Controversy in the philanthropic world
January 29th, 2008On December 20th, I commented about two young former hedge fund analysts who have been in the process of launching an innovative organization that promised transparency in its evaluation of the nonprofits they were reviewing for the funding of those programs they felt made the grade. The organization is GiveWell and in recent weeks, the momentum of attention highlighting this innovative effort was noted not only in The New York Times but the Wall Street Journal and other mainstream media sources as well. My caution at the end of my earlier post was that I hoped that wisdom would catch up with these two young men and that the board would help guide them well.
While this has not attracted the attention of local media and likely it won't, a controversy has exploded when it was discovered that one of the co-founders, Holden Karnofsky had disguised himself on several websites driving people to GiveWell.net. This is when I learned about "astroturfing" which is not allowed on various online community sites - nor frankly is it acceptable "offline". This was discovered by one observant participant in the online community blogsite known as MetaFilter. Using a disguise or as referenced on the site "sock puppet", Mr. Karnofsky asked the question about a service that could help in evaluating a charitable organization and then would post an answer with another identity leading to GiveWell.net.
GiveWell touted its transparency and had provided full disclosure of their board meeting - including the discussion around grants that were being made through the Clear Fund which is the source for their funding. It appears that transparency did not extend to how this young man disguised himself which prompted a strong, tumultuous response from many members of various online communities.
Lucy Bernholz, whom I reference occasionally, is one of the board members and as this controversy mounted with more than 1400 messages being posted on MetaFilter on this topic, she was very transparent in her comments on her blog - Philanthropy 2173 - answering questions as to when she accepted the GiveWell board appointment and her acceptance at the time she commented on GiveWell on the Huffington Post.
This has been an explosive event and for the nonprofit and philanthropic communities this is quite a story. Mr. Karnofsky was demoted as of January 3rd remaining with GiveWell. Many opinions had been expressed that the board should fire him and restructure the organization. It will be interesting to see what happens and if GiveWell can emerge from this and continue its work.