The GiveWell Blog

An open letter to crybabies

I think that funders should be blunt, honest, and public in their feedback to nonprofits, including those who get rejected. The benefits in terms of allowing public dialogue and giving nonprofits the feedback they need to improve are obvious – yet every foundation I’ve called agrees that publicly criticizing rejectees is unacceptable. Why? The answer, according to many – most recently Mark Petersen and Daniel Ben Horin – is that doing this would discourage and demoralize the people who work so hard to make the world a better place.

I think in many cases this is simply wrong – I and the other members of GiveWell always prefer honest feedback to “nice” feedback – but I suppose there are some people who would rather miss out on feedback than have their feelings hurt. My short hand term for these people is crybabies, and what follows is a letter to them. I don’t mean the term “crybaby” to be offensive or negative – just saving space. Really.

Dear crybaby,

First off, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, so please read the following standard “nonprofit niceness” disclaimers:

I really admire your work. From all I’ve seen of you, I think you are the greatest human being in the universe: compassionate, kind, and brilliant. What you’re doing is so amazing. You are the best and you rock. Everything I’m about to say is only because I care so much about you and it’s all just nitpicks, so don’t take it too seriously, and when you’re done reading it, forget that you ever got criticized and focus on the big picture: that you are about 3/4 of the way between person and god.

OK. Now let’s get rolling. As a nonprofit person, you have presumably given up a good deal of money, security, and comfort. The question is, why?

I hope the answer is that you care more about making the world a better place than just about anything else. If that’s right, then consider how helpful criticism – all criticism, regardless of tone – can be to your mission. Unfiltered criticism is the best way to get others’ perspectives on what you’re doing, which unless you’re already omniscient is hugely valuable information. If you get offended by criticism to the point where you fail to learn from it – or worse, get demoralized – this is hurting the people you’re trying to help. So don’t.

Working out can be painful and unpleasant (granted, I’m largely speculating here), but any aspiring athlete who skipped it would be a joke. The mental equivalent is learning from criticism, and if you’re putting yourself forward as a person who can use others’ money to improve the world, you’d better be ready to put learning and improving first, and your feelings second (or twelfth). So here’s my advice to you: seek out as much feedback as you can, push people to be honest, and get so used to negative feedback that its emotional impact wears off (leaving only the educational impact). When someone starts giving you the “nonprofit niceness” disclaimers, cut them off and ask how you can improve. When someone uses inappropriate language like “you suck,” be grateful for the assistance in toughening up. I’m speaking from personal experience, as a very emotional person whose gut instinct is to shut down when I get criticized – the more you go through this, the better you will become at getting improvement, rather than pain, out of criticism.

If you find yourself unable to do this, I only have one explanation: that helping people isn’t the core of your motivation. That you care more about your short-term emotions, day to day, than about the good work you’re trying to do. That you’ve chosen nonprofit over for-profit not because you want to improve the world, but because it’s a nice, cuddly atmosphere where you will never be challenged. If this is you, I take back everything nice I ever might have said about you, your intentions, and your project. It would be one thing if you were off volunteering on your own, but the money you ask for could be going to someone else with a thicker skin, and more value on learning than on their own feelings, who can do a better job than you at helping people. I want you out of your job and other people’s way.

Let me close on a personal note. I’ve been a donor, but now I am on the other side. I’ve given up a great job with great pay for one that has more hours, more stress, and less comfort. I’ve already struggled, I’ve already felt pain and demoralization, and I know that I’m just getting started. But to give me “sympathy” by tempering your feedback would hurt our project, and my desire for the project to succeed is the only reason I’m doing any of this in the first place. So please, honor the following wish for me. If you ever talk to me, be totally blunt with me about the job you think I’m doing. And if I ever complain that your language or your tone or your criticism is inappropriately harsh, and focus even a speck of my energy on making you “nicer” rather than learning from you, please do these two things in succession:

1. Remind me of this letter; call me a crybaby and a hypocrite; and repeat your feedback, as harsh as or harsher than before.

2. If that doesn’t work, and I continue to focus on my feelings rather than your feedback, kindly bludgeon me in the head.




