively compare different groups. I work in the environmental field. So, would you compare each groups' "cost per acre protected?" Okay, but what if one group bought an acre with the last endangered plant in San Francisco (at $1 mil/acre) -- can you compare them to a group working in northern New Mexico where land costs $1000/acre but doesn't have those special plants? Where I work, we focus on passing laws that indirectly protect much larger areas than most groups could ever buy, but we're not purchasing any land, so how do you compare those activities? What if our work just stopped one activity (say, mining) from happening -- is that acre "protected"? What if some group determined that what was needed was a public relations campaign to change public attitudes about land protection -- how do you compare that?

My point is that any field is complicated. It takes a lot of knowledge to really evaluate an organization. That's why grantmaking foundations' program officers make the big bucks. They've (ideally) been working in the field for years, they have an idea of what needs to happen, and they know groups' reputations and management. Comparing organizations is complex and qualitative. It's not just two 26-year-olds comparing a statistic or two. So, while I find some value in their having made these grant submittals publicly available, I don't put much stock in their selection of which groups are "best."

But unfortunately, they haven't focused on just this research. They also want to manage others' money to make the grants themselves, which is where this "how shady are they really?" question becomes much bigger. (Ie, I agree with the point dw is making.)
posted by salvia at 4:41 PM on January 1, 2008 [5 favorites]


Like organized religion, I assume that most middleman charities are tax scams for conservatives to exploit financially and politically, but, where was Holden dishonest? A liar? His actions weren't allowed under the site rules set up here, but that doesn't make it dishonest. He was serving his own interests, and his card was accepted twice. Anonymity exonerates him from full disclosure.

It is morally questionable to demand that a piece of information be judged as worthy by its accidental status, yet unworthy by its arranged status, when the near impossible enforcement of these states means that the experienced spammers easily get away with it. This is the same problem with Wikipedia, and why it sucks. Furthermore, just because search engines utilize the number of links on a site, and encourages spamming, doesn't make it our moral problem.
posted by Brian B. at 4:41 PM on January 1, 2008


On 12/10/2007, Holden0 was astroturfing Huffington Post (first comment). Naturally, there is no mention of his connection with GiveWell.net.

So for charity related threads: Summon Holden!
posted by juiceCake at 4:46 PM on January 1, 2008


For another thing, I don't believe that there's a metric that allows you to objectively compare different groups. I work in the environmental field. So, would you compare each groups' "cost per acre protected?"

Exactly. Their business model is that they will answer the question "how long is a piece of string?"
posted by Rumple at 4:47 PM on January 1, 2008


Mike Everett-Lane from DonorsChoose just dropped into the givewell mea culpa thread, expressing surprise at what Holden's been saying about DC.
posted by cortex (staff) at 4:49 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Brian, Holden and Elie was dishonest by trying to trick this site's users into thinking two objective third parties were discussing the positive nature of GiveWell. Holden was a liar when he insisted that it was a momentary lapse of judgment instead of part of a long-standing and calculated plot to deceive people as to where the information he was providing was coming from.

Lucy Bernholz was a crap boss/colleague when she torpedoed Holden's (somewhat lame) attempt at damage control with her dumb-ass comment on her blog.

Also, are you saying that experienced spammers are getting away with astroturfing on AskMe? What makes you say that?
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 4:52 PM on January 1, 2008


Also, I seriously doubt the fine people at heifer international are exactly pleased that the people from givewell have been going around the internet badmouthing them under the guise of being disinterested third parties.
posted by puke & cry at 4:55 PM on January 1, 2008


Jeebus, Brian B., you are a deeply cynical man.

Wikipedia sucks. But they aren't asking me (ok, not very forcefully) to send them money, or telling me where I should send my money, to alleviate poverty, disease, and human suffering, or trashing other people who also seek my money or to tell me where to send it who have not engaged in similar dishonest conduct -- we hope -- even in trivial contexts.

I share with you a distrust of most organized "charity" organizations that do not themselves act directly to do the thing they want your money for. MSF walks the walk, for example. But many charities do not. Or they spend every cent you send them re-soliciting you for more, and then some. But were it not for some good people willing to do this work -- people like Miko, obviously -- the world would be a darker and meaner place than it already is.

So when some punk asshole comes along and tries to elbow its way into the field as a leader by sheer force of disingenuous PR, and offers little of substance in any case to back that up, and then -- to top it off -- goes about committing casual acts of trivial dishonesty that make NO sense if they are serious about what they do, that hurts the good people who might be doing this sort of thing seriously and right. And that makes all of us more cynical, if not as cynical as you, about the whole damn enterprise.

Holden *claims* to be passionate about philanthropy -- a "charity geek" in his own words. He glows with desire to improve if not save the world in his online presence, at least. And then he turns out to be a rather typical lowball shill, and an incompetent one at that, and on inspection his big project starts to look like a Potemkin Village behind which something more cynical still was going on.

That just sucks. I think a lot of us are angered enough to follow this closely and/or participate in the takedown for perfectly legitimate, principled, and non-hysterical reasons. Something we care about has been tarnished within the walls of our own web city, and that's given us a special stake in the cleanup effort.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:00 PM on January 1, 2008


Oh, on non-preview, Miko, thanks for the explanation. I don't disagree with your overall conclusion that they're not providing enough value for the money, though I would want to know a little more before concluding that. (Whereas I don't need to know more to conclude that they need a class on business ethics and to hire people with more experience.) And no, it's not the best budget I've seen either. (What's up with the column labeled "0"? Why did they allocate revenue the way they did? And you caught a few mistakes I didn't see, like the one about the website.)

But I still disagree with your 50% figure. Even if you think they shouldn't include envelopes (I could understand them including those: what if they are mailing other nonprofits to ask for evidence of efficacy? aren't those particular envelopes a supply needed for doing the research?), disagreeing on those details is a question of a much smaller magnitude than including their entire salaries as admin.

To get to that "50% of the money goes to overhead" number everyone is now using, you have to include their entire salary as overhead. This seems unfair to me. Some fraction of their staff time must go to something other than overhead. The research they did must have taken some time.

And if the purpose of their organization is to get people to use their research in making giving decisions (is that the goal? unfortunately, we don't know), then it would be fair to include at least a portion of the costs of getting the word out (website and media) as direct costs, right?

Again, there is a lot of shadiness here, and I'm not trying to shill for them. But if we're not completely fair, we'll get sidetracked defending our own our credibility, which will take the focus off their unprofessional behavior and hypocrisy. (I know there's no "we" exactly, but if a lot of posters rely on the same number in drawing their conclusions, and that number turns out to be off, then people can question those conclusions.)

(I am semi-anonymous but I have no relation to GiveWell whatsoever. I'm willing to explain my reasons and ambivalent feelings about that, or to give out my real identity to posters I feel I "know.")
posted by salvia at 5:03 PM on January 1, 2008


So for charity related threads: Summon Holden!

You gotta know when to Holden...
posted by GrammarMoses at 5:21 PM on January 1, 2008


Brian, Holden and Elie was dishonest by trying to trick this site's users into thinking two objective third parties were discussing the positive nature of GiveWell. Holden was a liar when he insisted that it was a momentary lapse of judgment instead of part of a long-standing and calculated plot to deceive people as to where the information he was providing was coming from.

It was stated that their responses were allowed under the rules. The bit about asking the question first was cited by mods here. The lack of sleep could refer to getting sloppy. Admitting one's own dishonesty is moot, because they might be the only honest person in the room if it were true.

Lucy Bernholz was a crap boss/colleague when she torpedoed Holden's (somewhat lame) attempt at damage control with her dumb-ass comment on her blog.

I read it differently.

Also, are you saying that experienced spammers are getting away with astroturfing on AskMe? What makes you say that?

Because the inexperienced ones aren't getting away with it.

Wikipedia sucks. But they aren't asking me (ok, not very forcefully) to send them money, or telling me where I should send my money, to alleviate poverty, disease, and human suffering, or trashing other people who also seek my money or to tell me where to send it who have not engaged in similar dishonest conduct -- we hope -- even in trivial contexts.

So, Wikipedia is callous about human suffering, and Holden is doing his job? My point of course is that lacking any mindreading skills, people here are upset about things that Holden represents.
posted by Brian B. at 5:22 PM on January 1, 2008


No, we're upset about the things he misrepresents.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:24 PM on January 1, 2008 [8 favorites]


Does the GiveWell blog moderate comments? I just tried to comment, and my comment isn't appearing. Was that the case for others who have commented as well?
posted by decathecting at 5:38 PM on January 1, 2008


Brian B., Maybe you could get a sweet job for shilling for Givewell posing questions, or answers, to various blogs. I'm sure Holden would be up for it, and you seem like the type of guy who would always be looking to get a sweet kickback deal for little effort.

No harm, no foul, right?
posted by Balisong at 5:39 PM on January 1, 2008


No, we're upset about the things he misrepresents.

Well, we could argue about representation, but at the end of the day it's a charity, and some people expect Holden to walk on water rather than just deliver the funds.
posted by Brian B. at 5:41 PM on January 1, 2008


So you tried to save the whales
You found a tree to kiss
You gave a crippled child
His dying wish

You're waiting for an answer
A message from above
You've always been a sucker
Another fool in love

What's it all about
Pussy and money
I ain't tryin to be cute
I ain't tryin to be funny
Everybody lies about
Pussy and money
posted by jonmc at 5:43 PM on January 1, 2008


(bout time I got to use those lyrics accurately)
posted by jonmc at 5:44 PM on January 1, 2008


Well, we could argue about representation, but at the end of the day it's a charity, and some people expect Holden to walk on water rather than just deliver the funds.

When did "do business honestly and honorably" become "walk on water"?
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:46 PM on January 1, 2008


Brian B.:
>>Lucy Bernholz was a crap boss/colleague when she torpedoed Holden's (somewhat lame) attempt at damage control with her dumb-ass comment on her blog.

>I read it differently.


How so differently? Personally, I wouldn't go so far as to say she's a crap boss/colleague based solely on this one data point... but it was a crap move.

All the information is available to her through Holden's "Oops" post on GiveWell's blog, which links to this thread. If anyone should know about that blog, Lucy should. She's on the board, for crying out loud. Instead of sifting through that info, she shot from the hip and missed. Instead of trying to get an idea of the situation before making a statement, she uses more keystrokes to cast doubt on the anonymous commenter (they must have a "beef", their "connection [to] or role at Metafilter" must have something to do with it, they're "envious of Holden's consistent promotion of GiveWell", etc.) than she does to say she, as a board member, will investigate seriously.

And almost 8 hours after the fact, she has yet to approve jessamyn's response on her blog. Perhaps she's been really, really busy or is catching up on all the sleep that Charity 2.0 deprives one of... but I have a sneaking suspicion that it won't be approved.
posted by CKmtl at 5:47 PM on January 1, 2008


Brian B. Maybe you could get a sweet job for shilling for Givewell posing questions
I hear the job comes with a free gmail account.
posted by Heatwole at 5:48 PM on January 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


Brian B., Maybe you could get a sweet job for shilling for Givewell posing questions, or answers, to various blogs. I'm sure Holden would be up for it, and you seem like the type of guy who would always be looking to get a sweet kickback deal for little effort.

No harm, no foul, right?


Balisong, I was being serious. And you were joking?
posted by Brian B. at 5:50 PM on January 1, 2008


Salvia, your points are definitely good, and I accept that throwing around a 50% figure without added information is open to challenge. But on whom is the burden of proof? I think the assumption of a 50%, or near that figure for this fiscal year is allowable in the absence of more detailed information. I agree that some portion of their staff time, assuming they are doing the work they advertise, must be being spent on program. But we just don't know how much unless we see an accounting by hours (which is the kind of thing the federal government has its grantees do). And parts of the website definitely would qualify as a program service, but only the portions of the website giving information on the specific charities. The blog and other pages would need to be broken out from the direct costs, since they are not providing the service, but are for marketing or documentary purposes. You're right that research would be a program service, but the only line broken out for research is the 2 grand or so for the time spent on GuideStar. Where's the rest?

The research they did must have taken some time.


Exactly. How much time did they spend on it? Where is the time it took to develop questionnaires for each organization? They don't tell us.

So I guess in absence of more specific information that might allow us to determine that, OK, 38% of the budget (as a wild card example figure) is being spent on admin, we have been assuming that the entire 50% that is not granted out or spent on tangibles is admin.
For the sake of the discussion, I'm happy to drop the 50% figure as a given, but the lack of detail leaves it open to question, which is a problem in itself.

If we want to assume 50%, the numbers allow us to, because they lack definition. If the charity came back and provided a specific breakdown, we would certainly be able to refine that, perhaps to its benefit.
posted by Miko at 5:51 PM on January 1, 2008


Well, we could argue about representation, but at the end of the day it's a charity, and some people expect Holden to walk on water rather than just deliver the funds.

Wow, Brian B., that's breath-takingly disingenuous.

Astroturfing an AskMe thread with a sockpuppet created for just that purpose in order to drive traffic to your website about transparent, efficient, charitable giving constitutes deliberate misrepresentation. Doing so all over the freakin' internet constitutes a pattern of deliberate misrepresentation. So Holden comes off stupid, a weasel, or a stupid weasel.

I don't think we're asking him to walk on water. We're pointing out (in a loud, snarky, publicly embarrassing way) that dude isn't living up to the values he purports to exemplify.

Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:53 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


I was being serious. And you were joking?

Maybe that the whole problem. Holden forgot the sarcasm tag.
posted by Balisong at 5:53 PM on January 1, 2008


When did "do business honestly and honorably" become "walk on water"?

I first noticed it around 1985.
posted by wendell at 5:58 PM on January 1, 2008 [7 favorites]


I don't think we're asking him to walk on water. We're pointing out (in a loud, snarky, publicly embarrassing way) that dude isn't living up to the values he purports to exemplify.


My point exactly. Oh, and FYI:

dis·in·gen·u·ous
lacking in frankness, candor, or sincerity; falsely or hypocritically ingenuous; insincere: Her excuse was rather disingenuous.

posted by Brian B. at 5:59 PM on January 1, 2008


I blame Gordon Gecko Ivan Boesky.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:01 PM on January 1, 2008


Well, you've all convinced me. I'm just going to keep giving my money directly to panhandling winos.
posted by jonmc at 6:01 PM on January 1, 2008 [4 favorites]


Thanks for clarifying that! Glad I used it right. Got me one of them Ivy League edumications too, yuh know.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:02 PM on January 1, 2008


BOP, taking to poison ivy while tripping on shrooms dosen't count.
posted by jonmc at 6:04 PM on January 1, 2008


Hey! We're #6 when you Google GiveWell. That's pretty neat.

Of course the auto-extracted text sample is part of their PR blurb, giving no one any reason to click on it, but what the heck.

A single Metatalk thread will have very little effect on the overall situation. A lot of blogs will have to pick this up for this to even remotely become news.

Here's hoping everyone is hungover and lazy on their first day back to work...
posted by tkolar at 6:09 PM on January 1, 2008


Like organized religion, I assume that most middleman charities are tax scams for conservatives to exploit financially and politically, but, where was Holden dishonest? A liar? His actions weren't allowed under the site rules set up here, but that doesn't make it dishonest. He was serving his own interests, and his card was accepted twice. Anonymity exonerates him from full disclosure.

Wow. Organized religion is a tax scam for conservatives? Misrepresentation isn't dishonesty?

That's just not even worth a response. And yet, I just did.
posted by dw at 6:10 PM on January 1, 2008


Not much more to say, but I really thought the comments of Cortex and Jessamyn on the GiveWell blog in response to Holden were fair, clear, offered perspective, and took the high road. If you missed them.
posted by Miko at 6:13 PM on January 1, 2008


LOL jonmc.

You know, I just saw it this way:

Part of what's maddening about Holden's conduct is the idea of someone billed as CEO of a supposedly professional and serious enterprise with a board and all simply *having the damn time* to act like a teenaged troll across the damn internet. After reading those articles in the MSM, you'd think he was jetting between Dubai and Paris every other week closing deals, or at least devoting a huge amount of time to developing metrics for other charities and starting a serious non-profit operation.

I mean, if you're gonna shill like that, can't you hand it off to an underling at least? Even if only for deniability and to exempt the CEO from the stink of being caught?

Stupid on a major scale.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:15 PM on January 1, 2008


Wait! We haven't heard from Bevets or Dios yet.
posted by Balisong at 6:15 PM on January 1, 2008


*scratches furiously*
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:17 PM on January 1, 2008


Heh. Pips is sending me on a late night run to the drugstore for printer ink (long story), I'll get you some Calomine. Also, the laundromat across from my bar was closed today. Luckinly one of the barflies told me about an open laundromat 4 blocks away. To do my usual dry cycle drinking required 8 blocks of extra walking. But I got listen to Humble Pie.

And you people think you got problems.
posted by jonmc at 6:20 PM on January 1, 2008


Brian B: Clearly the "disingenuous" stuff was the posting here and all over the web. Holden pretended to be someone he wasn't and then answered questions as someone with the same first name. On luxist he posts a couple of times and even replies to himself saying "we have the same first name" (Both comments pimp givewell)

If pretending to be someone you're not isn't disingenuous, I don't know what is.
posted by delmoi at 6:23 PM on January 1, 2008


If we want to assume 50%, the numbers allow us to, because they lack definition. If the charity came back and provided a specific breakdown, we would certainly be able to refine that, perhaps to its benefit.

And this is part of the "transparency" problem. They aren't required by GAAP or GAAS to itemize to the minute what they were doing and where. It would be immensely helpful if they would, but they don't have to.

Assuming 50% is the most pessimistic outcome, but that probably isn't true. OTOH, we also can't assume they spent every hour of every day doing research, especially considering that the two of them astroturfed, talked to the press, pressed the flesh, etc.

So, let's split the difference. Assuming .5 FTE on research for each of them, that moves us to 28.33% overhead. That's far more reasonable, especially for a charity just starting out with major people involved. I was willing to give them a pass on 50% for a first year, so 28.33% is perfectly acceptable.

OTOH, for an organization that will act more like a "passthrough" than a traditional charity that's really bad. The United Way's cut usually runs between 5-10%. They have to figure out how to slash that overhead.

Even then, I'm still questioning why they'd need to spend $65K on two people to do all the research. Seems like this research could be done far more cost-effectively if they could find a librarian to handle the work while the two of them were doing the roadshow. Split duties like this lead to split priorities and multitasking. It never wendells.
posted by dw at 6:23 PM on January 1, 2008


Fourcheesemac, if you look at the links I posted above, Elie has engaged in the same tactics, if at best, to a lesser degree. Neither of the two are innocent, and it certainly isn't the result of not enough sleep.

Oh, and Atriedes, thanks for picking up the Google shovel.
posted by dw at 6:24 PM on January 1, 2008


Please, keep me out of this.

Also, jonmc, "dry cycle drinking" definitely sounds like a problem...
posted by wendell at 6:25 PM on January 1, 2008


We don't expect Holden to walk on water, we just want him to keep his p out of our ool.
posted by mds35 at 6:33 PM on January 1, 2008


Elie has engaged in the same tactics ... and it certainly isn't the result of not enough sleep.

I hear most Americans don't get enough sleep; she could be victim to a national phenomenon.

posted by small_ruminant at 6:37 PM on January 1, 2008


They have to figure out how to slash that overhead.

Or they could just keep yelling "Overhead good! Experts bad!" into their bullhorn until the entire legitimate philanthropy sector starts believing it.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:40 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


GiveWell/Give Well: Since when is overhead a bad thing?

Nice work, Miko!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 6:44 PM on January 1, 2008


Thanks, dw. I decided to stop being a rubber necker and help out. I'm no google ninja, so its rather an indictment on their sloppiness that I was able to discover what I did.
posted by Atreides at 6:44 PM on January 1, 2008


If you were a Google ninja, we'd all be dead right now.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:48 PM on January 1, 2008


Damnably enough, both of the "geremiah" lifehacker comments appears to have been nixed—as a reasonable site-moderation reaction to grouse's reports in those threads of the situation, I'm assuming, but it's a shame to have them drop off the record like that. If anyone has a cache of some sort, providing it here would be nice.
posted by cortex (staff) at 6:49 PM on January 1, 2008


And almost 8 hours after the fact, she has yet to approve jessamyn's response on her blog. Perhaps she's been really, really busy or is catching up on all the sleep that Charity 2.0 deprives one of... but I have a sneaking suspicion that it won't be approved.

Well shit, I've been proven wrong.
posted by CKmtl at 7:01 PM on January 1, 2008


I'm not certain how long these will last, but I was able to track down Google caches of both of his comments.

Elie Hassenfeld misrepresenting his stake in GiveWell on Lifehacker.

More of the same here.
posted by dhammond at 7:05 PM on January 1, 2008


That first lifehacker comment is still in the google cache, the cache for the second comment doesn't show any comments.
posted by puke & cry at 7:06 PM on January 1, 2008


There's the first comment cortex was asking about. I've already saved it in case it changes.
posted by puke & cry at 7:08 PM on January 1, 2008


Wow, I've been half-following this saga, but hadn't checked out the astroturfing. Quite surprised how low this sockpuppetted comment is (from the Lifehacker google cache):
BY GEREMIAH AT 01:03 AM

Really tired of seeing this website trotted out there as "the answer for smart giving." All of their ratings are based on financial data, not on whether the organizations are doing things that work. If we shopped this way, we'd buy our shirts based solely on their sleeve-to-neck ratio, or something.

I'd much rather see more websites like www.givewell.net. (See this Ask Metafilter discussion)
posted by MetaMonkey at 7:13 PM on January 1, 2008


The Give Well blog continues to provide more laughs per post than nearly any other philanthropic organization out there (I'm looking at you, CharityNavigator!)

"Laugh if you must, but in the end humility is the defining value of the GiveWell project." - Holden Karnofsky

"6 months ago, GiveWell pledged to give a $25,000 grant to the best organization we found in each of our five causes, and we’re going to follow through. But, I wish we didn’t have to." - Elie Hassenfeld

"People can get away with some incredible things as soon as they say that what they’re doing is 'for charity.'" - Holden Karnofsky
posted by dhammond at 7:23 PM on January 1, 2008 [4 favorites]


Ceiling cat is watching Holden Karnofsky masturbate.
posted by DenOfSizer at 7:25 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Late to the thread, but I had a hell of a time reading it and am proud to be a part of this place. Anyway, it seems Lucy has responded on her blog:
Thank you to people from MetaFilter for explaining certain elements of this to me. After checking into MetaFilter myself, its also clear that "blatant self promotion" is clearly discouraged and should not have been attempted. Its also now clear to me that it is not what happened - instead it was a case of mis-representation of himself and his affiliation. This is downright stupid, shortsighted, and will invariably come back to bite you in your ass wherever it is attempted - online or off. It was dumb, discrediting, and damning.

Here's where we seem to be:

1. Holden made mistakes and has apologized.

2. The community at MetaFilter has shown it can and will enforce its own, clearly-published rules.

3. Online communities can be powerful forces for holding high the best standards of truth-telling. They, and their rules, should be respected.

4. Organizations are worth only as much as the integrity of their people and their collective action. Anything that jeopardizes the highest standards of integrity is trouble.

5. Beyond the bounds of specific online communities, operating within the parameters of clearly stated rules, I am personally troubled by anonymous posts that refer to comments/conversations that have been removed from the web. In the offline universe, these behaviors are prevented by rules that allow for the accused to face their accusers and the basic rules of evidence - what are the online protections?

While I know that efforts at "bloggers' codes of conduct" have floundered, I find myself wondering where the bounds are between self-policing and vigilantism?
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:43 PM on January 1, 2008


Huh. I didn't catch that they linked back to the AskMe thread in a sockpuppet comment on a different site. That slimy and stupid.

After being so quick-on-the-trigger New Year's Evening, and bringing in two board members to do damage control, the GiveWell peanut gallery is being conspicuously silent right now. Nothing in this thread, nothing on their blog...


Still waiting to hear about that board meeting that was going to convene right away. Way to be transparent.


Guess deception just ain't as big a deal as it used to be. Or maybe the screwup was bad enough that they decided the best option was just to ignore it and pray? Nahhh. Surely they can't be so dense as to think that the silence is making me less likely to raise a shitstorm with Gawker, NYT, NYP, et al. etcet. Or maybe they can?

Time for me to to limber up those press-release skills, I guess!

posted by spiderwire at 7:47 PM on January 1, 2008


P.S. does anyone else find Lucy's response kind of incoherent? I'm scratching my head trying to figure out exactly what point she's trying to make by rattling off points that we all already knew. I was hoping for something with a bit more meat.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:50 PM on January 1, 2008


While I know that efforts at "bloggers' codes of conduct" have floundered, I find myself wondering where the bounds are between self-policing and vigilantism?

Ms. Bernholz:

Moderators.

Which is why this very discussion here has been far more about useful discussion and Google digging than it's been about weasel-stomping.

Jessamyn, cortex, and mathowie are the thin line that keep us from descending into Fark insanity, DU/LGF bile, and hand-wringing blog posts by Shelley Powers. They allow great posters like Miko to be heard instead of being lost in the din of the virtual lynch mob.

And I think everyone here is thankful for them.
posted by dw at 7:54 PM on January 1, 2008 [4 favorites]


Guess deception just ain't as big a deal as it used to be.

We're a society which laughs and winks at the criminal antics of our highest leaders both in office and in business. Hence the up-thread complaint about this kerfluffle-that this activity simply meant Holden "didn't walk on water." There are many who view what amount to serious ethical breaches as all being minor relative to the out-right-illegal, fuck-you, ha-ha attitude 49.6% of Americans + 5 supreme court justices find just peachy keen (to point to an example) in their heroes.
posted by maxwelton at 7:55 PM on January 1, 2008


While I know that efforts at "bloggers' codes of conduct" have floundered, I find myself wondering where the bounds are between self-policing and vigilantism?

Oh, good lord. That sort of passive-aggressiveness is amateur hour. Really, is that the best you can do?

Here's a question: Where's the boundary between some friendly deception amongst anonymous internet folk, and corporate malfeasance? Oh, that's right. Somewhere behind you.

This is shameful. If you're going to express contrition, you talk about what your response will be. You don't say something's "dumb, discrediting, and damning" and then turn around and blame the people who called you out for lying. If Holden hadn't had the back luck to cross Miko at the wrong time, then would the undiscovered deception be legitimate?

This isn't about violating MetaFilter's "community standards." You don't have to apologize to us anymore. You're way past that. This is about how you respond to the people Holden slandered, and whether you have the decency to admit error rather than wildly spinning. So far we've only seen the latter.

Did you miss the fact where he publicly offered a bribe? Seriously, what's wrong with you?
posted by spiderwire at 7:56 PM on January 1, 2008 [12 favorites]


I suspect the funding for this enterprise came in, in part, because of the youth of Holden and Elie

According to the GiveWell blog introducing the Board members, a "major source of funding" was Holden's former boss Greg Jensen, "co-CIO of the hedge fund where I used to work."
posted by mediareport at 7:57 PM on January 1, 2008


I am glad that she has responded, however I think that Lucy is glossing over the main issue. In regard to #5, I am not sure what the specific complaint is. As cortex mentioned upthread, it's unfortunate that other sites have chosen to erase the record of what happened. But we don't have any control over that ourselves as it's up to the sites in question to police themselves. If anything, this is a complaint better addressed toward sites like Lifehacker who have chosen to obfuscate the evidence.

As for online protections, it's rather easy to comment for free on nearly any site to address these concerns. On MeFi, there's a $5 admission fee, but if cost is a concern, I am happy to pony up the fee if Lucy cares to address these points in-thread here. It also bears mentioning that libelous statements on the web are actionable, just as they are in real life.

To paint this as "vigilantism" misses the point. Holden and Elie used their resources and words to promote themselves and many in this thread have used their resources and words to expose their hypocrisy. The playing field is already rather level. But when it came to choosing their target, they chose poorly.
posted by dhammond at 8:01 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


5. Beyond the bounds of specific online communities, operating within the parameters of clearly stated rules, I am personally troubled by anonymous posts that refer to comments/conversations that have been removed from the web. In the offline universe, these behaviors are prevented by rules that allow for the accused to face their accusers and the basic rules of evidence - what are the online protections?

I'm confused about this comment. What comments/conversations have been removed? Why were they removed? And doesn't transparency demand that such things be kept on a public record? Additionally, I am not certain how she is relating this to the offline universe. Frankly, if he came to my house and engaged in deliberately deceptive sales techniques, he could stand to lose a lot more than his online reputation, and if they deleted records, were I to find them, they would still be used as evidence.

Honestly, this last sentence makes no sense to me at all, and seems designed to turn this whole discussion into a claim that MetaFilterites are somehow engaged in an extralegal program of oppressing a poor guy who made a mistake and apologized, and, jeez, leave him alone already, wouldja?

Maybe she should consult with the board before publishing to her blog from here on out.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:02 PM on January 1, 2008


That's far more reasonable, especially for a charity just starting out with major people involved.

WTF would make Holden and Elie "major people"? They're a couple of wankers with fuck-all experience and even less wisdom.

Organizations are worth only as much as the integrity of their people and their collective action. Anything that jeopardizes the highest standards of integrity is trouble.

And that is why Givewell fails.

You might as well put this project to sleep, Lucy, because the integrity around Givewell is now running into the red. Your account is overdrawn and you've no means to replenish it.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:02 PM on January 1, 2008


This is one hell of a read for my hungover bloodshot and bleary eyeballs .
posted by nola at 8:02 PM on January 1, 2008


So I lost count of how many times Holden and/or Elie tried this little trick. Are you guys going to stick with the "sleep deprivation" story that's still on the GiveWell blog, now that it's clear that this was done over and over again over the course of weeks, by at least two people?

Or was that just a lie? Feel free to give an alternate parsing, if you like.
posted by spiderwire at 8:06 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oops, "a major Clear Fund donor" is what should be in quotes. Sorry about that.

And I meant to write "According to the GiveWell blog post introducing the Board members..." I assure you I would never encourage the wretched use of "blog" to mean "blog post."
posted by mediareport at 8:06 PM on January 1, 2008


I'm scratching my head trying to figure out exactly what point she's trying to make by rattling off points that we all already knew.

I can only speculate about Lucy's specific net experience, but I think part of this is that she's not someone with any real familiarity with web communities and the applied ethics of blogging—clearly she's online, she has a blogspot blog, but that's a far cry from having been in the thick of something like Metafilter or any other site that is a crowd rather than an author.

So, charitably, I think what it is is that she's stating what she's trying to understand. Introducing it with "Here's where we seem to be" is, in that case, a distracting use of an overly inclusive "we", but what do you do about that?

There's very much, I think, a problem of us being on one end, and Lucy, Holden, et al being on the other, of a cultural continuum here. Where we see arrogance and naivety and newbieness in the actions and reactions from their end, they likely see precisely the sort of tempest-in-a-teapot "who cares about some website" thing that a few people have referenced above. Bridging that gap of understanding amidst the greater muck of the lousy things we've observed here might be pretty tricky to pull off, but I hope that what's going on with Lucy's points in her reply on her blog is at least a step in that direction on her part.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:07 PM on January 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


Jessamyn, cortex, and mathowie are the thin line that keep us from descending into Fark insanity, DU/LGF bile, and hand-wringing blog posts by Shelley Powers.

That's errant and destructive jibber-jabbery. We're adults, most of us, and claiming that the people who moderate the site (and who do a fine job, as I'm compelled as always to declare) are solely responsible for the fact that it's not a cesspool (although Metatalk often looks that way to the uninitiated, it should be noted) is insulting to other users of the site and the community as a whole.

And I don't know why you have a problem with Shelley Powers, but seriously: what the fuck? Why in hell would you drag her into this (and only to insult her in passing)? Would that other people thought as deeply about weblogs as she does; maybe we wouldn't have douchebags like the subject of this thread trying to hijack the medium for self-promotion and profit.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:07 PM on January 1, 2008


I think Lucy is every bit as deceiving, dishonest, and dirty as Holden and Elie. Why is she being treated as if she weren't? Nothing she has written has shown even the slightest bit of remorse, understanding, or wisdom. She is very likely in it for the money, just as much as they.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:07 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


CKmtl writes "Why bother looking into the problem before commenting on it when you can just a) minimize it to just 'a bunch/few of pissed off people on a website', and b) coyly allude to them being "unamerican"?"

The last is doubly amusing because, of course, many of the active members aren't American. Or maybe it's just me who laughs everytime some twit on the internet calls me unAmerican.
posted by Mitheral at 8:14 PM on January 1, 2008


Yeah, this situation started out at unimpressive and then took the interstate to high wankery. At this point I doubt anyone in the group actually believes in transparency the way they claim to.
posted by Tuwa at 8:15 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Wow.... just wow...

As the CEO of a non-profit, these guys come across as unethical scum..As do the members of the Board that have responded.

Good work Mefites........
posted by HuronBob at 8:20 PM on January 1, 2008


What comments/conversations have been removed?

Participants in this discussion linked to spam comments that Karnofsky & Co. made on other sites, which those sites then removed as soon as they became aware of them.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:21 PM on January 1, 2008


Man, I'm trying to cobble together a blog entry on this with a chronology an' background an' such, but I'm still in the AskMe.

I need more cigarettes.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:23 PM on January 1, 2008


cortex, I think you're being overly generous. The fact that this is the web doesn't obviate Sarbanes-Oxley nor hundred of years of corporate law that says in very specific terms that you're not allowed to do stuff like this. In addition to being founder, owner, board member, executive, etcet., Holden is the corporate secretary. That creates specific fiduciary duties, and the fact that they're all aware of that is much of what makes the collective response so disingenuously nauseating.

I think that your explanation is approximately the impression they've been trying to create, and it's unfortunate for them that they don't have someone as cogent as you to do so. But it's somewhat farcical to think that out of the entire board -- all of whom claim to be tech-savvy, etc. -- that there's no one around capable of bridging the conceptual gap that's been spelled out very clearly for them. They're simply playing dumb. That's all it is.
posted by spiderwire at 8:23 PM on January 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


Lucy is just attempting typical PR-head damage control.

Except her first attempt displayed her ignorance of how the online world works, how quick news travels, how bad it is for your name to be covered in shit in the Google results, and in fact how big a deal Metafilter can be at times.

And her next attempt pretends to understand some of these dynamics, but basically falls back on "you can't prove nuthin!" at the end, and suggests we may have gone overboard with "vigilante justice".

I'm afraid vigilante justice is all we have. It's actually called "word of mouth". When your business is dealing with playing with large sums of money belonging to people who are just trying to do good, and you're promising them that you will do good and your own compensation is justified, then honesty is fucking vital. You can't go using the same techniques as someone trying to sell some herbal viagra and claim to be helping humanity, then try to excuse it with "But I was tired...sorry I didn't know the rules...it was an honest mistake..." without expecting people to be pissed off.
posted by Jimbob at 8:28 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


So far there are 192 results for givewell + metafilter.

I'd be curious to see what kind of traffic comes to this thread as a result of this story spreading on the web. Can cortex or someone publish a list of referring sites somewhere? It would be neat to see the impact of this discussion and also to see what kind of comments follow the story from site to site (and whether any attempts at damage control that happens on other sites reveals more interesting aspects of this company).
posted by mds35 at 8:32 PM on January 1, 2008


I'm not at all sure this doesn't make a good story. Deceptive "grassroots" marketing is full of juiciness like deception and greed, especially from such a shiny "do gooder."
posted by scarabic at 8:34 PM on January 1, 2008


I do expect, at minimum, that this story will be picked up by the gossip sites like Gawker and IvyGate once the long holiday weekend is over.

Seriously, the one-sentence storyline --- ambitious Harvard hustlers, featured in the New York Times for their foundation devoted to honesty and transparency, found to have promoted said foundation by lying and deception --- is the sort of thing these elite-skewering gossip blogs exist to cover.
posted by jayder at 8:36 PM on January 1, 2008


I'm afraid vigilante justice is all we have.

no one's performed vigilante justice - all they've done is tell the truth about what they've seen someone do on this and other web sites

if they feel that having true stories told about them is equivalent to being on trial and penalized, that should tell them something about what they've been doing
posted by pyramid termite at 8:36 PM on January 1, 2008 [11 favorites]


Lucy is just attempting typical PR-head damage control.

Exactly, and here's the five-point template:

1. State the blatantly obvious about your client in the least damaging terms possible. Express no culpability.

2. Shift the focus to your client's adversary.

3. Superficially profess to share one of the adversary's core values.

4. Present a judgmental, vaguely menacing platitude about the adversary in terms so vague that it can also be read as neither judgmental nor menacing.

5. Finish with a grand flourish of concern trolling.

I have been waiting and waiting to no avail for someone to show up and display even one of GiveWell's stated principles, but what we get in this latest salvo is just a blatant GE handshake. To answer, yet again, one of Miko's original post questions above, No, you are really, really not being too cynical. I'm not sure it's possible to be too cynical about the GiveWellians.
posted by FelliniBlank at 8:39 PM on January 1, 2008 [11 favorites]


I'd be curious to see what kind of traffic comes to this thread as a result of this story spreading on the web. Can cortex or someone publish a list of referring sites somewhere?

...or you could just paste the link into Google's "sites that link here" field on the Advanced Search page...
posted by spiderwire at 8:46 PM on January 1, 2008


spiderwire, I'm a bit short on sleep, but I'm getting no results that way.
posted by mds35 at 8:48 PM on January 1, 2008


That field doesn't update quickly, but it will show up eventually -- if you're not in a rush. I just don't think that posting referer logs would be a very good idea...
posted by spiderwire at 8:50 PM on January 1, 2008


Why doesn't Holden, Lucy and the rest of the GiveWell gang just shut their collective mouths and stop pro-actively posting and reactively responding to posts is beyond me. They are not going to win on reason. Their best bet is to shut up and hope this blows over. They need professional advice stat. These are amateurs playing with professionals. It is almost like watching the Washington Generals against the Harlem Globetrotters. I am with jonc. My money goes to the winos and junkies. They give it me straight. "Can you spare some change for a drink?"
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:54 PM on January 1, 2008


if they feel that having true stories told about them is equivalent to being on trial and penalized, that should tell them something about what they've been doing

Keep in mind, they have been riding high on a wave of puffery, and I suspect this criticism they are receiving on Metafilter feels very unfair. The sense I'm getting from the GiveWell board members is that they are incredulous ... their reaction seems to be, "Why don't people understand? That's just the way Holden is! His brash, take-no-prisoners approach is what makes GiveWell great! That's why we're shaking up the world of charitable giving!" Once they realized how bad those reactions were coming across, and they began voicing the superficially appropriate sentiments that Holden's actions were unacceptable, they're still hinting that we are a bunch of basement-dwelling losers making a mountain out of a molehill.

The bit about "vigilante justice," when all we're doing is having a damned discussion, is priceless.
posted by jayder at 8:55 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Lucy posted another comment that leads me to think that she may have gotten the point -- "I agree, the practices of astroturfing and misrepresenting one's identity (which is simply known as fraud offline) are deceptive and unacceptable."

The question is simply where they go from here. If they act quickly, they can probably still beat the news cycle tomorrow -- or tonight. If not, that comment will probably end up being a little too much rope, I think.
posted by spiderwire at 9:00 PM on January 1, 2008


...or you could just paste the link into Google's "sites that link here" field on the Advanced Search page...

