On-page link, opens in this window 08/01/11 Non-profits, charity and the internet (5)
On-page link, opens in this window 08/01/10 Non-profits, charity and the internet (4)
On-page link, opens in this window 08/01/09 Non-profits, charity and the internet (3)
On-page link, opens in this window 08/01/08 Non-profits, charity and the internet (2)
On-page link, opens in this window 08/01/07 Non-profits, charity and the internet (1)
On-page link, opens in this window 08/01/04 coverage...
On-page link, opens in this window 08/01/03 revisited
On-page link, opens in this window 08/01/02 No, thanks!

Doctor Who

On-page link, opens in this window 08/01/16 Doctor Who: The empty child / The Doctor dances
On-page link, opens in this window 08/01/14 Doctor Who: Father's day
On-page link, opens in this window 08/01/01 Doctor Who: The long game


Mummie... Are you my mummie?

Doctor Who: The empty child / The Doctor dances

This two-parter was first broadcast on May 21-28, 2005. A brief and somewhat spoiler-ish summary of the plot: in the middle of the London Blitz, the Doctor and Rose fight for the survival of humanity.

This two-parter is another highlight of series one. The good stuff:

And well, that's it, really.

My verdict:



More reviews of 'classic' and new Doctor Who:
On-site link, opens in this window Doctor Who reviews

The latest version of this review:
On-site link, opens in this window The empty child / The Doctor dances (2005)


What would you do if you could turn back time?

Doctor Who: Father's day

This episode was first broadcast on May 14, 2005. A brief and somewhat spoiler-ish summary of the plot: what would you do if you could turn back time and save your father's life?

After 'The last of the Time Lords', the awful last episode of season three, I had pretty much lost interest in the new series. Reviewing these season one episodes serves as a reminder of just how good new Doctor Who was when it started.

Good things about this episode:

My verdict:



More reviews of 'classic' and new Doctor Who:
On-site link, opens in this window Doctor Who reviews

The latest version of this review:
On-site link, opens in this window Father's day (2005)


Highlights of the debate on Metafilter. Today: pseudonyms and anonymity, and final words.

Non-profits, charity and the internet (5)

If you haven't done so already, please take a moment to scroll down to part 1 of this series of posts to read the 'Introduction'. Thanks.

As time went on the discussion spread to other internet sites, and more culture clashing ensued. The fact that the main venue of the debate was MetaTalk, a mostly unmoderated 'backstage' discussion area of MetaFilter that many members of the site aren't even aware of, didn't make things easier.

Pseudonyms and anonymity

People on MetaFilter use pseudonyms. Some are open about who they are off-line, others aren't.

"I post using a handle so when I do post, I can be more honest about my life and experiences here without having to worry about real-world employers overreacting to something in my past that has little, if anything to do with how I do my job now."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by oneirodynia at 12:30 PM on January 4)

"[...] nearly all of us here who don't use our real names or put them in our profiles are still quite clearly and consistently being ourselves. And anyone could easily identify our "real" information without trying very hard.
In the past 10 years, I haven't said one thing anywhere on teh Nets that I wouldn't say in a similar offline context, and I get that impression from most of the "anonymous" personalities I've come across, particularly in stable communities like MeFi [...]. People may amplify or moderate some elements of themselves, but they seem to have pretty consistent voices/selves here. For me, having a nick just means that a couple creepy nosy colleagues -- who fortunately can't do me any damage, just make me feel squicky -- can't Google me and find out what I do with every minute of my online spare time."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by FelliniBlank at 1:50 PM on January 4)

"The "no one's using their real names" dismissal is off-point and amusing because it illustrates precisely what we're up in arms about: some of us are under pseudonym but we're being ourselves anyway and speaking truthfully, not faking a dialogue. For Holden and company, pseudonyms or other factual omissions are precisely a way of being less truthful rather than moreso."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by Tuwa at 4:00 PM on January 4)

Final words

The board have taken action, which is being discussed in a new thread on MetaFilter.
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: Fallout from the Givewell affair

"There's no enjoyment in seeing consequences levied, but there was also no enjoyment in seeing deceptive practices used to promote one charity at the expense of others or in seeing the entire sector trashed for presumed failings. The consquences are fair, and we can only speculate about how the internal operations may be changing or not changing at GiveWell. I think all citizens witnessing this could ask for is that the board of directors be accountable to take action in ways they believe appropriate to guard the public trust. They've taken action and believe they are doing the best they can on behalf of the public and, at the same time, to advance the cause they care about. We may not agree with the route they chose, but they're doing their jobs now."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: Fallout from the Givewell affair (posted by Miko at 9:41 AM on January 7)

