# I had a lapse in judgment, did a horrible thing, and I apologize

I did what is apparently known as “astroturfing,” using a fake ID to try to get attention for GiveWell. Why did I do this?

1. I had a horrible lapse in judgment.

2. I have been low on sleep, and running around like a madman. I’d like to think that had something to do with it, but if you want to dismiss that and just call me an idiot, I can’t argue with you.

• I used an old Ask Metafilter account to pose a question about where to find a good charity (the kind of question I was asking everyone I knew a year ago), then I created a new account as Holden0 to answer it with GiveWell (I didn’t intend to hide the fact that the GiveWell link itself came from me, the founder of the project – but posing the setup question as an outsider was completely inappropriate).
• I made two blog comments and sent ten emails from a handle that did not identify me.
• I also made numerous other comments from a handle that did identify me (“Holden”), but did not put up front that I was the founder of the project.

The gory details are here. The current status of the situation is here.

This was a horrible lapse in judgment. I was simply trying to make comments that would not be immediately dismissed as “plugs,” but rather explored on their merits. I now recognize that by not disclosing my identity, I created the appearance of an “objective” observer, and that was wrong.

I hope as you read this, you can identify with having a horrible lapse in judgment. Everything that is true of me is something that has been untrue of me in a moment of weakness, and that includes the value of honesty, which remains the most important one. I hope you can recognize that the best thing I can do is admit it immediately, apologize, and not try to hide anything. That is what I am doing. I hope you still believe in me as someone who will admit to his lapses and mistakes, if not someone who can be counted on to be free of them.

• Josh Millard on December 31, 2007 at 3:28 pm said:

Good on you for owning up, Holden. You really stepped in it with this, but a straightforward owning-up here is very much the right thing to do and speaks to the sort of transparency your project is ostensibly about.

If there’s any other element of astroturfing going on, or that has gone on — whether by you or by anyone else involved in the push for visiblity for givewell — that’s obviously something that by extension needs to (a) stop short, and (b) acknowledged. You’re in exactly the wrong business to pull this kind of stunt, as you’ve clearly realized.

I hope for the sake of the needy folks who could benefit from this project that you recover ably from any fallout this situation generates; but I hope for their sake and for the sake of anyone likely to work with you that you come away from this a hell of a lot more cautious and thoughtful about this sort of thing than you were yesterday at Ask Metafilter. Knowing you erred is one thing, and not erring again is something entirely different.

• Humility on December 31, 2007 at 3:30 pm said:

Yeah, right. You two are a bunch of bozos and scammers. I believed in you, but not any longer.

• Josh: I also posted a comment on Lifehacker, using my old ID, referring to the thread. Elie and I have also posted numerous comments on GiveWell around the web, but have used our own names.

• FourCheeseMac on December 31, 2007 at 3:40 pm said:

Good for you for owning up, Holden.

Let this be a lesson to other charities as well. When trust is your principal asset, you had best be extremely careful not to sully it.

• Carl Shulman on December 31, 2007 at 4:06 pm said:

Holden,

This is very disappointing and ludicrously ironic, but making this post (to the RSS feed) immediately is the right thing to do now.

I agree with the others that you need to learn from this one lesson. You should have had a rule in place to talk over any really new idea that might reflect well or poorly on GiveWell with Elie or volunteers or advisors, and been stopped from doing so stupid.

Also remember that status systematically exacerbates overconfidence and reduces empathy/understanding of others. Don’t let early successes go to your head and stop you from thinking before you act.

• jessamyn on December 31, 2007 at 4:06 pm said:

I didn’t intend to hide the fact that the GiveWell link itself came from me, the founder of the project

I don’t think you deserve any more hell for this, but I’d like to point out that this doesn’t ring true to me at all. There are all sorts of ways we’ve seen people involved with businesses discuss those businesses in an above-board way on MetaFilter. You had ample chances to point out that connection in your profile or your comment and you did neither.

While I appreciate your posting here and being generally agreeable to back and forth discussion about this problem I’d like to restate what I said on MetaFilter that this wastes people’s time and abuses their trust. As someone who had never heard of GiveWell before this all happened, I’m unlikely to want to learn more about it from this point forward. As a community moderator at MetaFilter, this is just more time I spend working on New Years Eve making sure this doesn’t turn into a train wreck.

I hope the new year treats you well and I respect the fact that you decided to post this.

• burnmp3s on December 31, 2007 at 4:11 pm said:

Although I think it was wrong of you to purposely misrepresent yourself in asking a fake question, I respect the way you handled your mistake afterward. Most people would not have posted a link to harsh criticism on their blog and own up to it like you did.

Personally, I’m more offended that you repeatedly bashed a more popular competitor of your’s, Charity Navigator, using the anonymity of the internet. If you want to tell people that your site is better, by all means do so, but don’t pretend to be an unbiased outside observer.

• Josh Millard on December 31, 2007 at 4:23 pm said:

There are all sorts of ways we’ve seen people involved with businesses discuss those businesses in an above-board way on MetaFilter.