This link will work, eventually, even though it returns no hits yet.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:00 PM on January 1, 2008


I've never been tempted to make a self - linking fpp (or even thought about the possibility of gaming askMe to self link!!), but this whole thread has re-affirmed my conviction that the no self-link policy is one of the best rules on the web.

As some one who has been involved in a few projects posted to projects.metafilter.com, and witnessing the fact that almost no-body is as excited about my projects as I am, the rule just MAKES SO MUCH SENSE!

Follow it. Please. It is the only choice for a rational being. "Buzz", traffic, and conversions happen because other people are as impressed and excited about whatever you're doing as you are.

If it's not there, you cannot create it yourself. Trying to do so results in this thread.

Oh and holden, lucy, mr. ogden: if you are unfamiliar with the long tail you might be well served studying this effect.
posted by localhuman at 9:02 PM on January 1, 2008


technorati is showing some action.
posted by jamaro at 9:07 PM on January 1, 2008


If they act quickly, they can probably still beat the news cycle tomorrow -- or tonight.

Lucy's first comment should have been "I don't understand what's gone wrong but I'll look into it". It kinda was, in a round-a-bout way.

Lucy's second comment should have been "His ass is fired." That simple.

I know they're just trying to stick up for their friend, but really, what difference does it make? I'm sure there are lots of opportunities out there for Holden in the commercial sector...
posted by Jimbob at 9:10 PM on January 1, 2008


I just wanted to add my voice to those giving praise to Miko for not only calling this out, but also providing some really excellent answers both in the actual askme, but here in this thread too. Also to Jess for that great post to Lucy's blog, and to many other participants here for some really excellent commentary. I hope there's away, as mentioned upthread, that we can salvage the good advice somehow.

Throughout all this it just seemed that Holden and Lucy didn't consider that many online communities, particularly Metafiter, are comprised of groups of some very experienced professional people from all walks of life, not young naive internet vigilante punks as they appear to make out.

Personally, Givewell won't receive one penny of my money, and I'll be pointing all my friends to this thread. Deliberately denouncing another charity/charity aggregator isn't charitable imo. It's fucking greedy and dishonest.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 9:13 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Deliberately denouncing another charity/charity aggregator isn't charitable imo. It's fucking greedy and dishonest.

Yeah, that's really the problem here; the fact that other organizations "competing" in the same space were trashed at least by-implication in almost every case, apparently as a relatively concerted strategy -- one that Mr. Ogden even obliquely defended in his response (and in a publication he hosts?). The reaction of those other charities is all the matters at the moment. That's what pushes this from being merely slimy into the realm of deeply wrong. Even in the corporate context it'd be wrong -- but for a charity... ick.
posted by spiderwire at 9:18 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Lucy [Bernholz] posted another comment that leads me to think that she may have gotten the point -- "I agree, the practices of astroturfing and misrepresenting one's identity (which is simply known as fraud offline) are deceptive and unacceptable."

Then it seems a perfectly simple question to answer:
Ms Bernholz, when did you become a board member at GiveWell? Was it before June 4, 2007, when you wrote this post on Huffington Post mentioning GiveWell, recommending them without saying anything about your affiliation with the organization?
posted 8:03 PM on Lucy Bernholz's blog
In response:
Lucy Bernholz said...
I became a board member of GiveWell at the organization's first Board meeting in June of 2007. All of my professional and volunteer affiliations are online in my company bio and my posted bios.
posted 8:20 PM on Lucy Bernholz's blog
Only the question of when she became a member isn't answered in any of her bio blurbs that I could find. The board meeting was June 22, but doesn't document her becoming a board member, but rather as already on the board. Perhaps the record just isn't as transparent as one might hope.

So I'm still wondering was Lucy Bernholz astroturfing on Huffington Post? Were you or did you know you would become member of of the GiveWell board when you published the Huffington Post column?
posted by McGuillicuddy at 9:21 PM on January 1, 2008


The question is simply where they go from here. If they act quickly, they can probably still beat the news cycle tomorrow

Which assumes that "the news cycle" will give a damn, which I doubt. For one thing it's not immediately apparent why what Holden &co. are doing is wrong. What most people are reacting to is a generalized icky feeling they get by looking closely at things. But if you're not really involved in the web it might not make much sense.

I'm a bit to lazy/busy/nervous to do these things, but mefites could really make an impact if they were to contact bogs and the MSM themselves. Forward this story to blogs that you're familiar with, we've got to push this out there if people are going to hear about it

The "emotional center" of this story, I think is:

1) A so-called "charity" is engaging in shady, dishonest marketing online
2) It's soaking up a huge amount of money as salary, while not doing anything itself, rather it's trying to act as a "charity middle man"
3) They promote transparency and accountability in philanthropy without bothering to practice what they preach.
4) the 'crowdsourcing' aspect, everyone on metafilter uncovering all the spam posts Holden has made.
5) Hedge fund wankers continuing to act in a greed-is-good manner despite entering a philanthropic endeavor, and weakening trust in non-profits indirectly (by being shady themselves) and directly (by bashing other charities anonymously in order to promote themselves).

We ought to try to use the tools of PR against these guys, but I have work to do :(
posted by delmoi at 9:27 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm a bit to lazy/busy/nervous to do these things, but mefites could really make an impact if they were to contact bogs and the MSM themselves. Forward this story to blogs that you're familiar with, we've got to push this out there if people are going to hear about it...

We ought to try to use the tools of PR against these guys, but I have work to do :(


Good summation. If there's no movement by tomorrow, maybe some of us who've got too much idle time on our hands waiting for law school to start up again can be occupied with this.
posted by spiderwire at 9:31 PM on January 1, 2008


5. Beyond the bounds of specific online communities, operating within the parameters of clearly stated rules, I am personally troubled by anonymous posts that refer to comments/conversations that have been removed from the web. In the offline universe, these behaviors are prevented by rules that allow for the accused to face their accusers and the basic rules of evidence - what are the online protections?

Isn't Lucy aware of the fact that Anonymous is a known terrorist organization?
posted by Demogorgon at 9:32 PM on January 1, 2008


Throughout all this it just seemed that Holden and Lucy didn't consider that many online communities, particularly Metafiter, are comprised of groups of some very experienced professional people from all walks of life, not young naive internet vigilante punks as they appear to make out.

Oh, they definitely know that there are some very experienced and more importantly wealthy people wandering around these sites. They wouldn't bother with the astroturfing otherwise.

The "vigilante punks" angle is just damage control. If they can spin this as an obscure little online dispute they can avoid getting their bricks & mortar reputation dragged down too...
posted by tkolar at 9:34 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


not working tomorrow. any specific targets, delmoi?
posted by localhuman at 9:37 PM on January 1, 2008


This recently posted comment on the GiveWell blog brings a snarky tear to my eye:
The real shame here, believe it or not, is that you chose Metafilter for your showdown. You won’t find a group of snarkier, elitist, self-righteous windbags in your whole internet career...And what qualifies your most holy judges to dish the harshest judgement they can? They paid five bucks? Five bucks keeps out the spammers. But it also entitles Metafilter members to an outrageous sense of entitlement and piety.
posted by dhammond at 9:38 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


GUILTY AS CHARGED!
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:45 PM on January 1, 2008


This whole thing is ever so reminiscent of the current Republican Administration. Inexperienced, arrogant young people born with a silver spoon in their mouth, over-promoting themselves into positions of superlative pay, tremendous power, and great responsibility... and then completely cocking it up in the worst possible way.

It also reminds me of a study that showed the people who thought themselves most competent were, in fact, quite frequently the people who were worst at actually being competent. For one who grew up never facing challenges or consequences, especially if power or money could sidestep a potential issue, the "Givewell concept" might seem a ridiculously easy way to make money.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:46 PM on January 1, 2008 [5 favorites]


Hey, I'm a snarky elitist windbag with an outrageous sense of entitlement and piety, and I didn't even have to pay five bucks to get in!

What do I win?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:47 PM on January 1, 2008


delmoi wrote..

1) A so-called "charity" is engaging in shady, dishonest marketing online
2) It's soaking up a huge amount of money as salary, while not doing anything itself, rather it's trying to act as a "charity middle man"
3) They promote transparency and accountability in philanthropy without bothering to practice what they preach.
4) the 'crowdsourcing' aspect, everyone on metafilter uncovering all the spam posts Holden has made.
5) Hedge fund wankers continuing to act in a greed-is-good manner despite entering a philanthropic endeavor, and weakening trust in non-profits indirectly (by being shady themselves) and directly (by bashing other charities anonymously in order to promote themselves).


I think this is a little too diverse, and that it's overambitious to attack givewell as an organization.

My suggestion would be to go with a single main point, suitable for a headline:

"Charity CEO exposed as fraud online"

You can than use the rest of these as talking points, starting with number 5. I'd skip number 2, as it's nothing unique to givewell.
posted by tkolar at 9:47 PM on January 1, 2008


You won’t find a group of snarkier, elitist, self-righteous windbags in your whole internet career

Guilty as charged.

[smiles shyly]
posted by five fresh fish at 9:48 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Say, does the concept "Charity Hedge Fund" as a loophole for tax purposes or money laundering make the least bit of sense?
posted by five fresh fish at 9:51 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


This is very convoluted... I almost hate to add anything to the discussion...but.... from the perspective of a nonprofit director.....

It is difficult to determine how well givewell handles the fiscal end of things. I couldn't find anywhere on the site that talked about the grants they have made. Is the compensation for the directors too high? Perhaps, but we don't have the information to make that determination, although I agree the ratio of executive salaries to total revenues seems high.

On the other side of this coin is the fact that this nonprofit's board has not met since last June. This board is not providing oversight. My experience is that a board that meets (at best) twice a year, is probably not aware of the activities of the non-profit. Also of interest is that a number of the Board members are listed as major donors. Both of these facts speak of marginal oversight and conflict of interest.
posted by HuronBob at 9:51 PM on January 1, 2008 [9 favorites]


I'm pretty happy that we've (well, Miko, dw, salvia, and others) managed to have a real discussion about the merits of the organization along with the (appropriate) tarring-y-feathering. Metafilter FTW.

On that note, it seems that the very nature of the organization aligns with the arrogance demonstrated by Holden's actions. From this armchair, they look like wannabe Bill Jameses, if Bill James was a millionaire, had skimmed through a book of baseball statistics once and decided that it was all crap, and tried to start his own baseball team modeled on his idea (that statistics were crap). So not like Bill James at all. In other words, n00b outsiders who are sure they know better than anyone in the game. In order to make this kind of thing work, you have to show that your data (or interpretations of the data) is better than others', not just talk smack.
posted by wemayfreeze at 9:55 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think this is a little too diverse, and that it's overambitious to attack givewell as an organization.

My suggestion would be to go with a single main point, suitable for a headline:

"Charity CEO exposed as fraud online"


Agreed -- simple, to the point, juicy.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:55 PM on January 1, 2008


Aside from the general ick of givewell as an organization as pointed out here, it never ceases to amaze me that so many online organizations don't retain professional counsel and don't talk to their employees and board members about how to conduct themselves online. Not only from a "what is legal" and "what is ethical" standpoint, but also how to react to bad news and what not to do in a crisis.

On the other hand, we wouldn't have this extremely interesting new year's diversion if givewell followed that kind of advice, so I am grateful.
posted by maxwelton at 9:58 PM on January 1, 2008


"Charity Astroturfer Gets Mowed"
posted by Blingo at 10:00 PM on January 1, 2008 [8 favorites]


[sighs, puts money back under mattress]

*holds breath, feels around under JanetLand's mattress*

It's okay, though! Really! I'm gonna give it to charity!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:03 PM on January 1, 2008


If you look at Lucy's blog, she's tightened up her tone considerably and is now (at last) starting to sound like a professional:

Thank you - to those who have consistently focused the discussion on the depth of the transgressions, the implications for accountability, and have patiently helped me navigate archived conversations. Your attention to the issues and its implications are appropriate, helpful, and appreciated. I take my board responsibilities seriously and will pursue these concerns.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:12 PM on January 1, 2008


Variety: GiveWell Prexy Faces Ankling Crix Trash Topper's Tubthump
posted by dhammond at 10:14 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh and whoever's trolling on the givewell blogs cracking jokes about sex tourism junkets and glory holes and stuff, knock it off, will you? You're making us look like a bunch of 12-year-olds.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:15 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


cortex, I think you're being overly generous. The fact that this is the web doesn't obviate Sarbanes-Oxley nor hundred of years of corporate law that says in very specific terms that you're not allowed to do stuff like this.

I hear you. Don't get me wrong; none of what I posit has a damn thing to do with condoning or defending the sockpuppetry and astroturfing, I'm just speculating on some of the cultural perception issues at play. Lucy may be fairly clueless and struggling toward some cluefulness about the whole community web thing, independent of this ridiculous behavior.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:16 PM on January 1, 2008


In order to make this kind of thing work, you have to show that your data (or interpretations of the data) is better than others', not just talk smack.

Well, it's worth mentioning that there may be some baby in all that bathwater folks are throwing out. wemayfreeze, you may want to check the post at The Agitator referenced early in the thread. I don't know the guy behind the site, but he seems to have a fairly thoughtful take - worth a read, anyway:

As I originally said, I've felt schizophrenic about HK and GiveWell. On the one hand, I called him breathtakingly audacious, a punk. On the other, I applauded Give Well's philosophic orientation, analytic rigor and transparency of thinking. My ambivalence continues today!

The evidence suggests that HK is an immature, under-informed, smart-ass. There's no excuse for his attempt to generate fake interest in his blog. A lot of folks in the philanthropy world will be grinning at this turn of the screw. But as a provocateur, he is indeed asking the right questions. All centered at the end of the day (ironically, considering his blogging mis-capades) on the issue of accountability.

For funders, how carefully have they really vetted the recipients of their benevolence ... do they really know what's working and what's not ... and why aren't they transparent about their evaluation and decision processes, so as to benefit everyone trying to accomplish good? For nonprofits, how well can they document that their strategies and programs are actually effective? Not just in process terms, but in terms of truly delivering the results they claim to be pursuing.

These are legitmate questions. To be sure, HK didn't invent them. But damn if he hasn't pushed them in everyone's face over the last year. For which he deserves some credit.


Seemed worth a repeat.
posted by mediareport at 10:28 PM on January 1, 2008


I added all of them as friends on Facebook. I agree with PercussivePaul, I'm noticing a real shift in Lucy's responses that's encouraging in a general sense.

To me the weird thing about all of this is that it's got all the markings of a teeny struggling non-profit, the kind many of us have been involved in, you know with like ten people who want to do good stuff and decide to get a little organized and put up a website etc. The big difference is the MSM hype and the resultant buzzword bandying about the whole business. I don't care where the guys went to school, except once you know that it's a lot easier to say "Oh well I bet that's why they got such favorable press in the NYTimes and WSJ..." You know, it just seems clubby and par for the course.

I'm sure when I was running a teeny non-profit in Seattle or on the board of a health clinic there I wasn't doing things strictly by the book all the time (I didn't know what I was doing a lot), but it was clear that I was doing the best I could in as sincere and honest a way as possible. And, I did it without hollering about how honest I was being. I just look at this organization with so many people in it coming from positions of privilege -- as I was and am to some degree, just having the time to volunteer and work for poorly-paying do-gooder organizations -- really poised to help people out and claiming that's what they want to be doing with their lives and it just seems a shame that this is the best they could be doing.

All it takes is some cash, some organizing documents, eight friends, a website, some media mentions and a small group of good ideas can look like it might be some pretty hot stuff in the near future. But all it also takes is a few people screwing up in net.public and a lot of web natives requesting real time responses from a supposedly tech-savvy (hey, they're blogging!) young organization to see that there's still a lot they and a lot of other more offline folks don't know.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:32 PM on January 1, 2008 [12 favorites]


i offer absolution to the malefactors contingent upon them performing ritual suicide.
posted by bruce at 10:32 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


So when do we take on the second gunman on the grassy knoll?
posted by Asherah at 10:40 PM on January 1, 2008


I kind of disagree with The Agitator here. He's correct that GiveWell's idea isn't new or original. But from inside the NPO world, it's ludicrous to suggest there's no accountability or that an organization like this is needed to push the industry further toward responsible practice. To credit GiveWell with that is to discount decades of progressive mvement toward fiscal accountability and outcome-based evaluation from within the "old-line" sectors of the industry.

I personally believe this is an angle they're working, a line they're selling. Their model seeks to play on fears of nonprofit abuse by vetting charities so you don't have to. However, those abuses are rare, and donors can do the examination themselves with the information that charities themselves do have and will provide in response to any individual inquiry. The idea that the nonprofit sector is not held to standards of accountability is a perception, not a reality. Within the world of nonprofit leadership, accountability is in constant discussion and transparency is increasing all the time.

The only thing new is that their profile as career-changing former hedge-fund managers gives them and what they're saying a sense of freshness that appeals to the media and to followers of a sector looking for inventive fundraising solutions. It may be that their attempt here will force Charity Navigator and similar organizations to disclose their research data to non-members, but I'm not sure the pressure they can bring to bear is anywhere that powerful. If there is such change, it will be because donors demand it. Indirectly, the media impact GiveWell has been able to make may help donors feel more empowered to demand that, if they indeed want it. That's about as large a contribution as I can see this model making. Otherwise it's at best the same old stuff in a new bottle, at worst perhaps a great-looking plan to do something kind of lousy.
posted by Miko at 10:40 PM on January 1, 2008 [7 favorites]


I just realized that I have worked/volunteered extensively for and have colleagues at one of the organizations endorsed by GiveWell. And it is a great organization. But it is also a "sexy" organization right now, attracting grants from the usual (enormous) suspects, and I can't help but think that is why GiveWell choose them.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 10:41 PM on January 1, 2008


However, the idea that GiveWell is in any way holding the organization I am familiar with accountable is laughable. Their willingness to answer GiveWell's questions truly demonstrates their need and already exisiting outstanding "business" practices in areas of documentation and evaluation.

I guess Bill Clinton knew that without GiveWell when he endorsed them at TED.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 10:45 PM on January 1, 2008


spiderwire So I lost count of how many times Holden and/or Elie tried this little trick. Are you guys going to stick with the "sleep deprivation" story that's still on the GiveWell blog, now that it's clear that this was done over and over again over the course of weeks, by at least two people?

The only thing I would believe is that they've been suffering sleep deprivation. :)

This thing looks to me like just a variation on the old inserted middleman scam. (1) Promote yourself as an expert in Product X (houses, stocks, investment funds, art, wine, etc etc), for which there exists little or no formal accreditation of expertise. (2) Promote Product X to the public, promote a manufactured necessity to choose a "right" Product X, and present yourself as "helping them" to choose the right Product X. (3) Sell them some Product X, that they could easily have gone out and bought themselves, with a nice commission for yourself. Bonus: choose the Product X that turns out to have the nicest commission.

Since Product X here is charitable giving rather than a thing or a service, it's an even better Product X, because the customer isn't expecting to get anything for their money except the good feeling of charity. So they can't say "gee, I found out I paid $1000 for this $100 bottle of wine"; they paid $1000 for a $100 charity donation, and they will never know. It's ideal. It's even subsidised on both ends by the tax system.

This is why Holden's saying "overhead isn't a bad thing" and "rating charities by comparing administration costs is like rating movies by comparing actor salaries" or whatever similar self-serving nonsense it was he said on boingboing. "Overhead" is his cut. Qui bono. As for these board members, I'd be astonished if their paws are any cleaner than our little spammer boys'.

Now the question this raises in my mind is this: if these punks hadn't screwed up by astroturfing MetaFilter (or the various other places they could be busted), how long would they have gotten away with this scam for? And who's getting away with it now?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:47 PM on January 1, 2008 [11 favorites]


I would hate to think that GiveWell's problems would cast any shadow over their grantee organizations, which I bet really are great, as you just reminded us, McGuillicuddy.

In fact, an interesting thing to do would be to correlate the GiveWell-endorsed organizations with their status on GuideStar and Charity Navigator. I would guess that those that passed the GiveWell survey are also highly rated on the more established evaluators. However, I've got to head to bed and drive to the airport early. If anyone wants to do that, it might be interesting.

Also, one heartwarming thing is realizing how interesting the world of NPOs has been to so many of you, even those who don't work in the sector. It's been sort of a pleasure to talk about what is usually considered some seriously dry stuff in this impassioned way.
posted by Miko at 10:48 PM on January 1, 2008


That's errant and destructive jibber-jabbery. We're adults, most of us, and claiming that the people who moderate the site (and who do a fine job, as I'm compelled as always to declare) are solely responsible for the fact that it's not a cesspool (although Metatalk often looks that way to the uninitiated, it should be noted) is insulting to other users of the site and the community as a whole.

I'm not trying to insult the community. What I am saying is that this community has a set of people whose job is to make sure that the rules of the community are upheld.

Yes, we do a marvelous job of self-policing. But having moderators makes for a better community by making sure those rules are upheld and taking some of the more banal community management work out of the hands of the users.

I've been around online communities formal and informal for years, but this year really hammered home to me the reality that the "anarchist collective" model many of us came up with and still uphold just doesn't work anymore. At some point, communities need rules and they need police just to maintain reasonable order.

Discussion and community can exist within unmoderated groups. The Usenet, after all, is still humming along, the moderators long ago dismissed. But moderators allow for better community.

But I'm not insulting the community. You have to have a good one to start with.

And I don't know why you have a problem with Shelley Powers, but seriously: what the fuck? Why in hell would you drag her into this (and only to insult her in passing)? Would that other people thought as deeply about weblogs as she does; maybe we wouldn't have douchebags like the subject of this thread trying to hijack the medium for self-promotion and profit.

There have been 2-3 posts of hers this year where she has been quick to jump on the "mob mentality" of the Internet c.2007, decrying them for "not having the facts straight" or some such thing, while not exactly having them straight herself. Were this not MeFi, I could see her suggesting we were all out to lynch Holden without having all the facts.

And I tend to think she's a bully, but that's just me. She's friends with some of my friends, so that's always awkward.

But what do I know? I haven't had enough sleep lately. Really. Or maybe I should blame this two-month-old sinus infection. Or microwaves. Or something.
posted by dw at 10:52 PM on January 1, 2008


MetaFilter: You will never find a more wretched hive of snarkier, elitist, self-righteous windbags in your whole internet career. We must be cautious.
posted by Duncan at 10:57 PM on January 1, 2008


Bill Clinton: Let's build a health care system in Rwanda

I did technical work for PIH at one point, and I think I have pimped them before in AskMe ([non]disclosure: my organization donated to theirs).
posted by McGuillicuddy at 11:03 PM on January 1, 2008


MetaFilter: You will never find a more wretched hive of snarkier, elitist, self-righteous windbags in your whole internet career. We must be cautious. We'll fit right in.

Fixed that for me.
posted by wendell at 11:06 PM on January 1, 2008


But I'm not insulting the community. You have to have a good one to start with.

Stupid headache. That should be:

But I'm not insulting the community. You have to have a good one to start with, and I've always had the upmost respect for everyone here tolerating an ass like me.
posted by dw at 11:08 PM on January 1, 2008


This is getting awfully long for a thread that has nothing to do with sexism, don't you think?
posted by dersins at 11:08 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Did anyone link to this live chat with Holden transcript yet?

Money Quote, emphasis added:

Question from Cora, family foundation that prefers to remain anonymous:
How do you recommend that foundations who have given anonymously for generations be more open without totally giving up their anonymity?

Holden Karnofsky:
I suppose you could publish all your materials under a fake name or send them to another foundation for publishing. I have to be honest, though, I hate the idea of giving anonymously. I like almost every other kind of anonymity because it allows people to speak the truth without fear. But when we're talking about a funder, you should have no fear - just a desire to be honest about what you're finding and a public pride in the values you hold. Both of these things would make your giving better for the world; seems selfish to give them up out of shyness.

(There could be some reason for being anonymous I'm not thinking of though, so let me know.)


----

Question from Kristine again:
What do you see re: the potentials and pitfalls of online funding/fundraising for transparency, accountability and community participation? Any interesting trends in the forseeable future?

Holden Karnofsky:
I've never really seen the Internet as being as central to transparency and hwat we're doing as others do. If it weren't for the Internet, we'd do the same thing and publish a paper instead. It would be way slower and way worse, like everything you do with worse technology, but I don't think the Internet is what magically allows our project to exist, and it certainly isn't an excuse for the opacity of foundations to date.

I mean, the Web makes about a trillion things easier and faster. But the most important changes I want can happen with or without it.


-----

Question from Karen, small national nonprofit:
How do you respond to yesterday's report in the Wall Street Journal on philanthropy? It seems to say "we as donors need to hold orgs more accountable by demanding reports and analysis of their success and demanding that they don't hide their numbers," but in the same breath, states "we must hold organizations to a low 'overhead and administrative' cost." The article touts organizations who publish 118 page progress reports, but damns those who spend too much on overhead. (where do they think the costs of publishing a 118 page report falls?) I think this perpetuates the tendency for organizations to overfund programs and underfund capacity and evaluation by making them feel bad about their "overhead" costs. Thoughts?

Holden Karnofsky:
Agreed. We just need to get rid of the ridiculous notion that overhead is bad. It's an insane idea, it generally takes about 30 seconds to explain why it's insane, and all of us in this sector recognize that the notion needs to be scrapped. I agree that charities should document themselves, I disagree that they should keep overhead low.

---

Question from Tom, community foundation:
Did you read Journal Report in The Wall Street Journal yesterday? If so, what is your reaction and how useful to you feel it is that resources could be directed toward services or toward a 118-page "progress report" as created by the American Cancer Society?

Holden Karnofsky:
I don't care about the number of pages, but I think we need to take the same attitude toward the world of aid that we take toward the natural world, the business world, etc. No matter how good your intentions, and no matter how much sense an idea makes in your head, the world is infinitely more complicated than you think and you don't know something's working until you've looked directly at it. In the world of aid, looking directly at your results in much harder than in other worlds, but it's still necessary.

Question from Sean Stannard-Stockton, Tactical Philanthropy Blog:
Holden, you've stated similar answers to my previous question in the past. But the fact is, many established people in the philanthropy sector think that you are arrogant and disrespectful. You must know that.


Being truthful is not enough, if you want to have an impact you must get people to act on what you say. If you are perceived as rude or arrogant, it become very easy for established players to tune you out and claim you are not important.

Do you think it is more important to tell the truth or to get the sector to change?

Holden Karnofsky:
I continue to deny that telling the truth and getting along with others aren't logically exclusive. I might be making them exclusive, by being a jerk. But honestly, Sean, I haven't heard much of what you're saying. When writing our press release, I was looking for people saying nasty things about us (so I could quote them) and I found a whopping two and neither of them even really dislikes us. I could easily just be completely missing a huge set of people who hate us. I am honestly not aware of people who hate us at this point, aside from the troll comment here and there. If you are aware of these people, and you can help me find out about them and what they're saying, please do.
----
Holden Karnofsky:
Elie thinks it was wrong of me to call Charity Navigator a "farce." He rightly points out that it's very useful as a search tool. That's true, we use it all the time. I also think it's useful for making sure the charity you're about to give to is a total, total fraud that isn't even trying to hide its fraudulence, although if htis is even a question, you clearly haven't thought very hard about where to give. What I think is a farce is the notion that the ratings are a good way to evaluate charities, i.e., that a 4 star charity is better in any way than a 2 star charity.


posted by Rumple at 11:12 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


But having moderators makes for a better community by making sure those rules are upheld and taking some of the more banal community management work out of the hands of the users.

OK, groovy: we don't differ there. About Shelley, I guess we can disagree (but I'm still not sure why you mentioned her in this thread (she does have an account here, which has, I think, been dormant for a long time)).
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:13 PM on January 1, 2008


This is getting awfully long for a thread that has nothing to do with sexism, don't you think?

Most definitely. Although I must say, looking at the picture, I wonder if Holden and Elie are dog owners, and if so, how well they treat their dogs; and also, by the time this blows over, either or both men will be obese, and if so, to what extent they could be held personally responsible for their obesity. ;)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:16 PM on January 1, 2008


YES Duncan! Amen guilty as charged. I will now happily go throughout my day regarding myself as a swaggering Han-Solo-esque resident of Mos Eisley. Ah, blissful ignorance of reality.
posted by XMLicious at 11:18 PM on January 1, 2008


When writing our press release, I was looking for people saying nasty things about us (so I could quote them) and I found a whopping two and neither of them even really dislikes us. I could easily just be completely missing a huge set of people who hate us.

GiveWell and Metafilter is a match made in heaven.
posted by dhammond at 11:20 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Vis a vis that online chat that Rumple links --

Is it weird to anyone else how these guys have gotten so much attention for what (appears to be) nothing very special? That chat is kind of sickening; it reads as though career professionals are treating this 26-year-old like he's some kind of sage, handing out worldly wise advice about philanthropy. How fucking weird it all is.

Also, it's amazing how dazzled people are by the "former hedge fund employee" thing. Seems like it's almost always mentioned in the first or second sentence of any discussion of these guys. Are hedge funds really so impressive that they translate into instant credibility and cachet when the people move on to other lines of work?
posted by jayder at 11:30 PM on January 1, 2008 [5 favorites]


You've hurt every legitimate charity by your actions, Holden. People are going to be more distrustful and unlikely to contribute because of what you've done. I hate pile ons, but seeing the same scam pulled at Lifehacker, and your lousy sleep deprivation excuse just makes my blood boil, you possum-faced scumfuck.
posted by Devils Slide at 11:34 PM on January 1, 2008


UN-FREAKING-BELIEVABLE. I started reading about this entire Givewell incident and was initially disposed to believing Holden's apologies and such...but every time I scrolled further down in this MeTa thread and learned more - and read more of Holden's comments - it became clear that something was just WRONG with Givewell and the founders.

This entire Givewell incident should be required reading for anyone conducting business (charitable or otherwise) online. It offers lessons-aplenty in transparency, how NOT to promote yourself and/or your activities, the lack of privacy online, etc.

Bravo, MeFi - amazing work.
posted by davidmsc at 11:44 PM on January 1, 2008


I've been around online communities formal and informal for years, but this year really hammered home to me the reality that the "anarchist collective" model many of us came up with and still uphold just doesn't work anymore.

I was going to disagree with this this, but I cannot speak on behalf of my collective. I've called a meeting to vote on this, but we work using the consensus-minus-one model, and it usually takes us six or so hours on even simple "yes/know" questions to reach our consensus, and on the really big issues we need a quorum of 80 percent of the members, and there is no guarantee that we'll get that many for the meeting tomorrow, as Melodie has a lot of composting to do and I think Dougal is still in Santa Rosa for that free university conference. With any luck, I should have my response for you sometime tomorrow, or the day after, but, at worst, I'll get back to you within the next three months or so.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:53 PM on January 1, 2008 [4 favorites]


I'm concerned about the notion that AskMe is being gamed so often. I admit to thinking the same thing as ikkyu2 about that bicycle helmet thread, but the asker has asked an awful lot of completely unrelated questions, and the best answer went to a user with a very extensive history.

I wonder if there is something active we can do to call attention and look into suspicious questions..
posted by Chuckles at 12:09 AM on January 2, 2008


I'm not going to be satisfied until we catch a murderer. I'm serious. Let's think big in 2008, y'all.
posted by dhammond at 12:23 AM on January 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


Oh and whoever's trolling on the givewell blogs cracking jokes about sex tourism junkets and glory holes and stuff, knock it off, will you? You're making us look like a bunch of 12-year-olds.

I very much doubt that those comments were made by one of us, but rather someone trying to make us look bad and manufacturing quotable material to show that these Metafilter loons are not to be taken seriously.
posted by taz at 12:28 AM on January 2, 2008


Whoops -- cancel that (I borked it with a "less than" symbol). The comment should read --

Hey, just back from dinner. On the (less than) 50% overhead thing, I like dw's idea about splitting the difference (28% or something) and agree with Miko that only timesheets would settle it completely.

Huron Bob, good catch on the no-board-meeting-since June thing. I'm just so impressed by everyone right now. The last post by jessamyn was awesome, and Miko is completely right here. I'm really glad she made this point so clearly:

from inside the NPO world, it's ludicrous to suggest there's no accountability or that an organization like this is needed to push the industry further toward responsible practice. To credit GiveWell with that is to discount decades of progressive movement toward fiscal accountability and outcome-based evaluation from within the "old-line" sectors of the industry.

I personally believe this is an angle they're working, a line they're selling. Their model seeks to play on fears of nonprofit abuse...However, those abuses are rare...

posted by salvia at 12:29 AM on January 2, 2008

Lucy Bernholz: 5. Beyond the bounds of specific online communities, operating within the parameters of clearly stated rules, I am personally troubled by anonymous posts that refer to comments/conversations that have been removed from the web. In the offline universe, these behaviors are prevented by rules that allow for the accused to face their accusers and the basic rules of evidence - what are the online protections?

While I know that efforts at "bloggers' codes of conduct" have floundered, I find myself wondering where the bounds are between self-policing and vigilantism?
This is spin, pure and simple. Bernholz understands the way communities work - the politics of communities - far better than some internet yokel like me or jessamyn or cortex. This understanding is the meat of her career and her stock in trade. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous, and that's the politest word I could find.

To suggest that someone who regularly attends the New York philanthropy/cocktail circuit (and raises money on it!) just isn't capable of understanding how behind-the-back mutterings can lead to being stabbed in the back and the sinking of a career - oh no! no legal protections! no record of the troubling conversations! No court to face your accuser! That just makes me laugh. It's ridiculous.

Come now, Lucy. We are adults here. Some of us probably know you.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:34 AM on January 2, 2008 [8 favorites]


Is it weird to anyone else how these guys have gotten so much attention for what (appears to be) nothing very special? That chat is kind of sickening; it reads as though career professionals are treating this 26-year-old like he's some kind of sage, handing out worldly wise advice about philanthropy. How fucking weird it all is.

Also, it's amazing how dazzled people are by the "former hedge fund employee" thing. Seems like it's almost always mentioned in the first or second sentence of any discussion of these guys. Are hedge funds really so impressive that they translate into instant credibility and cachet when the people move on to other lines of work?


jayder, you're in law school; surely you've seen this before, though you might not have connected it up at the time. These guys typify the "business wunderkind" archetype; I have friends who have the same attitude (though thankfully a bit more common sense, most of the time), and it's astounding just how similar the tone is. Understand that many 26-year-old startup founders talk and act exactly like this; they've given credit not just because it makes for a good story, but because they sometimes make it work. I think these guys might have made it work if they'd gotten proper counseling early on; they might still recover, but it sounds like they're operating in a small community and that'll work against them.

I don't know how many of these kids fail, but I've seen some succeed brilliantly on nothing more than sheer force of will and charm (and I have no doubt that the young men in question here are very charming and likable in real life), but most of all by completely and utterly internalizing their visions. I imagine in this case they operate in a conceptual framework something like what Mike just described -- the charity world is too inefficient, there's too much waste, and we're going to fix it. Under that rationale, they can brush off the competition, bend the rules, do whatever they like, because they've bought into their own hype to such a degree that they can't step out and see what they're really doing. (Or maybe they can see it but decide to barrel ahead anyway.) This is by design, to some extent; young people tend to succeed by brashness and luck, and then if possible fix the initial mistakes later.

I've never been sure what to think about the attitude of the career professionals that you point out, but I've noticed it personally and observed it up close. I think it's a combination of things.

On one hand, I think that many of them want to see something new happen in their fields and want to hear the promises of greener grass. Some of them just enjoy working with people who haven't gotten jaded after decades of seeing the way the profession really works; it's invigorating.

On the other hand, most of these professionals are pretty established in their fields and they've seen this sort of thing before, but they recognize that they can hitch their train to these kids' star, and if they don't make it, nothing lost, but if the kids succeed, they get to go along for the ride.

On the third hand, they realize that the kids desperately need advice and guidance (this thread being a case in point) and that they tend only to listen to people who already speak from long experience; that's the only perspective that gets any purchase in the I'm-gonna-change-it-all worldview -- the voice of someone who's been there before.

I think we see here two of those adults who've settled into the advisor-type role; Mr. Ogden I imagine is the old hand, who's obviously close to the kids but to some degree has also drank the kool-aid, as old hands that are brought on tend to do -- the founders are always forceful personalities, and it's hard to avoid thinking like them after a while; he scans as being solidly in their camp -- he came into this thread after Holden, and neither has said anything since.

Lucy, on the other hand, looks to be in a more detached and advisory rule, and probably looking out for her own career as well; Mr. Ogden appears to have thrown his lot in with Holden, but Lucy basically danced around the subject, hoping that it wasn't as bad as it looked or that it would blow over, and finally decided to provide herself some cover when it became apparent that wouldn't happen. She's linguistically distanced herself from GiveWell by emphasizing her duties as a board member, which is wise; by holding that line she escapes culpability and can maybe be the voice of reason.


GiveWell folks, if you're still reading: The upshot of all this is that things do not look good for your organization, and if you really were on the road to doing good things, that'd be too bad. But, frankly, I don't think that you were. Your founders not only didn't understand basic charity and internet practices, they didn't even understand good corporate governance or fiduciary responsibilities. Good leaders are "aggressive self-promoters," but they don't commit "fraud," and libel their competitors anonymously online. That's what bad leaders do. You guys have leaders who weren't ready to take on the task they thought they could, and you should be thankful you found this out quick, because people will be watching. Random people on the internet have just savaged your financials and torched what could have been a decent PR push in a mere 24, 48 hours -- and it will get worse before it gets better.


You should do something quick. If you want my advice, I'd see if Miko's in the market. No, seriously. I have no idea what she'll say, but if you're really serious about getting things straight, maybe you could offer her Holden's salary to actually come in and give you some sorely-needed guidance? She obviously knows what she's doing, and it might be the only act of contrition that's going to have even a hint of verifiable credibility at this point.

You purport to be a new-media organization; your old-school PR responses come off very thin to this crowd and you can count on some very unpleasant responses if you try to spin much more; this place is a crucible for those who don't know how to choose their words properly. Might be time to roll the dice, try something different; see if you can get the collective expertise here to help you, though many of them don't seem kindly disposed towards you at the moment. But it seems to me that if you don't try something out of the box, your days in that box will be numbered.
posted by spiderwire at 1:12 AM on January 2, 2008 [20 favorites]


There's no shortage of venom in this MetaFilter outing. And almost no evidence that most of the critics have read any of Give Well's material.

What?

Your boy shoved his dick in our mashed potato!

Reading a GiveWell brochure isn't going to remove the taste of Holden's dick from my mouth.
posted by Tuatara at 1:40 AM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Small point, but I don't see the salary as being automatically too high for nonprofit directors of a small nonprofit. It's a bit different that there are two directors instead of one, but the salary is in the ballpark of other small NYC nonprofits, see article from six years ago. And the median income in NYC is somewhere around $45,000. (Disclosure -- I work for a nonprofit.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 1:56 AM on January 2, 2008


I don't really disagree with the scale of the salary, ClaudiaCenter, but for that money you should be able to hire a competent, experienced professional. Instead, Holden and Eli were both essentially trainees in the non-profit/charity world. It's not really a starter salary, is it?
posted by Rumple at 2:21 AM on January 2, 2008


dhammond writes "nd what qualifies your most holy judges to dish the harshest judgement they can? They paid five bucks? Five bucks keeps out the spammers. But it also entitles Metafilter members to an outrageous sense of entitlement and piety."

