The GiveWell Blog

What is success?

Disclaimer: GiveWell failed to be named as one of NetSquared’s featured projects. Therefore, if you are incapable of making your own judgments about what you read (based on content rather than author), you should assume that the blog post that follows is just me being “bitter,” and you should load a reputable news site immediately before you read something dangerous. Those who are comfortable differentiating reasonable from unreasonable, feel free to proceed.

As of last Wednesday at ~8pm est,

  • NetSquared had recently closed its online balloting to choose the featured projects for its upcoming conference.
  • Many concerns had been expressed over the completely open online ballot.
  • No one knew yet who had voted, how many people had voted, or how many votes were based in any way on content of proposals (as opposed to emails from friends).
  • No one knew which projects had won yet.
  • No one knew anything about the projects themselves, beyond what was written up briefly in their proposals.
  • There had been close to zero substantive discussion of the proposals.

And here was what people were saying about it:

  • Phil proclaimed the vote a “watershed event for democracy.”
  • I eagerly anticipated other blogs’ making fun of him for jumping the gun. Phil is a good and thought-provoking writer who is not always what we would call “reserved” in tone.
  • Lucy agreed with Phil.
  • So did the normally reserved Sean.
  • In the wake of criticism, Sean insisted that “NetSquared is already a success” – not because of its voting process (the original thing that had set off Phil), but because the projects that are going to be featured are “great.” (Keep in mind that the sum total of our knowledge on these projects still consists of ~1000 words submitted by their leaders.)

To be clear, I think NetSquared is an exciting idea. But where I come from, people celebrate a new client the day the client signs, not the day they decide to call the client and see if they’re interested. “Great research projects” refers to ideas that have been studied and stress-tested to death and produced returns, not to the ideas we had in this morning’s meeting. So as I’ve made clear, I’ve been pretty surprised by the extent to which people have called paragraphs on a screen “great projects,” and pointed to a “success” and “watershed event” where I saw an online poll that hadn’t even been tallied yet.

And while I can only speak to what I’ve seen, this doesn’t strike me as an isolated incident. The charities I’ve examined constantly use the word “success” to refer to mosquito nets purchased or children enrolled in an after-school program, or even in many cases simply dollars spent or plans made. Much of the literature I’ve read on grantmaking tells stories of “great grantmaking,” stories that end with the funds disbursed. Call me crazy, but for a humanitarian charity I associate “success” with “lives changed.”

Sure, that’s hard to measure. Yes, many of the things we celebrate in the for-profit sector are more concrete. But this post isn’t about the process of evaluation (I’ve written plenty about that, and will write plenty more); it’s about the mentality. When you’re used to seeing the results of your actions, you’re used to the world’s working much less smoothly than your imagination does. You assume a huge chasm between a great idea and a great result. You put the bar for “success” a lot higher, and that pushes you to get a lot better. I wish I saw more of this mentality from the sector whose job it is to bring about the world’s most important (and often most difficult) changes.