The GiveWell Blog

Cooperation “versus” conflict

This comment struck me. It makes me wonder how many people get their “nonprofit niceness” (the bane of my existence nowadays) from a determination to act as though “we’re all on the same side.” The thing is, I do think we’re all on the same side – at least, those of us who are in this sector to help people, and not just to draw salary – and that’s exactly why I’m so adamant that conflict and competition be encouraged.

When different people are working toward the same goal, one of the most valuable things they can share with each other is their intelligence. Because they come from different perspectives and have different ways of thinking, they will have different opinions. That isn’t to be hidden or lamented, it’s to be celebrated. And when it comes to sharing different opinions, cooperation is conflict. I don’t know of any way for my mind to benefit from someone else’s, except through examining the differences.

Sometimes, simple examination and conflict will leave us all on the same page; but when intelligent people continue to disagree on the best course of action, one way or another they must compete – whether by making their case to the person who makes the ultimate decisions (the funder), or by each getting their own funding and letting reality provide the final test. Again, that isn’t unfortunate – it just means trying more than one tactic to get to the same end.

Conflict doesn’t just happen between armies; it happens between generals, precisely because those generals are so determined to win. Competition doesn’t just happen between two football teams; it happens between the players on the team, because letting Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton compete to play quarterback is what’s best for the Chicago Bears. Conflict and competition aren’t just things I want to see in massive marketplaces and nations; I also want to see them within families, companies, and communities. The people I challenge and criticize most are the ones who are most on my side, because that’s how we’re going to get our best shot at accomplishing our collective goal. If you think Elie and I are nice to each other, you haven’t met either of us.

When one charity hesitates to criticize another in the same field, that doesn’t tell me they’re cooperating; it tells me they aren’t working as hard as they can toward what’s supposed to be their common goal. My vision for the nonprofit sector is one of constant debate, conflict, and competition. Then, and only then, will the sector truly be like one giant family.


  • Randy on June 22, 2007 at 9:56 am said:


    I work for a non-profit that has several large competitor organizations. I’ll be the first to admit an imperfect understanding of the non-profit sector, but I think I can understand why non-profits are loathe to criticize each other. I should also probably specify that I raise funds for large health programs, and consequently that’s my (only) area of expertise.

    As you state, the masses generally receive (and are content to receive) less information in comparison to large grantmakers or other highly engaged donors. A good number of these smaller individual donors are primarily attracted to the image of the particular non-profit they’re supporting. They do not want to do research or scour 990’s. I would think (perhaps as a heretic) that these people seek to maximize their reward for the time and money they are willing to put into it.

    These folks do not want to have to think long and hard before they send in their $25. They don’t want competing stories or criticism from other non-profits leaving them in doubt that they did the best thing. I think everyone fears “mutually assured distraction” that open criticism would create for these donors.

    On the other hand, there are large foundations, or particularly interested folks such as yourself, who are willing to put in the work necessary to scour the internet, trudge through 990s and read specific project proposals or look at internal program review documents. These individuals/organizations -are- willing to make donations based on merit and research, and consequently organizations with a track record of success and solid plans for the future tend to make out with the lion’s share of grant money. In a way, organizations receive criticism each time their proposals are turned down, even if it is not directed.

    As a result of the large quantity of smaller donations, many non-profits who might not have the best programs will still survive, yet it will be the ones that are able to engage the common man as well as the very interested donor (be it individual, foundation or corporation) that I truly feel will thrive.

    I do think that what you are undertaking with the GiveWell project is awesome. I fully plan on directing disgruntled or skeptical donors towards it in the future. All apologies if my dim view on humanity or my status as a cog in the system offend.

  • Holden on June 23, 2007 at 7:28 pm said:

    Randy, I agree with you that there are many donors who don’t have time to do research – but that doesn’t mean that research and criticism can’t help them, as I argued here. It’s a matter of doing the research and sharing it in a useful, accessible way – which is a world away from simply hiding any and all wrinkles and selling charity entirely on “image.”

    I push every donor I know, large and small, to think harder about their charity than they do – their thoughts are as valuable as their dollars. Of course there will always be people who give based on “image” and aren’t interested in doing anything else, but I don’t expect our project to affect them in in the slightest (i.e., I don’t fear “mutually assured distraction”) because they’ll simply ignore us. We should be less worried about keeping the money coming from unengaged donors – who will likely keep doing what they’re doing no matter what happens – than about getting more money and better-spent money from intelligent donors who want to see some substance.

    (All of this is pretty tangential to the above post, which is about dialogue within the sector – the question of whether to make criticism public is somewhat separate, although I’ve argued here and elsewhere that I believe in that too.)

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