Jokes on them, I got in for free.
posted by Mitheral at 2:21 AM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


This just in from the GiveWell blog thread:
Holden says:
January 2nd, 2008 at 6:11 am

The Board is meeting about this as soon as we can. The exact date is still being set, but we are aiming for this week. We will decide on the appropriate action regarding my astroturfing then, and we will post our decision online.

After that, we will also go methodically through the Metafilter thread, noting valid questions and concerns about our project. We’ll add these to our FAQ. I don’t want to do that now, before we’ve made any official decisions about what might change in response to my inappropriate actions.

Before the above plays out, I feel that further conversation on this topic is unproductive. I’ve expressed this opinion to the Board, although a couple of them have chosen to engage in conversation anyway.

Regarding the blog comment policy, we don’t currently have one, and need to come up with one. I’m in favor of everyone’s expressing their opinion; I’m against the practice of making comments on this issue on blog posts that have nothing to do with it. I will be deleting comments along those lines, but continuing to allow comments on this post (and, of course, relevant comments on other posts).

Due to the high volume of irrelevant comments coming through, I’ve disabled the “subscribe to comments” functionality for now.

posted by XMLicious at 3:14 AM on January 2, 2008


This thing looks to me like just a variation on the old inserted middleman scam. (1) Promote yourself as an expert in Product X (houses, stocks, investment funds, art, wine, etc etc), for which there exists little or no formal accreditation of expertise. (2) Promote Product X to the public, promote a manufactured necessity to choose a "right" Product X, and present yourself as "helping them" to choose the right Product X. (3) Sell them some Product X, that they could easily have gone out and bought themselves, with a nice commission for yourself. Bonus: choose the Product X that turns out to have the nicest commission.

Welcome to Givewell Board Member, Tim Ogden's employer, Geneva Global -- an organization that's disbursed over $60m of Other People's Money since 1999. Given that they seem to use (and publish) the same metrics as Givewell (something they describe as the cost per life changed), I'm not seeing precisely what's new or original about Givewell, or what they do that Geneva Global doesn't already do. The difference between the two is that Geneva Global appears to have an experienced and highly qualified staff team, but Givewell just looks to me like an attempt to create a US start up in Geneva Global's sector. A little bit of competition in the Performance Philanthropy sector?

Personally, I find their website somewhat nauseating. It's a whole lot of carefully crafted advertising speak that seeks to make people feel warm and self-satisfied about their charitable giving, while reassuring them that any money disbursed will only be done so in accordance with the most scrupulous market-driven principles. No lefties in this charity, nosireebob! You can give us your dough to disburse without any fear that you'll be funding the revolution.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:59 AM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


The exact date is still being set, but we are aiming for this week. We will decide on the appropriate action regarding my astroturfing then, and we will post our decision online.

Holden knows he's still going to have a job?

We live in a world where people with much less responsibility than him, in much less important jobs, get fired for letting a swimsuit model creep onto their monitors, or for arriving 10 minutes late one day too many. Setting aside the ethical implications of his actions, he's just cost his company potentially how many tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars? But his buddies are going to make sure they keep him safe!

Like I said above; best form of damage control - fire his ass.
posted by Jimbob at 4:16 AM on January 2, 2008


On waking up . . . I am just a bit further chagrined to see Lucy take off after us (along with some of the other blog posts in response now appearing) for "vigilantism" as a consequence of "anonymity."

Holden posted his original deceptions anonymously, both by not declaring his affiliation when posting as "Holden00" and by using a name that could not possibly be associated with his company (Gebediah, or whatever).

So the real anonymous wankers here are the folks at GiveWell who conveniently don't identify themselves and/or their affiliation when plugging their own shop or trashing others.

Hard for pots to call kettles black, isn't it Lucy? Prepare for blowback.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:32 AM on January 2, 2008


From "Australia's first car" to town bike.

I have a rooster here. Was anyone after a feather duster?
posted by Wolof at 4:37 AM on January 2, 2008


To be fair Lucy is sounding somewhat chastened and less antagonistic to MeFi in her later blog comments.
posted by XMLicious at 4:44 AM on January 2, 2008


The lady from GiveWell who made it seem like "this is just a website, so it's okay for this behaviour to be accepted over here" really missed the ball on that one. One of the reasons why Metafilter is such a thriving community is because we're not just a bunch of anonymous names on a website. A lot of folks here have met each other in real life, and even in their online dealings, have gotten to know eachother fairly well. So the web is just an extension of the real world, and for Holden to be doing this on this website, or any other website, only says something about the type of person he might be in the real world. And for a senior member of GiveWell to not realize this is kind of astonishing.
posted by hadjiboy at 5:02 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


It seems that you've been living two lives. One life, you're Holden G. Karnofsky, Executive Director for a respectable philanthropic company. You have a social security number, pay your taxes, and you... help your landlady carry out her garbage. The other life is lived in computers, where you go by the hacker alias "Holden0" and are guilty of virtually every computer crime we have a law for. One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not.
posted by XMLicious at 5:24 AM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


okay, just woke up, and haven't gotten caught up on the thread here - the last I read was somewhere around 10 pm last night - but when the alarm went off this morning, I was dreaming that I was with a bunch of Mefites and we had decided to donate a cow (via Heifer International) in Holden's name. The problem was that the cow had to be physically signed (??!) by Holden, and we were trying to figure out how to walk the cow from wherever we were to New York so he could do so. I think this dream means that

I spent too much time in the grey yesterday.

posted by rtha at 5:46 AM on January 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


We live in a world where people with much less responsibility than him, in much less important jobs, get fired for letting a swimsuit model creep onto their monitors, or for arriving 10 minutes late one day too many.

Some people even get fired for taking too long to have a pee, or for eating at their desks. Where do I complain, and I mean complain officially, because the world is too goddamn unfair.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:57 AM on January 2, 2008


Hey everyone, sorry I'm late! What did I miss?
posted by mkultra at 5:57 AM on January 2, 2008


Having just read this whole fiasco in one lump, I am now sleep-deprived. Might be time to sign up for that sock puppet account I've been thinking about getting...
posted by flabdablet at 6:09 AM on January 2, 2008


Is it weird to anyone else how these guys have gotten so much attention for what (appears to be) nothing very special? That chat is kind of sickening; it reads as though career professionals are treating this 26-year-old like he's some kind of sage, handing out worldly wise advice about philanthropy.

This year I spent some time in a serious professional development program that brought in a bunch of emerging leaders for extended seminars with leaders in public adminstration, public history, and philanthropy. Though the 'elders' were universally extremely bright and accomplished people, I was struck by what I can only call a sort of fundamental insecurity. They are aware that the world in which they operate has changed in the past 20 years. They understand that the web, digitization, and integrated environments have influenced our information organization and communications in important ways, but their lack of familiarity with the technology renders them extremely anxious about it. They know that digital natives have a greater facility with technology and can more quickly see applications for our new abilities. I believe this translates overall into what seems like a hesitance or intimidation from the grayheads of the field - they don't have the experience or tools to evaluate a new idea. As soon as technology is mentioned, many of them seem to forget what they already know, and fail to ask the basic questions they have been asking all their lives. It is a strange generational dynamic, but one I was very aware of, and one which will probably become more important as the boomers and their seniors enter retirement careers and/or retire from the sector.

It's amazing how many times someone who has tremendous experience in the field would muse "What are we to do about technology?" or "How are we preparing for technology?" with no more specific focus than that, as though technology was one big robot about to burst through the wall. Most of the younger folk in the room responded with a befuddled stare - it's a tool, duh. You attempt to grasp its possibilities, then learn to use it according to common sense to advance your ends.

What it made clear to me is how at the mercy many people with far more experience in the field are to the b.s. of a younger generation that claims authority based on its hipness, savviness, or tech-fluency. This is another way of gaming public anxiety. In this case, the anxiety is not only generational. Karnofsky & Co. have been presenting their scheme to a field that is deeeply concerned about the future of giving and some unpromising trends, such as fewer unrestricted gifts, fewer gifts to cultural organizations, and increased administrative burden. They are eager for solutions and eager for the confidence they once felt about how their business was done. "This finance whiz-kid kids says he's got a new idea. Charity done like private investment funds. Publishes his research on the internet. It's really something!"

To me, this phenomenon is akin to what we saw in the 2004 election, when the senior members of the Democratic party were absolutely blindsided by both internet fundraising and the online mobilization released through networking organizations like MoveOn. Perhaps it takes a special mind to put new developments in the context of a lifetime of experience and to evaluate them without anxiety, reducing them to their basic models and looking for results. Selling something old as the new, hip idea you can't afford to ignore is an excellent way to play on both the generational and cultural fears of a generation of philanthropic leaders.

The "wunderkind" comment was pretty enlightening, and also gives me some comfort that this happens in fields other than the humanities. I thought it was just us and our dusty fusty bookishness...
posted by Miko at 6:09 AM on January 2, 2008 [23 favorites]


Sent an email to Sue Herera of the Power Lunch program on CNBC about what the boys have been up to since her interview with them on December 21st.
posted by netbros at 6:12 AM on January 2, 2008


"What are we to do about technology?" or "How are we preparing for technology?" with no more specific focus than that, as though technology was one big robot about to burst through the wall.

The solution you're undoubtedly alluding to is of course insurance against robot attacks.
posted by XMLicious at 6:18 AM on January 2, 2008


2: Still not sure about this part - it's nice that there's now another member nearby, though.
3: Profit!
posted by flabdablet's sock puppet at 6:24 AM on January 2, 2008


Hoo boy. I am exploring the Harvard angle here a little, as an alumnus who hates to see the thrashing the place gets when one of its sons gets nailed like this.

The irony that is Holden Karnofsky only gets richer. His undergraduate thesis in Social Studies (Harvard's unique name for a generalist major) dealt with the following: (from the Student Employment Office website.)
His interest in the subject led to his project, and ultimately his thesis, in which Jorgen Habermas' defense of the importance of rational argumentation plays a central role. "My thesis undertakes to sketch a theory of rational argumentation, in which the "unforced force of the better argument" can cause people to revise even their most deeply and confidently held preferences and desires" writes Holden. "I draw on experiments in the field of social psychology - specifically, studies by Valins (1966), and by Dienstbier and Munter (1971) - to argue that such preferences and desires are best thought of as theories that people form about themselves. They form these theories using evidence that includes their memories, their subjective experiences, and even their own behavior, and they can be led to revise these theories much as scientists can be led to revise their theories about the external world . . . . , it occurred to me that if individuals' preferences resemble theories intended to explain evidence, it might be useful to examine literature on what makes scientific theories more or less "rational".

At the end we also learn:
On a lighter note, Holden is the Co-President and Editor-in-Chief of the Swift Magazine, and a contributing member of the Board of Editors of the Harvard Lampoon.

Ah, a Lampoon boy. That explains a lot. Because he is joking, right? About the thesis project, I mean. He cites his primary theoretical influence as Jürgen Habermas, whose most famous argument is that liberal societies rely on the promotion of rational argument typical of the bourgeois public square, undergirded by truth-conditional assumptions that presume we all have an interest in the honesty and transparency of our institutions and each other as social actors. You can *clearly* see the influence of Habermas on the high-flown rhetoric of the GiveWell.net website, with all its bluster about openness and transparency and rational accounting replacing emotional/visceral judgments of efficacy. The world should be turned into a market-based experimental practice, all emotions converted to technical indexes and quantifiable statements of value . . . These are obscene ways to read Habermas, of course, and owe as much to unnamed conservative political theorists as to famously liberal contrarians like Habermas (though I did note in a search that Hoden has given money to the Democratic National Committee, so I don't think politics as such has that much to do with this, directly). But Habermas and this thesis project clearly undergird the GiveWell rhetoric.

So the irony of course: what Holden and Elie have done online, anonymously and with intent to pervert and distort rational competition and transparent accountability. When Holden says above that what he has done runs against everything he believes, he means it on some level. He claimed to be bringing a rational evaluative stance -- drawn from the corporate world -- into what he viewed as a flabby field of practice that is usually belief-and-emotion-driven (charitable giving around the holidays, though as I pointed out above, the fact that we also do it around this time of year a lot is because of the expiring tax deduction on Jan. 1, which conforms much more closely to a cynical, rational-actor theory of how some of us make philanthropic investment decisions, and certainly how corporations usually make such decisions by asking what's in it for *them*).

Let me go all Harvey Mansfield on the kid(s), then:

Holden, the problem is that your actions undermine and contradict your beliefs, so you must discover their source. Was it in your inner nature to be greedy and try to game the system, like an addiction or a secret vice you were desperate to overcome but could not? Or are you in fact enlightened to the point that the rules should not apply to you the same as you expect them to apply to others -- and you in fact set out to apply them strictly and mercilessly to others! Should GiveWell not be subject to the same inquisitive critique as you wished to subject all those old-line charities out there inefficiently throwing resources around on the basis of what people "feel" is an effective approach to human suffering? Or are you a sociopath, able to lie about your ethical commitments as a cover for getting away with your real agenda of gaming the system to personal advantage, be that wealth, fame, power, sex [sorry, but it always is part of the mix], or anything else? Have you chosen this destiny by entering into your deceptions knowing the risk of being outed as a serious hypocrite and bringing down a project you and your friends and backers have (apparently) worked hard to build? Did you do a risk/benefit analysis and decide it was worth it to push the margins just ever so slightly higher than the NY Times and CNBC had already pushed them for you? Or was it really a moment of humiliating weakness, overcome by the dark side possibilities of testing the limits of your ethical abilities and crossing just a bit over into the territory of the con artist and the Viagra salesman? Could you see and discern the difference between doing right and doing wrong, or were you unaware what you were doing was wrong on some level, or were you compelled by a force with power over you? What kind of man are you, anyway? My judgment of the situation depends on the answer, and you brought that on yourself by acting like a superior, entitled, enlightened Prince in building your reputation, and your enterprise's reputation. Some people can act that way and get away with it because they walk the walk. Others -- almost everyone, really -- is playing with fire. Just ask Ted Haggard or Michael Miliken or a hundred others who have been humbled by hypocrisy.

You had a fine education and read the best books with great and ethical mentors. I know, because I had the same education, mutatis mutandis. How did that fail to lift you above the muck of greed and foolishness in which you now find yourself? Is society to blame? Is it a generational problem, as some of us have asserted? Or is it a reflection of a life of particular privilege and lack of accountability? Or is it just your individual character? (Hard to accept given the apparent enabling that has gone on all around you!). Everyone sins, kid. And everyone risks getting caught. And paying the price, sometimes the disproportionate price, for doing so. You're not evil, any more than all of us are evil. But you fucked up by being stupid or unethical on a really hypocritical level -- and it matters, to me still at least, how shady the intent has been, and how far into your project this evident level of deceptiveness goes.

The manly thing to do is to accept the consequences -- the most sever ones -- with grace and dignity, before you are forced to do so. This is why people resign from positions to restore their reputations, and it works for many people. It even worked, in the end, for Richard Nixon, and you, kid, are no Richard Nixon.

Re-read your Habermas to remind yourself of just how much you have done to damage your company and your own name here. What you have done is, on a small scale, a *violation of the public trust.* That's the real problem and the real reason this is serious business.

Good luck.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:19 AM on January 2, 2008 [31 favorites]

lucy bernholz said...
Prior to the June GiveWell Board meeting I had had two phone conversations with the founder. I was asked to join the board and agreed to do so at the June Board meeting, which I attended by phone. At the time of the HuffPo column I could have revealed that I have, at various times, had conversations with the founders of GiveWell, GlobalGiving, and have used Network For Good to make charitable donations. As a Board Member of CompuMentor I was also affiliated with Netsquared, I have an account at Schwab, have worked with the Giving Forum, regularly use Craigslist, YouTube, and LinkedIn, and am on Facebook.
This just doesn't make sense to me. First there is the non-denial that she knew she would become a member of GiveWell's board when she wrote about them without disclosure on Huffington Post.

Then there is rambling misdirection (nobody is accusing Lucy Bernholz of astroturfing for Facebook).

Per standard procedure and GiveWell's operating agreement, changes to the Board of Directors requires a majority vote by the board.

And for any startup organization, especially one that values transparency, there are few bigger changes than changes to the Board. How could GiveWell make changes to the Board and not feel compelled to mention that? In light of the fact that there are meeting minutes of the June board meeting, why is there no indication a vote of new board memberships was taken?

Can I get named to the Board of Directors without a vote too? I'll want to be flown into NYC and put up in nice hotels for the meetings, but I promise to bring my terribly transparent Transparency Training Techniques® to bear on the organization.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 7:20 AM on January 2, 2008


Good Morning all... the fun continues, eh?

An interesting note in one of Lucy's last blog entries. She stated that she had spoken to Holden twice by phone, and then accepted the Board Position at the First Board meeting in June, which she also attended by phone.

It appears that she never actually met these idiots in person before she agreed to be a board member. I'm not sure that she's ever been face to face with them.

I once worked for a "non-profit" that operated in much the same manner. The Director was, in fact, the "owner", the Board was a sham, met once a year, had no idea what was really happening, the owner paid himself a huge salary, owned the property the agency was located on, collected rent for the building, etc. Once I caught on it was an "I quit", "you can't quit, you're fired" situation (I still hold that I quit before they fired me for speaking out on this and other issues).

Most Nonprofit Boards hold open meetings, I know mine does, it is part of that transparency and honesty that Holden touts so well. Would anyone like to request to attend this meeting that Holden hopes to hold next week...might be interesting.
posted by HuronBob at 7:21 AM on January 2, 2008


The Chronical of Philanthrophy seems to have picked up on this...
posted by HuronBob at 7:34 AM on January 2, 2008


"Laugh if you must, but in the end humility is the defining value of the GiveWell project." - Holden Karnofsky

This gave me the biggest laugh of the new year so far. My hat is off to all you snarky, elitist, self-righteous windbags!
posted by languagehat at 7:41 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Fourcheesemac: It is better to be feared than loved.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:42 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


To follow on Miko's comment, my experience at the nine-digit NPO/NGO was similar.

In 1997, they started talking about the "Internet" and the "Web" and said "we should have a website." So, they rounded up a couple of techies and told them to figure out how to put up a site. It was basically a transcribed brochure with some scanned logos. No way to make a contribution online, even when a few of their "competitors" were just starting to do this.

I was chagrined to discover that I knew a lot more about the web than anyone running the site. I took off on an overseas mission that summer, though, and never came back to the NPO/NGO.

It took them until 2002 or 2003 before they really had a solid website that had content written for the web. You couldn't make a donation online until 2000. And again, NPO/NGO with hundreds of millions in contributions and grants.

Considering how many other NPOs I've been around have also been way behind on embracing the web, it's no surprise that Holden and Elie could be seen as bold and different.

What it made clear to me is how at the mercy many people with far more experience in the field are to the b.s. of a younger generation that claims authority based on its hipness, savviness, or tech-fluency.

It's not just the non-profit world. Higher ed has the exact same problem. I've lost count of how many times I've heard professors or deans or VPs tell me some b.s. line they heard at a conference or while in a board/committee meeting. I've also seen some IT people of very questionable quality sell these higher-ups on some very bad ideas because the higher-ups knew nothing.
posted by dw at 7:43 AM on January 2, 2008


Also, it's amazing how dazzled people are by the "former hedge fund employee" thing. Seems like it's almost always mentioned in the first or second sentence of any discussion of these guys. Are hedge funds really so impressive that they translate into instant credibility and cachet when the people move on to other lines of work?

That's the part of the whole thing that really baffles me. Almost anybody who got good grades from a highly selective college can probably find a hedge fund job. Cripes. It's not like dudes were the chief quants at Citadel. And the problem with "former" hedge funders is that you often can't see their track records (if they even have them; juniors usually don't run money), and most former hedgies are former for a reason. And that reason is rarely that they made enough money.
posted by Kwantsar at 7:46 AM on January 2, 2008


On non-preview: Thanks for linking that, HuronBob. It's a good summary of the situation, although it goes too easy on the GiveWell crew. I just hope this attitude doesn't prevail:

Phil Cubeta, a financial and charitable-giving adviser and author of the Gift Hub blog, writes that Mr. Karnofsky doesn’t need to be raked over the coals for too long for this. “Let us forgive Holden, once he has taken the lesson to heart, as we would hope to be forgiven in our turn. His talent it too great for him to be sent to the Dumpster forever,” he writes.
posted by languagehat at 7:50 AM on January 2, 2008


"Laugh if you must..."

I must.

"...but in the end humility is the defining value of the GiveWell project." - Holden Karnofsky

That's gotta be a typo. Surely he meant humidity. That would make more sense.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:52 AM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Oh, no, wait... it's just a simple mistake. Holden, you mean "humiliation", not "humility".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:56 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Forgive? Sure.
Trust with my money? Nope.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:00 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Phil Cubeta links to Givewell on his own blog He also defends Givewell on a post this morning on another blog he has.

Cubeta promotes himself as the "Morals Tutor to America's Wealthiest Families"... interesting that he doesn't have too much of a problem with Holden's behavior....
posted by HuronBob at 8:04 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Morals Tutor to America's Wealthiest Families"

Uh... what?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:10 AM on January 2, 2008 [9 favorites]


One problem that might rise is that there may be a number of individuals who don't want to harshly condemn what Holden and Elie did at Givewell.net, because they don't want to appear foolish for having supporting the duo so strongly. The less bad Elie and Holden look, the less stupid they will appear. The best prospect for individuals like them is damage control and hope the issue fades away, leaving their own judgment unscathed.

Also, any progress on someone compacting all the recent updates into one easy to understand document? I know Alvy Ampersand was attempting it as of last night. The more attention this garners, the more important that the evidence is easily located and understandable.
posted by Atreides at 8:13 AM on January 2, 2008


I write about and work in the nonprofit community. Holden and I have commented on each other's blogs, with my questioning his methodology for declaring charities "efficient;" whatever his transparency or lack of it in marketing stunts, his method for assessing charities is completely opaque. So I hold no brief for him.

But I do want to note that it's not necessary to think that GiveWell is a scam to account for the attention-seeking behavior of Holden, his partners and his Board, or the fawning it's received from the press. Instead it's probably an example of the charity world's mindless veneration of money and the wealthy, a condition brought on by dependency as surely as the Stockholm Syndrome. Over in the hallowed halls of capitalism, no 26-year-old hedge fund research geek is going to get his name and mug shot in the New York Times unless and until it's a real mug shot; but snap out a few buzz phrases about shaking up those stodgy old charity folks, and suddenly you're a star. Who wouldn't take at least a short-term pay cut for that kind of ego trip? And it's a familiar one: every charity has its own tale of the 20-something foundation program officer who knows nothing of its work but is sure if s/he were given the keys to the kingdom, that pesky poverty would be a distant memory. Holden's just engaged in a bit of self-help: rather than waiting for a foundation to hire him to act like a Hexpert about Heverything, he's created his own. This may be a foolish or inefficient use of resources (ah, the irony!) but it's not necessarily dishonest.

Certainly, the "Look, over here there's a site to answer all your questions about charity!" schtick is reminiscent of a three-card monte game--but so is the entire sector, which rests on the unsustainable assumption that we can educate and feed and house and enlighten an entire society without anyone's having to put him/herself out one iota. GiveWell just plays into the commonplace but misguided notion that we lost the War on Poverty because charity executives are lazy and stupid--just like the people they're trying to serve. As long as this passes for public policy ("Down with taxes! Let the private charitable sector care for the poor! But don't give them money to do it--that just encourages them!"), GiveWell won't be the last charitable venture without a there there.

Those of you who don't spend all your time in the sector (and I mean the real, hard-scrabble sector: not hospitals and universities but social services and small arts groups and advocacy and environmental work and social justice) may forget how readily nonsense passes for wisdom in an environment where actual resources are in such short supply. I don't defend Holden for selling stone soup but I hold the rest of us to account for buying it.

By the way, when I was in Cambridge it was called The Pewter Pot--so I guess that makes me older than any of you!
posted by Nonprofiteer at 8:14 AM on January 2, 2008 [35 favorites]


Maybe it turns out that Givewell did have the ability to shake up the charity world, although it's probably not the way it was intended to work...
posted by clevershark at 8:21 AM on January 2, 2008


This thread is featured at buzzfeed, FWIW, knocking the puff pieces down the page a notch.

That's a smackdown and a half up there, 4CM.
posted by Rumple at 8:21 AM on January 2, 2008


Post now linked in the sidebar Afternoon Edition of The Morning News.
posted by Heatwole at 8:25 AM on January 2, 2008


"Morals Tutor to America's Wealthiest Families, undertaker to America's better traditions."
posted by Abiezer at 8:27 AM on January 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


ikkyu2, one of Holden's problems is that he is neither feared nor loved at the moment, I suspect. Though maybe he is loved more than we know, given the level of the defense being mounted here.

I always read The Prince as a satire.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:27 AM on January 2, 2008


Those of you who don't spend all your time in the sector (and I mean the real, hard-scrabble sector: not hospitals and universities but social services and small arts groups and advocacy and environmental work and social justice) may forget how readily nonsense passes for wisdom in an environment where actual resources are in such short supply.

Even those of us who work in universities see this. In fact, it's far worse at universities like mine, because the people who are spouting nonsense usually have letters after their name like PhD or MS, and when you have letters like that after your name, your wisdom shouldn't be questioned.
posted by dw at 8:28 AM on January 2, 2008


JohnnyGunn: My money goes to the winos and junkies. They give it me straight. "Can you spare some change for a drink?"

This is exactly the consequence of the dishonesty. Instead of mistrusting the original perpetrators, we just extend that mistrust to everyone. I have actually now noticed in my own reading on this site a tendency to wonder-- who is this, and why are they posting this FPP or AskMe? Is this legit. I never used to do that. I'm not terribly web savvy, got a ways to go to catch up to the rest of you, and being a cockeyed optimist I read fairly uncritically. This whole givewell thing has upped my cynicism by an order of magnitude. I find myself going straight to people's profiles now--"who is this and what stake do they have in my time for reading this". I don't like this. I want to trust people.

So givewell, with its grand mission of saving everyone from all of us dishonest, opaque, not-to-be-trusted with your money do gooders have simply reinforced the stereotype. Plus, now I don't trust anyone on this forum either. Shit.

And you shouldn't trust me. I posted a link to my own organization here.

My apologies to everyone.
posted by nax at 8:31 AM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm really looking forward to see how this is going to develop. My sincere hope is that GiveWell is irrevocably tarnished by this behavior.

Sorry guys, but some transgressions are forgivable and some aren't. Yours is the latter, especially considering how brazenly it appears to have been treated. I'm looking forward to your board meeting being broadcast on the web as promised. I hope for your sake that you all manage to at least fake the humility, intelligence, sensibility, and integrity that has been so lacking in your response to this situation.

Otherwise, you're fucked.
posted by baphomet at 8:32 AM on January 2, 2008


Here's someone who did something similar (and a media hook?):
Whole Foods CEO Made Anonymous [Online] Attacks on Rival...
Money Losers of 2007: Whole Foods CEO John Mackey
posted by salvia at 8:36 AM on January 2, 2008


Nonprofiteer, what wonderful insights. Thanks so much.

And since I was born on Mt. Auburn street, I do remember the Pewter Pot incarnation. I just wasn't really a heavy coffee drinker until it became the Mug. Brighams was my hang in those grade-school days.

I love the sub-thread about Cambridge here -- and all the funny emails passing among us Cantabridgians on the back end. Keeping it sweet in ought-eight!

posted by fourcheesemac at 8:36 AM on January 2, 2008


Keeping it sweet in ought-eight!

Okay, *now* I'm hip with the Harvard bashing. Let 'em have it, boys!
posted by tkolar at 8:40 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I love the sub-thread about Cambridge here -- and all the funny emails passing among us Cantabridgians on the back end. Keeping it sweet in ought-eight!

Bah.
/Yale MPhil

posted by languagehat at 8:41 AM on January 2, 2008


Humbug.
/Mayberry RFD

posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:44 AM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Hey, it's *Cambridge* I'm waxing nostalgic about, not Harvard! I'm a native. I can do that.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:48 AM on January 2, 2008


I left a note at the Chronicle of Philanthropy website.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:05 AM on January 2, 2008


After reading nonprofiteer's smart post above, this occurred to me. Maybe some of the visceral anger here is scapegoating, in a sense, but man is the anger deserved.

We have had years, now, of being told that rational and efficient market-based forces would radicalize the hitherto flabby and emotional ways we have thought about social justice and morality. Across all sectors, not just philanthropy. There have been many prior Holdens, waving stopwatches and sliderules and books of rational choice theory and quantitative methodology at us and telling us that being "good" and being "competitive" are the same thing. The left -- and "liberalism" -- has been repeatedly humiliated by this rhetoric, not least in the last 7 or so years of a CEO president who also seems to have managed to surround himself with fellow incompetents who, behind their moralizing discourse, were busy fucking everything up while robbing everyone blind and lining their own pockets.

So along comes a smarty pants crew that tells us they are gonna sort this all out for us and use market forces to make giving efficient -- never mind the lack of adequate state support for the same causes necessitating the inefficiencies, due to lack of resources, in the NP sector. And we're told by major media outlets that these dudes are gonna make it look easy because they come not only from *business,* but from the most ruthless area of business, the most detached from any kind of social responsibility for investment decisions, the kind of investment mindset that has prioritized short term profit and shareholder value and high CEO salaries and layoffs and offshoring and the rest over the consideration of feelingful human values as if history gave us no option.

So when we see this up close and personal, in our own community no less, and it turns out to be a facade for common venality and ambition, we're bound to scream a little louder after all this horribleness has gone down over the last decade or two. Take your corporate mindset and go back to Wall Street, boys. You've shown us exactly what market-driven thinking is good for.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:24 AM on January 2, 2008 [61 favorites]


Reference Guide for the Cambridge sub-thread.
posted by vacapinta at 9:25 AM on January 2, 2008


I think the key to whether this is an old boys' network or privilege thing going on is: what if Holden wasn't the Executive Director, what if he was just a kid recently out of school who was doing some copy writing and web promotion for GiveWell? Would there be any question about whether the organization should abruptly and forcefully sever its association with him? I think that's the sort of situation that many of us can more readily identify with and the suspicion that things may work out differently since he is Executive Director is part of what's sparking some resentment of perceived privilege.
posted by XMLicious at 9:27 AM on January 2, 2008


fourcheesemac: Wish I could favorite that latest comment of yours a few more times. Spot fucking on.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:29 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


thanks flapjax, and while i'm at it, thanks for all the great music over the last few months.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:35 AM on January 2, 2008


He accused me of surveillance.

I love that as an accusation.
posted by juiceCake at 9:41 AM on January 2, 2008


"Morals Tutor to America's Wealthiest Families, undertaker to America's better traditions."

I'm quite enjoying the old morals tutor. Unlike the rest of them, he seems smart, funny and this post in particular seemed pretty astute.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:46 AM on January 2, 2008


XMLicious: position doesn't excuse this. When you accept the role of ED, you accept everything that happens on your watch. It comes with the territory. Had Holden been a copywriter, the ED would need to publicly discipline and would probably dismiss him. Since he instead accepted ED responsibilities, he answers for the organization's actions.

The board answers for his role as ED.

Really incisive comments by nonprofiteer and fourcheesemac on the roles and difficult positions of nonprofits in a capitalist economy. I am in philisophical agreement with you both.

I'm thrilled that Chronicle of Philanthropy picked this up. Since they had covered GiveWell positively in the past, I wrote them last night referencing this thread. In this day and age, it's something they will probably need to get used to covering.
posted by Miko at 9:51 AM on January 2, 2008


When this whole mess started, I poked around on givewell's site - not to the extent of reading their financials, such as they are - and the thing that squicked me out the most and raised all kinds of flags is their emphasis on this notion that one shouldn't judge a nonprofit on thei overhead. I've been in and around nonprofits for years (working at one right now, in fact, though it's a private, operating foundation, and has oodles of money), and I know that it's dumb to judge any NPO on any one thing, but overhead is one of those things that, as a donor, I look at when I'm thinking about donating. And Givewell's handwaving about lots of overhead costs aren't (always) a sign of something fishy just seems....fishy to me. It reeks.

Boston-raised, here: I remember the Pewter Pot and when the Red Line stopped at Harvard Square and when the punk kids hung out by the T stop and going to see Rocky Horror at the movie theater - before it got all fancified, that is.
posted by rtha at 9:51 AM on January 2, 2008


So: he tried to bribe us. (... "Us," as if I had any part in this other than a stupid chicken joke.) Why isn't this receiving as much attention?

Holdon's actions could've been just misguided, ignorant, and a bit stupid, until there was the offer of a donation. It was at that point that it started looking outright seedy to me.

Am I perceiving this wrong, or do I not understand something? Shouldn't the attempt to offer Metafilter some money to make this all go away be the final nail in the coffin?
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:52 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Miko, sorry if I wasn't clear - that's what I was trying to say, that if he was just a web flunkie he'd be axed immediately for doing something like this. If as the Executive Director he gets the second chance Tim Ogden and the Philanthropy Hub guy want it seems pretty clear he's getting special treatment.
posted by XMLicious at 10:01 AM on January 2, 2008


XMLicious: position doesn't excuse this.

Absolutely. I think what XMLicious is getting at in part is not that position should somehow temper the reaction, so much as that in practice Givewell may be unwilling to do to ED-and-central-character Holden what it might reasonably be expected to do to J. Random Employee Holden, regardless of the ethical implications, because of a too-tight-knit personal network reinforcing the idea of getting one another's back.

Position doesn't excuse this in principle, but the underlying social mores of the group that put Holden in his position is what may lead to excusing it (save for lip service) in practice. The general ethical question may get subverted by the local personal commitments. Which—and I'm not arguing from a firm stance on e.g. the resignation question—is a pretty damned awful state of affairs.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:02 AM on January 2, 2008


It is unclear what, if any, laws or policies GiveWell's recent actions violate, with respect to conduct of an NPO in the United States. But a discussion of whether charitable organizations should behave this way is important, particularly with respect to the tax-exempt status GiveWell likely enjoys, and — with respect to GiveWell self-identifying as a "free market idealization" of the charity — the overhead spent on salaries to the founders and board members.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:03 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


(Or, heh, what XMLicious said.)
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:03 AM on January 2, 2008


Sure, Ms. Saint. You could post that in a comment at the Chronicle of Philanthropy thread. That is an important article because it's the industry go-to rag.
posted by Miko at 10:03 AM on January 2, 2008


Haven't the American's been sued for trying to pass Harvard off as Cambridge yet? Gadzooks, cheating Yanks - there's only one Cambridge...

benzo8 - MsC (Hons) Cambs
posted by benzo8 at 10:09 AM on January 2, 2008


Another fine quote from the Morals Tutor:

"There is plenty of work in this giving business for those who can get things done for wealthy people as long as you don't make waves. I would rather be a Courtier on a velvet cushion, than a Genius on a sack of garbage. How about you?"

Personally, I've always preferred being a genius on a sack of garbage, but that's just how we roll here.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:14 AM on January 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


Morals Tutor Consequences Avoidance Counselor to America's Wealthiest Families

Heckuva job, Philly!
posted by scody at 10:19 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Another fine quote from the Morals Tutor

So he'd rather give pleasant than smart advice because that will enable him to get more and better rewards... that doesn't sound like a great moral teaching to me. Sounds like he somehow found out that saying "the right things" to rich people = getting money. Good for him (financially) but the tutoring seems completely amoral.
posted by clevershark at 10:21 AM on January 2, 2008


MetaFilter: Genius on a sack of garbage
posted by Miko at 10:21 AM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Whew! I'm back from vacation! How's everybody doing... in... he-

what the fuck happened in here?! Will SOMEONE please tell me what the hell is going on?
posted by shmegegge at 10:27 AM on January 2, 2008


To extend along fourcheesemac's most excellent comment, the problem I've seen is people aren't treating charity like charity anymore.

Charity, in itself, is about providing for those in need without any expectation of return. This is especially supposed to be true of Christian charity -- Jesus talks about not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing and has this general attitude of "give it away and don't fret about where it's going."

But sometime in the last 40 years, something changed. We stopped seeing charity as charity and started treating NPOs like publicly-held firms. We started distrusting institutions (for good reasons). And then along came the 1980s, and here were the Republicans talking about "welfare mothers" and how the money we were putting into public programs was all being "wasted."

Let me stop and be clear about one thing: I am not in the least opposed to public scrutiny, to holding NPOs to their claims, to making sure that they are doing what they're saying they're doing effectively. We have to do this to ensure that another Jim and Tammy, or another Red Cross debacle appear again.

But now people are coming around this idea that charities can be compared like publicly traded companies, as if NPOs had shares or P/E ratios. And that's very disturbing, because charities are NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATIONS.

Let me repeat that: NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATIONS.

You cannot take for-profit metrics and drop them onto non-profits. Even GASB recognizes this, which is why there's GAAP For Non-Profits, a completely different set of accounting standards from the regular GAAP.

But we want NPOs to be treated like for-profit corporations. We want to see some tangible return on what we give them. But it's not like there's a product necessarily attached to what we see. A museum, maybe we see a new painting or artifact bought by our donations. But what about a health charity? Or human rights? I give money to Amnesty, and there's still torture -- and it's being performed by my own government. Here we see the problem of "compassion fatigue" raising its head again.

Over Thanksgiving I had someone in a Midwest grocery store parking lot ask me for a buck. He prefaced it with this long explanation -- he wasn't homeless, he had a valid driver's license, he was drug-free, all he needed was a buck to ride the bus home. And all I could think was that we were standing in front of a liquor store. (I wasn't carrying cash, so I couldn't give him anything.)

We've reached a point where even the panhandlers have to give an "elevator pitch" to ask for money.

But that's not what charity is supposed to be about. Charity is about making a "losing investment" in the name of something greater. For the religious, it's building and expanding a religious community. With health, it's about improving the lives of those who don't have access to adequate medical care. Education, it's building schools, employing teachers, providing tutors, funding scholarships. Human rights, it's about freeing prisoners and watching over countries and people to ensure basic human dignity for all.

These are all "losing investments." All of them. You're not going to get an 8% return on a donation to Amnesty. There's a good reason why in the US you can itemize and write off charitable contributions -- they are losses, just like depreciation or business losses.

Yes, charitable contributions do provide for the greater good. Kids get health care and a tutor. Rural communities build an economy. Human rights are improved. The world is a better place. But that stuff? It's not tangible. You can't buy it, sell it, or process it. To the for-profit world, it's at best a marketing tool or a side-effect of profitability, at worst an impediment to making far more money.

The idea of turning hedge fund people loose in the non-profit world is akin to electing a pastor to be president because his ministerial experience will "radically reform" the political office. It's oil-and-water. Unless the minister has real, tangible political experience, it's just not worth the cost. And I think it's the same here.

Like I said before, Givewell needs to commit to putting people with real, tangible non-profit experience on their board within the next six months, because until they do they'll be oil-and-water to the NPO world. Even if they have a good idea, unless it's grounded in the reality of how NPOs work on the ground level, they will always be talking (and acting) past the greater NPO community, save those who glom onto buzzwords.

First, though, they need to start with learning what transparency really means.
posted by dw at 10:29 AM on January 2, 2008 [27 favorites]


Alvy Ampersand was attempting it as of last night.

Due to the deterioration of my once-competent writing abilities and a surprisingly busy schedule, I sorta hit a wall last night and won't be able to really work on it until this weekend.
I blame sleep deprivation.