  • Trevor Meier on June 5, 2007 at 8:58 pm said:

    I can see your point… I think the point of our discussion over on Mark’s blog was whether that feedback should be in the public domain or not. Sometimes it’s better to give constructive criticism behind closed doors when there isn’t repor with a public who may not see the whole picture when exposed to negative feedback about a non-profit…

    I think exposing case-scenarios to the public while ‘protecting the innocent’ can be a good balance of transparency and privacy for non-profits who still are needing to improve.

  • Holden on June 5, 2007 at 9:12 pm said:

    You’re right that there’s more to the question of whether it should be public – I was responding largely to Mark’s “kicking someone when they’re down” language (as well as to the unrelated discussion on Tactical Philanthropy).

    I will probably write about this question more in depth at some point, but briefly, I think the criticism should be public. I think the whole picture should be public. Foundations should publish exactly what they think of everyone, and everyone who disagrees should argue back. I think that balance is much easier to achieve when everyone pushes for their side than when the controller of information tries to be neutral.

  • Gillian on June 6, 2007 at 7:29 pm said:


    In building an assessment of the quality of philanthropy, have you looked at the measures used by the Commitment to Development Index? How might the issues they highlight apply to individual philanthropy projects?

    Blogged here…

    And here is Nancy Birdsall’s paper about reform of the aid business — its practices, processes, procedures and politics of aid.

  • Trevor Meier on June 7, 2007 at 1:26 am said:

    The problem with making the criticism public is that foundations have a lot more power than non-profits seeking funding. The weight of the words of a foundation are difficult to retract, and difficult to interact with from the perspective of the criticised. There doesn’t exist a forum in which foundations and non-profits can publicly dialogue in a fair and open manner, and where the non-profit can tell their side of the story.

    I’m an advocate of transparency, and also of open and fair dialogue. So a situation I would support is, for example, Mark Petersen inviting a non-profit, whose proposal was rejected for one reason or another, discussing it on equal terms in a public, online venue like a blog or forum. I would not support foundations publishing lists & reasons for rejected non-profits in their mail-out publications, because it becomes an uneven power structure of transparency on one side, and complete information blackout on the other (because the non-profit has no opportunity to respond).

  • Holden on June 7, 2007 at 1:33 am said:

    We may be in agreement. I think foundations should publish criticisms on their websites, and that their websites should allow comments on every page.

    I don’t really care whether foundations also include criticisms in their mailout materials. If I can get it on the web (accompanied by comments from the criticized, and anyone else who cares to contribute), I’m happy. If I can’t get it anywhere, I ask why.

  • baugh on June 7, 2007 at 4:13 pm said:

    I work with foundations and non-profits alike and one thing is common…they all want to reach people and raise money. We use to reach the millions of people to shop online and donate. Sign up, pick your cause (or sign up your own cause) all for free and shop. Buy products at the same prices and donate to those causes. Win, Win for everyone and you tap the masses who unfortunately dont have the time in their eyes to make any difference. Everyone is so busy with their own lives that the regular person can do as they normally would and feel like they are making a difference. Try the site, 1000 people buying 1000 dollars in products over one year (this is a small amount) and raise between 30,00 and 100,00 dollars. Here is the press release for this company:

  • courtney on June 23, 2007 at 1:33 pm said:

    your ignorance of the non-profit sector and your arrogant sense of self sacrifice will prevent you from every truly doing “good.”

    stick to what you’re good at, and go back to your high paying job in the private sector. you clearly are too far removed from understanding what it means to make a penny stretch five ways, as is necessary to keep a non-profit afloat, and are in no position to pass judgment on those who do.

  • Holden on June 23, 2007 at 2:34 pm said:

    Courtney – if you’d really like to convince me to go back to the for-profit sector, you should provide some explanation and information.

    It’s possible that I’m missing something, but “Trust me – I’m an expert, you’re not, I say X, and I expect you to act on that without any further evidence or explanation” is not an argument I accept, especially when it comes from someone that I have no independent reason to trust.

Comments are closed.