"[...] there really wasn't anything fundamentally unusual going on on Metatalk in the last week. What was notable was, mostly, that the person who transgressed (a) came back to talk about it, (b) turned out to have been up to a lot of trouble on other sites as well, and (c) was effectively a sort of bigwig in the real world.
It was an unusually long and busy thread, which was driven by the circumstances and the fact that the "plot" kept advancing.
There was some cross-site chatter—that's another unusual thing. There usually isn't a lot of movement from a Metatalk thread to the outside world. Even at that, though, this wasn't (as I've said before) anything like Internet Mob Justice to anyone who has ever seen that sort of thing in action. Every single day at, for example, there's more vociferous, more impersonal bugaboo-chasing going on. This was a dozen (or a half-dozen?) mostly-civil people commenting on a handful of other sites where the issue was being discussed (and, notably and again fairly unusually, metatalk was being linked to and discussed).
So the appearance of mefites at [another site where and MetaFilter were being discussed] may have seemed like An Event, but the arc of how things went down over here was pretty much business as usual, with a few unusual shiny bits. A notable week, by matter of degree, but not really a surprising or paradigm-shaking one."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: Fallout from the Givewell affair (posted by cortex at 11:24 AM on January 10)

And that's all, folks, at least as far as this weblog is concerned. The discussion is continuing in the new MeTa thread, and I'm starting to feel weird covering it over here rather than participating in it. Thanks for reading.

In these five posts I wanted to let the excerpts speak for themselves, and I've tried to include just enough text to allow them to do so while not going beyond the boundaries of fair use. Also, I name one individual in these posts but I only use his first name and I'm not quoting any information about him that he hadn't already publicly disclosed himself, which I believe should keep me in the clear with regard to privacy.
If you participated in one of the MetaFilter threads and aren't happy with what I've been doing here, please feel free to contact me.
On-site link, opens in this window Contact


Highlights of the debate on Metafilter. Today: the response from the Metafilter community.

Non-profits, charity and the internet (4)

If you haven't done so already, please take a moment to scroll down to part 1 of this series of posts to read the 'Introduction'. Thanks.

Partly triggered by off-site reactions and media coverage, there was a discussion of the community's response to the incident.

The response from the Metafilter community

"[...] 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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by fourcheesemac at 6:30 PM on December 31)

"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. "
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by googly at 10:14 AM on January 1)

"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 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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by fourcheesemac at 9:24 AM on January 2)

"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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by shmegegge at 11:51 AM on January 2)


Highlights of the debate on Metafilter. Today: the "business wunderkind" archetype and the internet culture clash.

Non-profits, charity and the internet (3)

If you haven't done so already, please take a moment to scroll down to part 1 of this series of posts to read the 'Introduction'. Thanks.

From fact-finding and first analysis the debate moved on to 'how could this happen?' and 'what does it mean?'

The "business wunderkind" archetype

"[The two founders of] typify the "business wunderkind" archetype [...]
I've never been sure what to think about the attitude of the career professionals [who seem to accept anything these kids say without question], 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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by spiderwire at 1:12 AM on January 2)

"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. "
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by Miko at 6:09 AM on January 2)

The internet culture clash

"[...] 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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by maxwelton at 9:58 PM on January 1)

"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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by jefftrexler at 12:37 PM on January 3)

"Man, it's hard to even hold this entire episode (nevermind the life-crippling thread) in one's head at a time. The culture clash emerges as the most fascinating thing about it, but [...] there are so many cultural axes clashing here at the same time (nethead vs. old guard, non-profit vs. philanthropy, classism vs. meritocracy, unscrupulous privileged whelps and their snottily bemused enabling benefactors vs. the we've had enough of these whelps and their benefactors crowd, etc) it's just amazing that Holden unwittingly (or wittingly?) found himself held high above the center of one ugly-ass venn diagram, and managed to piss'n'pirouette long enough to make sure he got some on everyone."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by ulotrichous at 7:40 PM on January 5)

OK, maybe that last one wasn't that educational but it did make me laugh.


Highlights of the debate on Metafilter. Today: metrics and performance measurement for non-profits.

Non-profits, charity and the internet (2)

If you haven't done so already, please take a moment to scroll down to part 1 of this series of posts to read the 'Introduction'. Thanks.