Kidding aside, I've heard from a couple of folks who've also expressed interest in doing something similar but don't want to start only to find that five other people are doing the same thing. I think it's important that it be done, period, since the bile and personal crap in this MeTa - however understandable - obfuscates the greater issue.

A simple chronology tracking previous MSM/Web articles about GiveWell, Holden's astroturfing, Miko's gotcha, GiveWell's response and any subsequent media attention (If any; that'll the most interesting thing to observe, I think) would be far more effective than this MeTa. Like I said, it's fine to be pissed off, but the hedge fund/Harvard-brat/OMG self-linker! stuff detracts from the real story.

If it's kosher with the admins - or if someone wants to set one up especially for this - maybe we could start collating all that stuff on the wiki, just to get the ducks in a row.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:30 AM on January 2, 2008


This organization is a young startup driven largely by its founder; the board has to view firing him differently than firing a peon because firing him may likely mean giving up on the whole project. (Though, for different reasons, so could keeping him.) It's not just about their personal connections to him; if they fire him they either have to give up on Givewell or start being MUCH more actively involved than they probably have to date. I bet neither option seems particularly appealing or what they bargained for when signing up.
posted by yarrow at 10:32 AM on January 2, 2008


what the fuck happened in here?! Will SOMEONE please tell me what the hell is going on?

I'll take a stab at that. Where to start?

Okay, back in March of 1989, a fellow by the name of Tim Berners-Lee had this idea about joining hypertext with the internet. I could go on.
posted by found missing at 10:33 AM on January 2, 2008 [9 favorites]


If it's kosher with the admins - or if someone wants to set one up especially for this - maybe we could start collating all that stuff on the wiki, just to get the ducks in a row.

I don't see why not. Have at!
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:39 AM on January 2, 2008


Multiple people associated with GiveWell have not only misrepresented themselves but used that misrepresentation to conduct what I can only call a campaign of black propaganda, attacking the competition without revealing their own conflict of interest.

At this point the only thing that GiveWell can do that has any hope of salvaging their reputation is to convene a formal, independent board of inquiry to assess what went wrong, why it went wrong & how it (or if) it can be corrected. The board needs to be independent because none of GiveWell's staff or board can be trusted at this point so they need to rely on the reputation of outsiders known & trusted for their investigative thoroughness & impartiality. At the end of their investigation this board should issue a formal report detailing the evidence, analyzing its meaning & laying out a road for recovering GiveWell's shattered reputation.

The damage to their trust is deep enough that GiveWell simply cannot clear itself, it needs someone else to step in & repair the damage for them. Anything short of that is a waste of time.
posted by scalefree at 10:39 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


This "how not to promote" spin irking anyone else? Like it was just a tactical error.

New Year Brings New Strategies
Jan 2, 2008

Should you lie when promoting your organization? Many experts now say no.

"If you tell the truth, you will not be breaking a fundamental code of society. People appreciate that," explained Susan Smith, public relations strategist. "In 2008, you'll see more and more companies abandoning fraud as a central element of their strategy."
posted by salvia at 10:42 AM on January 2, 2008 [11 favorites]


It's not just about their personal connections to him; if they fire him they either have to give up on Givewell or start being MUCH more actively involved than they probably have to date.

Plus, several members of the board are the major funders of givewell in the first place.

This is a nice comment by Alex Reynolds at the moral tooter.
posted by Rumple at 10:43 AM on January 2, 2008


There is a nice summary here at uncivilsociety.org, just posted.
posted by Rumple at 10:45 AM on January 2, 2008


This "how not to promote" spin irking anyone else? Like it was just a tactical error.

*turns sense of humor back on after posting that*
posted by salvia at 10:48 AM on January 2, 2008


Alvy, in lieu of an answer (enter lack of patience), I've started a simple chronology of linked events. I'm probably about halfway through at the moment, but by no means is it a stirring (or boring) telling of what all has occurred. Its just a timeline basically without commentary. Let me know if or how I can be of help. I'm probably veering in soon on Tim Ogden's post (as I go down the thread).
posted by Atreides at 10:48 AM on January 2, 2008


Jimbob writes "he's just cost his company potentially how many tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars? But his buddies are going to make sure they keep him safe!

"Like I said above; best form of damage control -
fire his ass."

How does this work anyways? Hypothetically if I'm both ED and 60% owner can I actually be fired by my board?
posted by Mitheral at 10:54 AM on January 2, 2008


It is unclear what, if any, laws or policies GiveWell's recent actions violate

Common decency?

the 9th commandment?
posted by nax at 10:56 AM on January 2, 2008


Here's a basic wiki page for those who want to share notes.

If you're doing research or working on some specific angle of this in depth (e.g. Alvy's [delayed] summary), consider making a note about what you're working on over there; if you're more interested in small contributions, by all means just add them to the page. We'll get things organized as we proceed.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:59 AM on January 2, 2008


Laws? How about identity theft in the case of the hijacked employee's Gmail account, to begin with?
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:02 AM on January 2, 2008


Rumple's link above to UncivilSociety's overview of the situation is excellent and worth repeating. I highly recommend it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:03 AM on January 2, 2008


Charity, in itself, is about providing for those in need without any expectation of return. This is especially supposed to be true of Christian charity -- Jesus talks about not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing and has this general attitude of "give it away and don't fret about where it's going."
Agreed, dw, and I think the change we're seeing in nonprofits is part of a much broader cultural shift, a shift toward self-interest and away from community purpose. Even within Christianity, some of the fastest-growing churches are those who preach prosperity theology. We've gone from "sell everything you have and give it to the poor," to the much more palatable message "Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days." We no longer just accept self-interest; we now venerate, even consider it a mark of faith.

Our development directors have been telling us for a few years that donors don't want "something for nothing" any more. Corporate sponsors want their logos prominently displayed on our materials, and want to dictate the size and the location. Sometimes they want to sign off on our final product. Naming rights are a seductive development strategy, to the point where museums are accepting donations with agreements to name bricks, benches, vases, window panes, clapboard planks, and nails as well as entire buildings and projects. Members want to know what they will "get" for joining, and they don't mean the pleasure that comes from knowing you support a positive influence in the world - they mean how many free admissions, how large a discount at the gift shop, how many dollars off the program fees. Everything is subject to this market, and values-driven organizations suffer for it.

Ideas from the business world began to migrate into NPOs in a big way at the end of the 70s, when a slew of young people with management and business degrees sought ways to be do-gooders as well. In many ways, I think many of the problems with decline of support for our cultural institutions (in particular; I don't know the other subsectors well) has a lot to do with the imposition of business models and measures on organizations which exist to deliver impacts which are sometimes intangible. Yes, you can list how many paintings acquired, but can you list how many artists inspired? How much beauty and wonder added to a city existence? The impact of a new visual idea on the development of the world of art?

I have no fear of accountability and accept it as a given. It's a necessary part of what we do. But we should never be judged just on the numbers. Nonprofits exist to make changes which are not always quantifiable. They are human, face-to-face endeavors. If we can't get back to some support within our culture for giving for the sake of an improved quality of life for all, not just ourselves and our benefit, not just in quantifiable number of Whoppers served, but in the palpable sense of lives enriched and changed, then charities will be cursed to further dependence upon the GiveWells of the world.
posted by Miko at 11:08 AM on January 2, 2008 [18 favorites]


Since this post is all about shameless self-promotion, can I just say how useful my Greasemonkey script has been at picking up the cream of the last 400 posts I've missed since I last commented?

I can't?

Dammit.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:18 AM on January 2, 2008


The UnCivilSociety post is extremely well written. Is that a MeFite?
posted by Miko at 11:20 AM on January 2, 2008


From the Gift Hub (the Happy Tutor's "Blogging Philanthropy" site):

Holden was wrong, repeatedly wrong in a way that seems to run counter to his basic mission and "brand." But it seems clear he deserves a chance to make things right because he was doing so many other things well. This exchange is another reminder, as if I needed one, of how suddenly vicious this medium can become in a heart beat because it lacks the moderating impact of physical world contacts and relational context.


In other words, "Hey, we know this guy personally! Lay off him!" (Interesting linguistic point: note the opposition here between Lay off him and Lay him off.) Which is human, of course, but perfectly exemplifies why I.F. Stone was so adamant about doing all his reporting from a distance, working from publicly available sources, rather than schmoozing with the movers and shakers in the hopes of getting crumbs of news as almost all reporters do. Once you have the "physical world contacts and relational context," sure, it has a "moderating impact"—your reporting goes all soft and squishy because you don't want to alienate your sources (who play you like a fiddle, releasing only such morsels of information as will make them look good or their opponents look bad).

I used to hang out at the Happy Tutor's site several years ago, back when it was fresh and funny and iconoclastic. But it became apparent to me that the shtick had taken over, and I stopped going there. Now I find the stench of exactly the good-old-boy chumminess I used to think the Tutor was mocking with his many personae. Sorry, Tutor: like so many others who could have been contenders, you've let yourself be suckered by the system. Enjoy your caviar.
posted by languagehat at 11:20 AM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


Thirding the recommendation for Rumple's UnCivilSociety link. My favorite pull quote:

Which leads to the next point: karma's a bitch. While I agree in principle with the sacred virtue of forgiveness, Givewell is in a somewhat different position from your average sinner. Holden flew out of the gate loudly proclaiming his ethical superiority and judging other charities for not living up to his standards. His getting busted for fraud is a secular analog to discovering that Ted Haggard had gay sex or Jim Bakker covered up an affair. The issue isn't just a mistake--it's hypocrisy. If we're going to look to the Bible as our moral guide, perhaps a more relevant passage might be Matthew 7:3--"Why do you focus on the splinter in your brother's eye but ignore the log in your own?"
posted by languagehat at 11:25 AM on January 2, 2008


This comes from poster "Gerry" on the "Moral Tutor" site. Gerry has been a vigorous defender of Holden, arguing that this is a tempest in a teapot and that Holden has lots of talent that should not be wasted by trashing his career this way. But the logic in in flabbergasted me:

. . . [Holden's critics are merely blaming the messenger] in the same sense that early hackers mainly served to point out lax security by showing how easy it was to do a little mischief, and that by extension how easy to do real damage and how unprepared the systems operators were.

I'm not condoning the sin, but pointing out that the real problem isn't Holden and GiveWell, but what many others may be doing without being exposed. The systems just don't hold up well to even minor attacks on integrity, and that has to be addressed. We also don't know the motives of those pressing for more retribution.
. . . .

Posted by: Gerry | January 02, 2008 at 01:17 PM


Holy cow. Added to sleep deprivation, "he's a nice guy," he's young, he's talented, this wasn't such a big fraud, etc., now we get "these guys are heros for showing us the risks of online philanthropy projects."

L-O-Fucking-L.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:43 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Apparently Gerry's taking up the call to shoot the messenger.

I wonder to what extent a statement like "he's a nice guy" could be construed as meaning "he owes me money and if his project goes to hell he won't be able to repay it".
posted by clevershark at 11:49 AM on January 2, 2008


What frustrates me most about this is that as soon as the givewell folks start understanding that they're being addressed by more than a couple of people about this issue they start with the calls of vigilantism and mob justice and the like. They immediately adopt a pose that says "you guys are all so vicious, but you're not looking at what our company has done professionally, you're just attacking our co-founder."

this is not even a remotely accurate way to depict what has happened here and on their related blogs. This is not an organized mission by interested parties to character assassinate anyone, or to prove or disprove anything. In point of fact, it is not an organized anything. They're not witnessing some many headed monster rising up to cause them problems. They're simply seeing what happens when they betray anyone's trust, but on an accelerated timeline. This is the perfectly natural and expectable reaction of a few upset people spreading out by word of mouth among the people they know. There is no "hey, he hurt metafilter, git 'im!" mentality here. There are simply people who had started to wonder about the integrity of a charitable organization that had prided itself on its transparency and integrity. Having looked into the matter, they discovered more questionable behavior and received a number of none-too-convincing responses from the givewell folks. So they told the rest of us who were interested in hearing about it. All the comments on their blogs, all the discussion here, any mention this might garner anywhere else... it's not organized. it's just the natural progression of things. So there will be people who've heard about this making reasonable and well thought out remarks on their blogs, and there will be complete jerks making poorly thought out and kneejerk remarks on there as well. Similarly, when apple announced the price drop on iphones a mere 2 months after launch, a lot of people were upset and if there had been a comments section on jobs' apology letter post to apple.com the flames there would have been legendary. Personally, I'd heard some early adopter friends of mine, and devoted mac addicts, say that they'd like to skin jobs and wear him as a hat. This is what happens. People react all over the scale of reasonable/unreasonable responses when the reaction isn't calculated.

If givewell is distraught over just how little sympathy they've received over the issue, perhaps that's because of how very unsympathetically they've portrayed themselves, here. Holden's apology, though appreciated at first, was given the lie to when a farther flung pattern of deceitful blog behavior had been discovered. Lucy Bernholz's own "well I don't know what you crazies are talking about, but this smells like vigilantism!" post demonstrated an almost laughable ignornace of the issue before she chose to speak and everything afterward sounds hollow and carefully phrased in the wake of having spoken so poorly at first.

Frankly much of the givewell response to this, including Holden's initial mind-blowing offer of what would appear to have been a bribe, can easily be characterized by quick , too often deceitful, action after very little thought. If that wouldn't give people reason enough to question the ability of a company designed around the idea of transparency, research and integrity then I don't know what would. I doubt highly that anyone could look at this situation and seriously see a case of vigilantism instead of what it really is: a colossal blunder born of deception and furthered by backpedalling, ignorance and misdirection.
posted by shmegegge at 11:51 AM on January 2, 2008 [11 favorites]


Q: geremiah = gerry?

A: Profit!!!
posted by AwkwardPause at 11:52 AM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


Someone on that blog thread also wondered if "Gerry" was "Geremiah," but Phil, the guy who runs the blog, asserted he was not and was a regular long-term poster there. I don't know whether to believe him. It seems an odd coincidence that "Gerry" is defending Holden so staunchly in terms that sound a lot like Holden's self-defense.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:54 AM on January 2, 2008


Q: geremiah = gerry?

Well, that's a bit of a stretch... It'd be a great way of telling the world "we've learned absolutely nothing in the last two days". However I can only imagine that everyone involved in Givewell has been receiving phone calls from the board wisely telling them in no uncertain terms that they need to shut the fuck up until further notice.
posted by clevershark at 12:01 PM on January 2, 2008


I doubt that Geremiah = Gerry. I *wish* it were the case, for the larffs, but they couldn't really be that dogshit stupid. They just couldn't. Could they? It does read like Holden, and "Gerry" being a long-term poster would not neccessarily exclude him from being Holden...
posted by dirtdirt at 12:02 PM on January 2, 2008


The wiki is also coming together very nicely. Atriedes has done a good job pulling out the relevant salient points and putting them on a timeline.

[Holden's critics are merely blaming the messenger] in the same sense that early hackers mainly served to point out lax security by showing how easy it was to do a little mischief, and that by extension how easy to do real damage and how unprepared the systems operators were.

Anyone who knows what the word trust means should be able to understand the difference between hacking an system with weakenesses (which we've also seen here at MeFi) and abusing a generally open trusting community by injecting your own self-serving "mischief."

I'd say on the contary to that statement, our "operators" were staggeringly well prepared to deal with this and without just putting bigger or better locks on the door to be ready for next time. With the exception of making sure the FAQ is a little clearer about what in AskMe is against the rules, we've mostly just hung out here with everyone else talking about what went on.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:02 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the Gerry thing seems like a red herring. Here's an older thread on on gifthub where Phil, Holden, and Gerry argue a bit; if that's sockpuppetry, it's at a level of sly (and apparently agendaless) nuance nowhere present in what Holden's been up to. If it were fishier, I might politely request that Phil check IPs against what we've got, but I don't really even see it here.
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:03 PM on January 2, 2008


Phil, the guy who runs the blog, asserted he was not and was a regular long-term poster there. I don't know whether to believe him.

You can never know whether to believe him. That's what I meant about the shtick taking over; he's spent so many years now doing his "I'm pretending to be a heartless capitalist to show how evil they are" thing that he's vanished up his own irony hole.
posted by languagehat at 12:04 PM on January 2, 2008


Everything dw said about the ludicrousness application of for-profit thinking to philanthropic non-profits also goes for the insidious, nauseating Let's Run Our Public Schools Like a Business! (a wholly owned subsidiary of No Child Left Behind, Inc.) and Let's Run Higher Education Like a Business! mentality of the last couple of decades.

Anyone within a given school system or college with the temerity to observe, "Gee, yeah, that'd be great except that this actually isn't a business, at least not in the way you mean," is immediately accused of being either a lazy-ass, job-security-sucking, status-quo-clinging drone who "can't cut it" in a "real world" that requires accountability or a hopelessly out-of-the loop antidiluvian touchy-feely fussbudget standing in the way of progress.

But I'm not bitter.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:06 PM on January 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


Miko, this starts even farther back, with the basic nfp structure of a "disinterested" board of directors-- basically supposed to be a bunch of business people with no background or expertise in the discipline or in nfp. You throw a token artist or an academic or two on there. So you've got a bunch of amateurs supposedly overseeing the professionals. Boards with "too many" nfp specialists are viewed with suspicion by donors--they want "business people" (as though I am not a business person, despite the fact that I do indeed run a business.) Worse, they put the Executive Director on the board, even going so far as to make him/her Secretary as well. This can have many bad effects, including, as you say, the "imposition of business models and measures on organizations" but also spineless boards that do not in fact provide oversight because they don't know enough about how the particular industry works. (This seems to be givewell's problem.)

In arts organizations it is a particular problem because the boards can be either star struck or intimidated by the artists and impresarios running the show.

Also, everything else you've said throughout the conversation.
posted by nax at 12:08 PM on January 2, 2008


Do none of you feel like you've gone too far? Holden posted without identifying himself. He's publicly admitted it and is sorry. Why are we still talking about this again?
posted by mrserkan at 12:13 PM on January 2, 2008


mrserkan, that's an excellent question, which as I understand it is best answered by reading the thread.
posted by shmegegge at 12:19 PM on January 2, 2008 [5 favorites]


I agree with mrserkan. Let's get back to Holden's original question: "I know lots of charities' names/elevator pitches but nothing about who's good. Help?".
posted by eddydamascene at 12:19 PM on January 2, 2008


Apologizing because you're sorry you got caught -- and then immediately proposing to backhand the offended site's owner some money to make the story go away -- doesn't seem like a very stand-up thing to do.
posted by clevershark at 12:20 PM on January 2, 2008


. . . [Holden's critics are merely blaming the messenger] in the same sense that early hackers mainly served to point out lax security by showing how easy it was to do a little mischief, and that by extension how easy to do real damage and how unprepared the systems operators were.

I'm not condoning the sin, but pointing out that the real problem isn't Holden and GiveWell, but what many others may be doing without being exposed. The systems just don't hold up well to even minor attacks on integrity, and that has to be addressed. We also don't know the motives of those pressing for more retribution.


I am one of those early hackers, I'll thank Gerry not to speak for me & mine. What we did is nothing like what Holden & Elie are doing. Faced with a system unwilling to confront its failures, we not only proved that what we said was true but did something to fix the problems we'd discovered. In the process we created the modern computer security industry. GiveWell's attempted exploits of the nascent online reputation web weren't done in a spirit of exploration or discovery, they were intended purely for personal gain at the expense of the competition. Take it from someone who was there & participated in it, this is a bad analogy. And your little attempt at the end there, to reflect some doubt back at those who are acting in the spirit of my tribe, is just ill advised.
posted by scalefree at 12:24 PM on January 2, 2008 [7 favorites]


mrserkan, the contents of this thread make for a darned good answer to your question; they also inform somewhat the suggestion that you mention whatever sort of relationship you have with Holden, aside from apparently running together. Were you colleagues at Bridgewater Assocatiates?
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:25 PM on January 2, 2008 [10 favorites]


Why are we still talking about this again?

If you think there is something in your previous business relationship with Mr. Karnofsky (at Bridgewater) that you feel could shed some light on the situation, you should just come out and tell us what it is, really...
posted by clevershark at 12:25 PM on January 2, 2008


Ooh... synchronicity!
posted by clevershark at 12:26 PM on January 2, 2008


Why are we still talking about this again?

We still haven't been paid off.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:28 PM on January 2, 2008


Yeah, we used to work together and are still friends. Sort of why I'm on here defending him.

He didn't ask me to post, if that's what you're implying.
posted by mrserkan at 12:30 PM on January 2, 2008


On the plus side, this ordeal seems to have netted mathowie at least twenty bucks in membership fees in the past few days. Profit!
posted by Bookhouse at 12:30 PM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


What 'we' mrserkan-joined-today-one-comment-geezer? Will you ('you' as in strange bedfellows) ever get it?
posted by AwkwardPause at 12:31 PM on January 2, 2008


Were you colleagues at Bridgewater Associates?

Ooh, this thread is the gift that keeps on giving!
posted by languagehat at 12:31 PM on January 2, 2008 [8 favorites]


This comment by middleclasstool at Lucy Bernholz's blog is well put:
Here's where we seem to be:

1. Holden made mistakes and has apologized.

Holden engaged in highly unethical promotion of an allegedly transparent nonprofit, and said "Hey, sorry about that, I've been tired lately."

2. The community at MetaFilter has shown it can and will enforce its own, clearly-published rules.

Yes. But the rules of MetaFilter are not the central issue here, as has been stated several times, most eloquently by one of the site's mods.

3. Online communities can be powerful forces for holding high the best standards of truth-telling. They, and their rules, should be respected.

Sure, but again, not the issue. If Holden were just a blog rules-violating ass, no one would be here having this conversation now. They'd boot his ass, hurl a few pitchforks, and move on.

4. Organizations are worth only as much as the integrity of their people and their collective action. Anything that jeopardizes the highest standards of integrity is trouble.

Now we're nudging to the real issue. Holden stands for your organization, and his tactics speak to how your nonprofit is run.

5. Beyond the bounds of specific online communities, operating within the parameters of clearly stated rules, I am personally troubled by anonymous posts that refer to comments/conversations that have been removed from the web. In the offline universe, these behaviors are prevented by rules that allow for the accused to face their accusers and the basic rules of evidence - what are the online protections?

Holden's own words are what indict him. The fact that I'm posting here as middleclasstool and not Matt Reed doesn't change that he did what he did, and there's a trail. The deleted comments you refer to are gone because MetaFilter members alerted those site owners that Holden was astroturfing for your company, so they pulled them. Contact the site admins, see if they keep deleted comments in their database. But meanwhile, try not to make this sound like poor Holden made a minor boo-boo and the Big Bad Anonymous Internet is ganging up on him. This is to your benefit and the benefit of the people who run the sites where he pulls this crap -- we thought you might want to know that you have an unethical employee who reflects badly on your organization. Clear enough?

While I know that efforts at "bloggers' codes of conduct" have floundered, I find myself wondering where the bounds are between self-policing and vigilantism?

Well, see, you're dipping into a deep pool there, when you start asking questions like that. We could spend months here discussing the ethics of online identity, self-promotion, etc. Fact is these codes seem to be emerging organically within specific contexts, and self-policing seems to be doing the job.

Sure, some of the people who have responded to Holden's horribly stupid actions have done so out of malice and spite, but at least as many had legitimate concerns for your company and the entire philanthropic community at large, not to mention the other web admins who got their sites spammed by your wunderkind.

In short, your question is valid, but nobody's beaten up Holden or anything. Nobody's done anything but tell the truth about him, and as one of GiveWell's board members, I guess an appropriate response would be at least an acknowledgment that you want to hear about such things regarding your staff.
posted by ericb at 12:31 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


He didn't ask me to post, if that's what you're implying.

And Nixon didn't ask Ford to pardon him. He just knew it was the right thing to do.
posted by languagehat at 12:32 PM on January 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


In one more strange coincidence, I bought a mrserkan at Christmastime (it's merkin, for the mrs.)
posted by found missing at 12:35 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


mrserkan, in a nutshell we're still talking about it because, as this thread will indicate, the story goes deeper than simply posting without identifying himself. Earlier in the thread you will find lots of other mis-deeds uncovered, as well as continuing conversations with several of the board members at Givewell, speculation about what's going on at Givewell, and some fascinating analysis about the non-profit sector as a whole. In other words, we're having a conversation here.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:36 PM on January 2, 2008


Wow.

Just wow.

Got any more friends, guys, or are you about out by now?
posted by Miko at 12:38 PM on January 2, 2008


mrserkan: Yeah, we used to work together and are still friends. Sort of why I'm on here defending him.

So, you think what he did was defensible? Not the breaking of Metafilter's guidelines - I mean, whatever. But you think it's okay that a guy who founded a charity dedicated to transparency went around for weeks hyping his site - while pretending to not be affiliated with it - and denigrating good organizations while he was at it? It wasn't enough that he went around going "Givewell rocks!", he also had to say "And DonorsChoose is meh, and Heifer International - what've they ever done? And Charity Navigator? Useless!"

Really, you think that's defensible?
posted by rtha at 12:39 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


mrsekan, he not only posted without identifying himself, he attacked his competition multiple times without identifying himself as well, as did at least one other person associated with GiveWell. That's a much greater lapse that calls into question the ethical boundaries of the entire outfit.

At this point all of their motives are suspect, what they need is a truly impartial, externally-driven investigation to sort out how far the malfeasance has gone. Which we're doing a pretty good job of, except we don't have the benefit of their support & cooperation & we definitely don't have their submission of authority over them. Ultimately they're going to be painted into a corner & be forced to submit to somebody, but it looks like that's going to be a painful, public process that they're not yet ready for.
posted by scalefree at 12:40 PM on January 2, 2008



Do none of you feel like you've gone too far? Holden posted without identifying himself. He's publicly admitted it and is sorry. Why are we still talking about this again?


How much spam do you have in your mailbox right now?

Would you like some more?
posted by tkolar at 12:45 PM on January 2, 2008


rtha:

First let me say that I don't know much about philanthropy or charity, so I don't know the specific merits of Charity Navigator and I don't even know what Heifer is.

But I do think violating the Metafilter guidelines and all that other stuff that basically falls under "shady PR" that Holden engaged in is forgivable. There will certainly be more negative PR from this episode than that stuff generated anyhow.

I can tell you with certainty that Holden is a "charity nerd" or an ethics nerd and that he's genuinely interested in figuring out the right way to improve the world via philanthropy. He's not doing this for any other reason like money as some have suggested. I think that kind of stuff is out of line, and its why I paid the $5 to say something.
posted by mrserkan at 12:47 PM on January 2, 2008


Foetry Guy: it's here. He withdraws the offer here. (Note that he passes the buck -- ahem -- on the whole idea anyway: "Someone suggested it to me." Elie? Lucy? Tim? The Moral Tutor?)
posted by scody at 12:47 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have nothing to add to your comment, Miko, only to say that the verses that scare a lot of the Christians who lean on "cast your bread on the waters" are Acts 2.44-45.

Selling your stuff to make sure your brothers and sisters in need were cared for? How... Communist.
posted by dw at 12:48 PM on January 2, 2008


tkolar: no thanks.
posted by mrserkan at 12:48 PM on January 2, 2008


I'm trying to keep up here, but may have missed a few or fifty comments. Did someone offer Matt $$$ to make this all go away?

Yep, he did. In front of God and everybody-or at least everybody who was reading this further upthread.
posted by konolia at 12:50 PM on January 2, 2008




"Y'all tried to play us. But you poked a tiger. A very smart tiger. You had better be squeaky clean in every other respect, because some of us intend to find out, and watch you in the future. It's nice to believe a couple of spoiled kids would chuck the Cristal and Lexus set and give their all for charity. But you just made it a lot harder to believe."

I agree with every word of that.

I don't know what to say. I am low on sleep and I'd like to think that had somethign to do with it. I did a horrible thing, I did it without thinking much - to me it was the equivalent of shouting. But it was horrible, I feel horrible, I absolutely understand your wish to now keep a close eye on me (and I encourage it), and I want to know if there is anything I can do to make it up to the Metafilter community.

I don't have a lot of money. I am not from the Cristal set. I spent 3 years at a hedge fund and gave enough to charity that I wanted to know more about what I was doing. So I can't offer a lot of money, but I can offer a donation to Metafilter from my pocket. I'm not offering this in return for your ceasing your criticism, I'm offering it to make up for abusing the rules. Would that be appropriate? Would anything else?
posted by holden00 at 3:02 PM on December 31 [+] [!]

posted by konolia at 12:51 PM on January 2, 2008


But I do think violating the Metafilter guidelines and all that other stuff that basically falls under "shady PR" that Holden engaged in is forgivable.

"All that other stuff"? You mean engaging in a systematic pattern of misrepresenting himself to promote GiveWell all over the net (remember, Metafilter is just where he got caught), while simulatenously bashing his non-profit competitors in the process? Is that the "other stuff" of which you speak? For which "we" should offer quick forgiveness?

Something's happening, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones Kersan?
posted by scody at 12:53 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


damn. Mr. Serkan. note to self: don't try to quote Dylan so hastily.
posted by scody at 12:54 PM on January 2, 2008


Kersan? Remind me not to send you to the store for a mrserkan.
posted by found missing at 12:54 PM on January 2, 2008


tkolar wtf?
posted by Anything at 12:55 PM on January 2, 2008


Holden posted without identifying himself. (...) Why are we still talking about this again?
  1. Holden blew a lot of hot air about transparency and humility.
  2. Holden posted without identifying himself by pretending to be someone asking a question, so he could push his own product/project as an answer to that question, without identifying himself.
  3. Holden bashed other charities, and other (less suspect) answers to the question without identifying himself.
  4. Holden "Best Answer"ed his own canned answer to his own canned question, without identifying himself. (that one is my favorite)
  5. Holden was caught, and banned.
  6. Holden started a third account to claim he was short on sleep and wouldn't we accept some hush money.
This is just here at MetaFilter.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm still talking about it because I don't think "Oops!" quite covers it, and I think that hwta happened here is IMPORTANT, both in terms of what it shows about Holden's motivations and character, and our (I use the inclusive term "our" pretty loosely) reaction to it.
posted by dirtdirt at 12:55 PM on January 2, 2008


I think his intent was to offer to pay some penalty for his transgression to this site, specifically. You guys interpreted that as a bribe, which I can sort of understand under the circumstances, and he retracted his offer.
posted by mrserkan at 12:56 PM on January 2, 2008


yeah, wtf, tkolar?
posted by mds35 at 12:56 PM on January 2, 2008


I can tell you with certainty that Holden is a "charity nerd" or an ethics nerd and that he's genuinely interested in figuring out the right way to improve the world via philanthropy.

Yeah, well, if you took the time to read this thread, you'd find most of us who have commented have had experience with the charity world. But we don't astroturf blogs and forums in the name of self-promotion.

We also never get splashy pieces about us run in the New York Times, but maybe that's for the better.
posted by dw at 12:58 PM on January 2, 2008


mrserkan "it is devoted to complete transparency in every aspect" is not compatible with "all that other stuff that basically falls under "shady PR" "

Is it forgivable? Yes.

Would I ever trust the man? No.
posted by arse_hat at 1:01 PM on January 2, 2008


Look guys, I don't know all of the comments or posts, I haven't read every word of this thread. But for what its worth this is legitimately a kid i used to work with who started an ambitious project that I for one think is awesome and something to be proud of. He's not trying to swindle anyone.
posted by mrserkan at 1:02 PM on January 2, 2008


You guys interpreted that as a bribe, which I can sort of understand under the circumstances, and he retracted his offer.

He could have just bid higher. Metafilter needed a flat screen for the den.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:02 PM on January 2, 2008


We also never get splashy pieces about us run in the New York Times, but maybe that's for the better.

Well, in the interest of full disclosure, that's not entirely true...
posted by dersins at 1:02 PM on January 2, 2008


Swindle: intentional false representation to obtain money or any other thing of value
posted by dirtdirt at 1:04 PM on January 2, 2008


arse_hat: thats fair.
posted by mrserkan at 1:04 PM on January 2, 2008


fourcheesemac writes "Across all sectors, not just philanthropy. There have been many prior Holdens, waving stopwatches and sliderules and books of rational choice theory and quantitative methodology at us and telling us that being 'good' and being 'competitive' are the same thing."

That's actually what I was referring to when I mentioned Accuweather upthread. Accuweather were involved in rent seeking in trying to restrict NOAA data, which is not quite the same as GiveWell, but in both cases they felt like they could "shake up" the nonprofit sector by trying to compete with it, and by making radical changes more in line with the business world. As you suggest, business acumen doesn't always translate to other disciplines, and nonprofits are by nature not a direct part of that world, which is a good thing, not something that needs to be changed, much to these guys' chagrin.
posted by krinklyfig at 1:04 PM on January 2, 2008


I think his intent was to offer to pay some penalty for his transgression to this site, specifically.

His offer was to pay some money for his transgression to this site, specifically. kind of a strange offer, to be honest. I'm not going to make any aspersions on his character, and I couldn't ever even pretend to know the dude personally, but I don't know how else to see that except as an EXTREMELY bizarre move. I've honestly never heard of someone saying "hey can I pay you guys to make up for breaking your rules?" on a blog before. Seeing it as some sort of half-assed attempt at a bribe is more than understandable. Seeing it as something else is rather more of a stretch, though certainly possible.
posted by shmegegge at 1:06 PM on January 2, 2008


I think his intent was to offer to pay some penalty for his transgression to this site, specifically.

It's also worth noting, mrserkan, that said offer came before any of his other 'turfing had come to light, and in direct response to and acknowledgement of the notion that he had just pissed off a bunch of people who were willing to not just criticize but investigate. Only later, in response to direct prompting, did Holden acknowledge a small portion of related slimy promotional hijinks.

So it's hard not to take even the kinder reading ('fining' himself for a transgression) as an attempt to cool us the hell down and maybe not track down some of the stuff he had not been caught for.

I don't think you're wrong to come here and speak up in defense of your friend. I do think that (a) it was a bit tone-deaf of you not to be very forthcoming about your relationship to him in comment number one, and (b) it's maybe not a great idea for you to argue the point without doing the (lengthy, I know) reading that everyone else here has done.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:07 PM on January 2, 2008 [12 favorites]


I can tell you with certainty that Holden is a "charity nerd" or an ethics nerd

I think that our definitions of "nerd" are different.

What Holden and Elie did was unethical. They pretended to be neutral parties when they recommended Givewell. That wasn't enough, so, while still pretending to be neutral parties, they slagged established, well-respected organizations, two of which (DonorsChoose and Charity Navigator) could be said to be their competitors.

In doing so, they have sown mistrust - they've added another reason for people to wonder if their donations are just going to be used to pay people who don't know what they're doing. A lot of people are afraid of charity scams, and these guys have helped feed that fear.

And rereading this, from konolia's link above, is particularly illuminating: I spent 3 years at a hedge fund and gave enough to charity that I wanted to know more about what I was doing.

If I had a bunch of money to give away and wanted to know more about how to give effectively, and what was being done with my money, you know what I'd do? I wouldn't start a company that purports to judge an industry I know nothing about. I'd volunteer somewhere; I'd find out what I needed to do to get asked to sit on a couple of non[profit boards; I'd spend several years learning about the nonprofit "industry" from the inside out, because I imagine that would be a good way to find out how it works, and where my donations go. It's unbelievably arrogant that these guys think they can found some Web 2.whatever company to "fix" something they don't understand at all.
posted by rtha at 1:08 PM on January 2, 2008 [5 favorites]


I miss The Tasty ... and next door ... Wursthaus!
posted by ericb at 1:08 PM on January 2, 2008


And yeah, tkolar? Not helping.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:08 PM on January 2, 2008


I believe what tkolar means is that what Holden did was in effect to spam AskMe, and that if we don't fight vigorously against those who would subvert it for their own ends, we'll lose it as a safe and useful space. I think we're putting Holden's head on a pike as a warning to everyone else who would try the same thing, and I for one don't have any qualms about doing so.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 1:09 PM on January 2, 2008


yeah, wtf, tkolar?

Sorry, I was in a hurry and should have been more clear.

We have here in the form of Mr. Karnofsky a person who used the internet in an amoral and cynical attempt to hype his business. The cost of doing that *should* be high, or else the already horrendous spam problem will keep growing.

No one should ever think that coming into an open community and abusing its trust is a plausible tactic. They should be afraid to do so -- afraid that if they are caught the consequences will far outweigh any possible gain that a successful astroturf will gain them.

mrserkan asked "Do none of you feel like you've gone too far?", and my answer is No. As of this moment all Karnofsky has received is a tongue lashing from a bunch of strangers. If that's the only consequence to his abuse of our community, then we can expect a thousand others to take the risk.
posted by tkolar at 1:09 PM on January 2, 2008


rtha: perhaps they are arrogant. it is what it is. its still not worth all this vindictiveness. go look at the comments on blog.givewell.net. people are posting penis jokes now. does that sound right to you?
posted by mrserkan at 1:11 PM on January 2, 2008


mrserkan -- the internets loves it's drama. In looking into the drama, mefites have found other things that seem odd about givewell (weirdness in budgets, weirdness in board member election minutes, comparitively high salaries for nonprofit startups, nontransparency in actual analysis.) End results will probably be that givewell learns from this, and does become more transparent in these weird situations. I don't expect any firings or resignations, or anything except another apology from the board.
posted by garlic at 1:13 PM on January 2, 2008


I think his intent was to offer to pay some penalty for his transgression to this site, specifically.

So could we bid on how much banned users have to pay to be reinstated? Like there would be a dollar amount on a profile and each member can add x more dollars to it in y days? Say Matt says bidding starts at 5.00 for ParisParamus between now and the end of the month. We can all go visit PP's profile and add money to that, so that by the end of January, PP would have to pay whatever amount it ended up at to post again.
posted by pieoverdone at 1:14 PM on January 2, 2008


people are posting penis jokes now. does that sound right to you?

Perhaps those penis jokes are coming from GiveWell representatives, trying to drown out the ample wealth of embarassing signal with spammy noise. Could that sound right to you, if you now know how they run their operation?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:16 PM on January 2, 2008


With all due respect, and with no personal animosity toward Holden intended, I don't friggin' care if he's the Dalai Lama. How would you react if you discovered that your employer had used your e-mail account, with your name on it (or, alternatively, had set up a gmail account with your name on it) to send out a bunch of e-mails purporting to be from you in which he pimped your organization and indirectly attempted to solicit financial support?

I work at a state university, and if I learned that my department head, let alone the president, had done such a thing even once, let alone ten times, I'd scream bloody murder at anyone who'd listen for as long as I could draw breath. I'd call the governor, the union, the Chronicle of Higher Education. If the perpetrator were not my employer but my friend, I would sure as shit not pat him on the shoulder and say "poor little you" and go around publicly defending such a repugnant fraud and abuse of trust no matter how much I respected the person overall.
posted by FelliniBlank at 1:16 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


people are posting penis jokes now. does that sound right to you?

It doesn't seem right to me, and I've said as much on that very blog post. I don't know who's been posting those weird comments (as 'Holned' and 'Holeden' and also as 'a' over on Lucy's blog if I recall correctly), but I wish they'd stop. I sincerely hope they're not a metafilter member, but I don't have any editorial control or administrative access to anything other than Metafilter, so the disposition of those comments are out of my hands.

However, vindictive assholery in comments does not dismiss or even remotely mitigate what Holden et al have been up to, especially given the wildly different contexts: miscellaneous folks discussing something on the internet vs. lauded spearheads of a charity org engaging in vile promotional/competitive hijinks.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:16 PM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


Holy shit, mrserkan, have none of you ever heard the term "up-front disclosure" before?

