Monday, December 31, 2007

Be Cautious of GiveWell

Givewell has certainly been getting a lot of press lately for it's supposedly revolutionary research and system of charitable giving. One of it's founders, Holden Karnofsky, had a major error of judgement moment when he asked a question about charitable giving on an on-line forum and used a different account to answer his own question, promoting his own enterprise while slagging others'.

As one of the folks on MetaFilter pointed out (and is quoted extensively below), GiveWell...
- is not a direct aid charity; it is a foundation. It collects your donations and then disburses them to charities of their own selection. The charities they select have to apply for grants to receive that money, which of course increases their administrative costs, reducing the direct impact of your donation.

- They claim they are "in the process" of writing up their criteria and making their analysis available - it isn't yet. They are too young an organization to have filed a 990, so they have no public records yet.

- Their board is extremely small and with very narrow experience, almost none of it in the public sector, and their founders are extremely young.

- The only charities that can apply are those that are invited, suggesting the possibility of favoritism and cronyism.

- They lack any guiding philanthropic vision, asserting that they will find "the best charity" in your area of interest - that's hard to do, given the fact that opinions differ on the type of aid that is 'best' in many situations (for instance, is it best to house the homeless, or give them vouchers to find their own housing?)


While I'd like to be able to support GiveWell, there are too many red flags here. Start-up charities are bound to have high administrative costs, but theirs are estimated to be running at about 50% currently, which is outrageous. Also, the founder's effort to attempt to bribe the metafilter community with a contribution after his deception was discovered... well, let's just say that he might not be the ideal partner in a charity run by two people. The New York Times should have done a lot more digging before running an article promoting GiveWell.

Update: Holden responds.

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