The GiveWell Blog

Our harshest critic so far: Uncle Bob

There’s a saying that I think about a lot: “If you can’t explain it to your Uncle Bob, you don’t understand it.” (Note: may be a rewording of a real saying, or not a real saying at all; I’m not sure. If it’s unclaimed, mark it down as mine, thanks.)

How many times have you sat down to write something – for a blog, for a report, heck, for an email – that you were 100% sure of, then realized as you were writing that you have to rethink things entirely? It happens. When you’re talking to no one but yourself, everything you vaguely recall and intuitively believe sounds reasonable; you’ve got no check on it. When you’re talking to your fellow Program Officer, there’s a little more of a check, but the two of you are still in the same bubble, and you can still use jargon to skip over concepts you should be reexamining. When you talk to your Uncle Bob, that’s when you have to be clear – and that means getting clear in your own head.

That’s why, as we’ve written up our reviews for our public website, our opinions have changed drastically. Because as I write a review, I’m not trying to explain my reasoning to Elie, I’m trying to explain it to Uncle Bob. I’m trying to put it down so I can literally send a link to my grandma and have her understand why I’d rather give to Year Up than St. Nick’s. And even before anyone actually reads it, this makes me think much harder about it, question all the little assumptions I’ve been making (without knowing I’m making them), recheck all the sources for things I’ve been vaguely recalling, and get really clear on what I think.

I put it to you that in terms of clarifying and improving your thoughts, there is no substitute for the process of explaining your decision to a general audience. Everyone who thinks for a living knows this. Except, perhaps, for Program Officers at foundations.

Cause what I’m saying comes down to this. I believe that what we’re doing is exactly what every foundation, everywhere, all the time, should be doing: documenting everything we decide, with links to every single material we used to decide it, and releasing it so that anyone can see it and critique it. The benefits are obvious in terms of public information sharing, but one of the lame objections that is sometimes raised is that documenting your views for the public is “too time-consuming.”

Well heck yeah, it’s time consuming. But not because of the typing – because of the thinking. We’re spending ungodly amounts of time writing up decisions we think we’ve already made … and we’re getting every second’s worth back in terms of improving our decisions, clarifying them for others and for ourselves. Even before anyone has jumped in the ring to challenge our views (and a few people have), we’ve gotten a good dose of skepticism, feedback, and improvement from Uncle Bob.

Every single foundation should be writing up its decisions in public. Uncle Bob is fine with that statement. Who wants to challenge it?


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