Again, what is wrong with you people?
posted by spiderwire at 1:18 PM on January 2, 2008


I just finished a draft of a chronology of linked events. I won't say its perfect, and commentary on what was done is for the most part absent, but it did give me a chance to review a lot of what stirred the whole hornets nest.

A large part of me wants to pity Holden, as someone who decided that the ends justify the means. He had a noble purpose in mind and pursued its success by ignoble acts. I do think there is a sincere emotion behind asking for forgiveness, but upon seeing all that he and Elie did, I also think that it only came into existence after he was caught. His defense that he posted without disclosure to allow Givewell.net to be argued on merit is almost satisfactory, until in the process of doing so, he (and Elie) felt the need to dismiss and put down the competition in the process. But furthermore, even the above merit strategy does not go along with Givewell's great claim for the need of transparency. If transparency meant so much, both Elie and Holden should have adopted it into every act they took on behalf of their company, but they adopted an intentional strategy not to.

What is worse, is that their guiding board member, Tim Ogden, was aware to an extent of this particular strategy. By his own words, he considered it a promotional strategy (see his post). Undoubtedly, the two young men most likely acted in some part under the belief that a superior and a more experienced businessman, had vetted the strategy. It showed a poor understanding of the internet by Mr. Ogden, and an apparent lack of oversight on the activities (one would hope) that lead to attacks against other charities, like Heifer International and Charity Navigator (then again, Mr. Ogden has shown from BeyondPhilanthropy that he does not think highly of Heifer).

It seems all hands are dirty to some degree, except for Lucy Bernholz, who seems to have had no role in any of it at all, other than perhaps trusting Mr. Ogden to provide proper oversight to their two young founders.
posted by Atreides at 1:18 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Look guys, I don't know all of the comments or posts, I haven't read every word of this thread. But for what its worth this is legitimately a kid i used to work with who started an ambitious project that I for one think is awesome and something to be proud of. He's not trying to swindle anyone.

The ends do not justify the means.

Go back and read this thread, particularly Miko's posts (and some of the others who also work with NPOs) and then go back and explain to your friend why so many of us are so upset with him.

Oh, and while you are here, could you please explain to this middleaged middleclass mom from North Carolina what the heck this kid was doing that was so "awesome and something to be proud of" ? Because I save those kinds of adjectives for those who actually DO things or GIVE things. To me all this just looks like shuffling someone else's money around.
posted by konolia at 1:19 PM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


people are posting penis jokes now. does that sound right to you?

penis jokes in blog comments should be the least of anyone's worries. I suspect what's worse for them are all the well reasoned criticisms of their operation.
posted by shmegegge at 1:19 PM on January 2, 2008


Penis jokes? Seems more like a Fark or SomethingAwful thing... only overeducated, snarky, "elitist, self-righteous windbags" here.
posted by clevershark at 1:19 PM on January 2, 2008


i gotta get on the subway everyone. I'll be back in an hour or so.
posted by mrserkan at 1:19 PM on January 2, 2008


This guy has posted a series of defences of Holden today. Apparently, two wrongs make a right.

This whole GiveWell thing is killing me. But it provides such good blog fodder. So I think I'm going to do a series of quotes out of the morass because people are fascinating.

"Come on, people. In business this can be dismissed as sleazy shenanigans, but in charity this should not be dismissed."

This comment literally made me laugh out loud. Charities, especially private foundations, IMHO exhibit some of the most sleazy shenanigans ever conceived by corporations . This specific example so doesn't even rate among executive compensation, employing foundations as conduits of money to friends and business associates, etc. If we want to clean house, lets start with something important and systemic.

posted by Rumple at 1:20 PM on January 2, 2008


go look at the comments on blog.givewell.net. people are posting penis jokes now. does that sound right to you?

Christ, of course that's not right. Whatever gave you the idea that I thought that was okay? It's stupid and juvenile and detracts from the real issue: what Holden et al. did was unethical. Comments like those on the givewell blog, and a few of the more vitriolic ones here, only create a "Oh, poor Holden! He's young, he's overenthusiastic! He meant well, please forgive him!" mentality - like the one you're displaying.

But tell me, mrserkan, do you think that what Holden did is okay? Was it ethical? Someone upthread said that it's forgivable; it may be - but only, for me at least, when I see evidence of true understanding on Holden et al.'s part of why his actions were wrong, unethical, harmful, etc. He's apologized, but I'm still feeling like he's apologized because he got caught, not because he regrets shitting on other charities without having the balls to identify himself while doing so.

When he understands that, then yes, I'll probably forgive him - but yeah, I won't trust him with my money. And I'll be telling this story for a long time.
posted by rtha at 1:20 PM on January 2, 2008


Look guys, I don't know all of the comments or posts, I haven't read every word of this thread.

The rest of that paragraph should read: So I'll get right on that before I open my mouth and embarrass myself.
posted by Skorgu at 1:22 PM on January 2, 2008 [5 favorites]


mrserkan asked "Do none of you feel like you've gone too far?", and my answer is No. As of this moment all Karnofsky has received is a tongue lashing from a bunch of strangers. If that's the only consequence to his abuse of our community, then we can expect a thousand others to take the risk.

Whether they do is irrelevant to the current discussion. Yes, the best we can do as a community is have this shivaree, but this is our community. But none of this matters to those Chinese and Romanian spammers.

And that's fine. We're self-policing. This is our community, and we can only control our community.

The one benefit is that we are publicly writing a cautionary tale for other organizations who attempt to do anything like this. And the way it's spreading across blogs, I'm sure it will be one of those cautionary tales that will launch a thousand Powerpoint presentation.
posted by dw at 1:22 PM on January 2, 2008


konolia: i think he's trying to make the kind of philanthropy research that the big guys like bill gates get available to everyone. that sounds awesome to me, and if i were trying to do something like that i'd be proud of it
posted by mrserkan at 1:22 PM on January 2, 2008


Wow, my original message looks even worse now that I know that mrserkan was here specifically in defense of Karnofsky.

mrserkan, allow me to offer my sincerest apologies: I was not threatening you and certainly didn't intend to appear that way. I was quickly and sloppily making a point about tolerance for spam and its consequences.
posted by tkolar at 1:24 PM on January 2, 2008


dw: could you link me a few of said blogs? I'd like to read up a bit.

ok im really leaving now
posted by mrserkan at 1:24 PM on January 2, 2008


I thought Holden had closed the Givewell blog to open comments. If that's so, then any penis jokes that appear are being allowed to appear, which makes one suspect they are being done to distract from the issue and detract from MeFi's legitimacy.











Oh, and if the WSJ or NYT picks this up, we'll be glad that img tags are disabled.
posted by mds35 at 1:25 PM on January 2, 2008


perhaps they are arrogant. it is what it is. its still not worth all this vindictiveness. go look at the comments on blog.givewell.net. people are posting penis jokes now. does that sound right to you?

We at MetaFilter are only a small portion of your problem. Holden & Elie have seeded a tsunami, one that has not yet crested. News of what they did is working its way up the ranks at Digg & Fark, jumping from blog to mailing list & back again. For better or worse, just or unjust, your friends have angered the Internet. At this point the only thing you can do is batten down the hatches, hang on & learn a very painful lesson: don't do that.
posted by scalefree at 1:30 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


that sounds awesome to me, and if i were trying to do something like that i'd be proud of it

Mrserkan, when I'm proud of something I've created, something I think is worthwhile, that I'd like to share with others, I do not resort to fraud to promote my efforts. What I've created should stand upon its own merits. I'm not the executive director of a non-profit, I'm just a mom and an artist. But the ethics should be the same for me and your friend.

Have a safe trip.
posted by jamaro at 1:33 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Atreides, that wiki is a pretty great chronology of events here. For press and other outside purposes, it might also be useful to have a less mefi-centric detailing of events that presents a chronology of all of Holden/Elie/Lucy/etc's posts on this and other sites, in the order they happened, with links. That chronology could go back several months and include all of their aliases. That way, we can have a central place to which to point people interested in the research all of the detective-types here have done without them having to refer back here each time. I'd like to send a tip to some journalists I know, but it would be easier if we had a pre-packaged chronology to point them to.
posted by decathecting at 1:38 PM on January 2, 2008


In answer to konolia's question, here from GiveWell's FAQs are the three ways they add value:

The value of GiveWell is a product of the following:
1. How much money we influence, directly or indirectly, with our research.
2. How much value our research adds (i.e., how much more effective a donation is when informed by our research).
3. The extent to which we’re able to create higher-quality dialogue around giving, and spread the acceptance and use of our core values (particularly transparency in giving decisions).

posted by found missing at 1:38 PM on January 2, 2008


I, for one, am still open to the whole bribing thing in exchange for looking the other way.
posted by poppo at 1:38 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


dw writes...
But none of this matters to those Chinese and Romanian spammers.

Certainly not the ones who are fronting businesses that are semi-legitimate to begin with.

However, the internet community has successfully drawn a line: respectable, legitimate businesses don't do spam. Even "opt-out" mailing schemes are seen as a bit dodgy.

To start spamming (or in this case astroturfing) is to flag the potential illegitimacy of your own business. *That* is the consequence to GiveWell of Mr. Karnofsky's actions.
posted by tkolar at 1:39 PM on January 2, 2008


That chronology could go back several months and include all of their aliases.

A "known aliases" section with citations to comments would be a good thing, definitely.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:41 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


dw: could you link me a few of said blogs? I'd like to read up a bit.

Well, here are the search pages:

Technorati
Google Blog Search

And here are a couple blog posts:

Chronicle of Philanthropy
Uncivil Society

Keep digging from there.
posted by dw at 1:44 PM on January 2, 2008


According to the FAQ, they wish to be judged on those three metrics. Defenders of Holden and Ellie seem to be pointing to #1 and #2, but ignoring the damage they've done to their own #3.
posted by found missing at 1:44 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


My first goal was to simply get the chronology done. Cortex and Jessamyn have setup a good page on the wiki for general information. Unless someone beats me to it, when I get a second wind, I intend to go back through and put together a list of Elie's and Holden's (etc) activities for simple scanning.
posted by Atreides at 1:45 PM on January 2, 2008


This guy has posted a series of defences of Holden today.

Wow, what a jerk. A couple of excerpts:

For the record: I already know Holden is pissing people off and exhibits poor social skills... now I can add exhibits poor judgment to the list. But that doesn't take away from the fact GiveWell is doing something valuable.

What, exactly?

Which brings me to the point. Givewell is starting to feel the impact of its own principles. The Metafilter candle storm is what happens when you open up your operations to the masses. It will make the Givewell staff make better decisions in the future.

Hopefully the next candle storm can happen in an online community with a bit more civility and a bit more background knowledge... rather than just mindlessly spanking Givewell, the community will leverage Givewell's openness to make it better.


You think the MetaFilter community hasn't demonstrated background knowledge? Have you even read the thread? Yeah, Givewell is being spanked, but "mindlessly" is the exact opposite of the truth. And hopefully "the Givewell staff make better decisions in the future" after they've gone through a sobering and educational period of unemployment.

All these people defending the guy are part of the same clubby, clannish elite who are so convinced of the righteousness of whatever they do that it doesn't even enter their head that anger could be justified. Sure, sure, we all make mistakes, we'll cut his allowance in half this week and he'll learn his lesson. If an outsider pulled the same shit, they'd toss him overboard without a second thought. Grr.
posted by languagehat at 1:49 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


I may have missed where this was addressed upthread, but in reading around in givewell's site, am I seeing that they've only ever had one board meeting? One? That's not, you know, standard, is it? Especially for a new organization. My NPO has an active board that meets four times a year, and I've worked at other nonprofits where the board met six times a year.

One meeting since June is sounding a little too hands-off for such a young organization.
posted by rtha at 1:50 PM on January 2, 2008


languagehat: yeah thats it we're all the clannish elite. i'm not just a guy defending his friend. what a clubby, elitist thing to do.
posted by mrserkan at 1:57 PM on January 2, 2008


The value of GiveWell is a product of the following:
1. How much money we influence, directly or indirectly, with our research.
2. How much value our research adds (i.e., how much more effective a donation is when informed by our research).
3. The extent to which we’re able to create higher-quality dialogue around giving, and spread the acceptance and use of our core values (particularly transparency in giving decisions).


Research?

Actually, I think what I would do is simply pick a charity that sounds good, then ask my Metafilter homies. No overhead on the charity dollar.
posted by konolia at 1:59 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


In front of God and everybody

God reads MetaFilter? I am so going to hell.

On preview:

go look at the comments on blog.givewell.net. people are posting penis jokes now. does that sound right to you?

No, but it does sound like the internet.

Perhaps young Holden has learned an object lesson: sometimes when you start swinging around a bucket of shit, it splashes on you.

Count me in the spiteful and vindictive camp. Holden actually may be a paragon of American manliness, an altruistic visionary who helps little old ladies across the street and regularly donates blood when he's not coaching youth basketball at the Boy's Club. I dunno. Don't know the guy. All I know OF him is the slimy trail he's left through a bunch of blog comments that have been collated by people on a website I frequent. It looks very much like he's saying one thing and doing another. It also looks like he's doing this in the name of charity, during the holidays. And then when called on it this hedge-fund whiz-kid's first reaction is to try to buy off further inquiry. In the name of charity. During the holidays.

So.

If Holden were pumping stocks, selling penis enlargement nostrums, or promoting Hot Women Looking To Meet You Tonite, I'd chalk it up to more of the same and not give it a second thought.
But he's the founder of a charitable foundation that makes bold claims about honesty and transparency. Yet he's demonstrably tried to pull a two-bit con, tried to bribe his way out of it, and enlisted his powerful friends to run interference and do damage control.

On second preview:

Bring the pain, 'hat.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:01 PM on January 2, 2008 [5 favorites]


jamaro: totally agree, and im not saying self-promotion without acknowledging it as such is defensible, just forgivable.
posted by mrserkan at 2:01 PM on January 2, 2008


You think the MetaFilter community hasn't demonstrated background knowledge? Have you even read the thread?

Honestly, this thread is approaching 1000 comments. Nobody is going to read the thread. And thats too bad because there are insightful comments here by folks in the nonprofit sector.
posted by vacapinta at 2:01 PM on January 2, 2008


It seems all hands are dirty to some degree, except for Lucy Bernholz, who seems to have had no role in any of it at all, other than perhaps trusting Mr. Ogden to provide proper oversight to their two young founders.

Well, her hands certainly don't seem to be anywhere as dirty as Holden's/Elie's, but she is giving the distinct impression of dodging the issue of exactly when she accepted the nomination to be on GiveWell's board (see here). The timing is relevant due to her own pro-GiveWell post on HuffPo in which she did not disclose her GiveWell connection (for which she's issued her own limited mea culpa).

decathecting: For press and other outside purposes, it might also be useful to have a less mefi-centric detailing of events that presents a chronology of all of Holden/Elie/Lucy/etc's posts on this and other sites, in the order they happened, with links.

This is an excellent idea. I think it's absolutely crucial to present a less-Mefi-centric summary for the press so that they cannot mistake the story as merely "Karnofsky/GiveWell astroturfs Mefi; Mefites get pissed off, word spreads on web." Obviously, the real story is much bigger than that, even though of course Mefi is where he got caught and the story first unraveled.

Sure, sure, we all make mistakes, we'll cut his allowance in half this week and he'll learn his lesson. If an outsider pulled the same shit, they'd toss him overboard without a second thought.

Yeah, exactly. All the little mini-lectures on the necessity of forgiveness from this set are grotesque. I wonder how fast these moral paragons are to forgive the $8-an-hour subordinate who's late to work because her babysitter couldn't make it, or the valet who's a little slow in bringing the Beemer around because he's got three other Beemer Guys in front of him, or the waitress who spills the coffee because she's got twice as many tables and half as much sleep as usual?
posted by scody at 2:02 PM on January 2, 2008 [5 favorites]


mrserkan writes "its still not worth all this vindictiveness. go look at the comments on blog.givewell.net. people are posting penis jokes now. does that sound right to you?"

Nobody here has directed it. It's unfortunate, but it's not terribly unusual, but that doesn't make it right. However, anonymous juvenile blog comments don't quite rise to the level of misrepresentation by a nonprofit founder and executive. But, yeah, it's not what most of us would want. Still, I get Viagra spam every day ...
posted by krinklyfig at 2:03 PM on January 2, 2008


Man, I've been trying to keep up with this but I have a seven year old daughter that is home on christmas break. So I apologize if this has already been posted.

"Heck, I wish all the MetaFilter busy-bodies that keep emailing me and posting comments to this blog would turn their attention to the far more egregious behavior in the sector. But since their attention span isn't long enough to do investigation, they need intermediaries to queue up issues or folks like Holden to do stupid human tricks.
Hopefully the next candle storm can happen in an online community with a bit more civility and a bit more background knowledge... rather than just mindlessly spanking Givewell, the community will leverage Givewell's openness to make it better."


And now back to chutes and ladders.
posted by Sailormom at 2:04 PM on January 2, 2008


I, for one, am still open to the whole bribing thing in exchange for looking the other way.

Don't do that! I did once, and someone spiked my drink as a joke.
posted by clevershark at 2:08 PM on January 2, 2008


she is giving the distinct impression of dodging the issue of exactly when she accepted the nomination to be on GiveWell's board (see here)

To update: it appears that as of a few minutes ago, Lucy has finally answered the question, after about 3 persistent clarifications.
posted by scody at 2:08 PM on January 2, 2008


mrserkan:

Sure, Holden might be a good guy in person. He might have great aspirations and whatnot. I'd even go out on a limb and guess that he doesn't dine on the still-beating hearts of newborn puppies and kittens. But good people are still capable of doing bad, stupid things; and writing it off as just a silly mistake made by an otherwise good / smart / amazing / sun-shines-forth-from-butt person unduly minimizes the problem that Holden has revealed by his actions.

From some of the comments on other blogs (#17 on the second one. Yes, I'm #18), it seems like what Holden did is virtually commonplace in non-profit. What he did, and having been caught at it, tarnishes not only GiveWell but other large charities out there. As in my comment on philanthropy.com, for quite a while I'm not going to be donating to anything other than maybe this one local street-youth outreach place. I used to donate to the Quebec version of United Way occasionally, but that's not going to happen again for a while.

Trying to minimize it by appealing to your personal knowledge that Holden's a great guy, or (as per the socialsource link) by turning this thing into a matter of "candlestorm" of a few pissed off MeFi elitists doesn't help at all. In fact, that socialsource guy's greasy attitude turns me off of charities even more.

And that's the last from me on this, to help keep the comment count down so that those who want to organize something don't have to wait years for the thread to load. Charitable instinct, or something.
posted by CKmtl at 2:10 PM on January 2, 2008


Heck, I wish all the MetaFilter busy-bodies that keep emailing me and posting comments to this blog would turn their attention to the far more egregious behavior in the sector.

Red herring.
posted by found missing at 2:14 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


im not the person on socialsource by the way, if thats what you are implying.
posted by mrserkan at 2:17 PM on January 2, 2008


As someone in the philanthropic sector who's watched Holden's antics online for some time and has gotten thoroughly sick of A) his self-aggrandizing, B) his personal aggressiveness and obnoxiousness, and C) the implication that nobody at all out there is doing any kind of scrutiny, that nonprofits themselves are not attempting to measure their own effectiveness, and that Givewell is some kind of white knight out to rescue us all from our own incompetence and wilful blindness, I'm watching this episode with... let us say, some interest. Although the Givewell team claim they haven't seen much criticism, I'm sure there are a hell of a lot of people out there in the sector who roll their eyes whenever they see it mentioned, and who don't bother to engage with Holden because he's obnoxious and adversarial, and we are too busy to get engaged in massive long arguments with him.

Holden is obviously enthusiastic about what he's doing, but he severely underestimates the amount of time, thought, experimentation and care that needs to go into measuring effectiveness (see here for an example - in what universe does it take no staff time to collect and record contact details of 100 homeless and disadvantaged people, send 100 emails, and collate the data?) And people are already collecting data, and reports are out there - you just have to look for them. There are absolute bucketloads of reports containing program information, policy suggestions, etc, published by everyone from charities to foundations to academic centres. If anything, what we need is an impartial clearing house to monitor, collect and share those reports and make some analytical sense of them so we all know what works and why, and what doesn't and why. That would be of much more service to the sector - both nonprofits, to assist with program design, and donors, to assist with assessing potential projects.
posted by andraste at 2:17 PM on January 2, 2008 [23 favorites]


Does anybody have an "Internet-style damage control guide" handy? One of those "I've made the Internet mad, now what?" pieces? I've seen several over the years, if nobody can find one quick I'll go hunting for one. These guys keep digging the hole deeper & now they're getting their friends to jump in & dig it with them. Entertainment value aside, I'd really like to help them out if we can but I'd rather not reinvent the wheel from scratch if we don't have to.
posted by scalefree at 2:17 PM on January 2, 2008


languagehat: yeah thats it we're all the clannish elite. i'm not just a guy defending his friend.

I wasn't talking to or about you, mrserkan. I was responding to a site that as far as I can tell is defending him simply because he's The Right Sort and we're a bunch of unwashed internet types. You're a guy defending his friend, and I respect that; I defend my friends too, although (knock wood) as far as I know I don't have any friends who have behaved as badly as young Holden. But I have no problem with you defending him. You might want to rethink your strategy, though, because "aw, come on, it wasn't so bad" isn't working. Stick to the forgiveness angle.
posted by languagehat at 2:17 PM on January 2, 2008


Your awesome detective work has already made it to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
posted by tippiedog at 2:17 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Charities, especially private foundations, IMHO exhibit some of the most sleazy shenanigans ever conceived by corporations.

He's got a point.

A couple of weeks ago, I organized a visit to some local projects for the charitable equivalent of a big swinging dick. (Labour life peer, chair of the board of a Special Health Authority, former CEO of a major national health care organization, etc. etc.)

One of the projects was a local service user group. We specifically *didn't* visit the biggest charitable provider in our sector because I think they suck. They treat staff poorly, have low ethical standards, and have long provided a piss poor service IMO.

After an enjoyable visit, during which she spoke exclusively with these service users, she wrote to them, congratulating them on their work and thanking them for an enjoyable visit. She does this as a matter of course after every visit, because she's old school and that's what polite people used to do, I guess.

Christmas Eve, I pick up a copy of The Big Issue which contains an advertising supplement, bought and paid for by said charity, but presented in a similar form to the editorial content.

Alongside the usual puffery in which this particular organization attempts to take credit for innovations they were not only not involved in, but actively opposed for most of their history, there is a section of the supplement titled 'Testimonials', in which my friend's thank you letter to the service user group is selectively edited and made to appear as a letter of support for an organization that she's never even visited.

Some of these people do make Holden look like a model of ethical probity.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:19 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


i'd be cool if the mods wanted to remove all of my comments on this thread, mine were mostly noise anyways. anything to help clean everything up and condense.
posted by localhuman at 2:22 PM on January 2, 2008


the bottom line is this is simply not as big a deal as you guys would have us believe. its misrepresented self-promotion. a poor decision, but not worth 1000 comments
posted by mrserkan at 2:23 PM on January 2, 2008


the bottom line is this is simply not as big a deal as you guys would have us believe. its misrepresented self-promotion. a poor decision, but not worth 1000 comments

It's not a big deal to you but it is to the Internet. You've made it mad, & it's only going to get worse from here. Get your eye on the ball, stop digging the hole you've jumped into & look for someone with a rope. Like maybe, oh I don't know, us?
posted by scalefree at 2:27 PM on January 2, 2008


What we might want to tell people is "read the first 200 comments" or something.
posted by delmoi at 2:27 PM on January 2, 2008


the bottom line is this is simply not as big a deal as you guys would have us believe. its misrepresented self-promotion. a poor decision, but not worth 1000 comments
posted by mrserkan at 5:23 PM on January 2 [+] [!]


Oh, please. Either your entire generation of young people is devoid of moral sense, or you really haven't bothered to read at least the posts on this thread I recommended to you.

To be totally honest, at this point I can't differentiate you from a sockpuppet for your friend, so perhaps you are just wasting your time here. Either specifically address the points my betters here are bringing up, or buy your friend a beer and let him cry into it. Just don't waste your time by telling the rest of us this isn't worth pursuing.
posted by konolia at 2:29 PM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


yeah, this thread is taking forever to lead, can we maybe close it and start a new one? perhaps the first few comments in that thread could summarize the story. then it won't be so baffling for people who come here and find a 1000-comment behemoth.

p.s. mrserkan: I guess you are new here so you don't know. You need evidence if you want to make an argument, otherwise people will feel free to disagree with you.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:29 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Heck, I wish all the MetaFilter busy-bodies that keep emailing me and posting comments to this blog would turn their attention to the far more egregious behavior in the sector.

I read that and want to start the Google-shovel digging around the NPO stuff David Geilhufe is involved in.

But what do I know? I'm just one of the unintelligent unwashed who has the attention span of... oh, look, Paris Hilton!
posted by dw at 2:29 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


the bottom line is this is simply not as big a deal as you guys would have us believe. its misrepresented self-promotion. a poor decision, but not worth 1000 comments

Thanks for clarifying.

Now that we know that Holden's friends are as arrogant and he is, where does that leave us?
posted by tkolar at 2:31 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


okay, can someone just bullet point for me the issues aside from astro turfing or posting without revealing connection to givewell? i guess people are mad that he's criticizing charity navigator for only looking at financials and not efficacy? anything else?
posted by mrserkan at 2:35 PM on January 2, 2008


I've tried to gather in chronological order Holden's posting activities leading up to this controversy on the wiki. It looks like it began on December 10th and carried over into December 31st (when he was caught). I'll be putting together Elie's activities shortly.
posted by Atreides at 2:38 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


"this is simply not as big a deal as you guys would have us believe."

It is precisely as big a deal as we guys would have you believe. That's the market at work.
posted by klarck at 2:39 PM on January 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


Lucy Bernholz has now posted a response on her blog about when she accepted board nomination. I'm glad to see that.

I've been listening to the audio of the board meetings this afternoon, and it's pretty interesting stuff. The inexperience shows. I'd chalk the whole debacle up to that. The co-founders don't know what they're doing; they don't have even a rudimentary understanding of the field they're playing in. They sound like student council. Lucy is one of the most knowledgeable people they have (and it's rather comical when they go around and make introductions and all but a couple talk about their connection to Bridgewater.)

It's not that these people are evil incarnate; it's just that they're babes in the wood. They receive some solid, experienced advice from both Tim and Lucy. At one point, Tim offers some serious and useful counsel to Holden, which Holden essentially rejects. Tim tells Holden to keep the tiny offerings of their grants in perspective, mentioning that "a lot of people will self-select out," so they can't be sure that their goal of identifying the "best" charities will be met. He also cautions them on the "subtext that I've heard all along" which is GiveWell's perhaps over-reaching goal of improving what charities do across the board, bringing a new standard of accountability to bear in the marketplace. Tim mentions that it's a difficult sell, comparing their budget with regard to proposed New York City school projects to the annual budget of the New York City schools --- $12 billion.

"How important is it to get people to behave differently?" Tim asks. "The likelihood that a $20,000 grant within that world are going to make any impact whatsover or change anybody's behavior...to me, is something to think about."

Holden responds:
I'm not sure what you're driving at...we've gotten that objection a lot. ...I'm telling you from the response I've received from these letters is that getting $20000 in unrestricted funding, if the grant application is not overwheming, I think is something that they're going to do...and it's the biggest names that are going the craziest, definitely. Those are the ones that are e-mailing me back and forth, sending me stuff about their organization already, because they have people for this stuff. You know, they have development people. They love to get unrestricted funding. Those budgets are big, but they're mostly for certain things, you know, so,...I think we have to be careful about making our grant process something that we won't say 'it's overwhelming, screw you,'.. but if we give them somewhat of a normal application process where it's like "if you already have it, send it, if you don't, don't," then I think almost everyone is going to fill out these applications. It's worth their time.


So, in effect, the fact that it's easy money will work to their advantage in the marketplace. But Holden rejects Tim's analysis, also missing the fact that this process absolutely undermines GiveWell's purpose. It predisposes bigger, wealthier charities to receiving GiveWell's grants, since they already have the resources, research, and personnel to respond to GiveWell promptly and return the requested reports as desired for even small grants. A charity run by a small staff of service agents might let $20K go because of the cost-benefit ratio, whereas large-staff, well-funded charities do have development staff who can spend time e-mailing Holden, talking on the phone with Holden, recycling reports to fit the questionnaire, and basically picking the low-hanging fruit that is a GiveWell grant.

And how stringent is this research and reporting process? How closely are the organizations examined?

Holden on the application format:
"Just pick one of your programs and tell us about that. For education, it's like, all right, what schools did you serve, pick one, like that you have information on whether academic performance and/or attendance rates improved. For jobs, it would be what areas do you serve, or what programs do you run, now pick one, and show us evidence that you've increased people's incomes over the long term..."
The idea is the recipient delineates one successful program, demonstrates impact per dollars spent, and gets a GiveWell grant.

I'm not sure that's better than Charity Navigator. I kind of think maybe, because it evaluates only single programs rather than entire organizations, that it's worse.

Holden considered postponing the introduction of the charity choices to December 2008. When questioned, he shares take on a December deadline:
"My call on December is that December is giving season. and it's just, in terms of the media coverage, that is what I'm thinking. It is just a totally, totally different universe from every other month in terms of how easy it is to get exposure for a resource like this."

Tim: "From the media side, you're talking done by the first couple days of December? Because the coverage of giving really is the two weeks after Thanksgiving, not all the way through December in the media."

Holden: "Really? I don't - I disagree (laughing), and this is all anecdotal and experiential, but to me, like it's December 30th when everyone is losing their mind. Did you see what happened on Wikipedia where they had, like, um, God, they had, like, 500 grand raised on like, December 29th, and then they had a million on December 31st? That's how it goes."
What is astounding is the constantly repeated idea among board members that they are the only ones ever to have asked questions about effectiveness to target charities. There is a frequent allegation that charities don't measure themselves by any set of standards standards, don't communicate them to their members, trustees, and grantmakers and can't "prove" their impact. I suspect this charity model was built on their narrow experience as donors who didn't know what questions to ask.

But then Holden expresses surprise that the grantees had the information readily available:
"I think that a lot of charities simply don't work this way, they simply don't track what they do. And so it'll be perfect, because the ones that have any chance of being good are going to have one program that they have something pretty good on, but I think that will eliminate the vast majority....Our goal is to change the way these guys operate, but that's by changing the pressures, the market forces on them."
They actually believe that their screening process is doing something no one else is doing. They are simply discovering that when you wish to measure several heterogenous organizations by your metric, you have to provide the metric: a questionnaire or grant application, and reporting requirements. That's no different from what any grantmaker requires! Nonprofits keep records for: the state; the IRS; their members; and their grantmakers. A new grantmaker usually requires a new metric. How is this supposed to be a new "market force" bringing new pressures to bear on the independent sector?

I guess, in the end, this is how I see it. For me, this is no longer a discussion of the original infraction, because it has caused me to look hard and think about at one startup charity in the changing world of nonprofit leadership. The analysis and discussion has, I think, been really interesting. I'm not still discussing it because I think the false identity thing was a huge deal (it sure isn't great, but I recognize it's not Enron), but because there is so much in this story that is an object lesson for people in getting involved with nonprofits. Especially in leadership. There are a lot of pitfalls. There is a tradition and expectation of high ethical standard. They're using public money. They have the advantage of the halo effect: they're a charity, they must be doing good, they are worthy of support.

This kind of activity and this kind of poorly run organization are a real threat to the more than a million charities in the US doing good, responsible, aboveboard work, employing smart and talented people, and helping us enjoy the arts, eat, learn, escape violence, help animals and the environment, and all those other things we care about. To me, that's why this discussion has remained interesting.

1. The ED used unethical strategies to promote the organization. The toothpaste is out of the tube, and it's being dealt with on all fronts, as it should be.
2. The organization's business plan is poorly thought out and not the best use of my charitable dollars or of a non-profit exemption.
3. The organization suffers from a combination of hubris and inexperience stemming from its leadership personalities. The attempts by board members with the most philanthropic experience to shape the direction of the organization have, so far, been less than effective.

It's not illegal. It's not the end of the world. But it's just not good. Man, is it depressing.

what Holden did is virtually commonplace in non-profit

It's really, really not. For those that say "his crime was getting caught," I can only respond that there was no crime, there was a breach of ethics; and the breach of ethics was not getting caught. Getting caught was the consequence of the unethical behavior. It's up to the rest of us, within the field and out of it, to deplore and police this stuff out of existence if possible.

After listening to Holden talk for a couple of hours, I'm willing to accept that his intentions are to somehow come up with an innovative charitable model that will make a significant mark on the world of philanthropy, and be celebrated for it. This model isn't it, though. I don't wish him ill and I'm sure this is an absoutely terrible experience to go through, but I think there is the potential to take what has happened, engineer a curriculum for himself which will allow him to observe, ask questions, listen, and learn more about philanthropy from people who know a lot about it before trying again.
posted by Miko at 2:42 PM on January 2, 2008 [85 favorites]


heh.

Holden Karnofsky's speech (right before Ferrel @ 1:21) is good as well.
posted by Hankins at 8:59 AM on July 14 [+] [!] No other comments.


Vote early, vote often (not set up by me!)
posted by Rumple at 2:45 PM on January 2, 2008


can someone just bullet point for me the issues aside from astro turfing or posting without revealing connection to givewell?

Not to say that there aren't other issues, but is the discrimination your question entails because you've decided that those behaviors are acceptable behaviors for the director of a charitable foundation or at least deserve nothing more severe than a slap on the wrist?

Are you going for high ethical standards at all here or are you just looking for a place to draw a line?
posted by XMLicious at 2:48 PM on January 2, 2008


the bottom line is this is simply not as big a deal as you guys would have us believe. its misrepresented self-promotion. a poor decision, but not worth 1000 comments

*Multiple* instances of misrepresented self-promotion. From someone who has represented himself as being better than this. And he did it on a site filled with highly-educated and extremely net-savvy people. And he did it on the internet. The whole world is Googling.

Of course there's going to be a shivaree. He's been trying to game the system, and he got caught by the sort of people who are going to start digging.

I appreciate that you're coming to the defense of your friend, but honestly, he brought this on himself.

When I was a kid, I had one of my front teeth knocked out when a kid repeatedly pushed me around by a pool. Eventually, he pushed me, but my feet went out from under me, and I smacked my face into the tile and goodbye incisor. All he could say was "I'm sorry" over and over again while I stood there in the pool, feeling the space where my tooth used to be with my tongue, the blood dripping into the water. And all his mother could say was, "but he's a nice boy! He'd never intend to do this."

And I admit, as I feel the cap with my tongue right now, that comparing my missing tooth and the big scar in my lip to astroturfing is a poor comparison. But Russell Abbott was a "nice boy" who did a very stupid thing, just like Holden. But I'm on my fifth cap in 23 years, and the dentist wants to do #6 this year. And we're still having this discussion, because it's worth discussing.

You want to aid Holden? Tell him to straighten up and fly right. In time, he'll outlive his dishonesty if he's honest from now on.
posted by dw at 2:50 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


not worth 1000 comments

Well, New York Magazine thinks it's interesting enough, anyway.
posted by dersins at 2:51 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


okay, can someone just bullet point for me the issues aside from astro turfing or posting without revealing connection to givewell?

Sure, here's an issue -- 10 instances of identity theft (see point #3).
posted by FelliniBlank at 2:52 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]



okay, can someone just bullet point for me the issues aside from astro turfing or posting without revealing connection to givewell?


And let's not forget the attempted bribery.
posted by tkolar at 2:55 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Well if you want to communicate the issue to someone who doesn't know/care about 'astroturfing', it's PLANTED QUESTION. (My bill is in the mail, payable to Firas' Awesome Brain™)
posted by Firas at 2:59 PM on January 2, 2008


Whether Holden's deceptive behavior is a big deal or not depends on whether you think it's important for people to be able to depend on the honesty of their interlocutors. When Don Segretti and Ron Ziegler engaged in this sort of disruptive prank in the 1960s, they called it "ratfucking," and it first enabled them to steal the USC student government elections (but then again, who cares?) and then to humiliate and destroy Edmund Muskie so Richard Nixon could run against the weakest possible opponent. Maybe Nixon made a better president than Muskie, or McGovern, when all was said and done; but I really prefer my elections free, fair and--what's that word? Oh, yeah, right: transparent.

It's false to say that nonprofits are more given to this sort of dishonesty than for-profits. There certainly are nonprofit scams, but like Willie Sutton people who want to steal go where the money is; and for the most part nonprofits are where the money is not.
posted by Nonprofiteer at 3:03 PM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


OK, I officially announce my internet crush on Miko.

----

Back to business, it is astonishing how closely the Givewell.net business model echoes the 10-year old Australian Givewell which has been cited upthread a couple of times. From the Australian site, which was founded in 1997:

Givewell is the first organisation in Australia to provide a comprehensive research service for informed giving. Our aim is to play a key role in fostering a better culture of giving in Australia. We do this by conducting research on charities and generating ideas on better ways to give. We also believe that more informed and generous giving will lead to a more accountable, efficient and effective charitable sector.



If I was the Australian givewell, I would be more than a little pissed off right now, considering the way google is going. People are going to think there is a parent-child corporate relationship here, regardless of the facts.
posted by Rumple at 3:03 PM on January 2, 2008


Miko has it right -- the astroturfing was a terrible idea, but no one off the internet will care. What is a big deal is that the organization givewell may have great intentions, but terrible execution. They're selling that they will investigate nonprofits at the same time that they are just learning how to be a nonprofit. They're giving relatively small amounts of money out in what nonprofiteer called an opaque system.

These guys are exited about what they're doing, and that's great -- but they have no idea what they're doing. They shouldn't be in charge, they should be at most proteges of someone in charge.
posted by garlic at 3:03 PM on January 2, 2008


dw: thats a great story, I appreciate the analogy. I know apologies are a dime a dozen, it just hurts me to see him be bashed none the less because this is so misrepresentative of his actual personality.

Miko: i think your post is the most insightful I've heard yet. I don't have any way of addressing the things you've said, but hopefully GiveWell either has more potential than it seems and are willing to learn from these criticisms and become even better
posted by mrserkan at 3:05 PM on January 2, 2008


They actually believe that their screening process is doing something no one else is doing.

This really hammers home, to me, that they have no idea what they're doing. None. If they had one person, just one, who has had to deal with the everyday paperwork of grants I think this ignorance wouldn't be there. But, again, no one with real, on-the-ground NPO experience on their board.

They are simply discovering that when you wish to measure several heterogenous organizations by your metric, you have to provide the metric: a questionnaire or grant application, and reporting requirements. That's no different from what any grantmaker requires! Nonprofits keep records for: the state; the IRS; their members; and their grantmakers. A new grantmaker usually requires a new metric. How is this supposed to be a new "market force" bringing new pressures to bear on the independent sector?

Can I just say that I HATE HATE HATE these random "new metrics?" In a previous role here, I used to have people call me asking for a piece of data sliced in the most obscure way possible. And then, when I offer what we have, very conventional, real data that honestly provides a great look at who we are and what we do, I get told no, we really want you to list all the grants that are doing research into Kenyan health metric with first-year RN students listed as personnel on the grants, and please include evening phone numbers for the students as well as their favorite flavor of gelato.

