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HoldenKarnofsky comments on Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others... - Less Wrong

130 Post author: Yvain 24 December 2010 09:26PM

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Comment author: HoldenKarnofsky 29 December 2010 04:39:24PM *  16 points [-]

This is Holden Karnofsky, the co-Executive Director of GiveWell. As a frequent Less Wrong reader, I'm really glad to see the thoughtful discussion here. Thanks to Yvain for calling attention both to GiveWell and to the general topic of effective giving.

First off, much of this content overlaps with our own, so people interested in this thread might also find the following links interesting:

I'm mostly posting to clarify a few things regarding the concerns that have been raised about GiveWell (by aeschenkarnos).

  • We regret the astroturfing that aeschenkarnos brought up. This incident is disclosed, along with other mistakes we've made, on our shortcomings list , which is accessible via a top-level link on our navigation bar.
  • Regarding the split between grants to charities and funds spent on our own operations:
    • Early in our existence, we relied on making grants of our own to charities. We weren't able to point them to any benefits that would come from our recommendations (since we were new and had no track record of influencing donations), so rather than inviting them to be reviewed, we invited them to apply for grants (subject to certain conditions such as public disclosure of application materials). Grantmaking is no longer important to our process and we no longer solicit donations to be regranted, though we still occasionally receive them. That explains why the % of our funds spent on grants has fallen a lot, though it hasn't hit zero.
    • At this point, we actively solicit donations to GiveWell only when dealing with institutional funders or with people who have a relationship with us. When dealing with the general public, we put the solicitation on behalf of recommended charities - rather than ourselves - front and center. Our top charities page, linked prominently from our front page and navigation bar and in other places throughout the site, links to "donate" pages for top charities ( here's the one for our top-rated charity VillageReach ) that allow us to track donations, but otherwise take no part in the donation process (the money does not touch our bank account). These "donate" pages also are linked from charity reviews. The only way to get to the "Donate to GiveWell" page is under "About GiveWell." If donors make a considered decision to support us rather than our top charities, we want them to be able to do so, but our site is designed to push the casual user to our top charities.
    • In 2009 we tracked ~$1 million in donations to our top charities as as result of our research, while our own operating (non-grant) expenses were under $300k. We expect 2010 to have a higher "donations to top charities" figure on similar operating expenses. We are still new and hope the ratio will improve substantially over time.
    • We have a policy of regranting unrestricted funds if our reserves go above a certain level; we don't believe in building a massive endowment for ourselves. This is the only condition under which we regrant unrestricted funds. We don't want donors to fear that we might blindly pile up reserves without limit (we won't), but we don't want to get into all the details of our "Excess reserves" policy on the Donate page, so we went with the language: "we may use these funds for operating expenses or grants to charities, at our discretion."
    • Bottom line - grantmaking used to be an important part of what we do but it isn't now; the % of our funds spent on grants is not a meaningful figure.
  • Regarding Charity Navigator:
    • I believe Yvain is correct to say that Charity Navigator does not evaluate effectiveness (and admits this) and that GiveWell does. See also this recent New York Times article on planned changes at Charity Navigator and Charity Navigator's disclosure of the full details of its current methodology.
    • I agree with alexanderis that "number of charities rated" is higher for Charity Navigator primarily because its research is not as in-depth. I believe Charity Navigator would agree with this as well.
    • I believe that Charity Navigator has a significantly higher profile than GiveWell, overall, and know of no evidence suggesting otherwise. However, GiveWell does have a higher profile within certain communities, including Less Wrong. I attribute our higher profile on Less Wrong to specific individuals including Michael Vassar, Anna Salomon, Carl Shulman, Razib at GNXP, and multifoliaterose. I don't believe any of these individuals have plugged GiveWell in ignorance of Charity Navigator (in fact I have probably discussed the differences specifically with each of them).

We've worked to find the best, most cost-effective charities (in terms of actual impact per marginal dollar) and write up all the details of our analysis. We welcome more comments and questions about our work, whether here, on our blog, or via email.

Comment author: aeschenkarnos 09 January 2011 08:37:13AM 7 points [-]

Alright. You've given an explanation here that seems reasonable to me, and you've continued to run GiveWell for significantly longer than I would have expected if you were just in it for yourselves. For what it's worth, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and I wish you well in your mission.