Exactly what Jessamyn said, there. And this is why I asked about other turfing, and why I appreciate you copping to that lifehacker comment upthread.

There’s two separate transgressions here: one is the violation of a Metafilter prohibition against certain kinds of self-promotion (or self-promotion in certain contexts), and the other more troubling is the calculated deception of self-promotion disguised as conversation.

Violating the Metafilter guidelines is something that’s mostly going to concern folks who care about that site — and especially Jessamyn and I, since it’s not just a hangout for us but a job — and we’ve seen any number of folks stumble over the social contract there. At the end of the day, that may not be something folks outside of the greater mefisphere are going to care much about — aggressive self-promotion is allowed (or at least not actionable) in a lot of places on the web that value traffic over quality content, and so it goes.

But that you elected to play this as a puppet show — one person asks a question, another answers it, and then the asker even leaps to defend that lucky answer — is a more universal transgression, and that’s the particularly ugly thing. That, mixed with the violation of the guidelines, helps to explain why the Mefi reaction was so strong in the metatalk thread; but mefi is neither here nor there in the greater question of what led you to consider the playing at sockpuppets.

Let’s be clear: you could not unintentionally play the game the way you did. That required logging in under multiple accounts over the life of the thread; it was a scheme, however regretted and however unique in your ethical history you’d like to portray it.

• Alan Cordle on December 31, 2007 at 4:33 pm said:

Will the Harvard Crimson cover this story or not? Depends on who ya know there . . .

http://foetry.com/wp/?p=66

• Josh: you’re right. It wasn’t unintentional – I asked the question knowing I was going to answer it. The reason was that I wanted to make a plug that would be judged on the merits, not automatically dismissed as a “founder plugging his project.” That’s the sequence: I wanted to make a plug, I didn’t want the plug to be automatically dismissed, so I did this, and it was stupid and wrong.

• Anyone reading this would do well to read the entire discussion at MetaTalk, because subsequent digging has revealed that Holden’s mea culpa isn’t exactly complete. The tally also apparently includes forged emails, aggressive criticism of charitable competitors, and questionable budgeting.

• What Monju said.

Holden if you really care about Givewell you need to resign your position with the organization.

• hOlDeN on January 1, 2008 at 1:55 am said:

This is not Holden. Or is it?

• kmullen on January 1, 2008 at 2:17 am said:

Holden, you are a scammer. It’s just that simple.

• webchecker on January 1, 2008 at 4:18 am said:

It appears that Metafilter isn’t the first; only where you got caught. So let’s see. You pretend to be someone else and then *bash other charities and charity aggregators*. You visit forums and bash Charity Navigator. You slam Heifer International. You attack the outstanding efforts of DonorsChoose. All so you can drive more money to your site. If you cared about the charities involved, and not your paychecks, you’d have equally supported these other organizations.

No forgiveness for this detestable breach of trust and your half-apology.

• h()LD3N on January 1, 2008 at 6:39 am said:

I am the REAL HOLDEN.

F*CK YOU, PAY ME
1 PMITA WAY
Riker’s Island, NY 02020

kthnxbye

• I . . . sent ten emails from a handle that did not identify me

This makes it sound as if you used one of your own accounts or created a sockpuppet account, but what you admitted on MetaFilter is that you used another Givewell employee’s e-mail account to send out ten plugs. That goes far beyond hiding or not clearly indicating your identity, which are plenty unethical in themselves. It’s hijacking another person’s identity and reputation and forging her/his signature for your own nefarious purposes. That’s a gross abuse of your position as an employer and as the “PR face” of Givewell. At the very least, you need to come clean publicly to each of the ten people to whom you sent the forged e-mails.

• Anonymous Commentor on January 1, 2008 at 3:33 pm said:

In this June 4, 2007 Huffington Post column, Lucy Bernholz mentions GiveWell.net with no disclosure of any connection to that organization.

In the June 22, 2007 board meeting minutes for GiveWell.net,
Lucy Bernholz is stated to be present as a board member.

Is this another example of lack of disclosure?
In the interest of full transparency, please publish the dates that your board members joined GiveWell.

• Mike Everett-Lane on January 1, 2008 at 5:51 pm said:

Holden, I’m surprised that you promoted GiveWell at the expense of DonorsChoose.org on Luxist without identifying yourself as the head of GiveWell, especially since we have been in contact about some of the very issues you raised there.

• Lying scumbag. As a contributor to worthwhile charities I researched with the perfectly adequate resources already available online, vermin like you make me vomit. You can bet that word will going out online everywhere I can think of to forewarn people that yet another yuppie scum is trying to further enrich himself under the guise of charity.

Hopefully, with enough publicity, people will avoid you and your works the way they would a rabid syphilitic rat.

• Mike Nelson on January 1, 2008 at 8:13 pm said:

Wow. The tsunami rose up quickly, and for such an allegedly net-savvy organization, you guys did a horrible job with transparency. The waves crashed over your makeshift walls without even slowing down.

And the waves are only going to increase in size and speed.