The discussion of metrics and accountability was of particular interest to me, since over the past few years I've been professionally involved in measuring the effectiveness of the work of government organisations and local governments in the areas of social security and employment. It was interesting to see some familiar issues come up in a discussion about a different sector in another country.

Metrics and accountability in the non-profit world

"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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by andraste at 2:17 PM on January 2)

"In 1979, when I was a baby fundraiser, I went to a seminar on grantwriting hosted by The Grantsmanship Center. They provided a 12-page brochure (still available- the third one on the list) that includes a 71-point general checklist for writing proposals. At least half of the bullet points regard the documentation of effectiveness through statistics, history, testimonial from both clients and experts in the field, comparison to your own and other similar programs. It includes statements such as "is of reasonable dimensions--not trying to solve all the problems of the world."
[...] my point here is that oversight and reporting is nothing new in charity. It is in fact where it starts-- someone with money, expertise or resources observes a problem, and sets about to fix it. "
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by nax at 8:06 AM on January 4)

Problems with a metrics-based approach to non-profits

"[Donors] impose on [...] 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"
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by Deathalicious at 7:04 PM on December 31)

"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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by fourcheesemac at 7:11 PM on December 31)

"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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by dw at 10:29 AM on January 2)

"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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by Miko at 11:08 AM on January 2)'s approach

"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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by dw at 3:06 PM on January 2)

"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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by ssg at 11:28 PM on January 2)


Highlights of the debate on Metafilter. Today: re-granting, the business model and the organisation.

Non-profits, charity and the internet (1)


Following the debate as it unfolded on Metafilter over the past week I learned a great deal about non-profits, charity and about how alien internet culture still is to a lot of people. This week I'll be posting excerpts from the debate, in an effort to capture some of that here. The actual thread on Metafilter has now been closed. It can still be read, but with 1,419 responses and a file size of 1.9 MB it isn't really accessible to anyone who doesn't have a fast internet connection and a lot of time on their hands.

Below you'll find quotations, with links to the actual comment in the thread. Please note that, every time you click one of these links, you'll be downloading a 1.9 MB file. The alternative is to open the thread once in your browser and to scroll up or down to find the comment (the date and time for each comment are given at the bottom, both here and in the thread) or by using your browser's search function (searching the thread for "posted by jayder at 1:52 PM on December 31", without the quotation marks, will take you to the first comment that is linked to below).

In most cases I'm quoting parts of comments rather than entire comments. I've also edited comments for length.

If you're one of the participants in the thread and you're not happy with what I'm doing here, please contact me.


"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?"
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by jayder at 1:52 PM on December 31)

"[...] 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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by Miko at 2:00 PM on December 31)

"[Re-granting organisations] 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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by nax at 10:19 AM on January 1)

The business model

"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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by dw at 11:22 AM on January 1)

"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. [...]
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. [...]
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. [...]
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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by Miko at 1:58 PM on January 1)

"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. [...]
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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by salvia at 4:41 PM on January 1)

"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?"
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by salvia at 5:03 PM on January 1)

"[...] 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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by Miko at 5:51 PM on January 1)

The organisation

"[...] 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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by HuronBob at 9:51 PM on January 1)

"I've been listening to the audio of the board meetings this afternoon, and it's pretty interesting stuff. [...]
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. [...]
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? [...]
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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by Miko at 2:42 PM on January 2)

"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."
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or give 'm hell? (posted by fourcheesemac at 6:26 PM on January 2)


This is it for this week. Have a great weekend, everyone. coverage...

There's a new page on the Metafilter Wiki that links to the various weblog posts and discussions about and its implications for non-profits and the Internet. It's good to see such a lot of interesting and thoughtful discussion going on. (And seeing my earlier posts linked there made for a nice bit of recursion, thanks.)
Off-site link, opens in new window Metafilter Wiki: Givewell coverage


What goes around, comes around. revisited

Back in 2005, I wrote this about the risks of exploiting peer-to-peer networks for viral marketing:

To a marketeer, the wealth of peer-to-peer networks on the Internet will appear like an opportunity waiting to be exploited. There is, however, a down-side. (Isn't there always?) Within Internet culture, honesty and trust are core values. If a viral marketing campaign leaves people feeling cheated they're going to resent it, and they're going to use those convenient peer-to-peer networks to tell the world exactly how they feel.

It seems that for the cat is out of the bag now.
Off-site link, opens in new window New York Magazine: Hedge-funders use their skills for evil, not good

A short and sweet summary of what's going on.
Off-site link, opens in new window Uncivil society: Hubris 2.0 - five lessons of the Givewell Metafilter controversy

The discussion on Metafilter is still going on and it's a fascinating read, though wading through over 1 megabyte of occasionally quite chaotic discussion might not be for everyone. A 'Cliff notes' version has now been posted on the Wiki.
Off-site link, opens in new window Metafilter Wiki: GiveWell


Viral marketing gone wrong. No, thanks!