And again, charities will balk if that's the sort of detail they need to dive to just to get a $10K grant with 0% indirects. It's not worth it.

If they want to do this right, they should start with listing the questions they feel best explain whether an NPO is "effective" or not, identifying which metrics are available to them, see which metrics can answer these questions, and then try to identify metrics that could answer these partially answered questions. It sounds like they're starting with naming metrics without even asking the questions.
posted by dw at 3:06 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wow dersins, that nymag link is like the onion. only true: Hedge-funders Use Their Skills for Evil, Not Good
posted by Rumple at 3:08 PM on January 2, 2008


Metafilter: It's all very gory and kind of entertaining, in a deeply dorky way. (from nymag)
posted by Rumple at 3:14 PM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


OK, I officially announce my internet crush on Miko.

Line forms on the right, buddy. Take a number.
posted by dw at 3:14 PM on January 2, 2008


Wow. My astounding find was a day late and a dollar short. I should have known.
posted by tippiedog at 3:15 PM on January 2, 2008


rtha: in reading around in givewell's site, am I seeing that they've only ever had one board meeting?

The Givewell Christmas Day blog entry speaks of "last Monday's board meeting."
posted by netbros at 3:19 PM on January 2, 2008


If they want to do this right, they should start with listing the questions they feel best explain whether an NPO is "effective" or not, identifying which metrics are available to them, see which metrics can answer these questions, and then try to identify metrics that could answer these partially answered questions. It sounds like they're starting with naming metrics without even asking the questions.
posted by dw at 6:06 PM on January 2 [+] [!]


Better yet, Holden should start a foundation that places social scientists and statisticians in NPOS to collect and analyze data. Now that might be useful.
posted by footnote at 3:22 PM on January 2, 2008


Miko wrote...
[...] the more than a million charities in the US [...]

Only 900,000 public charities by this count, but damn that's a lot of charities (and a lot of money).
posted by tkolar at 3:22 PM on January 2, 2008


Mikowned
posted by spiderwire at 3:23 PM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


Line forms on the right, buddy. Take a number.

OK, I choose 1
posted by Rumple at 3:27 PM on January 2, 2008


I apologize to all of you for misspelling the word freakout in my NYMag comments. It was a lapse in judgment. Also why is everyone calling this a thousand-comment thread. Do they just count 1, 2, 3, a thousand?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:32 PM on January 2, 2008


tkolar: My number came from Independent Sector. What I didn't realize is that they count around 1.9 million nonprofits, but only 1.5 of those are what we'd call "charities," as opposed to private clubs, unions, and fraternal organizations. That info is given here.

w/r/t crushes: I blush! Only on MetaFilter could a complete geek-out about nonprofit policy end in hearts and flowers. Love it.
posted by Miko at 3:33 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Miko's helpful précis of the sole GiveWell board meeting really boggles the mind: Holden may not know thing one about NPOs -- but, hey, he did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. This guy is the Timothy Treadwell of philanthropy.

I know none of this should astonish me, yet it still does on some level. I mean, these two young pups come bounding in with their whole "we've got a barn; let's put on a show!" shtick, and somebody or other actually gives them three hundred thousand simoleons? That's completely daffy, even for people who have way more money than they know what to do with, even if they happen to know and like Young Andy Hardy. Anyhow, I'm worried less about Holden and Elie's future now -- after the dust settles, if they decide they'd like to be ballerinas or cowboys or shake up the stodgy, hidebound world of landmine removal, I'm sure there'll be some deep, dumb pockets at the ready to set them right up.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:34 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Miko wrote...
1.5 [million] of those are what we'd call "charities,"

Huh. That's a pretty big discrepancy with the NCCS number. I couldn't find any obvious reasons for the difference . . . I wonder how it arises?
posted by tkolar at 3:40 PM on January 2, 2008


Also why is everyone calling this a thousand-comment thread.

This is my fourth comment in this thread. Because my heart is pure, each of my commentshas the strength of 25 comments by a normal man. Or woman. Or child.

Thus, a thousand-comment thread.
posted by dersins at 3:43 PM on January 2, 2008


I couldn't find any obvious reasons for the difference . . . I wonder how it arises?

Well, a non-profit could be anything that's 501(c)(3). Many churches are organized under those rules, but they're generally not considered the same thing as, say, a non-profit theater company, or a religious NGO.

And also, it could be counting some charities that are basically dormant, or haven't been officially wound up.
posted by dw at 3:45 PM on January 2, 2008


I've now added Elie's posting activities in chronological order to the Metafilter wiki.
posted by Atreides at 3:45 PM on January 2, 2008


This guy is the Timothy Treadwell of philanthropy.

I can't wait to see Miko in her bear suit! Also? Really can't wait to hear Werner Herzog's narration: "Holden Karnofsky mistakenly believed that the internet is like a child's garden out of a Walt Disney film, where he would be seen as a wunderkind in perpetuity. But the internet, like the universe, is a cold place, indifferent to those who believe, wrongly, in their own preciousness and irreplaceable genius. Metafilter knows this."

posted by scody at 3:46 PM on January 2, 2008 [16 favorites]


This guy is the Timothy Treadwell of philanthropy.

Does that make us the bears? Alternately, if we're handing out roles, dibs on Herzog.
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:47 PM on January 2, 2008


Better yet, Holden should start a foundation that places social scientists and statisticians in NPOS to collect and analyze data. Now that might be useful.

Kinda what the Gates Foundation is doing with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation?

Full disclosure: Based out of my employer.
posted by dw at 3:49 PM on January 2, 2008


mrserkan: not worth 1000 comments

Here's another example of how defenders of Givewell can appear to lack self-awareness. Consider: Givewell is an organization that touts the ability of its leaders to investigate and to analyze an array of charitable organizations serving diverse markets. What we have in this thread--trolls aside--is a team of people engaged in a similar task in real time. Thoughts that Holden and Elle might speak to themselves or to each other appear here as text, a symptom of an exchange mediated among otherwise unassociated individuals.

How much is too much when trying to make sense of an organization that seems to have gone off the rails? The "this-is-old-news" may work for some people, but Givewell is no James Carville. I see the situation as similar to due diligence by, say, lawyers, accountants or an investment bank. Even a routine review can take hundreds of hours by a team of associates--I know; I've done this, and yes, for nonprofits. However, when there's a red flag the personnel hours escalate, especially when people associated with the group close ranks to protect it.

This insistence that MeFi has gone too far has its ironies. When Holden & co. were in hedge funds, did they advise their firm to limit research to two people reviewing questionnaires? Is the big lesson of online culture that we should trust two self-proclaimed experts and denigrate crowdsourcing? If you're going to focus your brand's value-added on a grasp of Wall Street and new media, I'm not sure that's the way to go.

As I've said elsewhere, I do value forgiveness, and it does have its place. At the same time, all too often forgiveness is used as an excuse to avoid making difficult decisions. The risk is in fact greater for charities, whose sense of higher virtue can blind them to their own systemic flaws.
posted by jefftrexler at 3:50 PM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


Does that make us the bears? Alternately, if we're handing out roles, dibs on Herzog.

So, who's covering Richard Thompson's soundtrack?
posted by dw at 3:51 PM on January 2, 2008


mrserkan: this comment by fourcheesemac may enlighten you more generally as to why this issue has touched a nerve. It is the voice of a large number of pissed off people.
posted by Rumple at 3:58 PM on January 2, 2008


This insistence that MeFi has gone too far has its ironies. When Holden & co. were in hedge funds, did they advise their firm to limit research to two people reviewing questionnaires? Is the big lesson of online culture that we should trust two self-proclaimed experts and denigrate crowdsourcing? If you're going to focus your brand's value-added on a grasp of Wall Street and new media, I'm not sure that's the way to go.

I think Givewell would argue that they could identify the winners because they have more perfect information, or at least when their system is fully running.

But the point on crowdsourcing should be well-taken. What the last 900+ comments should suggest is that if you can filter the noise, you get great information. It sounds like a business plan waiting to happen.

There's some delicious irony that a company being held up as "Philanthropy 2.0" doesn't get the ideas of "Web 2.0."

Welcome, Mr.Trexler, and since your comments appear to be off, thanks for your blog post earlier.
posted by dw at 4:04 PM on January 2, 2008


How does this work anyways? Hypothetically if I'm both ED and 60% owner can I actually be fired by my board?

Well I don't know to be honest; it complicates things, and it's way beyond me. But if you want true "openness", "efficiency" and "accountability", when someone does something like this, they don't have a job any more.
posted by Jimbob at 4:06 PM on January 2, 2008


languagehat said, about Phil Cubeta (aka the Happy Tutor and a cast of other personae chosen to amuse and inflame): You can never know whether to believe him. That's what I meant about the shtick taking over; he's spent so many years now doing his "I'm pretending to be a heartless capitalist to show how evil they are" thing that he's vanished up his own irony hole.

Well, there's another of my net.friends brought (not by LH, though) into this thread (along with Shelley Powers), but this one's partly my fault, as I gave The Tutor the heads up about the mess.

I just want to say that most of the people doing a double take upthread about Phil's writing are missing the point of his work, which is relentlessly and exhaustingly ironic and satirical on the one hand, and wholly sincere, as far as I've been able to tell over the years, in his efforts to talk about and shine lights on efforts on the internet for philanthropy to be rethought and strengthened in American society. He is often impenetrable and sometimes unbearable in his insistence on Classical Modes, but he has done no wrong here or in the past that I can see, and I want to make it clear that I believe that even if he may or may not be wrong about the Holden Karnofsky/Givewell thing (or, which is equally likely, that he is merely ironically nodding at something contextual I can't divine in his suggestion of forgiveness), he is firmly on the side of the Good and the Ethical here. I don't read his writing much -- I don't read many blogs any more, even those of people I 'know' -- but I suggest those who enjoy rapier work over bludgeoning have a look. He is (or was, and I have no reason to suspect that has changed) a master.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:06 PM on January 2, 2008


Can I request that the chronology Wiki page introduce another section, which would detail when Holden admitted to what?

I'm too busy right now to try and compile it myself, but surely it would be useful to list, along the lines of "first he admitted the AskMe fraud; then people found more and he admitted some more; then people found yet more and he admitted that too".

This thread is wonderful. I really really hope that Holden will resign, and if there's any justice also become a byword along the lines of Mackey or Kaycee Nicole.

That he did these thing doesn't surprise me at all.

What surprises me is that people don't think it's a big deal. Firstly on the grounds that dishonesty of any kind makes me angry, but more importantly on the ground that I already distrusted commercial businesses, but not secular charities. Thanks for that, Holden.

Some people don't seem to get, even now, how deliberately deceptive his actions were. People keep wittering on about it's not a big deal that he broke MeFi's rules. Of course it isn't. What he did was far worse.

He deliberately set out to deceive people in a public place in order to get their money. It's no different to the three-card-monty shill who wins big in order to sucker other people into the game. I honestly don't know if there is a law against that, but it's absolutely, without question, morally wrong.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:08 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


If bears are allowed in the I-have-an-internet-crush-on-Miko line, then please sign me up to be a bear (also, I like salmon and sleeping, so I think I'd make an excellent bear).

Miko, thank you for listening to the board meeting recording -I considered it, but then decided that I just. couldn't. do. it. It reminds me an awful lot of the dotcom boom - I moved to the Bay Area while the ashes were still warm - when a whole lot of smart, enthusiastic people got together to fix or create stuff they didn't know anything about. The fact that Holden seems amazed that nonprofits actually account for all their time and money and have to tell the grantmakers what they did with the grant is...amazing. My partner's a grantwriter, and I've had the uh, privilege of proofreading some of them, and the amount and kind of information asked for (in the cases I'm talking about, the grantmaker is usually the federal government) is overwhelming. The part where Holden says "I think that a lot of charities simply don't work this way, they simply don't track what they do." is illustrative of just how ignorant he is about how nonprofits work.
posted by rtha at 4:08 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


the bottom line is this is simply not as big a deal as you guys would have us believe. its misrepresented self-promotion. a poor decision, but not worth 1000 comments

There are some who would contend that misrepresenting yourself (repeatedly) online to promote your organization and denigrate other non-profits with which you compete, as well as sending out e-mails from the accounts of a co-worker (without his/her knowledge) constitutes fraud. The fact that such was done "online" and not "over the phone," in the "real world" doesn't excuse such unethical behavior.

As others have mentioned, Holden was "caught" here on MetaFilter. It has been demonstrated that there is a pattern of previous and similar behavior. I am a board member (and advisor) to a number of non-profits (as well as for-profits). These online incidents would be enough for me to demand a thorough review of the organization to see if any other questionable behavior has occured in the management of the organization. I would seek a full accounting of finances, expenses, internal/external comminications, etc. An external party -- separate from employees and the Board -- would be warranted in seeking to get a finding of a "clean bill of health."

This MetaFilter kerfuffle isn't an instance of "forgive-and-forget." It's a leading indicator of potentially questionable management.

As a potential donor to GiveWell, I would at this point seek/demand full transparency (the mantra the organization trumpets and heralds).

As a potential recipient of funds from GiveWell, I, as a representative of "XYZ NPO," would want to be sure that accepting a donation from a given party would in no way sully our work and reputation. Any (past, present or future) malfeasance on the giver's part could cause more harm than worth.
posted by ericb at 4:14 PM on January 2, 2008 [5 favorites]


Hedge-funders Use Their Skills for Evil, Not Good

The whole "Is this a big deal?" question has become moot. The beast has awakened and Holden's for breakfast.

His smartest move now would be to issue one of his well-written press releases announcing his resignation and deep regrets followed by a long vacation somewhere far away.
posted by timeistight at 4:14 PM on January 2, 2008


Yeah, we used to work together and are still friends. Sort of why I'm on here defending him.

Yeah -- Jeff Skilling, Walter Forbes, John Rigas, Bernie Ebbers, Ken Lay and Richard Scrushy all had friends and former colleagues who liked them -- and defended them. Guess the courts (public and judicial) felt otherwise.
posted by ericb at 4:19 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Miko...

That was an excellent description of the content of the June Board meeting... Thank you...
posted by HuronBob at 4:22 PM on January 2, 2008


I guess the 1993 adage no longer holds true: On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog!
posted by ericb at 4:23 PM on January 2, 2008


ericb: give me a break.
posted by mrserkan at 4:25 PM on January 2, 2008


Almost too petty to mention (and it may just have been another lie), but, GiveWell uses gmail? It doesn't even have proper in-house email for its staff?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:42 PM on January 2, 2008


I have to agree with Serkan, erikb - I think you're being a little melodramatic.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:43 PM on January 2, 2008


Can I request that the chronology Wiki page introduce another section, which would detail when Holden admitted to what?

I'm too busy right now to try and compile it myself, but surely it would be useful to list, along the lines of "first he admitted the AskMe fraud; then people found more and he admitted some more; then people found yet more and he admitted that too".


Ambrose, for the most part, the break down of Holden happened rather sudden and broadly, rather than a series of discoveries and apologies. Basically, he first owed up to the AskMetafilter sock puppetry and after a series of apologies, "came clean" in his mea culpa, where we first learn about the emails and that he'd posted on some "other blogs." Beyond that, off my recollection, he really doesn't address anything else, such as negative statements about other charity organizations. Nor does he mention Elie was involved in similar activities (not learned until Ogden admits to it, probably without idea of the degree and nature that he did). So I'm not sure if a new section would be useful or not.
posted by Atreides at 4:48 PM on January 2, 2008


Y'know yesterday I spent the day channel-surfing back and forth between marathons of Twilight Zone and The Beverly Hillbillies. They've kind of merged together in my head:

Weeel, doggies..you are entering a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of cee-ment ponds....

[doo-doo, doo-doo...[on banjo]]

posted by jonmc at 4:54 PM on January 2, 2008


ericb: give me a break.

Okay, just one. Only one!
posted by ericb at 4:55 PM on January 2, 2008


From the NY Mag update:

Earlier this week, when the kids at Metafilter noticed...

Hey, I'm 56. Spare us the lazy stereotyping. But kudos for keeping up with the case.

I just want to say that most of the people doing a double take upthread about Phil's writing are missing the point of his work, which is relentlessly and exhaustingly ironic and satirical on the one hand, and wholly sincere, as far as I've been able to tell over the years, in his efforts to talk about and shine lights on efforts on the internet for philanthropy to be rethought and strengthened in American society. He is often impenetrable and sometimes unbearable in his insistence on Classical Modes, but he has done no wrong here or in the past that I can see, and I want to make it clear that I believe that even if he may or may not be wrong about the Holden Karnofsky/Givewell thing (or, which is equally likely, that he is merely ironically nodding at something contextual I can't divine in his suggestion of forgiveness), he is firmly on the side of the Good and the Ethical here.

Forgive me, I have no desire to dis your friend, but how can you say he's "firmly on the side of the Good and the Ethical" when he's defending Holden on exactly the same grounds as mrserkan? It's fine to get your friends' back, that's what friends do, but that's not only not being on the side of the Good and the Ethical, it can (as here) be directly opposed to it. Yes, he's a fine writer, but it's impossible to endlessly carry off an act of being "relentlessly and exhaustingly ironic and satirical" and "wholly sincere" at the same time. I enjoyed his high-wire act when it was all philosophy and literary hijinks, but once he moved into serious Philanthropy Management I didn't think it could go anywhere good and bailed out. I respect the fact that you like the guy and want to keep his good name clear, and certainly he is a good guy and a good writer, but once you step out of the ivory tower and into the mud of actual money and politics, you're not going to keep your feet clean. He's involved himself with dubious types like Holden, he's defending them because he knows them, and it doesn't sit right with me. It's like the Good King with the Bad Ministers on whom he relies and about whose misdeeds he carefully avoids knowing. I don't believe in Good Kings, and I wish the Tutor had stuck to philosophy and hijinks.

I mean, doesn't it bother you at all to have to write something like "even if he may or may not be wrong about the Holden Karnofsky/Givewell thing (or, which is equally likely, that he is merely ironically nodding at something contextual I can't divine in his suggestion of forgiveness)"? That sort of thing is fine if you can't tell whether he's for or against Plato—hey, it makes you think. In the real world, it don't work so good.
posted by languagehat at 5:13 PM on January 2, 2008


ericb: don't just be splashing those breaks around willy-nilly. You want to get some real bang for your break and I can provide you with some excellent consultancy on who the most deserving beneficiaries of those breaks might be.

mrserkan: if you're looking for a break, could you please submit to our detailed questionnaire on why you happen to be deserving of a break and how wisely you are likely to use it? Again, for a reasonable sum, I'd be very happy to help with consultancy services on the best way to secure a break in today's competitive MetaTalk environment.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:19 PM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


PeterMcDermott, Break Broker
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:26 PM on January 2, 2008


Hey, I'm 56. Spare us the lazy stereotyping.

Implicitly youthful in our exuberance and tenacity, I'm sure. And basic ability to use these new-fangled googles.
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:27 PM on January 2, 2008


via the wiki, from the Public Relations Society of America code of ethics (emphasis added):

DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION

Core Principle Open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society.

Intent To build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making.

Guidelines A member shall:
Be honest and accurate in all communications.
Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible.
Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.
Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
Disclose financial interest (such as stock ownership) in a client's organization.
Avoid deceptive practices.

Examples of Improper Conduct Under this Provision:

Front groups: A member implements "grass roots" campaigns or letter-writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups.
Lying by omission: A practitioner for a corporation knowingly fails to release financial information, giving a misleading impression of the corporation's performance.
A member discovers inaccurate information disseminated via a Web site or media kit and does not correct the information.
A member deceives the public by employing people to pose as volunteers to speak at public hearings and participate in "grass roots" campaigns.
posted by Rumple at 5:28 PM on January 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


All the little mini-lectures on the necessity of forgiveness from this set are grotesque.

Not to mention beside the point. The fact that something is forgivable does not mean that the offender should expect to be taken seriously in that field anymore.

What Holden Karnofsky did is equivalent to a prominent sexual chastity activist funding her chastity lecture tour by giving $15 blow jobs in a city park.
posted by jayder at 5:29 PM on January 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


mrserkan and PercussivePaul -- While being "a little melodramatic" in the names I listed, there is some truth to what I said. The motivations and behaviors ( sometimes unethical, immoral and illegal) of others whom we "know" may not always be apparent to us -- even those we count as family and friends.

FWIW -- one of those I listed is/was a family friend.
posted by ericb at 5:29 PM on January 2, 2008


Forgive me, I have no desire to dis your friend, but how can you say he's "firmly on the side of the Good and the Ethical"

Because I believe it to be true, in part based on knowing him (virtually) for years, on what he has said in the past, and on the things he's saying right here, now.

it's impossible to endlessly carry off an act of being "relentlessly and exhaustingly ironic and satirical" and "wholly sincere" at the same time.

Perhaps it is, perhaps not. I deliberately framed the description for people less familiar with Phil than you in such a way as to suggest that possibly-unsustainable tension.

I mean, doesn't it bother you at all to have to write something like "even if he may or may not be wrong about the Holden Karnofsky/Givewell thing (or, which is equally likely, that he is merely ironically nodding at something contextual I can't divine in his suggestion of forgiveness)"?

At one time, it did. I have always been pathologically averse to the use of language to obscure rather than clarify, something that (perhaps because of my autodidactic and scattershot approach to the classics, which is to say, my lack of book-larnin' and the high-falutin' ways of the sophists) has always annoyed me a bit about the Tutor persona. I have in my dotage, though, become more comfortable with uncertainty and the possibility that impulses and ideas and beliefs that may, when rationally analyzed, seem contradictory, can co-exist fruitfully in the minds of people of good will. That the whole foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds chestnut might not just be drollery.

In the real world, it don't work so good.

On the contrary, I think in the real world is precisely where it does work (and should work more). The world of actions and actors is an awful lot messier than the world of words, sadly. And unfortunately, the same habits of mind that can be of great benefit in those of goodwill can be of great harm in the greedy, the grasping and the maleficent.

Look at me, goin' all Tutor-y. Heh.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:32 PM on January 2, 2008


Earlier this week, when the kids at Metafilter noticed...
Hey, I'm 56. Spare us the lazy stereotyping. But kudos for keeping up with the case.


I liked the "young kids on internet take down young kid who thinks he can be a charity mogul" angle, but yeah: This thread is more "middle-aged people who have been there and done that give well deserved spanking to naive young whelp".
posted by tkolar at 5:33 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


The world of actions and actors is an awful lot messier than the world of words, sadly.

By the way, I totally did not mean that as a dig, LH. Language is how I make my living, too, and the world of words is where I spend most of my time. The world of words: that's where we're both vikings!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:42 PM on January 2, 2008


So you're literarily vikings, then.
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:45 PM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


For the record...

--miko, kudos!
--I wrote to Givewell Australia yesterday*. Unless there is any connection**, this seems like a grubby name theft by the Holden.K. cartel imho. I don't know anything about applicable laws but now that negative press attaches to the name givewell, if it was my 10 year old established company in Oz (charity consultants, funnily enough) that was likely to feel an inadvertent downturn in trade and an inadvertent reputation libel, I sure would be looking into it thoroughly.
--I wonder if they (givewell US) managed to squeeze through to the $300K projection for the calendar year mentioned somewhere upstream??

*They are currently - and intelligently - enjoying the balmy 27 degrees C local temperature, on holidays.
**Doesn't seem to be. The Aussie co. is fairly small and owned by its connected parent group Lifecraft, which appears to be local.
posted by peacay at 5:48 PM on January 2, 2008


"the bottom line is this is simply not as big a deal as you guys would have us believe. its misrepresented self-promotion. a poor decision, but not worth 1000 comments
posted by mrserkan "

I strongly disagree. A NPO is set up to be an arbiter of efficacy and transparency among other NPOs. One of the principles of said NPO then lies to people. Numerous times.

It makes me doubt his commitment to transparency. The fact that the other principles have not come out strongly against this behavior makes me doubt their commitment to transparency.

The sleazy self promotion and ham fisted attempt at spin makes me doubt the ability of these folks to rate the efficacy of other groups.

I think this needs to be dragged out into the light.
posted by arse_hat at 5:59 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


right, i have to get a post in here somewhere. just taken me a bastard hour to get down the bottom here, and that was just whizzing through. between this and the hawt photographer thread, i've chalked up more time in metafilter in one week than I have the past 3 years.

Givewell = fail
posted by Frasermoo at 6:00 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Jesus Christ.

All I can say is Marx was right.
posted by Ynoxas at 6:24 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I missed this earlier article> from the Chronicle of Philanthropy (Dec 13), and haven't seen it posted in the thread (though I could have missed it).

Among other things, some of the numbers are sharpened. Holden earned $275K at his hedge fund gig; he put $10K of his own money into the $325K total raised to start Givewell, and he works out of his Brooklyn apartment.

Sheesh. This is a very low budget operation. The one reason this crime IS trivial is that Givewell is such a pint-sized pretender, a classic lowball internet startup among friends.

MSerkan, I see you doing what everyone else "serious" who has checked in on this from the "friends of Holden side" do, which is start out calling us a bunch of jerks and defending the guy without checking the facts at hand already, and then gradually becoming aware of the serious nature of the pattern of fraud we've uncovered, as you modulate your tone and give us a little more credit and respect for being serious people ourselves. Tim did it above, and Lucy did too on her blog; once you take in the spectrum of deception here and put it in the context of GiveWell's rhetoric, and what we've learned from Miko and dw and others here (can I have #3 or 4 on that crush line please?), there is no denying that this is serious, and that what a *real* friend would do here is console your friend, counsel him on coming clean and taking responsibility, and deliver the softer version of the truth if he hasn't grasped it.

The thing is, a lot of people do this. It happens every day online. Holden's getting caught has made him a symbol of a lot of other people's crimes and abuses of trust as well. His bad luck, but he brought it on himself all the same. That is the truth, and there's no way around it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:26 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Ynoxas, about what? The second time as farce? The triumph of the proletariat? The need of capital for crisis? Do tell.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:30 PM on January 2, 2008


Oh! I've got it: "The wheels of the philanthropic machine are oiled with the blood of the hedge fund managers."
posted by XMLicious at 6:42 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


heh. eLie.
posted by Hat Maui at 6:42 PM on January 2, 2008


peacay, I'm sure there is no connection between the Australian Givewell and this mob. I've known them (the Australian Givewell) professionally for a long time, have connected with them on and off over the years and have never heard anything about an overseas connection.
posted by andraste at 6:42 PM on January 2, 2008


Has anyone alerted the Australian Givewell?
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:45 PM on January 2, 2008


fourcheesemac: Yes.
posted by Anything at 6:50 PM on January 2, 2008


It seems everyone even remotely associated with Givewell sees mendacity as a good thing.

I think these people may belong to a different culture than I do.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:53 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nah, it's: "Charity is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies. "
posted by tkolar at 6:54 PM on January 2, 2008


a bit more background knowledge

Well, I have to admit. I've never worked at a hedge fund.
posted by nax at 6:55 PM on January 2, 2008


dw: thats a great story, I appreciate the analogy. I know apologies are a dime a dozen, it just hurts me to see him be bashed none the less because this is so misrepresentative of his actual personality.

It seems to me that this is, in fact, more representative of his actual personality.

When he's dealing with you, face to face, he knows he has to put on a good show, and does.

When he's dealing with people anonymously, his true colours come out.It seems everyone even remotely associated with Givewell sees mendacity as a good thing. I think these people may belong to a different culture than I do.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:58 PM on January 2, 2008


Gah. Preview shows the [HR] rule, but MeFi scrapes it out. Bad previewer, no cookie!
posted by five fresh fish at 6:59 PM on January 2, 2008


Wow, actually Marx is attributed with a cornucopia of appropriate quotes:
posted by tkolar at 7:01 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm thinking Holden can kiss his MacArthur Genius grant goodbye...
posted by nax at 7:06 PM on January 2, 2008


By the way, I totally did not mean that as a dig, LH.

Totally not taken as such, my friend.

Language is how I make my living, too, and the world of words is where I spend most of my time. The world of words: that's where we're both vikings!

Booyah!
posted by languagehat at 7:09 PM on January 2, 2008


five fresh fish wrote...
When he's dealing with people anonymously, his true colours come out.

Let's not over reach here. We have no evidence that he habitually lies and abuses the trust of online communities -- only that he has done so about this particular topic over the last few months.

He's not the first person to go off the deep end in pursuit of something he truly cares about -- while it makes me think he's not up to the responsibility of running a charity, it doesn't reach the level of irretrievable sociopath that we sometimes see around here.
posted by tkolar at 7:14 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


All I can say is Marx was right.
posted by Ynoxas


about what? The second time as farce? The triumph of the proletariat? The need of capital for crisis? Do tell.

about leaving in a huff.
posted by jonmc at 7:14 PM on January 2, 2008


Has anyone who has actually given money to GiveWell posted in any of these threads or blogs about what they feel right now about the whole thing? I would like to hear from a donor about if they are ok with all this or feel in some way hurt or deceived by it all.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:27 PM on January 2, 2008


middle-aged people who have been there and done that give well deserved spanking to naive young whelp

nicely sneaking "give well" into the comment per instructions above to keep us high on google.
posted by nax at 7:33 PM on January 2, 2008


Huh. Here's a very good NYT piece from November on the impact of blogs and the internet on philanthropy and charitable activities online. If you've been following the thread you'll probably want to read it. It quotes Karnofsky, but also makes some terrific observations about incidents exactly like this, though it uses the Michael Vick incident as its jumping-off point.
posted by Miko at 7:37 PM on January 2, 2008


Karnofsky: "I believe that people are underestimating how much the truth can bring more donors in."

Sounds like a good policy to pursue.
posted by tkolar at 7:52 PM on January 2, 2008


it doesn't reach the level of irretrievable sociopath that we sometimes see around here.

My bad. Still, though, it does say something about his character that he'd tell lies and use subterfuge to promote an idea that he believes will naturally take the charity world by storm. If it's so hot-damn, lies and charades are not needed, and indeed can only bring harm.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:17 PM on January 2, 2008


Miko and others are completely right that having nonprofits measure their results is nothing new. My own job exists largely to systematically show how much our organization is needed, to quantify how much our actions help, and to figure out the most effective way to use our manpower and resources. And our donors definitely know our management.

That's why I said above that Holden's approach had some value. It could be interesting to publicly compare measures and outcomes. But then Miko pointed out what shoddy, half-assed measures he was asking for from the organizations (one program, any variable at all) -- I can't believe that! He doesn't even appear to care what number he gets! Or whether it reflects the organization as a whole! That is amazing.

So, the Agitator's line -- "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" -- seems wrong to me. The idea of measuring outcomes is no baby, it's a fully grown adult. Let's get the dirty new guy out of the tub and run him some fresh water so he can finish his bath.
posted by salvia at 8:19 PM on January 2, 2008


I say we skin and eat him. Seriously.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:20 PM on January 2, 2008


Oh, cannibalism is your solution to everything.
posted by dgaicun at 8:27 PM on January 2, 2008


Whew! It took two 3-hour sessions over the course of 2 days of reading to the bottom, refreshing for new comments, reading those, stopping occasionally to read all of the links opened in new tabs, refreshing for new comments, reading those, etc, but here I am at the bottom of the thread. Now I'm gonna go see if Atreides' Givewell wiki page is missing anything.

I dunno about a crush, but Miko you can call your drink when I'm around.
posted by carsonb at 8:29 PM on January 2, 2008


From Mr. Karnofsky in fourcheesemac's link to the Chronicle of Philanthropy "It's not arrogance," he says. "It's just a belief that if you see something that doesn't look right, you shouldn't assume that it is right. You should say it isn't right, and if you're wrong, somebody will correct you."

True.
posted by arse_hat at 8:31 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


The "Moral Tutor" referenced upthread just described this thread as:
A winnable little war to bring the people of a community together a spirit of triumphalism.
Posted by: phil | January 02, 2008 at 10:01 PM

/Vomits

I want his all to end, now. I need to sleep before I invade a small neighbouring country.
posted by dash_slot- at 8:40 PM on January 2, 2008


regarding the dream I had last night - about donating a cow in Holden's name - I remembered over dinner tonight that (in the dream) we had figured out that the best way to get the cow to Holden so he could sign it was to walk it to NYC on the New Jersey Turnpike. This prompted my girlfriend to mutter "Walking the cow on the new jersey turnpike..." and I responded "We've all gone to look for Karnofsky..." Subconscioused are weird.
posted by rtha at 9:09 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ayn Rand is chucking in her cold lonely grave.
posted by shmegegge at 9:10 PM on January 2, 2008


A winnable little war to bring the people of a community together a spirit of triumphalism.

That's accurate only in the loosest sense of the word, in that this whole thing might not have backfired as it did if the people in question hadn't given MeFi something to be right about by offering a retreating litany of half-truths as they were caught in each lie, before finally getting a clue and clamming up.

To the extent that there's "triumphalism" displayed here, it's only because Holden and his friends made themselves a target and created something to triumph over. They hoisted themselves by their own petards, and deserve every ounce of mockery they get. The rank hypocrisy of Holden's "transparency" when measured against his actions is what created that situation, not MeFi's follow-up.

It's hardly a defense to say that Holden shouldn't be mocked -- and then mocked some more -- when he set himself up for every bit of it. In fact, it's an entirely predictable response, and one that he could have avoided by being honest at any point in the process. Instead he tried to cover one obvious lie with more obvious lies, and never fessed up, but instead fell silent. He's since been followed by two board members and one friend offering up equally poor defenses of his behavior, and nary a hint of the contrition expressed at the very beginning of this thread. I'd say that the community can be triumphalist about this as long as it damn well pleases.


Accurate or not, though, that is a somewhat prickish comment, and those of you who seem to know this Cupeta fellow might want to tell him that nicely, because I detect that he's becoming defensive about this -- and whoever is over there sniping at him isn't really doing anyone any favors. (If that is a MeFite, I wish they would consider chilling out -- anyone trying to downplay this at this point is being disingenuous; there's no need to corroborate that ridiculous "internet vigilantism" defense.)
posted by spiderwire at 9:23 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Did people already discuss the similarity to this question? Seems legit, but it's interestingly similar.
posted by salvia at 9:33 PM on January 2, 2008


these two young pups come bounding in with their whole "we've got a barn; let's put on a show!" shtick, and somebody or other actually gives them three hundred thousand simoleons?

Quick repeat: the "somebody or other" includes Holden and Elie's former boss Greg Jensen, now on the Board of Directors. Jensen was identified last July at the GiveWell blog as a "major Clear Fund donor" and "co-CIO of the hedge fund where I used to work." It seems he's bankrolled a good chunk of this.
posted by mediareport at 9:33 PM on January 2, 2008


whew.

I'm finally caught up. great work everyone.

The insights into the day-to-day financial workings of the non-profit sector from Miko, dw, and everyone else has been edifying. I make my living primarily in the non-profit theatre world and I volunteer for a non-profit children's agency, but until know I've known woefully little about how arduous the process for securing the funds to run these organizations is -the very nuts and bolts of how I'm able to draw a paycheck in the first place.

This (and the detective work, of course) has been the icing on the tasty, dare I say, not schadenfreude flavored, cake. Maybe it's a small battle to win, but this whole episode has left me feeling elated, rather than disgusted. What's not to like about a lot of intelligent people banding together to do the right thing and ferret out the truth beneath one of the shiny, glib surfaces that can usually pass for reality in our current world of media?

I'm probably being overly paranoid, but I attempted to follow the going ons at an internet cafe this morning while out of the office (yes, it's been that riveting), and "Net Nanny" was blocking this thread, labeling it as pornography. I clicked around the rest of metafilter, and none of the other threads were blocked. Does anyone have any idea why this might be so? Am I imagining nefarious subterfuge where a more logical explanation (too many instances of the word "f*cking" for example?) might exist?
posted by stagewhisper at 9:33 PM on January 2, 2008


I would suspect the "horny naked" anagram is to blame.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:54 PM on January 2, 2008


A winnable little war to bring the people of a community together a spirit of triumphalism.

Really, can we stop posting links to Mr. Moral Tutor now, please? It's a cute schtick he's pulling, if you've never seen it before, but his whole "we're a site of masks bwahaha" thing is *the* classic "do not bother to engage" flag in this kind of situation. I love the way he defends the darling who trolls "Go fuck yourselves. I wipe my ass with Metafilter" as "playing with masks in the spirit of Oscar Wilde."

Um, yeah. Ok, Mr. Moral Tutor. Whatever you say. Anyway, folks who bother with that little internet playground are welcome to it. The content of this thread more than stands up to anything those folks have produced on this issue.
posted by mediareport at 9:56 PM on January 2, 2008


A winnable little war to bring the people of a community together in a spirit of triumphalism.

If this is a war, there must be sides. I know which side Metafilter is on: transparency, honesty, charity, and a scorched earth policy.

I am very curious as to how the other side sees themselves.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:06 PM on January 2, 2008


Anyway, folks who bother with that little internet playground are welcome to it.

Which is precisely what people outside our little knitting circle can and do say about Metafilter. Perhaps if we spent a little less time jerking each other off, we'd realize there are other places on the internet where people who like to think of themselves as clever tend to gather. Even -- gasp! -- places where Metafilter is thought of as overrun with dumbasses, loudmouths and just generally unpleasant people who like to fight.

An impression that your little tantrum there does nothing to dispel, mediareport.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:11 PM on January 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


I was wrong when I said GiveWell didn't have its application forms online. They do, here. As the audio indicated it might be, it's completely standard grantmaker stuff - choose a single "featured program" and submit a few one-page statements about goals and outcomes, and a project budget. It's self-reported and not particularly rigorous, as these things go.
posted by Miko at 10:12 PM on January 2, 2008


dash_slot's link to Phil's charity board is... just, wow. Did it ever take a nose-dive. Did Miko stumble onto a tight little group of misbehaving people who are now desperately trying to cover their asses? Some of that behaviour is inexplicable.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:12 PM on January 2, 2008


Really, can we stop posting links to Mr. Moral Tutor now, please? It's a cute schtick he's pulling

Agreed, but like the similar vigilantism defense, the excuse itself deserves some response. It may be nonsense -- a poor attempt to play Andy Kaufman -- but that doesn't mean it's not worth calling out. While referencing the content of the thread is probably the correct place to start, it's also important to keep pointing out that this whole episode isn't about MetaFilter, but about someone who played the same lie multiple times, and it just happened to be MetaFilter that eventually called him on it. "Excessive triumphalism" simply isn't pertinent to the issue.

And even if it were excessive, so what? It's not for Phil Cupeta nor anyone else to set the appropriate upper limit on just deserts. Personally, I don't feel like conceding the right to define what's is and isn't an appropriate reaction here. What happens, happens, and what happens is solely a result of what Mr. Karnofsky did. This is his whirlwind to reap in whatever form it might take.

Schtick or no, it was a petty, nasty comment that deserved to be smacked down with all appropriate speed and force.
posted by spiderwire at 10:15 PM on January 2, 2008


Ynoxas, about what? The second time as farce? The triumph of the proletariat? The need of capital for crisis? Do tell.

About the nature of modern capitalism:

"All that was solid melts into air. All that is holy is profaned."
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:27 PM on January 2, 2008


Nonprofiteer whatever his transparency or lack of it in marketing stunts, his method for assessing charities is completely opaque.