I think the only hope left now for your organization is to clean house of anyone involved, and fall on your sword in as public a fashion as possible.

And it may already be too late for that.

• On the Wall Street Journal website, co-founder Elie plugged GiveWell and denigrated other charities without revealing his connection.

Elie also did virtually the same thing Holden did on MetaFilter on popular blog Marginal Revolution, asking readers to help him choose a charity and then suggesting GiveWell as a resource, all without openly revealing his connection.

Your entire organization seems to be implicated in this scam.

• Curious on January 1, 2008 at 9:02 pm said:

Jeff,

Which charities and which resources?

• NASA is famous for asking, when the rocket blows up, “What have we learned?” When emotions settle, I will be interested to hear what Holden has learned and we as a giving community have learned.

• I contribute monthly to World Vision and Greenpeace. I volunteer one afternoon a month trail-building with the NSMB and with the Vancouver Food Bank.

Common sense and a little leg work reveals a fount of availble information, A simple Google search reveals many pages of charity evaluators, even evaluations of the evaluators.

But these lying weasels are spending HALF the funds raised on their salaries. FAIL.

By any standard. The board needs to fire this scum, but the damage is probably already done.

• On the Wall Street Journal website, co-founder Elie plugged GiveWell and denigrated other charities without revealing his connection.

Elie also did virtually the same thing Holden did on MetaFilter on popular blog Marginal Revolution, asking readers to help him choose a charity and then suggesting GiveWell as a resource, all without openly revealing his connection.

Your entire organization seems to be implicated in this scam.

• Yep .

Its all part of a pattern of deception …

So I thought I’d try using that Google mechanism and discovered this neat link. So we probably have seen Holden’s comments at this Boing Boing thread, where he dismissed Heifer International and Charity Navigator. Going further down, the other member of the team, Elie Hassenfeld throws out a one sentence comment with a link concerning Heifer International that leads to a blog entry at Beyond Philanthropy, discussing an article at Financial Times written by Tim Ogden, board director for Givewell, and Chief Editor at Beyond Philanthropy.

Its not clear who authored the blog entry, and while the original article did not name Heifer International specifically, the blog entry does. The question then is was Ogden aware that Holden and Elie were posting on the boingboing thread or not, in ways to demean Heifer International, directing individuals to his own publication’s negative treatment of the charity?
posted by Atreides at 12:06 PM on January 1 [1 favorite +] [!]

The worst thing about this episode for Givewell, is that it will destroy any chance of good will through word of mouth that they can get for some time. Whenever anyone familiar with this incident sees Givewell discussed elsewhere, this incident will be brought up, and any positive comments will be cast into doubt.
posted by grouse at 12:08 PM on January 1 [+] [!]

Net result of your [Lucy Bernholz’s] clever response to the burgeoning scandal: I have an even worse impression of Givewell. Way to go.

Elie strikes again in two comments at the Wall Street Journal’s The Wealth Report, suggesting the use of Givewell.net along the same lines as Holden, but without vitriol. As for identification of who he is, at best its obscure, at worse, not at all.
posted by Atreides at 12:19 PM on January 1 [1 favorite +] [!]

Elie pulls an AskMeta at Marginal Revolution blog in a thread with recommendations as “Best of” the year sort of deal.” He brings up the question, “Best charity?” when the subject hadn’t been discussed, and after several charity recommendations, Elie then name drops (with address) Givewell.net.

• From the Deep Net on January 1, 2008 at 10:55 pm said:

The rapid posting on this blog of an apology is good and all but it’s no more than due diligence in a world where there are timestamps on everything. Far more telling is your parrying retreat in which you’re confessing to and apologizing for the least damaging characterization of what you’ve been caught at each point. That looks like nothing more than damage control.

How about a sincere catalog of things that would be as craven and underhanded as the astroturfing, which you and your organization will pledge to never do? If you seriously are asking for forgiveness I don’t think that the world would accept anything less than voluntarily putting yourself in an ethical straightjacket for the rest of your life.

I personally wouldn’t try. Write your reputation off as a loss and lie low for a decade without getting caught. Resignation isn’t a bad idea, it might even get remembered as unusually principled in this day and age.

• Here are some well thought out observations from the Metafilter member slagged online by Holden.
She actually works in the non profit sector, as opposed to blood-sucking off of it.

I’ll take one Miko over a hundred self-promoting lying hucksters like this jerk Holden…

“I think many people are focusing on Holden’s misrepresentation of himself, which I do deplore. It’s a completely unethical tactic. In the world of business, I understand that this sort of thing may be casually brushed off as all’s-fair-in-love-and-war, but remember that the independent/NPO sector is different. It is expected to meet a more stringent set of standards, because it consists of public trusts. In other words – they are using your money; your tax-free donations, your tax dollars themselves, and your tax dollars as delivered through state and federal granting agencies. Abuses of public funds are more serious, and more impactful, than abuses of private funds. U.S. taxpayers are, in a very real sense, paying for Holden’s time when he posts and sends mail under false identities.

