The GiveWell Blog

We will be the most criticized grantmaker of all time

Getting there won’t be easy. Our registration form for nonprofits includes a question asking how we can improve the form, and I’ve gotten a lot of useful feedback from it (which I’m incorporating as we speak), but I’ve also gotten some ludicrously enthusiastic praise for what is, in fact, a series of about 10 checkboxes.

I read a lot about the power imbalance between funders and funded, and how the funded can’t speak their minds. I believe this is a real problem, because in private, personal conversations, I hear all kinds of horrible things about large foundations – yet public criticism of them is unbelievably rare considering that they are (a) huge (b) constantly making controversial and debatable decisions that affect us all.

Maybe the Gates Foundation feels good about dodging criticism and maintaining a pretty squeaky-clean image. But that isn’t our goal; our goal is just to help the world as much as we can, and given how difficult that is, that means getting criticized. A lot. On our process, our decisions, our logo, you name it. The more feedback we get, the better we’ll be. I’m already brainstorming about all the ways I can induce our applicants to give constant, totally honest feedback about how we’re running the process and how we can do better. (Any ideas? Comment.) Mark my words: we’re going to catch a world-record amount of flak.


  • When I took my current Foundation job I was told something to the effect of “you’ll never have an honest complement again from anyone at an NGO. I’ve found that extends to honest feedback as well. I’ve only been at a foundation for 10 months and I am so tired of certain people trying to kiss my ass. I am just a lowly program associate. Kissing my ass does no good. I don’t think it would help with most of our program staff.

    I am frustrated as hell. I am trying to change our review process to be more helpful to NGO’s but no-one wants to give me the truth. They are afraid of “offending” us. In the past we have been afraid of “offending” them. All parts of the sector needs to stop with all the nicey smiley happytalk and honestly communicate with each other.

  • Randy on June 19, 2007 at 11:18 am said:

    You have to admit though, they are pretty swell check boxes.

  • grssrts on June 19, 2007 at 1:32 pm said:

    I am just a lowly program associate. Kissing my ass does no good. I don’t think it would help with most of our program staff.

    I am frustrated as hell. I am trying to change our review process to be more helpful to NGO’s but no-one wants to give me the truth.

    Yes, but speaking from the NPO side, telling the truth is a very risky thing to do. There’s that whole power imbalance thing rearing its ugly head again.

    I’m going out on a limb here myself, but I think power also runs within the foundations themselves. Say a program associate honestly solicits feedback, a nonprofit does break its silence, and does speak the truth. Say it offends a trustee (or a LOT of trustees). Does the foundation person who initiated the change have the power to protect the nonprofit from the backlash?

    M and Holden, you’re absolutely right–there needs to be a way to have a better dialogue. However, I’m not sure it can happen with the power differential between nonprofits and foundations. But I’m fairly new to nonprofits and foundation relationships too, so I’m willing to hear other’s thoughts on this matter.

  • Holden on June 19, 2007 at 2:15 pm said:

    Good comments above; thanks for posting.

    Here’s how we’re planning to deal with this: put all our decisions and reasoning on a public website, where anyone can challenge them, anonymously or not.

    Let’s say that we talk to a charity that really does have the best case for one of our grants, but we get pissed off by their honest feedback. (This won’t happen for separate reasons – that we’re used to honest feedback and we don’t get pissed off by it – but hypothetically.) And we respond by denying them grant money. They can point out why our reviews are flawed, and let readers decide. If we really do something unreasonable and reject a clearly excellent charity for irrelevant reasons, we’ll just look like a bunch of incompetent jerks.

    Maybe it wasn’t possible 20 years ago, but today it’s flat-out trivial to put all your decisions where anyone can make their own judgments about them. It’s not a silver bullet, but I think it will impose some limits on our ability to be petty.

  • shelly on June 27, 2007 at 3:46 pm said:

    People do not understand the difference between charities and foundations. A foundation, by law, only has to give away a small percentage of its funds (I believe 5%)which may include operating costs. This means that a foundation can go on forever (or until the messia comes)and actually gain a vast amount of wealth (money is usually invested). Charities on the other hand must spend the vast amount of it’s money but the allocation of resources may not give the largest amount of it’s fund to the truely needy. If the Director of a charity gets $500,000 at charity “A” and the Director of charity “B” gets $100,000, all things being equal the the needy get an extra $400,000 from charity “B”. Many charities exist to fund jobs for individuals, for example many small “police” charities that solicit by phone (A real tip off if they call you). Once again, this is why there are many organizations that rate charities that should be consulted. Big charities that “support” programs for the Cancer or heart needy often spend inordinate amounts on fundraising. They send “educational material” with the fundraising and it is considered money given to fund the programs. Gates is interesting, what he is actually doing is setting up a charitable Microsoft (Unless he disbands it and donates the money in full upon his death-possible??) that may be worth more year after year. It does fund programs, but in a very selective manner and by using minimal resources. Do not be fooled by the number 100 billion (Gates + Buffet) as 95% does not have to be spent in any given year.

  • shelly on June 27, 2007 at 3:49 pm said:

    On the other hand 5 billion a year is a good deal of money and should not be sneered at. Sorry Bill and Melinda.

  • Holden on June 27, 2007 at 3:51 pm said:

    Shelly – I am having trouble seeing what you’re responding to or how this is relevant.

    I don’t think any readers of this blog are confused by the difference between charities and foundations. I’ve even written about how little foundations give out. I’m not sure what your observation about Gates and Buffett is in reference to.

    And any regular reader of this blog is familiar with your analysis of program vs. administrative vs. fundraising expenses. I’ve discussed this analysis a ton, arguing that it is overused and often misleading.

    I don’t have any problem with off-the-cuff comments, but yours don’t seem even to reference or recognize the content of the post they’re responding to.

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