You're trying to sell a product. Let's call it Product X. You're not too scrupulous about how you're going to sell it. Here's one of the oldest tricks in the book, adapted for the digital age:

  1. you pick a popular community Q&A web site
  2. on this web site you register two different user-id's. Let's call them Sock Puppet 1 and Sock Puppet 2
  3. Sock Puppet 1 posts a question, asking for product recommendations
  4. Sock Puppet 2 replies with a glowing recommendation of Product X
  5. Sock Puppet 1 confirms that Product X is exactly what he was looking for, dismisses the suggestions made by other posters and urges everyone to check out Product X since it's the best choice by far

One thing, though: don't get caught.

One of the founders of got caught when he tried this on Ask Metafilter, one of the most popular community Q&A web sites. Later it became clear that employees of appear to have a history of using online forums and e-mail to hype and thrash the competition, often without disclosing their ties to
Off-site link, opens in new window AskMe: Finding a high performance charity
Off-site link, opens in new window MeTa: GiveWell, or Give 'm hell?

Way back in 2005 I wrote a post about viral marketing. I'd like to take the 'six principles of viral marketing' that I linked to and the 'seventh principle' that I added and have a closer look at what was doing.
On-site link, opens in this window 05/10/16 Viral marketing revisited

Principle 1: use stealth and subtlety to convey your message

No. The people who were involved in this concealed their identities as employees of but other than that, no stealth or subtlety were involved.

Principle 2: give stuff away free up-front

Nope. No freebies, no wealth of valuable information on the web site, not even an amusing YouTube video.

Principle 3: exploit peer-to-peer networks to spread the message

Hmmm. Their attempt to exploit AskMe backfired rather badly.

Principle 4: make the message memorable and 'sticky'

Yup, they did manage to do this to some extent, as the 'rich kids leaving behind life in the fast lane in order to change the world' story of the two founders generated a lot of free publicity. If only they had been smart enough to leave well enough alone.

Principle 5: exploit the strength of weak ties

Within community web sites, there's a tendency towards increasingly elaborate user profiles and tools to follow other users' activities within the community. This makes drive-by posters who join to spread their viral message, and who have no real interest in participating otherwise, fairly easy to spot.

In this case the 'viral' message contained links to the actual web site that was being hyped, which means that a web search for "" is going to yield the employees' marketing efforts as well as the complaints about those efforts.

Principle 6: work to reach a 'tipping point'

They may have achieved that, though probably not in the way they intended.

Principle 7 (my own addition): don't be tacky

Among other things, not being tacky means that you respect your customers and the people you're involving in your campaign. It means knowing your audience, and making sure that you're offering them something that they may actually have a use for. And, most importantly, it means being honest about what you're doing. It's fine to run a 'mystery meat' campaign that leaves everyone guessing as to who you are and what you're selling, but you can't lie and you can't scam.

I understand that the company behind collects money and distributes it among charities that meet certain quality criteria. This may be a valuable service for large companies who want to give certain amounts to charity without caring too much about where exactly the money goes, but it's probably too impersonal for most people. (Also, I believe that channeling a sizeable portion of all money spent on charity through 'middle man' companies like would not be a good thing in the long run, but that's a subject for a different blog post.)

The real deal-breaker is the dishonesty, of course, especially for a company that claims transparency as its core value.


A happy new year to you all! And now, on to some rather mediocre new Doctor Who.

Doctor Who: The long game

This episode was first broadcast on May 7, 2005. A brief and somewhat spoiler-ish summary of the plot: the Doctor, Rose and Adam go where the news is being made.

The good news:

Ah. Well, yes, there's where the bad news comes in. A build-up to what, exactly? Let's put it this way - and beware, there are spoilers ahead:

Viewed from a more meta level the story isn't either scathing or amusing enough to work as satire, and the science doesn't even make it past the extremely low believability threshold of a Doctor Who science fiction story. To name some of the bigger problems (and I feel rather silly for doing this):

And a couple of more general questions raised by the plot:

My verdict:

Quite good, actually.

All build-up, no payoff.

More reviews of 'classic' and new Doctor Who:
On-site link, opens in this window Doctor Who reviews

The latest version of this review:
On-site link, opens in this window The long game (2005)

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