But completely apart from the issue of promotional tactics and ethics, some people seem to be saying that this charity looks perfectly all right. It doesn’t to me. It’s worthy of critical examination. dw’s questions about the organization’s strategic plan (where is it, by the way?) are very important. What GiveWell calls “challenging old-line philanthropy” to me looks very much like a pleasant gloss on creating a new ‘philanthropic’ model which attempts to justify extremely high administrative costs (salaries) based on the value of the research service provided. The question is: how valuable is this research, really?

Much of the GiveWell rhetoric focuses on the point that they believe percent of donated funds spent on program activities is a false measure of effectiveness. There is some truth to that, and yet, it is the single thing which donors care most about. The standard in the field is to look very carefully at organizations whose administrative costs amount to more than 20% of the budget. There are many exceptions to that rule of thumb – some charities, by the very nature of their work, have a higher administrative burden, and as a NPO employee I certainly believe that salaries should be set at at level that is an attractive living wage, if not competitive with similar private-sector jobs. But this group is boldly asserting that their more-than-double industry-standard high administrative cost will be worth it, because the 50 cents on your dollar that they ultimately donate will be to a charity with demonstrated effectiveness, as determined by them, people without expertise in the fields they are donating to. Were I a major donor, I’m not sure I’d buy that argument.

First of all, it’s quite easy for you as a donor to determine effectiveness yourself through your interactions with the charities you support. The information is readily available directly from the public organizations. Complete information may not indeed available directly through Charity Navigator or GuideStar, but they are under no obligation to share their research. I also agree that a 990 is not a sufficient means of determining efficacy, but it is definitely a sufficient means of identifying red flags, determining the salaries of the most highly paid staffers, and comparing program services to administrative costs. Charity Navigator itself states that it does not consider the information it provides sufficient to call a charity “effective” and makes it clear that further efforts are needed to determine efficacy. In addition, as a result of Sarbaines-Oxley, 990 reporting will be changing in the next year to make the forms far more detailed and informative. One 990 I will find interesting to read in the new form will be GiveWell’s.

As others have pointed out, the efficacy question is a serious one. Most NPOs are already reporting their efficacy all over the place. You don’t do it in so many words on your 990, no; but you do do it in your annual report, in your reports to your trustees, in reports to federal, state, and private grantmakers, and often to the media. It’s not as though charities are generally obfuscating or that no one is holding them accountable. The reports I have to make twice a year to IMLS and HUD, for instance, are quite thorough and specific. It does take time to administrate these grants – a very large amount of time. In fact, federal grants ask you to calculate the time spent writing grant reports and engaging in correspondence, budgeting, and other additional work which the grant brings with it, and include that in the project costs, which are funded. Getting grant money costs money – money which then goes to salaries and materials rather than directly to service.

GiveWell is creating yet another new entity for organizations to be accountable to. They are asking for evaluative activities and administrative time without, apparently, paying for it. Let me be clear that in the world of NPOs, $25-$40000 grants are rather small. Administrative costs or the development and delivery of a detailed program evaluation could eat 10-25% of that amount easily.

I would very much like to see a sample GiveWell questionnaire to grantees, but can’t find one on their site. If they require anything like the number of hours it takes to service a federal grant, they may be significantly reducing the amount of aid they provide to the grantee organizations. Grantee organizations, I suppose, can determine whether it’s worth the time for the amount in real dollars they will be able to apply to service.

So basically, I am just not sure they are really contributing anything meaningful to the donation marketplace, or doing anything other than diverting dollars which could otherwise go through any number of responsible, effective organizations as determined by you, the donor, to their own pockets in the form of salary. Cloaking that in language about a ‘new form of philanthropy’ does not convince me that it is at all worthwhile or even honorable. They should be carefully watched, and time will tell whether they are indeed creating a more effective, accountable environment for charities, or adding another layer of red tape to the process of seeking needed funds while lining the pockets and padding the resumes of its staff and board.”

• Holned Karpronsky on January 1, 2008 at 11:30 pm said:

So what if Bob Elliott doesn’t tip at his favorite glory hole, he’s a humanitarian for what he does here.

And maybe Lucy Bernholz shouldn’t be traipsing to Nigeria on sex tourism junkets on the givewell.net expense account, but she has made contributions to society here.

And we can all agree that Tim Ogden should be more considerate of the role that baby-daddy is supposed to play in Southeast Asia, but he’s a very busy guy doing the important work of sitting on the givewell.net board of directors.

The important fact to keep in mind that it is Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld who are the real douchebags here.

• As the director of a 40 year old 501(c)3 nonprofit, I’m amazed at this event. Were I make a lapse in judgement and ethics similar to those made by Holden, I would fully expect my Board to remove me from my position. If a nonprofit is not honest and transparent, it should not exist.

If dishonest statements were made in print, or published in a newspaper, they would be called in an instant… Yet somehow Holden and his Board feel that dishonesty on the Web is not a problem at all.

The saddest part here, is that the dishonest efforts of this individual will make it that much more difficult for non-profits that actually provide services to solicit support.