I'll take a shot at it. My guess for Holden's Magic Method is: (1) Talk Lots Of The Big Talk; (2) obfuscate the assessment process in a crapcloud of meaningless marketroid buzzwords and indecipherable metrics; (3) declare whichever charities offers the most potential for Givewell to gobble up "overhead" out of them TEH WINNAHS!!1!

I wonder if he's patented it.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:27 PM on January 2, 2008


I think the Mr. Moral Tutor site is a good deal, actually. All he really cares about is getting eyeballs to his site, and if those eyeballs are drawn to a page that highlights this whole sad affair, better for those of us who would like to see it well publicized.
posted by tkolar at 10:30 PM on January 2, 2008


Even -- gasp! -- places where Metafilter is thought of as overrun with dumbasses, loudmouths and just generally unpleasant people who like to fight.

stavros, all due respect, but no one's claiming this is the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, and MeFi sure as hell ain't Fark. The claim that some hypothetical group of people looks down on MeFi as being too pedestrian doesn't carry a lot of water with me, and I doubt it does with anyone else. This comment reads like high-school gossip, or as a ham-handed attempt to impugn MeFi's collective credibility.

No one with a lick of sense would ascribe the actions of one or two people to the entire community, your vague implication to the contrary notwithstanding. I'd be curious how many "other places on the internet" devote thousand-comment threads to trying to understand the impact of sexism and "I'd hit it" commentary on the perceptions of its members, in the interests of promoting a welcoming environment. Regardless of whether those attempts succeed, that fact that they exist at all speaks volumes.

You're being snippy, and should go take a break.
posted by spiderwire at 10:32 PM on January 2, 2008


An impression that your little tantrum there does nothing to dispel, mediareport.

Oh, come on, stav. You've seen tantrums. That was no tantrum. I love clever internet sites, honest, even cleverer ones than this. But the "we're all playing with masks here" thing as a cover for, um, "clever" remarks like "go fuck yourselves" is not just a crock, but (much worse) a dull one.

Oscar Wilde, indeed.
posted by mediareport at 10:33 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I read the Phil thread. I note several things:

One, that those defending Holden all seem to come to the same argument: what he didn't isn't all that bad and other people do worse things and so it really isn't a big deal. Good god, if that's how morality works over there, I'm glad I'm not part of it.

Two, that many of those defending Holden seem to think that this online community is new. It is not. I have participated as Five Fresh Fish in international online communities for over twenty years. This is not new stuff, folks.

One does not attend a PTA meeting and shit in the punchbowl because you think it's a "new" or "unimportant" or "not real life" community.

The more I read about what they've been doing, reading the support messages from their friends, and learn more about how this all came to be, the skeevier I find it. There seems to be a whole lot of casual dishonesty in it all.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:40 PM on January 2, 2008


One does not attend a PTA meeting and shit in the punchbowl because you think it's a "new" or "unimportant" or "not real life" community.

Particularly not if one is the manager of a business whose motto is "punch is the most delicious drink".
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:46 PM on January 2, 2008 [6 favorites]


Though it's bloody amusing to watch his friends gather around the punchbowl commenting on how much of the punch is still drinkable and it wasn't a very big one and it's a good thing he keeps to a wholefoods diet.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:48 PM on January 2, 2008 [6 favorites]


Yeah, the saddest thing over in the Phil thread is that the woman who posted "in persona" the f*ck metafilter comments is an untenured professor with enough public information available to contact her department chair.

This is like kicking puppies. I've had enough.
posted by tkolar at 10:50 PM on January 2, 2008


I get the sinking suggestion that my suggestion of a complete mea culpa may in fact have helped sink this business. Note to self: Always deny everything.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:54 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


stavrosthewonderchicken wrote...
we'd realize there are other places on the internet where people who like to think of themselves as clever tend to gather. Even -- gasp! -- places where Metafilter is thought of as overrun with dumbasses, loudmouths and just generally unpleasant people who like to fight.

Oh my god, Stav! You've suddenly opened my eyes to the fact that the internet is like every single other human endeavour ever.

Now I must renounce my Metafilter affiliation because, despite all the truly cool things that happen around here, some people somewhere don't like it!
posted by tkolar at 10:59 PM on January 2, 2008


Perhaps if we spent a little less time jerking each other off, we'd realize there are other places on the internet where people who like to think of themselves as clever tend to gather. Even -- gasp! -- places where Metafilter is thought of as overrun with dumbasses, loudmouths and just generally unpleasant people who like to fight.

Presumably this is why they work in the area that they do? Ministering to the arseholes of the wealthy is so much more civilized than getting your hands dirty providing services to "dumbasses, loudmouths and just generally unpleasant people who like to fight".

And God forbid those reprobates should have an opinion on the way we do things. We need to nip that in the bud right now.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:10 PM on January 2, 2008


You're being snippy, and should go take a break.

Excuse me? Who the fuck are you to tell me to 'take a break'? How about you take break?

This comment reads like high-school gossip, or as a ham-handed attempt to impugn MeFi's collective credibility.

You can bite me. Quick to anger I may be, but hamhanded I ain't. A handful of people are keen to 'impugn the credibility' of Phil Cubeta, without apparently having an inkling of what the man has been writing in public for literally years. There's no way I could say anything after 1000 comments in this thread that would impact the 'credibility of Metafilter' (whatever that is supposed to mean), after dozens if not hundreds of people have commented with varying degrees of both cogency and dashes of unseemly bloodlust. On the other hand, a few semi-informed people in this thread (which has been much read and will surely be read many more times in the wider web if this story spreads), who are keen with all the blood in the water to do a little off-the-cuff character assassination of the man after a quick 10 minute visit to Phil's sites, talking shit about someone whose opinions and erudition I respect: I have little patience for that.

I don't know why I'm bothering, but if you can't see why I might be impelled to dismay and anger by that situation, particularly in the face of the over-the-top self-congratulation in this thread, then to hell with you.

You've seen tantrums. That was no tantrum.

Maybe so, maybe so. I'd suggest that my choice of words doesn't diminish the point I was trying to make.

a cover for, um, "clever" remarks like "go fuck yourselves"

I don't even know what you're talking about here.

Now I must renounce my Metafilter affiliation because, despite all the truly cool things that happen around here, some people somewhere don't like it!

Haha! Good one! Look, I said what I said in response to mediareport's "Anyway, folks who bother with that little internet playground are welcome to it." Seemed entirely an appropriate response to me, both to that statement and to the general stink of self-congratulation in the air.

*shrugs*

Ah well. My first comment in this thread, back in the first hundred or so, was the last one I should have made.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:13 PM on January 2, 2008


1000!!
posted by dgaicun at 11:14 PM on January 2, 2008


It's all 1001's
posted by Duncan at 11:23 PM on January 2, 2008


I think I'm pretty much talked out on this subject. I wish we could give Miko a medal for her work as well as Atreides for the great job on the wiki. I appreciate getting mentioned in the same breath as Miko by a few of you, but all glory to her for everything she's written.

The one thing I do wish we could do is find a way to collect the best comments and narrative on here into some that's a little more concise and free of the "noise" of being a thread. It'd be nice to have something that we could give the "Morals Tutors" and others in the world so they'd actually understand the concerns and the larger discussion that came out of that. Problem is that it's a very subjective enterprise to try and do that.

So, let us celebrate our community-building triumph! Now our lives have meaning beyond our dull, dreary, unimportant lives! Sure, we are not powerful EDs of non-profits or morals tutors to the rich and famous, but today we can stand here and feel that we have left them, the true moral and spiritual leaders of our country, nonplussed and dismissive of us! Our lives now have meaning for this!
posted by dw at 11:27 PM on January 2, 2008


After poking around a bit on the Givewell site, I'm saddened. Clearly, these guys do have some skills at statistical analysis, but they seem to be seem to have bitten off far, far more than they (or any at all) can possibly chew. Their hubris has led them to take on five major issues and to presume to be able to choose the best performer in each one. Reading a few of their analyses, it is clear that they have neither the time, nor the data to reach any reasonable conclusions. For instance, in the "Saving Lives" section, they only manage a full analysis of one or two programs for three charities. Even those analyses are filled with hand-waving. They don't seem to have sufficient data to do much for all the other applicants. I don't see how they can, in good conscience, claim to have found the best charity if their analysis only covered three charities. Of course, their application process for their relatively small grants, which forces the charities to supply all the required data (but only for one project) at their own cost, has a good chance of removing the best charity before they even start analyzing.

I'm saddened because if these guys had selected a small charity field to analyze, spoken to experts in the field, found someone with experience to mentor them, carefully collected the required data, and presented a careful, reasoned analysis, they probably could have done some good.
posted by ssg at 11:28 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


OK, damn it, I figured out what mediareport was talking about with that 'go fuck yourselves' thing -- the comment thread at Gifthub has moved on considerably since the last time I saw it.

Here's the money quote:
That said, my message to you Meta-whatevers is "go f*ck yourselves." I hope you show the same zeal for truth when you encounter obfuscation and ethical lapses outside your irrelevant little online community. You've devoted considerable energy to outing Holden as a liar. I hope you've given a proportionate amount of time and energy to protesting secret CIA prisons and waterboarding, prisoners held without due process, an immoral war fought for immoral purposes.

What's the worst sin?:

a) Being dishonest in a way that betrays the trust of a small online community, in the service of a great public good? or

b) Getting all holier-than-thou in a community focused on questions like, "Familiar with the Las Vegas airport? I need some practical advice for choosing my flight/airline." Like go f*ck yourselves.

It's not that Holden didn't do a bad thing. It's that you guys are so inwardly focused and appear to have no mercy.

So go f*ck yourselves.
from someone called Rachel Tension (haha 'racial tension' geddit?)

That's just laughable internet vitriol. I'm not sure why people here, who presumably understand the concept of weblogs and comments, being that this is a community weblog and all: that comments are the responsibility of the commenter. It doesn't make sense to me that people would be taking Phil to task for that comment, when it was made by a visitor to his site.

*shrugs again* At least I figured out what mediareport was talking about. Makes me a little hulk-smashy too, with all that fuckity-fuckery but so it goes. I can see why she or he believes that stuff, even if she or he is wrong.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:30 PM on January 2, 2008


who are keen with all the blood in the water to do a little off-the-cuff character assassination of the man after a quick 10 minute visit to Phil's sites

Stavros, I haven't seen any character assassination of Phil; could you link to any of the comments here that you believe engage in this character assassination?
posted by jayder at 11:32 PM on January 2, 2008


Uh, I missed some words there, so insert as necessary.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:33 PM on January 2, 2008


I haven't seen any character assassination of Phil; could you link to any of the comments here that you believe engage in this character assassination?

Nope. All the comments in this thread are in this thread, and that would be a waste of time, and merely perpetuate this weird sidebar discussion of Phil, something I'd prefer not to happen, if at all possible. Perhaps character 'hitting-over-the-head-and-smearing-with-poo' might be better than 'assassination', but oh well. I'm leaving the office soon, and not composing or proof-reading my comments as carefully as I might.

I leave any further defense of the man, if not his blog commenters, to others, or to him if he wants to sign up for an account here, and any further pissing at him from a great height to those who feel the need to do so.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:40 PM on January 2, 2008


Miko:Their model seeks to play on fears of nonprofit abuse by vetting charities so you don't have to. However, those abuses are rare, and donors can do the examination themselves with the information that charities themselves do have and will provide in response to any individual inquiry.

Miko, I agree with most of what you've written in this thread, but I think this statement is mistaken. Their model doesn't appear to have much to do with finding nonprofit abuse. Their stated goal is to evaluate the effectiveness of charities, which an entirely different thing. In the for-profit world, it is relatively easy to compare the effectiveness of different companies: the more effective company can provide the same good or service at a lower price (to simplify things greatly). With non-profit organisations, it isn't so easy. True, many charities do evaluate their own effectiveness, but it isn't very easy for someone to compare the effectiveness of many different charities. That's not to say that one charity is being abused in any way; it may just mean that a charity has figured out a better way to deliver their programs. There would be a lot of value in being able to compare charities in this way easily. After all, donors do generally want their money to be used as effectively as possible.

That said, Givewell doesn't even come close to achieving this goal, nor could they hope to (see my comment above), ethical behavior aside.
posted by ssg at 11:46 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wow. Is that phil site the Mad Hatter's Tea Party or what? I should NOT have followed the white rabbit.
posted by XMLicious at 11:47 PM on January 2, 2008


The Givewell website (and blog in particular) reads strangely to me. It reminds me of those websites run by groups that are formed to torpedo environmental policy and use "green" names, language, and imagery. Looks fair, feels foul. Wears the trappings of the real thing and claims to challenge the established paradigm but doesn't seem to have a good working knowledge of the current paradigm to begin with (it's not as if there aren't different points of view already). But those groups tend to get away with it by saying the things people desperately want to hear (i.e., we can change how much energy we use without changing how we do anything at all. No worries!). In this case, it's something along the lines of "Charitable donations are like business investments and the groups working with them should be held to the same standards. Just substitute 'stock returns' with 'lives saved in a painfully abstracted group of people in the developing world.' Established non-profits are just too complacent to think outside the box! But we aren't!" *energetic hand waving*

It's all very, very abstract and also reads as being very self-absorbed. Sometimes patronizing. It's like it's a game:

Speaking very broadly and roughly, imagine that for $25,000 you could save 25 lives in Africa or help 1 person get a better job in New York City. I know how I’d choose. What would you do?

The board meeting minutes in particular are really odd. It all reads as rather naive about how charitable organizations impact the people they try to help. But perhaps that's due to author perspective. The comments on various entries that predate the AskMe incident are also rather interesting. Like this one. There's an awful lot of defense of the entries in the comments. Sometimes returning a well thought out and polite comment with a bit of rudeness, like in this entry (exchange with Andrea further down, they don't seem to take constructive criticism well).

I need to sleep before I invade a small neighbouring country.

*hides the babies and the beadwork*
posted by Tehanu at 11:53 PM on January 2, 2008


It doesn't make sense to me that people would be taking Phil to task for that comment

Probably because Phil defends it in the thread by saying that the poster is just "a persona, a mask" playing with masks "in the spirit of Oscar Wilde" which not only implies that Phil condones the comments, but also that he is irritatingly pretentious, schtick notwithstanding.
posted by dersins at 11:54 PM on January 2, 2008


which not only implies that Phil condones the comments, but also that he is irritatingly pretentious, schtick notwithstanding.

OK, I said I would stop defending Phil, and I will, because, you know, I actually agree with that, at least the irritatingly pretentious bit. Don't know about condoning or condemning either way, though.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:58 PM on January 2, 2008


Elie, Holden and Givewell on NPR
posted by Rumple at 12:20 AM on January 3, 2008


me: You're being snippy, and should go take a break.

stav: Excuse me? Who the fuck are you to tell me to 'take a break'? How about you take break?

me: This comment reads like high-school gossip, or as a ham-handed attempt to impugn MeFi's collective credibility.

stav: You can bite me. Quick to anger I may be, but hamhanded I ain't.

Er, noted without comment.


Anyway. I was actually defending Phil here and in that thread, except to the extent that I thought he was trying to take the sting out of some legit objections by portraying MeFi as having gone overboard or otherwise not being 'professional' enough. I don't think that's really for him to judge.

I also thought that while some people were/are going overboard there, he was stoking the coals a bit by not stepping out-of-character to cool people down that didn't seem to get it, and it was getting a bit out of hand, as you said. I thought people were misinterpreting what was going on, which seems to have been the case. Nothing personal intended. :) I'm sure it'll work itself out.


With that, I'm talked out, too. We'll see what, if anything, happens as a result of all this soon enough, I'm sure. What a trainwreck.
posted by spiderwire at 12:42 AM on January 3, 2008


Right, sorry spiderwire. Buy you a beer?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:48 AM on January 3, 2008


Hey, yo, spiderwire, I'll take that beer if you ain't drinking it, man.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:03 AM on January 3, 2008


This guy (who admittedly has a 700 page book on non-profit finance to sell) was very critical of givewell's lack of knowledge of the 990 tax form and other financial issues on December 21. He more or less concludes the new tax form makes Givewell obsolete before it starts, by requiring disclosure of most of the info they claim is hard to get.

Also, in early November on givewell.net, two non-profit professionals, one of them a university-based researcher, try to teach Holden some very basic principles of research (in the comments). A few jaw dropping moments in there, such as Holden musing on getting people's SS# and collate their information for them to streamline the research process (!):

The other thing I think is that you can get pretty far without the 2-hour interview. If you have someone’s Social Security Number and their permission, can’t you check up on pretty basic stuff without their help? I don’t know the answer to this … but how about checking the public assistance rolls, the correction system, etc.? I know there’s some kind of publicly available database where you can look up who’s enrolled in what college (one of our applicants used it - if they’d combined it with a lottery this would have been the cheapest rigorous study ever).

To me, it seems utterly inconceivable that the CEO of a philanthropy, making 68k, would even suggest such an idea. But then, I don't do that kind of research.
posted by Rumple at 1:27 AM on January 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


I will pass to flapjax; New Year's Resolutions to keep and all...
posted by spiderwire at 1:31 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Did anyone else have a brain haemorrhage when reading that GiftHub thread quoted from by stav a while back? Is my mind playing tricks on me (I've had very little sleep :))

Rachel Tension does a load of booring shouting, gets called on it. Then someone called Rachel E Sullivan posts "She comes across as a potty mouthed three year old throwing a tantrum." Then, further down, someone called Persona E Person outs Rachel's real-life information talking in the third-person - but I'm not convinced that just isn't Rachel again.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 2:07 AM on January 3, 2008


I will pass to flapjax; New Year's Resolutions to keep and all...

*downs spiderwire's glass, looks toward stavros in anticipation of next round*

But, stav, I'll get the one after that, buddy!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:20 AM on January 3, 2008


Then someone called Rachel E Sullivan posts "She comes across as a potty mouthed three year old throwing a tantrum."

If you re-read the post, it's pretty clear that Rachel E Sullivan *is* Rachel Tension, and she's admitting to such in that post.

I agree that the whole thing of adopting masks and personas, supposedly for rhetorical and didactic purposes just seems designed to close off discourse. Presumably, by deliberately making your writing more oblique, you render it less accessible to those of us who are 'dumbasses, loudmouths and just generally unpleasant people who like to fight', so I think you can be forgiven for missing the fact that she's outing herself in that post.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:10 AM on January 3, 2008


If you re-read the post, it's pretty clear that Rachel E Sullivan *is* Rachel Tension, and she's admitting to such in that post.

Jesus Murphy, that is fucked up.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:38 AM on January 3, 2008


So it's basically just like a livejournal roleplaying game where people take on multiple personas and act out storylines together, except that this one's about morals, ethics and money rather than pretty-boy pop stars or actors? Sheesh. I never could follow those things.
posted by andraste at 4:39 AM on January 3, 2008


I hereby christen this scandal kaycee.org.
posted by mkultra at 5:11 AM on January 3, 2008


"If you re-read the post, it's pretty clear that Rachel E Sullivan *is* Rachel Tension, and she's admitting to such in that post."

Yeah, sorry, I forgot to state I understood that. I just don't understand why she did it in the way that she did. She seems to be attacking Phil for bigging her up, and then attacking herself. It looks like she's trying to save face but in a completely ludicrous way.

Colour me baffled.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 5:27 AM on January 3, 2008


Sheesh. I never could follow those things.

See my forthcoming slash fanfic of Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door, featuring:

Holden Karnofsky as Meg Laughlin
Elie Hassenfield as Susan Laughlin
the happy tutor as David Moran
miko as Ruth Chandler
fourcheesemac as Willie Chandler Jr.
spiderwire as Donny Chandler
fivefreshfish as Ralphie 'Woofer' Chandler.
Jessamyn as Officer Jennings.

Torture porn seems to me to be the perfect form for teaching moral philosophy to the haute bourgeousie of philanthropic circles.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:31 AM on January 3, 2008


I agree that the whole thing of adopting masks and personas, supposedly for rhetorical and didactic purposes just seems designed to close off discourse.

Based on the descriptions here, the whole thing seems idiotic. Maybe it works.
posted by delmoi at 5:43 AM on January 3, 2008


I would like to Give Well deserved kudos to Miko, DW, nax, and all. I'd also like to start a charity to give wells to poor villages in Africa. Give, well, if you can.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:43 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


What? No charity to give wells of ink to starving Pulitzer Prize winners (nor to give whales to culturally oppressed Inuits)?
posted by Tuwa at 5:56 AM on January 3, 2008


Not my quote, but Holden's apologies bring this to mind:
"Sorry doesn't count when you do stupid things on purpose"
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 6:04 AM on January 3, 2008


DW, thanks for the compliment on the wiki, but it was a collaborative effort of several folks besides myself. I just made a contribution to a good project.
posted by Atreides at 6:22 AM on January 3, 2008


MeTa thread seems to have disappeared from the Google ranking for searching 'give well'. I saw it a top five yesterday- how easy would it be for a corporation to ask a search engine to nix one particular thread?
posted by Gratishades at 6:40 AM on January 3, 2008


MeTa thread seems to have disappeared from the Google ranking for searching 'give well'. I saw it a top five yesterday- how easy would it be for a corporation to ask a search engine to nix one particular thread?

Pretty hard I imagine.
posted by delmoi at 6:41 AM on January 3, 2008


OK, maybe I have missed it, but I have not yet seen a reference to the following site on NetSquared, with which board member Lucy Bernholz claims an affiliation:

http://www.netsquared.org/blog/holden/ever-taken-good-look-charity-navigator

Netsquared claims to be "remixing the web for social change."

Here is what "NetSquared" says about itself"
Net2 is created by TechSoup, a project of CompuMentor. Our organization has worked directly with non-profits for nearly two decades, providing direct assistance, web-based knowledge and resources, and donated technology. Please feel free to CONTACT US if you have any questions or would like to join NetSquared's efforts.

Holden has his own blog on NetSquared, and a search for "Holden" yields a lot of stuff (even more so for "Bernofsky"). He is pretty much fully disclosed as the creator of GiveWell on that site, so this does not belong on any list of deceptions, but he comes across as much more of a kid trying to elbow his way into a very busy world of do-gooder 20-somethings -- ALMOST ALL of whom seem to think that somehow social networking is going to change the world and radicalize our ways of meeting the White Man's Burden. (One thing that infuriates me across a lot of what I've read as this episode has progressed is the high-and-mighty tone of so many would be "philanthropists," in which the objects of their aid are really seen as ignorant children rather than fellow human beings with something to offer in partnership; a lot of very casual infantilizing of Africans, in particular, seems to be the norm. And homeless people. And the poor in general.) The link above contains Holden's beef with CharityNavigator in some detail, with full disclosure.

The site puts a lot of this in context for me. There is a generational shift here, and it seems *way* over-invested in the internet as the be all and end all of social change. Amusingly, none of them ever really deal with the issue of community at all, except their own communities. What every social scientist who works with poor people knows (I be one) is that strong communities help themselves, and that the first challenge of any social improvement plan is to re-inspire a sense of community in a depressed or defeated or terrorized social group. None of these kids seems to even consider this bigger picture issue.

And that makes it very ironic to me that they are (as we are, but less ironically) so busy investing in their own online communities of wannabe do-gooders.

Never thought I'd have the balls to say this on Metafilter, but these kids need to get out into the world and see some actual suffering instead of just treating it as an abstraction.

I would therefore be most satisfied if Holden would take the following action in recognition of his malfeasance here: go to Africa, Holden. Go spend two months on a serious, fact-finding trip to some of the worst spots; KwaZulu, the heart of the AIDS epidemic; the Congo, shredded by civil war and rape as a military tactic; Angola, where poverty has destroyed a generation that should have risen to an African version of the middle class. Go look, blog about it, get your hands dirty, meet actual poor people, sleep in a roach-infested slum. Then give 10 percent of your salary directly to some community somewhere with no strings and no expectations of a measurement of its effectiveness. Then introspect, and come back with an apology for the fraud and a new commitment to do well with GiveWell.

That would do it for me. But it would have to be very serious and contrite and he would have to really get his boots into the mud of human misery for long enough to have it mean something.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:47 AM on January 3, 2008 [20 favorites]


Well said, fourcheesemac. Well said.
posted by odi.et.amo at 6:59 AM on January 3, 2008


The thread pops up at 6/8 respectively depending on how you count the results on Google if you just search "Givewell."
posted by Atreides at 7:14 AM on January 3, 2008


Their model doesn't appear to have much to do with finding nonprofit abuse. Their stated goal is to evaluate the effectiveness of charities, which an entirely different thing.

I see what you mean, so I hope I can clarify why I said that. It's not that they specifically set out to expose abuse of funds, no, nor do they position themselves as a 'watchdog' organization, per se. I agree that they emphasize "effectiveness," (based on a fairly narrow definition if "effective" that builds on a particular set of assumptions). The reason I suggest that they are playing on fears of abuse is that in the current donor climate, there already exists a degree of skepticism about how charities are using their funds. Some of this is well placed, given some incidents of nonprofit impropriety we have seen in the last decade (Guide Star article on perceptions of nonprofits and ethics standards). But there is a degree of paranoia in the marketplace for donations that is excessive and, I believe, discourages people from donating at all. When GiveWell talks about finding the "honest charities," which they do on the blog and on some of the website material, they make a tacit statement that there are dishonest charities. Their emphasis on "openness" has the same effect: while openness is generally laudable, it is set in opposition to "opacity." Comments like this are what cause me to feel that they have positioned themselves to take advantage of people who both fear abuse of funds and don't yet know that they can conduct their own research on charitable organizations:

n private, personal conversations, I hear all kinds of horrible things about large foundations

Check out the studies that have been done
of the TRIO programs, the CCDP, and the work of USAID. They are rigorous, intelligent, and honest. ...They acknowledge their own limitations. They don’t try to throw sand in your eyes like some of the unbelievable puff pieces churned out by the private sector.

Are those charities all doing useless or fraudulent work? Have the foundations checked them out? If so, wouldn’t it be nice of them to let the rest of us (the general population opening our meager checkbooks year in and year out) know?

(This last comment is noteworthy because it also critiques large private foundations for giving away about 5% of assets a year, betraying an ignorance of endowment management. The conservative figure for endowment investment is that endowment can be expected to generally throw off 5% a year, which forms the budget used for grantmaking purposes. Minimum spending is set at 5% because that is what can reasonably be expeceted for income. If there is additional revenue, that board decides to either reinvest in endowment or dedicate it to that year's programming. It is not because charities are reluctant to give away money or enjoy "sitting on" the funds, as Holden suggests. It's the way a foundation endowment is supposed to work. All on open, public record).
posted by Miko at 7:23 AM on January 3, 2008 [5 favorites]


They also have a link to Geneva Global in the FAQ, recommending their service as philanthropic advisers. That's a conflict of interest, as one of Geneva's employees is on the GiveWell board. The connection is not noted. I'd link it, but GiveWell's site seems to be down.
posted by Miko at 7:32 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


I would therefore be most satisfied if Holden would take the following action in recognition of his malfeasance here: go to Africa, Holden. Go spend two months on a serious, fact-finding trip to some of the worst spots; KwaZulu, the heart of the AIDS epidemic; the Congo, shredded by civil war and rape as a military tactic; Angola, where poverty has destroyed a generation that should have risen to an African version of the middle class. Go look, blog about it, get your hands dirty, meet actual poor people, sleep in a roach-infested slum. Then give 10 percent of your salary directly to some community somewhere with no strings and no expectations of a measurement of its effectiveness. Then introspect, and come back with an apology for the fraud and a new commitment to do well with GiveWell.

Personally, I think going to Africa like this risks treating it like a tourist would. Oh look, honey! A slum filled with a million people living on less than a dollar a day and barely any health care! Take a picture!

I don't think he has to go all the way to Africa, either. We have plenty of poor places in America -- NOLA, the rez, even in NYC.

What I would do, though, is find a place where he could invest for 6-9-12 months. Put him with an NPO somewhere in the world, one that's doing ground level work. Let him see how the organization works. Understand what they do. And see the people they help.

I'd love to see him get a Peace Corps assignment. But that's a lot of time in "exile." Maybe what's better is if he can find something in NYC itself, a local health clinic or kid's center, where he can work for a year pro bono. Givewell still pays his salary, but half time he's doing whatever the local NPO needs him to do -- take out the trash, work on the charity's 990, hang with the clients.

Holden and Elie both really need time on the ground understanding the frustrations and rewards of the organizations they want to help. When they do, they'll better be able to understand what it is they're trying to revolutionize.
posted by dw at 7:34 AM on January 3, 2008


A winnable little war to bring the people of a community together a spirit of triumphalism.

"People are being mean to my friend when he got caught in a bad lie. I'm going to pick up my ball and run home crying now."
posted by clevershark at 7:35 AM on January 3, 2008


Jesus Murphy, that *is* fucked up.

Apology accepted. :)
posted by mediareport at 7:41 AM on January 3, 2008


Great suggestion, dw. All along I've been marveling at how thoroughly entry-level his skills and knowledge are, and how far he's taken that. Which is a shame, when I know many similar bright and talented young people in nonprofits, people with equivalent or better analytical skills, who are waiting for opportunities to lead after paying their dues for years and gaining real work experience. The difference is that they don't have friends to bankroll them into a CEO position. Holden is definitely "obsessed," so really, nothing would do him more good than undertaking a year or two of ground-level experience in the field, along with some coursework in nonprofit administration. (I can't imaging allowing him to work in my organization, though; he'd blog every second of it and turn it into yet another media stunt).

The thing is, it would take more humility to undergo this than he seems capable of. If the blog ever comes back online, you can read his post "True Experts? Or Old Boys' Club?," in which he asserts that experience is just sort of an acculturating Kool-Aid that would prevent him from asking tough questions. In an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, he describes the strategy he learned in the world of finance, the one he prefers to use in order to learn:
After graduating from Harvard College in 2003 with a degree in social studies, he was recruited into the hedge-fund world, spending three years doing research for Bridgewater Associates, an investment company in Westport, Conn. — where he was strongly influenced by a culture of constant questioning.

"What was really reinforced there was how much there was to be gained by surrounding yourself with what I call 'no men,' who are very smart, very critical, and will just constantly criticize you and tell you what you're doing wrong," he says. "I had always believed in this, but I got more into the idea that there's a ton to be gained by open discussion, admitting your weaknesses and letting other people point out your weaknesses."
I guess that might be worth funding in the private sector, but I'm not sure it's worth a tax exemption. It strikes me as a way to get the equivalent of a graduate degree which is very cheap for Holden but rather expensive for his donors. Reading Holden's posting history, the picture that emerges is of someone who begins making statements of sweeping import while knowing very, very little about what he's trying to do. Gradually, academics, professionals, researchers, writers, and nonprofit employees introduce terms and point out websites and recommend books. By doing this, he instigates the knowledgeable into responding, and then absorbs the free information and lessons of experience they throw at him (eventually). He's had a fortune in consulting and education offered to him, gratis, via his blog and discussions like this.
posted by Miko at 7:59 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


From Holden's blog on netsquared.org:

"Please question us; please criticize us; please don't dismiss us as a Charity Navigator knockoff."

Be careful what you wish for...

Maybe what's better is if he can find something in NYC itself, a local health clinic or kid's center, where he can work for a year pro bono.

I think that's the thing that I find most peculiar about this whole story. Most of the people that I know who work for NPO's originally got into the game because they wanted to work directly with the people that they were concerned about. Sure, over time, they begin to recognize that their talents are probably best employed elsewhere and so they move up the heirarchy, but the very best of them invariably miss the client contact. If for no other reason than they have this tendency to put paid to your glib platitudes about humility while invoking the real thing when you learn about the struggles that they've faced and overcome, and measure them alongside your own petty concerns and problems.

One way that Givewell might try to make themselves more relevant, more accountable and more responsive to the needs of those whom they intend to serve is to invite some people with first hand experience of the problems that they are seeking to fix onto their board. Mind you, if you're continuously seeking to avoid the prospect of having conversations to people that you regard as "with dumbasses, loudmouths and just generally unpleasant people who like to fight", then I can see why this might not appear such an inviting proposition.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:03 AM on January 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


OK, this is going to be longish, but reading Phil's thread really pissed me off, and I want to try to nudge stavros at least a smidge out of the defend-my-buddy circle and get him to see why I (who started out as a big fan of the Happy Tutor) am fed up with the whole shtick. I won't bother reposting the Rachel Tension stuff because it's been posted and acknowledged, but here's Phil's response to it:

In fact Rachel is a persona for a person who is well known in foundation circles, considered an innovator, and about as highly educated as a person can be and still function as an American Citizen. Click on the name, Rachel Tension, and follow the link to White Courtesy Telephone. A serious site presented in the light manner of Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.
...
Rachel is a persona, a mask. The site in question often plays with masks in the spirit of Oscar Wilde, another elitist. You seem a little off balance.


So Rachel is not just "a visitor to his site," she's part of the Happy Crew, and Phil is automatically coming to her defense in exactly the way Holden's pals are coming to his. She spews ignorant venom, and when someone objects he says "You seem a little off balance." I don't care if that's part of his shtick; whether there's an additional "ironic," "educational" meaning intended or not, its face value is clearly meant as well. I stand by my friends too, but when my pal Jon kicked my first wife in the ass and she complained, I didn't say "You seem a little off balance" and explain that he was just being a jolly provocateur, I apologized for having put her in a position to be treated that way and promised her that she wouldn't have to deal with him any more. I have no problem with Phil enjoying the online company of some junior-league academic who enjoys playing his games, but defending the indefensible, taking her side against someone who justly complains about her (while calling her "an innovator" and "about as highly educated as a person can be"—give me a break!), shows a depressing failure of judgment.

And while we're on the subject of depressing comments, here are some more of his:

In the end a man's reputation and career and his nonprofit hang in the balance. I think it is up to the Board to take the matter up. A certain solemn silence seems the most responsible approach. The charges have certainly been levelled. Evidence has been documented.


This is exactly the way the elite talk when One of Their Own has gotten in trouble, right down to the pathetic passives in the last two sentences (linguistic side note: pathetic and passive are equivalent words etymologically, the former being from a stem of the Greek verb paskhein 'to suffer' and the latter being from a stem of the Latin verb pati 'to suffer'). Again, the fact that he's saying it (as he says everything) "ironically" is irrelevant. If he became president and acted exactly the way Bush did to show the oppression inherent in the system, would his ironic intent matter? (And yes, I know defending sleazebags isn't the same as invading other countries; I'm talking about the principle involved.)

The other context that you and your Metafilter friends helped me bring into play for myself is the whole issue of fiduciary responsibility to other people and their money.


He hadn't thought about fiduciary responsibility until we brought it up? What the fuck kind of Tutor is he?

If you work through the teaching of morals and stop short of the conclusion that you are a Fool, then I think you have done our Noble Trade a disservice.
Socrates, even he, said that he was the wisest of men because he knew he knew nothing. A fool who knows he is a Fool is perhaps on the road to wisdom. I am a sinner, a fool, and even my claim to being born again is an outright fraud. I am now and always have been in bondage to sin.
That is my shtick, what is yours?


Yeah, that's your shtick, you've been repeating it word for word for years, and maybe it's time to move on if you can't do better with it. Yes, yes, you're a Fool, I'm a Fool, everybody's a Fool. Meanwhile, is fraud and slander acceptable in running what is alleged to be a charity operation or not? Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.

And here's his pal Gerry:

The outsiders may think I am joking about sending Holden to the Tutor for punishment. In this world that is how we do it. Phil can ask them in private if they will consent, and Tutor will design the scene room at WB. It will be fun and educational for all, and Holden will learn his lesson to satisfy even RCM that he is sufficiently chastened.


See, when you're just joking around on your blog, that kind of thing is all in good fun. When you're interacting with the real world, it's offensive bullshit. As RCM said over there:

What all of this has done is show me -- an outsider -- that the world of online philanthropy bloggers and wannabes I've stumbled across thanks to Holden's shenanigans is venal, clique-ish, amoral, and lacking in professional standards. Good work guys.
Holden, one more time, violated the public fiduciary trust with his actions, wasted a ton of positive PR in the mainstream media, broke the rules of *several* online communities, *lied* to his prospective donor base in search of funds, stole an employee's identity to do some of his lying, and offered to bribe Metafilter to make it go away. That's only the opening bill of particulars against the guy.
You all act like he's a child and you're his big siblings protecting him. Just the way you patronize me and other strangers showing up here who clearly know what they are talking about.

posted by languagehat at 8:10 AM on January 3, 2008 [17 favorites]


Here's the link to that question in the FAQ Miko. The conflict of interest does need to be made clear.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:22 AM on January 3, 2008


Could someone sum up this thread? 1000+ comments, and I quit reading after about 200.
posted by item at 8:23 AM on January 3, 2008


Could someone sum up this thread? 1000+ comments, and I quit reading after about 200.

Someone did something really, really stupid.

Everyone got out their Google shovels and dug stuff up.

Person tried to apologize and bribe their way out of their stupidity.

At the next meetup Miko gets free beer and a dozen marriage proposals.

We're all laying into stavros' Internet friends.

Oh, and Your Favorite Ivy League College Town sucks.

Any questions?
posted by dw at 8:34 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Could someone sum up this thread? 1000+ comments, and I quit reading after about 200.

Get thee to the wiki, item, if you want a little more detail than dw provided.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:39 AM on January 3, 2008


Could someone sum up this thread? 1000+ comments, and I quit reading after about 200.

Buttercup is marry' Humperdinck in a little less than half an hour. So all we have to do is get in, break up the wedding, steal the princess, and make our escape... after I kill Count Rugen.

Seriously though - you just have to read it. Pay attention to many of the favorited comments, and remarks obviously by the admins/mods , and folks directly involved in the field, harvard or business in general.

The main story is that Holden's actions have led to a greater investigation of the practices of givewill overall. The main thing I got out of the thread was that these actions should (should as in ought to, not should as in it looks like it will) result in some major changes at givewell.

There is a wiki with information being compiled (it's linked in the thread, find it). One of the main problems, notably, has been the response to the actions, as opposed to the actions themselves. As noted in that cliche statement about how life is 90 or whatever percent about how you respond to things that happen, the main problem many of us have is the picture of givewell that has emerged as a result of pisspoor responses by Holden, board members and even friends. Replies and follow-ups that should be almost completely conciliatory have been misleading, spinnish, defensive and dismissive.

Currently a givewell board meeting is happening sometime within the upcoming weeks. The original post and Miko's detective work were the peeling away of the corner of the painting and the subsequent detective work and lame responses have been the tearing away of the veneer that showed the apparently new a beautiful painting to have the appearance of a few stick figures, sun and a tree done in finger paints.

We'll see though.
posted by cashman at 8:40 AM on January 3, 2008


Another blog where it seems the author seems to consider while what Givewell founders Holden and Elie did was bad, it wasn't "that bad, when considered against other scandals." Or, in his words,

"My reaction: Givewell is Naive, Inspired and Arrogant. But that does not detract from what they are trying to accomplish. Transparency is not the same as Saint Hood. I've seen private foundations and major nonprofits do FAR more unethical things than trying to generate publicity under false pretenses."

I'm not sure if the author is forgiving Holden, so long as he receives a "spanking" from the board of directors, but he ends with this horrible line,

"I kinda like the soap opera aspect of this whole thing. I sincerely hope that after spanking Holden the board can look at this episode as evidence that the idea behind the organization is solid. Then everyone can go out and have a beer and a laugh."
posted by Atreides at 8:52 AM on January 3, 2008


Fourcheesemac, Miko, dw, Rumple (and many others I'm not mentioning because if I did, that would be a whole post)--excellent work. I'm glad to see the discussion moving past the deliberate attempts to divert it.

