The GiveWell Fraud

A few weeks ago, I read a New York Times article about a new charity organisation called GiveWell, founded by two young ex-hedge fund managers. The story described how these two mavericks were about to shake up the charity world by using their financial skills to demand and interpret data from charities, and thus discover how efficiently they used their money. These findings would then be used to help donors choose a charity that would give them the best bang for their buck. Some people, however, criticised GiveWell for simply rewarding charities that had the time and resources to provide the extensive data they demanded.

I remember thinking that GiveWell seemed to have an interesting idea in theory, but I was sympathetic to the complaints. In any case, I don’t know much about the charity world (other than what I’m doing with Let’s Change the Game, but that’s another story) so I didn’t feel like passing any judgement.

A little later, on December 30th, a user called ‘geremiah’ posted a question to Ask Metafilter. Geremiah wanted recommendations of websites that evaluated the effectiveness of charities. The fourth comment on that post came from ‘Holden0’ who recommended GiveWell. Geremiah selected Holden0’s comment as the ‘best answer’ and went on to criticise a user, Miko, who’d recommended another site.

Miko proceeded to look at GiveWell’s website, and discovered that Holden0 appeared to be none other than Holden Karnofsky, the co-founder of GiveWell.

(I have to say, this has got to be the most stupid part of this entire story. If you’re going to set up a fake account, why base it on your real name? Sheer insanity.)

A new thread was started on Metatalk to discuss this apparent fraud. Self-promotion is strictly prohibited in Ask Metafilter posts, and it’s even worse if you don’t disclose it. Setting up a second ‘sockpuppet’ account to support your own opinions is also prohibited. Besides these rules though, it would’ve been distasteful to promote your own charity site in such a deceptive manner, while also rubbishing other websites.

Unfortunately, the owner of Metafilter confirmed that both Geremiah and Holden0 were registered by the same person – this was self-promotion, and it was a fraud. Holden0 eventually appeared in the thread to apologise, and claim that lack of sleep was responsible for his lapse in judgement. Members of Metafilter then proceeded to find numerous other cases of Holden promoting GiveWill on other websites without disclosing his involvement – and invariably criticising other sites at the same time.

The board of directors of GiveWell initially didn’t believe what was going on, and then admitted that Holden’s actions were wrong. However, they – and every single other defender of Holden – said pretty much the same things:

  • It was wrong – but it’s forgivable
  • We know Holden, and he’s a good guy
  • Metafilter members are a bunch of vigilantes, dispensing mob justice
  • Worse things go on in the world, why focus on this?

It’s nice that people are so willing to forgive Holden repeatedly promoting his own charity in a reprehensible and deceptive manner. And perhaps Holden is a good guy. But he’s an adult, and he’s supposed to be responsible for influencing the flow of millions of dollars to charities; you would expect him to have some basic sense of judgement.

As for Metafilter members, as far as I can say, they’ve done everyone a favour by uncovering this fraud. No doubt other frauds go on, but they happened to discover this one because Holden was especially foolish in his choice of username, and it’s natural that they would be irritated with someone scamming the website they belong to. They have done nothing except try and get word of this episode to as many people as possible. Not everyone there is an angel – far from it, judging from the assorted ad-hominems and insults that have been flung at Holden. But as far as I can tell, they have not lied or threatened anyone.

Why am I posting about this?

I think what Holden did was wrong. I think his friends are wrong to defend, or dismiss, the indefensible, and then go on to criticise the very people who uncovered the fraud, as if that were a worse sin. But the main reason I’m posting this is because an awful lot of people think that this type of fraud is not only acceptable, but commendable. It’s the way you do business – sure, some people might disagree, but if you want to get ahead, then you do what you have to.

It’s true that far worse things go on in the world, but this sort of fraud goes on every day by people who convince themselves that it’s OK, especially if no-one finds out. It truly is a slippery slope, and it’s not OK. It shows a profound lack of judgement and morals. If people want to continue trusting GiveWell, that’s fine, but they deserve to know what Holden did, and that’s why I’m writing this post – to link to the Metatalk thread, so that when you search for ‘GiveWell’, that’s the very first thing you see.

Metafilter members are currently assembling a page on the Mefi wiki (which I set up, but otherwise have little to do with) detailing all the events of this fraud. If you’re interested in hearing more about GiveWell, here’s an insightful critique from someone within the charity world pointing out the inexperience of the founders, and the fact that they are not actually doing anything that hasn’t been done before.

One Reply to “The GiveWell Fraud”

  1. Right on. This is an excellent summary of the controversy that puts the right lessons in perspective. Much appreciated.

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