• Here’s a dissenting opinion for you.

The real shame here, believe it or not, is that you chose Metafilter for your showdown. You won’t find a group of snarkier, elitist, self-righteous windbags in your whole internet career.

While they did catch you red-handed, it’s certainly not worth a resignation, “lying low for a decade” or any more such nonsense. You’ve apologized. Move on. In a world where Martha Stewart gets house arrest, Britney walks around without panties, and all politicians lie, you’re really going to get burned at the stake by some online community?

And what qualifies your most holy judges to dish the harshest judgement they can? They paid five bucks? Five bucks keeps out the spammers. But it also entitles Metafilter members to an outrageous sense of entitlement and piety.

Let it all go. The more you apologize, the greater the flame.

I forgive you. I’m over it. I have better things to do than stew about this. Metafilter? They don’t have better things to do, man. Run away.

• This fraudulent thief didn’t choose metafilter for a “showdown”, snark. Like that’s your real name.

Its where he got caught stealing from charities. So you forgive yourself, do you snark? Go back to bed Holden, you need some sleep. Then, dust off the resume, because this “charity” is dead.

• rumple on January 2, 2008 at 12:46 am said:

They paid five bucks? Five bucks keeps out the spammers.

Apparently not.

• Holned Karpronsky on January 2, 2008 at 12:51 am said:

I had a lapse in judgment, did a horrible thing, and I hereby apologize.
By Holned

I was tired.

I may have misrepresented myself and reality in the post above, but it does not take away from my true beliefs:

1) Tipping is optional at gloryholes.

2) BoingBoing.net, Metafilter.com, and Luxist.com are self-server and unimportant opinionators.

3) Lucy Bernholz is a fine gal, just has lax morals.

4) I just like to sometimes call Tim Ogden my daddy.

5) YOU SHOULD ALL LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE!!!1!!1!

• So Snark,please explain what qualifies Holden to stand in judgement of legitimate charities. What specific experience does this dissembling Holden con-artist bring to this arena that makes him an expert on real charities?

While you’re at it, how bout identifying yourself, your realtionship to this liar, and why your forgiveness is any way important. I’m here using my real name; do you really believe that any credibility can be given to someone whose screen-nmae here is “snark”?

This,on a website whose administrators have been caught repeatedly astroturfing and sockpuppeting?

So far everyone associated with this “charity: who has weighed in has been identified as engaging in these deceptive practices. The New York State Attorney General and Better Business Bureau await your answer to these questions.

• Ooh, look it’s “Jeff”!

Just another ringing example of the elitist, self-righteous snobbery that made me leave in the first place.

I reject you “Jeff” and your whiny, pretentious call out. I don’t need a common first name for my words to have merit. “Jeff.” Like that’s your real name.

Bwa ha ha.

• MetaFiltering All Rational Thoughts on January 2, 2008 at 1:16 am said:

Hey, MetaFilter people. Anybody have something of substance to say about the GiveWell project? or are you only capable of ad-homs and petty banter? wait, i have an idea, why dont you say holden went to harvard again? hadnt heard that one yet.

• Josh Millard on January 2, 2008 at 1:26 am said:

Holned, whoever you are: go to bed. You’re embarrassing all involved.

MetaFilteringAllRationalThoughts, you’re either not doing your background reading or you’re being disingenous; if it’s the former, I’d suggest you read the Ask Metafilter and Metatalk threads linked upthread. There’s been a great deal of substantive discussion among the noiser and snarkier bits endemic, for better or worse, to Metatalk callouts.

If it’s the latter — if you’re read up but you’re electing to baby-and-bathwater the discussion for whatever counterproductive motive you have — at least admit it.

Metatalk is a noisy enough place on its own terms, but it’s also its own place. There’s no reason the discussion here needs to be as wild and woolly.

• Jeff Young
Verticaljeff@hotmail.com

1534 Victoria Avenue
Vancouver B.C.

So, please explain who you are, your connection to this fraud, and why it should matter.

• Marcel on January 2, 2008 at 1:41 am said:

I really hope the comments here don’t free-fall into random name-calling.

The MetaFilter thread had unfortunate moments of spite, but for the most part it was focused on documenting what happened. And that was: the CEO of a philanthropic organization (one which was selling itself on transparency) used promotional strategies which will appear to many as unethical and fraudulent. Even to give events the most generous possible spin, Holden was seling GiveWell in a manner associated with vendors of penis enlargement devices. When called out, he plead “lack of sleep” and his first reaction was an offer to “donate” money to MetaFilter.

This is an embarrassment to the organization.

None of this takes anything away from GiveWell’s goals and ambitions. (And I think it is inappropriate and unwarranted to claim Holden was trying to “steal” anything.)

However, it takes a great deal away from the appearance that GiveWell can meet its goals and ambitions.

Holden may or may not be generally dishonest, but he is certainly not competent as the head of such an organization. And that’s the crux.

I’m perfectly willing to “forgive” Holden. Really, I wish him the best.

But why should I–or anybody else–trust this kid with my money?