There's no question that the lack of experience has been apparent from the beginning. In theory, no problem--lawyers, consultants and I-bankers learn on the job all the time. But that's where Givewell diverted from the very culture it claimed to be represent. The best analysts and advisors immerse themselves in the world of their clients. You try to understand why they do what they've done and why they don't do what would seem to be more effective. When a so-called expert proclaims his or her ability to revolutionize charity (or, God forbid, an entire country) with no apparent knowledge of what's going on, I smile and nod and am quite polite, but all the while I'm thinking about the Simpsons episode with the monorail.

Which isn't to say I don't get where Holden etc. are coming from with the worldchanging meme. It's in the air for a reason, and the attacks on this thread illustrate why. The charitable world can be a bit smug, assured of its own virtue to the point of denigrating anyone who does not genuflect in its direction. It flocks towards fads and has ruling cliques every bit as petty and vicious as what you remember from high school. Getting past all that can be hard work, especially if you don't hum the latest buzz.
posted by jefftrexler at 8:52 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


salvia: Did people already discuss the similarity to this question? Seems legit, but it's interestingly similar.
I actually wondered about this when the original question first appeared. I almost just posted a "hey noob, try searching for similar questions before asking" but decided, to my shame, to treat it like a serious question. So the red flag was there right from the beginning. It's also the reason I was a little testy in my response (I believe I called him "hopeless" and "ridiculous." Am I canny or what?)
posted by nax at 8:52 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


This last comment is noteworthy because it also critiques large private foundations for giving away about 5% of assets a year, betraying an ignorance of endowment management

Great catch, Miko. Possibly one of the most surprising (to me, at least) discoveries of this whole episode. You'd expect someone like Holden Karnofsky to have some understanding of how trust funds work.
posted by dersins at 8:58 AM on January 3, 2008


The charitable world can be a bit smug, assured of its own virtue to the point of denigrating anyone who does not genuflect in its direction. It flocks towards fads and has ruling cliques every bit as petty and vicious as what you remember from high school. Getting past all that can be hard work, especially if you don't hum the latest buzz.

Yet again, higher ed and the charity world have something in common.
posted by dw at 8:59 AM on January 3, 2008


Hmm, OK, then send him to New Orleans or Pine Ridge, fine with me. But make him get his hands dirty if you want to clean them off.

Also, who is "Virginia Zink," a member of the Givewell (Give Well, Clear Fund, Clearfund, whatever) board? It says above that she works for ING Australia and is a major investor in GiveWell (Clear Fund).

Yet "Virginia Zink," a very unusual name, and weirdly, the name of a Peace Corps volunteer who died while serving in Nigeria in 1968.

How weird is that? Or is this thread making me paranoid?
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:06 AM on January 3, 2008


I just thought it was important that the name "The Clear Fund" and "Clear Fund" and "ClearFund" be repeated a few times in this thread too, because like any other good con, GiveWell (Give Well, etc.) has multiple names for different parts of its operation, probably primarily to confuse prospective donors. Or again, maybe now I'm paranoid.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:08 AM on January 3, 2008


How weird is that? Or is this thread making me paranoid?
posted by fourcheesemac

I pretty sure you're paranoid. You sound delicious right about now, however.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:11 AM on January 3, 2008


Miko: Thanks for digging up those blog entries. I hadn't really read much that from them that touches on fraud, etc., but in retrospect, it isn't surprising. I have zero interest in defending these guys in any case.

I felt, perhaps wrongly, that there was a bit of an undercurrent of distaste for the very idea of quantifying the work of charities in this thread and wanted to say something about that. I can see how that idea seems distasteful in that no one wants to try to put a value on a human life or an endangered species, but we already do those things implicitly. We can't quantify everything and we will still end up having to putting our faith in one organization or another, but I think that we, as a society, could do a lot better at measuring the effectiveness of our non-economic actions.
posted by ssg at 9:24 AM on January 3, 2008


The charitable world can be a bit smug, assured of its own virtue to the point of denigrating anyone who does not genuflect in its direction. It flocks towards fads and has ruling cliques every bit as petty and vicious as what you remember from high school. Getting past all that can be hard work, especially if you don't hum the latest buzz.

dw: Yet again, higher ed and the charity world have something in common.


Amen to that, dw. Yet no matter how hard I try, just when I thought I was out they pull me back in . . .
posted by jefftrexler at 9:27 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


jefftrexler, I'm reading your user profile page and I'm wondering why you weren't a member of MeFi already.

Welcome. I think you'll fit in just fine here.
posted by mds35 at 9:51 AM on January 3, 2008


I think paranoid on that one, fourcheesemac: in the meeting audio I think I recall that she's elected as the new board member, and introduced as the wife of a Bridgewater colleague.

I agree, jefftrexler, that there is waste, cronyism, and sloppiness in the nonprofit world and that the halo effect obscures some shady dealings. It's true. But that's all the more reason why I don't want to excuse this incident, nor did I excuse things like seeing the misdirection of federal grant funds at one of my former jobs. I don't believe a holier-than-thou attitude should settled for, and in general I have no problem with a clearinghouse of information on charity outcomes that is shared beyond the donor/grantmaker base. I am a fan of very stringent standards for nonprofits.

The reason that has not existed in the past, I am pretty sure, is that not many people have ever wanted to pay for it. Some have. Evaluation is also an active subfield within charitable organizations. There are some great links and comments by Amanda and Andrea on this page of the GiveWell blog. I agree that would be shortsighted for charities to resist the idea of evaluation. Comparison is more difficult, because with mission-driven organizations founded on a wildly varying set of different values (religious, political, philosophical), it is difficult to find two charities who are doing exactly the same thing, with the same aims, and can be given a "pass" or "fail" on the same metric. GiveWell's model was too grandiose in both ends and means. What they aim to do cannot well be done without far more narrowly defined strategies and greater professionalism.

If GiveWell had quite a bit more clearly and simply said: 'our foundation makes grants based upon a standard we define as 'effectiveness' as demonstrated quantitatively by invited applicants on a self-reporting questionnaire, in these five subfields, according to the following specific criteria (X, Y, Z)', then I wouldn't have much to critique them for. If they even used the resulting platform to say "increased openness would help charitable giving grow - we commend the following charities on their openness," I think that would be a good service. As a good example of that sort of work, I would point to existing groups that Andrea and Amands brought to my attention as good models: how about the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, who have a clearly defined project to monitor "fundraising activities of Christian nonprofits,...ministries and religious agencies, serving about 2,000 entities today. In July last year it created a new division for churches, focusing on leadership, governance, financial stewardship, fundraising and accountability." They evaluate their targets based on a set of standards and best practices, available here. Or the BBC Wise Giving Alliance, which measures charities against a similar set of standards which clearly includes reports of effectiveness.

GiveWell is not offering to do something different here, they are simply overreaching in that they have defined their criteria too vaguely and their intended scope and hoped-for impact far too broadly. Their lack of what you describe as 'immersion in the world of the client' is an Achilles heel. It's the sweeping and erroneous generalizations they've made about the current state of outcome evaluations in the field that I believe are damaging to the perception of the public sector as a whole. If someone came to you and said "I have an idea to start a grantmaking organization that evaluates charities for effectiveness. What do you think?" wouldn't the best council be "There are several organizations that do something similar. Why don't you contact them for informational interviews to discover what they do, how they do it, what you need to learn, and find out whether you really have something new and different to offer?"

That counsel, also, could have come through the board. In the GiveWell Blog, a reader named Jen asks about how Holden plans to measure his own board's effectiveness. Holden says:
we really haven’t looked into evaluating boards at all. I’m interested in your thoughts on how we can do so. I am skeptical of the importance of boards, because it isn’t clear to me how important a body that meets a few times a year can be. I’d rather judge a mature organization on what it’s accomplished, anyway, than on who its board members are. But I’m listening.
Boards are the single most important factor in determining the success or failure of an organization. They are responsible for the CEO, and an incident like this one could have been prevented through more timely counsel. Meeting twice a year is insufficient for a nonprofit board - generally groups like BoardSource recommend monthly or bimonthly meetings. According to them, 66% of boards meet once a month or every other month. It might be that in the business world, boards of directors meet twice yearly, but nonprofit boards are expected to be more active contributors to the activities of the organization and to its oversight.
posted by Miko at 9:52 AM on January 3, 2008 [8 favorites]


Submit a complaint to the New York Attorney General:
The Charities Bureau has jurisdiction to investigate complaints that involve 1) wrongdoing by charitable corporations, trusts or other nonprofit organizations; 2) fraudulent or misleading solicitation and improper expenditure of money for charitable purposes; and 3) improper activities of executors, administrators, trustees and personal representatives responsible for honoring pledges or bequests to a charity.
I imagine they would take a signed written complaint more seriously, but you can always just e-mail Charities.Bureau@oag.state.ny.us. Please no anonymous e-mails.
posted by grouse at 9:52 AM on January 3, 2008


best council counsel

And ssg, I entirely agree with you that evaluation is necessary and appropriate and want to make sure everyone knows that it's currently going on throughout the field and is constantly on the increase. GiveWell's concern was that they don't have access to a lot of that current information, because it goes directly to grantmakers and donors, and because it's not in a consistent format organization to organization. If someone wanted to pay for that service, it could happen, just as people wanted to pay for Charity Navigator, and it happened. I'm not sure who's going to be willing to pay GiveWell for that service, though.
posted by Miko at 9:59 AM on January 3, 2008


Great catch, Miko. Possibly one of the most surprising (to me, at least) discoveries of this whole episode. You'd expect someone like Holden Karnofsky to have some understanding of how trust funds work.

I think what he's voicing is a concern I've heard repeated -- the trusts and foundations with large endowments can, over time, become far more interested in self-preservation than giving. They can outlive their original usefulness, e.g. the disease they were organized around has either been cured or been genetically selected out, but fail to reorganize or disband. Sometimes the financial gift that started the endowment has hard-and-fast rules preventing these changes. Sometimes, the board's just lazy.

But that's not the same as his complaint about the 5%. And I think he's conflating the two issues -- the normal sustainability of a foundation and the relevance of a foundation.

The advantage to a large endowment is that they can make sustainable contributions -- instead of dumping $20M into five year grants and that's that, they can invest $1M every year until a project is completed. And all that money also allows them to make the big one-time block grants I think Holden would love to see.

But again, I see more inexperience with how all this stuff works. So, so frustrating.
posted by dw at 10:00 AM on January 3, 2008


That's a good point, dw. One interesting fact I learned recently is that while business go "out of business" all the time, take in their shingle and fold up, the rate of closure for nonprofits is very, very low. Once formed, even the weakest ones tend to limp along for some time on the passion of a few individuals or the self-serving nature of the organization. I don't have a citation for that or any comparitive statistics, but it gave me food for thought. When a charity is formed for a purpose that they actually completely achieve, what would it be it best for them to do? Fold, and free up their donors to support other causes? Or use their already built organization and network and bank accounts to take up a next, related cause, saving some redudancy in costs as members of Old Charity become enrolled in New Charity? Then, too, I can think of any number of half-defunct historical societies, historic houses, lighthouses, and the like that continue to exist and to file for their tax status every year, running on the steam of a few longtime volunteers and a small group of lukewarm supporters. They aren't taking much from the economy and aren't contributing much to it. On the other hand, they are holding the place for the organization, which may be invigorated by new leadership at some point (I've seen that happen when demographics and trends change). If they own a property, the property remains in public hands, somewhat protected. Their existence adds to the cultural opportunity in their locality. Their archives and collections may be useful to scholars from time to time. Are they effective? Probably not very, by any quantitative metric. Are they important? I'd rather have them than have them starve, in general, I guess. It's hard to discuss usefully without specifics, but it's true that once formed, nonprofits rarely go out of existence.
posted by Miko at 10:17 AM on January 3, 2008 [5 favorites]


I think that's the thing that I find most peculiar about this whole story. Most of the people that I know who work for NPO's originally got into the game because they wanted to work directly with the people that they were concerned about.

There are those, but there are also (especially in philanthropy, and most certainly at the Board level) the CEO's wives and retired lawyers and the corporate rat race drop outs who have had virtually no direct exposure to the people they are supposed to be serving. As someone who works in the trenches I occasionally get to see these worlds collide. You can see the visible wincing and straining to hold a forced smile when Law Partner Board Guy has to hold a prolonged conversation with a drug addicted paranoid schizophrenic that hasn't bathed in two weeks and has a stump where one of his hands should be. The fact is that many people who work in the upper echelons of the non-profit world love the idea of fighting poverty and collecting the accolades that come with, but a part of them finds actual poor people to be scary and somewhat loathesome.

In the meantime the trench workers risks their necks on a daily basis dealing with the funding short falls and chronic understaffing for no accolades, no money, and no recognition let alone prestige. Then the next White Hope come lately gets to mug it up for the New York Times. As if the fucking work isn't depressing enough.
posted by The Straightener at 10:23 AM on January 3, 2008 [12 favorites]


I agree, jefftrexler, that there is waste, cronyism, and sloppiness in the nonprofit world and that the halo effect obscures some shady dealings. It's true. But that's all the more reason why I don't want to excuse this incident,

Miko, I should clarify: I wasn't defending Givewell or rationalizing inaction. In fact, over on the Gifthub thread, I argued for shutting it down. The point I was trying to make, however ineptly, was an ironic one: that the very behavior we see in Givewell's defenders is what's leading many young people to be disillusioned with organized charity.
posted by jefftrexler at 10:37 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


The fact is that many people who work in the upper echelons of the non-profit world love the idea of fighting poverty and collecting the accolades that come with, but a part of them finds actual poor people to be scary and somewhat loathesome.

I don't find anything particularly reprehensible about that. People have vastly varying tolerances when it comes to coping with real suffering, and I don't think you need to be comfortable watching a starving man with no legs drag himself down a crowded sidewalk in Bangkok (that's where I bottomed out) to recognize that there is a problem and exert yourself to try to fix it.

Despite the fact that funding efforts fall short, the fact that there is any funding at all is largely a result of these boards. Yeah, it would be nice if it wasn't that way, but it would be ascribing way too much power to the CEO's wives and rat-race dropouts to suggest that they have any more choice about the situation than you do. Somebody needs to collect the money, and they're in the position to do it.
posted by tkolar at 10:44 AM on January 3, 2008 [3 favorites]


Rumple writes "To me, it seems utterly inconceivable that the CEO of a philanthropy, making 68k, would even suggest such an idea.[Trolling for respondent information via SSN]
"


Having worked in IT for a long time it doesn't surprise me in the slightest. It's fairly common for this kind of ends justify the means and no one will know anyways approach to information gathering to be suggested.
posted by Mitheral at 10:47 AM on January 3, 2008


The rush to defend Rachel, the anonymous provocateur on Phil's blog, is pathetic. I find it incredible that they are seemingly oblivious to the irony.
posted by malocchio at 10:49 AM on January 3, 2008


Somebody needs to collect the money, and they're in the position to do it.

Many non-profits are fee for service providers that run off city contracts or bill publicly funded programs like Medicaid, many are funded through grants obtained by the hard work of their staff and many grassroots organizations raise funds on their own with limited assistance from members of their board. Many non-profits have boards that actually do very little, provide very little by way of support, but always manage to show up for photo ops. As always, YMMV.
posted by The Straightener at 11:00 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


What happens when you get caught with your ethics down
"....Even though you might be able to do what Holden did and get away with it, don't do it. It's unethical.

And if that isn't enough to persuade you, just take a look at the savage treatment Holden, GiveWell, and anything connected to them have received in the past few days. It's probably safe to say that the reputations of Holden and GiveWell are meaningfully and perhaps permanently damaged. It's hard enough to raise funds without getting stuck with baggage like that.

The Net is a great tool, but you've got to use it right!

Another thought: If you're very young and in the profession for the first time, get adult supervision. Really, a lot of this looks to me like the work of a zealous youngster who believed he was smarter than everyone else. A few years having to work with older, more seasoned folks might have imparted some wisdom."
posted by ericb at 11:02 AM on January 3, 2008


It's a complete aside, but this comment attempting to explain the Rachel burlesque as a sophisticated experiment in social theory is the most delightfully hilarious example of manure-scented academic hoo-ha I've ever seen trotted out on the web. Remember, she's speaking about a 'persona' she posted as:
Rachel’s a provocateur. Her primary function—to use the strained language of the academy—has been to foreground, and thereby open to criticism, middle class norms and prejudices...she exists to prompt a quick dismissal and reveal something about ourselves in the process...Her rant has elicited an insensitivity to people with mental illness (“Are you 15 or simply mentally defective, Rachel?”), narcissism (“what I have done for the world is irrelevant, though my answer would probably shame you”), classism (“She is an untenured professor at a totally third rate commuter college")...

That's some fine, fine bullshit piled higher and deeper, all right.

posted by Miko at 11:14 AM on January 3, 2008 [3 favorites]


the very behavior we see in Givewell's defenders is what's leading many young people to be disillusioned with organized charity.

So, Jeff, tell me -- why is it that I've heard at endless conferences and seminars over the last two years that doing business on the Internet means that you must be transparent, honest, and forthright lest your customers think you're a fraud, but that message apparently isn't even being spoken to the non-profit/philanthropy world?

Is it because they're only now starting to blog? Is it because they see the web as a device to acquire donations rather than as a social network? Because I don't get why they're so clueless.

I mean, here in higher ed, I'm hearing those same messages. They're starting to get it -- that it's 2008 and it's time to start treating the Internet as a tool, not a toy, and it's time to learn the rules of the road. But I'm hearing and seeing the exact opposite of that from these Gifthub commenters and other philanthropy bloggers. It's like they're "playing" at transparency. I mean, they're treating that thread like commedia dell'arte.

You're closer to this world that I am, Jeff. What gives?
posted by dw at 11:16 AM on January 3, 2008


Miko, what you're describing is the world of small and mid-sized arts organizations. These organizations start through the passion of one or two individuals, pursuing a mission for which their is arguably NO need (Guillaume de Machaut anyone?)

I could plop in a gob of self-links here, since obscure art forms is my entire deal. In 30 years in the business I have encountered many many Holdens-- youngsters with gobs of enthusiasm coupled resources either personal or through their undeniable charisma. They suck the well dry, get the movers and shakers all excited, and then when they crash and burn, those same movers and shakers don't just find somewhere else to give their arts dollars, they throw their hands up at the whole enterprise.

This is the damage that the Holdens of the world do. It is hard enough to convince donors to give to the arts. When you have a bad faith incident like this one (there have been a couple of doozies in Chicago), the entire struggling field suffers, as funders withdraw their funds from "start ups" (if I may) and focus on the major players, or hedge their bets by asking all arts organizations to become effectors of social change, effectively starving the actual arts output. This is what made me so angry at the start of this controversy. My immediate thought was that I really don't need this crap again, thank god this putz is in New York and doesn't fund the arts. (And btw Holden, what's with that?)
posted by nax at 11:20 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


I agree, nex: not only arguably no need, but a damn hard time demonstrating long-term impact by "effectiveness" standards. Public history has the same problem. We can count heads, but we cannot count changed ideas or broadened worldviews.
posted by Miko at 11:25 AM on January 3, 2008


It's a little easier in the health field. With the fervent sorts we can often steer them into "partnerships" with schools and charities.

I think it also helps that the fervent ones I see usually come to us from the Peace Corps or from an experience working for a local NPO/NGO. So, they know that before they can lead a revolution, they need a Master's degree and training that comes with it.

It's too bad that there isn't something similar with the arts. But I would think a museum sciences degree would cover this sort of stuff, right?
posted by dw at 11:38 AM on January 3, 2008


Over at Read Write Web, the promotion of GiveWell continues today.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 11:44 AM on January 3, 2008


derail here, just warning you.

dw, there is something like that in the arts (if I'm interpreting you correctly). There is an amazing subset of arts organizations, both those involved in pure arts creation and those arts organizations created specifically to achieve social ends. This is a wonderful trend, and it's a place where a nfp community tried to step in where government let us all down, namely in pulling arts from the schools and pulling subsidies from the arts. The arts community stepped in and started doing community organization through the arts, created arts programming for schools (both on site and off) and more. It is just terrific.

The problem is, as miko said, that this is now the entire justification for arts funding-- if you are just trying to make art (like, fer instance, put on classic musicals in all their original glory), then you are irrelevant. It only counts if you're also teaching kids to sing (a laudable goal, but maybe that's not what my organization was created to do). I get that it's the donor's money and they can send it where they want, but the constant justification of my right to exist just as an artist is very wearying. And fundraising scandals just make it harder.
posted by nax at 11:52 AM on January 3, 2008


(as a sidebar: I have been donating at Donors Choose for years, but this thread prompted me to make another one yesterday.)
posted by gaspode at 11:53 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Museum studies programs are somewhat handicapped in setting standards for the field. There are relatively few graduates of the programs, and relatively few programs, so it would be much harder to state "Museum Studies MA required" for any given job, where in health I suppose you can require MSWs or BSNs because there are so very many professional programs and because the subfields are governed by their own certifying organizations.

But moreover, in cultural organizations, you probably wouldn't want to limit it so strictly. For instance, in museums, the work is quite interdisciplinary. Where I work, we employ art historians, educators, historians, preservationists, botanists, textile artists, exhibit designers, and so on. And we need the expertise from each of these disciplines. A museum studies degree is interdisciplinary, but generalist, and prepares people more for management and leadership roles than for the application of specific skills.

In the end, this acts as a protection. We evaluate job applicants based on their resume, experience, work history, skills, and recommendations. The subfield is tightly knit and communicative, and you can get information about the 'trail' people have left behind them at all their organizations. Someone with Karnofsky's background would probably not get a job here, because he doesn't have relevant experience to offer. He could work as an hourly staff interpreter on the program schedule, but he probably wouldn't be willing. People with similar backgrounds who have a sincere interest in career changing and become part of the history field do do that, though, as you suggested. I've had a number of interns who came from other fields - banking, teaching, real estate investment - and were willing to work for free or for a small stipend on projects of our choosing in order to gain experience, build their resumes, and cement our recommendations. So, though we don't have a 'Museum Certification' in our world of any kind, the field screens fairly well.
posted by Miko at 12:03 PM on January 3, 2008


Thanks for the clarification, nax and Miko. I'm obviously not in the museum or arts end of things, so it's good to get clarified.

if you are just trying to make art (like, fer instance, put on classic musicals in all their original glory), then you are irrelevant. It only counts if you're also teaching kids to sing (a laudable goal, but maybe that's not what my organization was created to do).

I'm not really into the arts (sorry!), but I find that to be really sad. It's just another symptom of this wanting our money to "do something." It's one thing to have qualms about art. It's another to expect art to provide some sort of quantifiable return.
posted by dw at 12:22 PM on January 3, 2008


Has anyone seen the episode of King of the Hill where some French comedian/mime is an artist in residence at Bobby's School?

He takes Bobby under his wing and teaches him the history of comedy and how to be 'truly funny.'

Of course Bobby bombs on stage. All the while his enlightened tutor blames the audience, saying they are just not smart enough to get the intrinsic hilarity of his act.

Turns out he's just an over-educated, arrogant douche bag who doesn't know the first thing about humor.

That character reminds me a lot of Phil the Moral Tutor.
posted by Mick at 12:23 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


I found one Ben, back on Dec 20th, suggesting Givewell, but at the moment I haven't discovered any connection with the Ben from the above link. Though, its odd someone would suggest Givewell and have their user name linked to their website without some kind of affiliation.

I need me some more paranoia ice cream, I'm sure I'd find something then!
posted by Atreides at 12:27 PM on January 3, 2008


I've had a number of interns who came from other fields - banking, teaching, real estate investment - and were willing to work for free or for a small stipend on projects of our choosing in order to gain experience, build their resumes, and cement our recommendations.

That's a marvelous means of entry. One of the most ironically hilarious bits of the GiveWell site for me is the section on employment opportunities in the FAQ:

We are always looking for hard-working, passionate, intelligent people who can help us research the best methods of helping people, as well as contribute to our project in other ways. We hire based on ability and passion rather than experience and credentials.

At this point we generally require any job candidate to volunteer for us, for at least some period of time, before we offer compensation. The reasons for this are:

* Working directly with people is the single best way we can determine whether they have the passion, commitment and ability to contribute substantially.
* Because we are a charity, our candidates generally find this requirement reasonable and do not mind contributing to us without pay in the early going. (We do not require volunteers to be full-time; we simply ask that they prove their abilities and contribute to our project before being hired.)


If only Holden and Elie (or their board/investors) had required themselves to undergo this same process. The idea of these neophytes yet again presuming they're either qualified or entitled to judge the abilities of others in field they know nothing about is priceless. And of course, "passion" counts for far more than "experience and credentials" because expertise automatically can't be trusted -- the sort of callow worldview you'd expect from an adolescent steeped in Wordsworth and Kerouac, not an adult with at least a few years' experience of the adult world.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:27 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


FelliniBlank: The volunteering comes up in the second hour of board meeting audio, when they discuss the budget. This is also where the board rejects the trip to Africa (to Tim's credit, he says something like "There's no way I'm approving funding for the trip to Africa" and that flat refusal ends that part of the discussion). It is also where the $2000 line item for recruiting is discussed, and it turns out to be for that part of the endeavor - getting volunteers to do the research work on the organizations. Holden mentions specifically that he plans to go to "Harvard and Harvard Business School" to recruit the volunteers.
posted by Miko at 12:35 PM on January 3, 2008


Nice work, Atreides!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:36 PM on January 3, 2008


Mick: Funny you should say that; one of my few instances of getting to watch television recently was the end scene of the episode you describe. Seems like a painfully apt comparison. Masks and all.
posted by Anything at 12:37 PM on January 3, 2008


So, Jeff, tell me -- why is it that I've heard at endless conferences and seminars over the last two years that doing business on the Internet means that you must be transparent, honest, and forthright lest your customers think you're a fraud, but that message apparently isn't even being spoken to the non-profit/philanthropy world?

. . . I'm hearing and seeing the exact opposite of that from these Gifthub commenters and other philanthropy bloggers. It's like they're "playing" at transparency. I mean, they're treating that thread like commedia dell'arte.

You're closer to this world that I am, Jeff. What gives?


Excellent questions. A couple thoughts:

First, I should note that there are a number of people in the charitable community earnestly striving to be honest etc., but one key problem with transparency & metrics is their cost. Part of the cost pertains to nonprofit identity--the more you start counting heads, clocking hours and measuring outcomes, the less the place seems like a charity. The other cost is pertains to finances and time. Small to midsize charities are already paying more than you might think to keep with the reporting demands of the IRS, state government, grantmakers and other donors; when I talk about disclosure trends to charity workers on the ground, I often hear concerns that things are getting to a point where they'll have to spend more time in records management than programs.

Another key problem is the sense that charity is a zero-sum game. The more your competition for charitable dollars knows about your operations, folks feel, the greater the chance for them to take away what you have. I don't agree, but there we are. It's one reason, for example, that my evangelizing for an open-source grants database tends to meet with silence, if not outright hostility.

A third issue you might call an institutionalized bias toward more familiar organizational technology. It never ceases to amaze me to hear experts who tout the importance of "civil society" and "joining together" characterize the web as a place where neither exists--that is, if they mention it all. Case in point: the book "Bowling Alone," which famously diagnosed the U.S. in an associational crisis at the very frakkin' moment millions of people were making new connections online. The irony of scholarship that relies on network theory while missing the decade's most important expression of networked behavior should not be lost on anyone, yet years later the book remains a classic in its field.

As for the personae and stuff you see on charitable blogs--ain't my scene, really, though I've come to accept it as the price of admission to have access to other news & insights, just as people put up with my own peccadilloes when listening to me. Part of me thinks it would have gone away years ago if folks had spent as much time on message boards as I have (lurking, admittedly), where in stable communities that sort of thing lost of punch years ago. Personally when I see it I often think back to CrackwhoreCEO on FC classic, a joke persona which, as some of you old timers may know, masked its own ethical issues. The Rachel Tension incident angered me intensely because I knew straightway what was up; it was a deliberate and cynical use of trolling to divert attention away from critiques of a friend, and in the midst of a serious discussion about charitable ethics it was inexcusable.
posted by jefftrexler at 12:37 PM on January 3, 2008 [5 favorites]


Over at Read Write Web, the promotion of GiveWell continues today.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 11:44 AM on January 3 [+] [!]

For the record, it appears that the poster here may be a GiveWell hack- clicking on his user name links to GiveWell's site. However, I don't know how to check IP addresses on a blog if one is not an admin (I assume it's impossible) but it's still rather odd.

This thread has taught me a great deal about non-profit management and how to make money work effectively for worthy causes. Thanks to the local experts around here who made this the equivalent of a continuing ed course.

Miko, if you're ever in NYC, I'm a former academic historian who is thinking of ways to make my work more "public." I'd love to have a chance to hear about your experiences over a drink of your choice. This is not a marriage proposal, only a will-you-please-be-my-friend-proposal. Email in profile.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:41 PM on January 3, 2008


Holden mentions specifically that he plans to go to "Harvard and Harvard Business School" to recruit the volunteers.

Oh, what a rich pool of passion without messy expertise that must've been. And it didn't occur to anyone at the meeting to mention that Holden himself is completely unqualified to be doing the work he's doing, let alone screening the qualifications of volunteers? I haven't had the time to listen to the recording yet (although I have read a lot of the material on the GiveWell site), but I really must. Everything you've said about it is jaw-dropping.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:44 PM on January 3, 2008


Over at Read Write Web, the promotion of GiveWell continues today.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 2:44 PM on January 3 [+] [!]


Wow. These people just refuse to learn, don't they? I mean seriously.. what total douchebags.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:48 PM on January 3, 2008


For anybody interested in helping with detail tracking of the blog/media reactions to this, I've been collecting blog coverage over on a Talk page on the wiki. Primary sources only, ideally -- blog aggregators and search pages regurging individual blog entries aren't really worth noting.
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:51 PM on January 3, 2008


my evangelizing for an open-source grants database tends to meet with silence, if not outright hostility.

Sounds like a potentially great idea, especially if non-proprietary. Can you say more about that, or link to it if you've written about it on your blog?

when I talk about disclosure trends to charity workers on the ground, I often hear concerns that things are getting to a point where they'll have to spend more time in records management than programs.

Absolutely - and donors hate that, too. That is why one of the few things I endorse about the GiveWell model is their assertion that time spent on overhead encourages charities to neglect self-study and record-keeping. Their reasons for endorsing it make me wary, and their own organization's use of overhead time (a lot of it for blogging!) wouldn't look good in a self-study, but in general, it's true - the more ways we have to report our information to more and more grantmakers as the funding world splinters, the less time spent on service.
posted by Miko at 12:53 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


I found one Ben, back on Dec 20th, suggesting Givewell, but at the moment I haven't discovered any connection with the Ben from the above link. Though, its odd someone would suggest Givewell and have their user name linked to their website without some kind of affiliation.

I need me some more paranoia ice cream, I'm sure I'd find something then!
posted by Atreides at 12:27 PM on January 3 [+] [!]


Careful here; remember that a major issue in this debacle regarding promotion of Givewell was precisely that the affiliation was undisclosed. Since the username does link to Givewell, one could argue that it's not the case here. Then again the affiliation is still sort of veiled here, and a cynic could assume that the only reason it's made available at all is as an evasion. In any case, take this into account in your accusations, if any.
posted by Anything at 1:05 PM on January 3, 2008


Oh how I'd love to see "This will not Wendell" replaced with "This will not GiveWell", but it would need the power of a mefi cabal member to work that one...
posted by twine42 at 1:06 PM on January 3, 2008


This is SUCH a bad place for GiveWell to start a dialogue about their model and vision and what they do and how they're different. Holy crap. What complete duncery. I knew they didn't get it from the moment their board member called MeFi's reaction "cynicism." Try "disillisionment," or maybe "outrage."
posted by scarabic at 1:10 PM on January 3, 2008


GiveWell coulda been a needed model institutional device for measurement for that if they really knew WTF they were doing.

There are organizations out there which are doing very well with their methods of measuring effectiveness and impact, as well as providing pro bonos trategic counseling and advise to those non-profits to which they give funds.

For example, there's The Bridgespan Group (affiliated with Bain & Company, Inc.) and New Profit, Inc. (affiliated with the Monitor Group). As well, junior consultants from Bain & Company, The Monitor Group, The Parthenon Group, L.E.K. Consulting, and Katzenbach Partners have a volunteer organization, Inspire which provides pro-bono strategic analysis and support to non-profits.

(Disclaimer: I am an investor in NPI and have served as an advisor to the organization and to a number of its portfolio groups).
posted by ericb at 1:11 PM on January 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


BTW -- Monitor's Monitor Institute in collaboration with New Profit and Fast Company Magazine has "created one of the most comprehensive and rigorous assessment processes for evaluating the performance of nonprofit organizations in the U.S."* They have used this evaluation process each year since 2004 in selcting The Fast Company/Monitor Group Social Capitalist Awards.
posted by ericb at 1:16 PM on January 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


In any case, take this into account in your accusations, if any.

No accusations, just commentary. I searched multiple ways on the two Bens, and couldn't find a thing that connected them as the same person, much less directly or indirectly to Givewell (other than the link in the recent name). Like I said, its odd, but I won't be investigating the matter any further than checking the thread to see if he responds to requests of disclosure.
posted by Atreides at 1:19 PM on January 3, 2008


*pro bono strategic*
posted by ericb at 1:19 PM on January 3, 2008


Jessamyn wrote...
Also why is everyone calling this a thousand-comment thread.

Good point. We're over 1100 comments now.
posted by tkolar at 1:22 PM on January 3, 2008


You know, I'm this guy's peer and also graduated with a social sciences degree in 2003 (alas, from a large state university), and I'd just like to say that not all of us 20-somethings have allowed our youthful idealism to sour into something so obliviously predatory. Please don't dismiss our entire generation for actions undertaken by the wunderkind who can get the most publicity; a ton of my friends joined AmeriCorps or taught in public schools or moved across the country to clean up the environment. It's just those stories don't get told, and instead the young person is berated by older people that they are wasting their time by not chasing the big bucks.

(It's also obvious this guy had it backwards. After college, first you live on 20k a year by sacrificing financial stability for altruism, then you realize money is more important and run off to law school. By making so much dough in hedge funds right after college, Holden didn't get to experience the reality-check of charity and volunteerism, so that's why he brought all that business nonsense into his noble goal. Glutted with the hubris of large profits, it didn't matter that he didn't know jack about non-profits. He'd already proved he could be successful--at what, who cares--he probably just assumed he'd be good at everything.)
posted by lychee at 1:28 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Over at Read Write Web, the promotion of GiveWell continues today.

eh, that's probably just a Troll.
posted by delmoi at 1:38 PM on January 3, 2008


fourcheesemac said:

I would therefore be most satisfied if Holden would take the following action in recognition of his malfeasance here: go to Africa, Holden. Go spend two months on a serious, fact-finding trip to some of the worst spots; KwaZulu, the heart of the AIDS epidemic; the Congo, shredded by civil war and rape as a military tactic; Angola, where poverty has destroyed a generation that should have risen to an African version of the middle class.

Fuck that. The last thing Holden needs is to go to Africa to get his Brad Pitt on. That will make him feel even more special than he already does. Instead, he needs to be seriously humbled, by working tech support in some middle-American office park, dealing with ordinary people who do not have the luxury of cloaking themselves in masks and personae and building their networks and resumes by spending the money of "America's wealthiest families."
posted by jayder at 1:39 PM on January 3, 2008 [3 favorites]


Damnit... I get half waydown the page and find that (unsurprisingly) my "this will not givewell" thought isn't original. Well damn you all. *sniff*
posted by twine42 at 1:41 PM on January 3, 2008


Jesus this is depressing. One misguided kid with underdeveloped ethics I could live with. The sheer quantity of people giving it a shrug and a suggestion that he be given a second chance? Pathetic.

Not to say I think he as a person isn't worthy of forgiveness, but the organization? There's too many demonstrably good operations out there competing for the charity dollar to consider throwing a dime at one that promotes transparency and honesty while using false identities to self-promote and slander/deride 'the competition.'

Ie, other charities.
posted by phearlez at 1:48 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Careful here; remember that a major issue in this debacle regarding promotion of Givewell was precisely that the affiliation was undisclosed. Since the username does link to Givewell, one could argue that it's not the case here.

As someone has noted in the ReadWriteWell thread, it doesn't have to be a person from GiveWell at all. It could easily be any schmoe off the street who either innocently wished to link to GiveWell or a troll who wanted it to look as if the astroturfing continues.
posted by FelliniBlank at 2:23 PM on January 3, 2008


Excellent questions. A couple thoughts:

And much appreciation for answering them.

one key problem with transparency & metrics is their cost.

And as someone on the research end of grants, I totally understand that. It's part of why I'm flabbergasted that NPOs get so little comparatively in indirects.

Another key problem is the sense that charity is a zero-sum game. The more your competition for charitable dollars knows about your operations, folks feel, the greater the chance for them to take away what you have. I don't agree, but there we are. It's one reason, for example, that my evangelizing for an open-source grants database tends to meet with silence, if not outright hostility.

I look at that, though, and wonder why there isn't some sort of "sweet spot" where all the things that need to happen -- metrics, reporting, transparency -- couldn't converge? It seems like an effective open-source database could collect the very pieces of information that donors and the IRS need into a single resource. But maybe there's not much of a union between those two sets of data.

But it does seem like if we could streamline the reporting processes through, say, a single database, and we could expose that same data through web services to whomever wants to slice-and-dice it, it'd be huge.

I understand why NPOs want to keep some of their mechanisms hidden, e.g. you're not really buying a goat with your $50. OTOH, all the evidence that's coming out shows that honesty and transparency breeds happy customers and donors.

A third issue you might call an institutionalized bias toward more familiar organizational technology. It never ceases to amaze me to hear experts who tout the importance of "civil society" and "joining together" characterize the web as a place where neither exists--that is, if they mention it all. Case in point: the book "Bowling Alone," which famously diagnosed the U.S. in an associational crisis at the very frakkin' moment millions of people were making new connections online. The irony of scholarship that relies on network theory while missing the decade's most important expression of networked behavior should not be lost on anyone, yet years later the book remains a classic in its field.

Wow. They still believe Bowling Alone is true? Gaaah. No wonder they they don't get the web. They probably also think that people can't have real social connections with people they've never met in real life. So, how long until the sociological research catches up to reality?

Here in higher ed I saw years and years of people being dismissive of the web, like it was a fad or a toy. But as colleges and universities took the plunge and won big with huge risks on the web, it's slowly prodded other institutions to take risks, too. Even now, I still run into people on campus who see the web as nothing more than porn and spam or that place where the kids have "the MySpace" and that's not relevant to education. But they're rapidly slipping into the minority. My institution is making a real investment into a web presence. Several major unit heads are blogging. The president is doing monthly videos.

And then I look over at Gift Hub and shake my head. It really is 2000 for them and the rest of the philanthropic world. They don't get it, and I sense that they'd shout down anyone who did.
posted by dw at 2:28 PM on January 3, 2008


There wasn't a Wikipedia page for GiveWell, so I created a (very short) one.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:29 PM on January 3, 2008


I would say that your page was of the perfect length and that I hope we don't take the opportunity to fill it with a wealth of information about the controversy at this point.
posted by shmegegge at