• From the Deep Net on January 2, 2008 at 1:51 am said:

Hey, MetaFilter people. Anybody have something of substance to say about the GiveWell project?

GiveWell.net’s Executive Director has engaged in fraudulent promotion of the organization and fraudulent competitive practices by repeatedly posing as uninterested members of the general public on various web sites and in that guise both urged the public to patronize GiveWell and criticized competing philanthropic projects as inferior.

Certainly many members of the MetaFilter community have been vitriolic in their criticism of Mr. Karnofsky. But what he did is the equivalent of a police department trying to control a political protest by planting undercover agents who act and speak as protesters. It’s unsurprising that his attempt to control the mob by subterfuge has resulted in mob justice being visited upon him. Given the cravenly trust-breaching nature of his offenses in a philanthropic context I think he should count himself lucky that he’s only being exposed to virtual mob justice.

• Sorry, but when you divert money from people who can really use it simply to pay these privileged con artist huge salaries for nothing more than granting their approval,

They thought they were gonna set themselves up as some sort of good housekeeping seal of approval for existing charities without actually doing anything. And that is stealing. In a just society, they’d be tried and jailed; then publicly flogged and flushed out a sewer on the next outgoing tide.

• Marcel on January 2, 2008 at 2:48 am said:

I’m going to remain agnostic on the whole “con artist” thing.

The point, to me, is not the Holden is a crook, but that he’s really lousy at what he’s claiming to do.

While his backstory is perfect for media puff pieces, the fact that–despite those puff pieces–he’s sitting at home on New Year’s Eve, desperately trying to drum up business by pretending he’s someone else, proves that there’s a huge gap between the reality of GiveWell and its media representation.

• From the Deep Net on January 2, 2008 at 3:43 am said:

Speaking of the gap in reality between GiveWell and its media representation, I have never seen a vendor of penis enlargement devices use this technique to bash another vendor of penis enlargement devices. (To quote Marcel’s characterization of Holden’s actions.) So this approach might be able to make waves in other industries as well.

Tacky and lame yes but the most salient thing is that this is significantly and catastrophically unethical in a field where ethics and trust are of the utmost importance. The brazen contradiction between these actions and the purported principles of the organization is pretty eye-watering too.

• Holden on January 2, 2008 at 6:11 am said:

The Board is meeting about this as soon as we can. The exact date is still being set, but we are aiming for this week. We will decide on the appropriate action regarding my astroturfing then, and we will post our decision online along with the audio recording of the meeting.

After that, we will also go methodically through the Metafilter thread, noting valid questions and concerns about our project. We’ll add these to our FAQ. I don’t want to do that now, before we’ve made any official decisions about what might change in response to my inappropriate actions.

Before the above plays out, I feel that further conversation on this topic is unproductive. I’ve expressed this opinion to the Board, although a couple of them have chosen to engage in conversation anyway.

Regarding the blog comment policy, we don’t currently have one, and need to come up with one. I’m in favor of everyone’s expressing their opinion; I’m against the practice of making comments on this issue on blog posts that have nothing to do with it. I will be deleting comments along those lines, but continuing to allow comments on this post (and, of course, relevant comments on other posts).

Due to the high volume of irrelevant comments coming through, I’ve disabled the comment-to-email functionality for now.

• Holeden on January 2, 2008 at 7:05 am said:

A whopping 5 out of 10 penis-pump salesmen agree my methodology, which involves patented supplements and some number of visits to proprietary secret gloryholes, can make you ramrod 20% bigger than that asshole xxkjikkV*I*A***’s stuff.

We’re talking cooking the books here folks. Holden and Elie swear by the junk.

The stuff I’ve got for you weener is like ‘roids for your scrotum.

Just leave 6 installments of \$19.95 behind the dumpster on FireThisFuckAlready Avenue, and I will ship the potion and map to the charity of your choice.

This is post-9/11. You need a wide stance.

Don’t buy another’s. Get you cock pumped only at uGiveWell.net (a charitable organization not officially associated with givewell.net).

• Tim Wheaton on January 2, 2008 at 2:13 pm said:

Wow. I can’t believe how vicious people are. Holden made a mistake and apologized for it. I frankly find the way people are responding to all this more offensive than what Holden did in the first place. Give the man a break.

• Josh Millard on January 2, 2008 at 3:55 pm said:

Give the man a break.

There are some folks who have in fact been vicious. I don’t much like that — and I particularly don’t like that it’s happening in the Metatalk thread where this came to light.

However, there are a lot of people who have been involved in this discussion who have not been at all viscious. Harsh in some cases, but fair and civil for all that.

This is not an issue of someone forgetting to pick up milk on the way home from the store. That long-term, purposeful deceptive promotion of this organization and slagging of other charity services — more involved by far, too, than what Holden apologized for in the text of this post, as it turns out — can even be considered something one should “give him a break” about is shocking and depressing.

• Jeffrey B. on January 2, 2008 at 4:07 pm said:

Holden: *Now* do you think there’s something substantive in the criticism made of you, by the “millions,” that you are naive? Do you get it now? Mature people stop and listen, and question themselves. They don’t just barrel ahead no matter what kind of feedback they are getting.

• Caledonian on January 2, 2008 at 8:22 pm said:

“Transparency. Measurement. Humility.”

That’s some pig! Ha!

• webchecker on January 2, 2008 at 9:39 pm said:

Holden made a mistake and apologized for it.

“I was tired”? I get tired every night about 11 o’clock. Strangely, my sense of ethics doesn’t immediately fly out the window. Perhaps someone with such a debilitating condition shouldn’t be in such a position of trust?

I frankly find the way people are responding to all this more offensive than what Holden did in the first place.

People’s outrage about, if not first profiting off of, contributing to a climate of suspicion toward charities, both by his deceptions and by direct criticism online, is more troubling to you than the behaviour that spawned those comments? Thank you for providing us with a clear measure of your values. Perhaps a chair on the board is in order?

• Reader on January 2, 2008 at 9:48 pm said:

Seems like a lot of comments are being edited out of here.

• SmarterReader on January 3, 2008 at 2:20 am said:

All of the people posting saying, “no no no, you see holden didnt just promote GiveWell, he said other charities were bad. BAD? what nerve to say a charity might be bad?” are really missing the point. The whole point of givewell is to figure out if charities are effective (because the point is to accomplish good things, not just feel good), and so quite naturally you might think this process would lead you to say that charities who take donations and dont accomplish good things with those donations despite their good intentions would be yes, bad. same applies to charity navigator. if its not a good way to pick a charity based on the arguments holden is making, why are all of you freaking out that he said so. sure he should have disclosed his bias when he did so, but that doesnt change the quality of the arguments holden has made on these blogs, which no one seems to want to engage with.

• From the Deep Net on January 3, 2008 at 3:03 am said:

The reason why no one is talking about the arguments Holden made is that the charge is that he behaved in an unethical and deceptive manner, not that his sockpuppets would have been saying anything objectionable were they known to be sockpuppets. You can engage in fraud while speaking truth in every word. That’s the Devil’s specialty in fact.

• Todd Morman on January 3, 2008 at 3:10 am said:

SmarterReader, the Metatalk thread contains many detailed, thoughtful critiques of GiveWell’s business model and methodology, most from folks in the industry. Many folks there have engaged directly with those issues. Search the page for “posted by Miko” to start; she’s been very active and honest in examining GiveWell’s approach head-on. See especially her comments here, here, here and here.

Other Metafilter members have offered similarly thoughtful and detailed critiques; the astroturfing is just part of the story, and the Metafilter thread has certainly offered more detailed analysis of what GiveWell’s up to than, say, that recent NYT puff piece. Holden himself has said the GiveWell board will be looking carefully at the criticisms, sifting them out of that long, messy thread. But don’t kid yourself – the thoughtful engagement is there.

• holden cox on January 3, 2008 at 8:36 am said:

well on the plus side this joker will never work at an HF or PE again.

• Jeffrey B. on January 3, 2008 at 9:39 am said:

Can anyone be so sure that he voluntarily left his previous employment?

• Jason Rotenberg on January 3, 2008 at 11:33 am said:

“Can anyone be so sure that he voluntarily left his previous employment?”

The answer to this is yes. I worked closely with Holden. Almost all if not all of the initial capital he of the capital he raised were for people that worked with him. 2/3 biggest donations were his direct suppervisors. He announced he was leaving and stuck around another 3-6 months to finish what he was working on and to pass on his ideas on how to make some parts of the company better. While I am in no position to say so (I don’t make hiring decisions), and would need to understand better what happened here, I would lay good odds that he could have his job back if wanted it. As is evidenced by his work on givewell (which is publically available), he is the real deal in terms of ability. Over time his earning potential where he was high.

While I and others made significant donations, the biggest donation by far was Holden’s (and Ellie). He did sacrifice the vast majority of his salary. And he did it because he believes in his own project and thinks that he can make giving more effective. He and Ellie are Givewell.

As to what is happening now, I have not read all the stuff carefully (don’t have the time, but will talk to the board memebers once they do). I have full faith in the members of the board to deal with it well (two are co-workers, and if I had to choose two people to be on any board of something I cared about they would be in). But on skimming this stuff, do I question Holden’s character? No. Admitedly, I have a lot more information than most (I know him well). But the fact that he did do what he said (i.e. sacrifice 150-200K in income at an age where he has not had the opportunity yet to accumulate wealth), it is certainly true. Am I shocked that this episode happened? Surprised, yes. Shocked no. I’ve seen Holden do a lot of things on the spur of the moment, and he himself has admited that this is an issue at times and that he has and is working on it (i.e. first reaction is more spontaneous/emotional). He then is able to step back and get arive at a well balanced and common sense judgement. Like anyone else having the feedback of Elie, board memembers and others is a huge deal. Unlike most people he actually listens, learns from his mistakes, and adjusts his views as necessary.

I am not in the board, and will not advocate any actions here (although some is obviously warranted). All I know is that it would be a huge shame is this indiscretion prevented him from accomplishing what he is trying to do. I have no reason not to believe that his motivations are what he says they are. Charity navigator allowed people to avoid giving money to outright frauds, and little else. That was a good thing. Holden is trying to make charities compete in terms of how effective they are in what they do, which is something that as an individual donor I had no ability to judge for myself. This is worth doing. No one was doing it as effectively as Holden was until now.

• Smartreader, a couple of things:

If givewell and Holden have serious critiques of other charities, then that’s all good, and they should make them in an upfront and transparent manner. If their research is so solid, then why did Holden feel he needed to post the barbs without disclosing his Givewell affiliation?

From his boingboing comments (you can see them here, he throws rocks at Heifer International (“Heifer is one of about 10 billion charities trying to help the developing world. Do you have any particular reason to believe they’re a standout?”, and a moment later posts “I know nothing about Heifer, or those awards (well, the Forbes one is the same kind of crap as Charity Navigator; the other two, who knows, though there’s probably more awards out there than there are charities).” In each post, he then plugs Givewell.

Honestly, for the founder of an organization that’s supposed to be dedicated to “transparency”, I really wonder why he thought he had to hide who he was and what he did; if he’s so proud of Givewell’s work, and so convinced that it’s doing a better job than other NPOs, then why not come out and say it? And if other NPOs are not doing a good job, then why not be specific in describing in what ways they’re failing? His slagging of the other organizations just comes off as sneering dismissal, not informed critique – especially when he admits that he doesn’t know anything about one of them. On what, then, is he basing his criticism?

There is a succinct timeline and set of relevant links at this wiki, which distills the good information from the metatalk thread and elsewhere.

• holden cox on January 3, 2008 at 12:04 pm said:

Just curious, how do you “not have the time” to read the 50 or so pertinent lines of text that would seemingly discredit this “real deal” that you would invest your money with? You just typed 4 paragraphs on an internet message board.

I would assume anyone that works with investments would want to thoroughly research accusations such as these, which are called a variety of internet names, but which distill to at best misleading the public and at worst fraud. Especially before staking money and in your case reputation on this boy.

• scalefree on January 3, 2008 at 12:08 pm said:

All of the people posting saying, “no no no, you see holden didnt just promote GiveWell, he said other charities were bad. BAD? what nerve to say a charity might be bad?” are really missing the point.

I fear it’s you who’re missing the point. The point is not that he badmouthed the competition, it’s that he lied about who he was while he badmouthed the competition (as did Elie). It may not be a big deal in the ethically refined realms of finance & charity but here on the Internet where all we are is our words, deceiving people about who you are is a grievous sin, one not quickly forgotten. I suspect the IRS will feel the same way when they inevitably reevaluate GiveWell’s 501(C)3 status after this fiasco reaches their ears.

• scalefree on January 3, 2008 at 12:20 pm said:

that doesnt change the quality of the arguments holden has made on these blogs, which no one seems to want to engage with.

From one of his contested posts, Holden’s insightful analysis of Heifer, International:

“I know nothing about Heifer, or those awards”

Yeah, it’s gonna be really hard to come up with a counterargument to that. Your boy’s a friggin’ genius, I can see why everybody’s so passionate to defend him.

• This makes it sound as if you used one of your own accounts or created a sockpuppet account, but what you admitted on MetaFilter is that you used another Givewell employee’s e-mail account to send out ten plugs. That goes far beyond hiding or not clearly indicating your identity, which are plenty unethical in themselves. It’s hijacking another person’s identity and reputation and forging her/his signature for your own nefarious purposes.

If this interpretation of Holden’s actions (from comment #17 on this thread) is correct, I find it at least equally disturbing as his repeated astroturfing.

For those who do not want to wade through the original (and now very long) Metafilter thread, I think Jessamyn’s comment is a good distillation of why Holden’s activities are troubling.

• Caledonian on January 3, 2008 at 2:10 pm said:

What bothers me most is not the astroturfing, the slandering of the competition, or use of another person’s identity for mailings.

It’s that these incidents will make it that much harder for anyone else to provide outside verification of charities’ actual worth.

• anonymous on January 3, 2008 at 3:14 pm said:

Jason Rotenberg says: Holden is trying to make charities compete in terms of how effective they are in what they do, which is something that as an individual donor I had no ability to judge for myself. This is worth doing. No one was doing it as effectively as Holden was until now.

You are clearly ignorant, as is your friend Holden, about the extent of performance measurement going on the charity world.

Performance measures exist, and significant donors are already pushing for more. Are they existing measurements good, all the data we need available, and there is no room for improvements in charitable endeavors? No. But GiveWell, with their uninformed approach and deceptive dealings, wasn’t going to change that at all.

• Josh Millard on January 3, 2008 at 3:49 pm said:

Any idea who this Ben (comments 6 and 7) is? That’s a fresh, unattributed plug, which wouldn’t seem like such a bad thing if it didn’t read like corporate PR.

• anonymous on January 3, 2008 at 3:56 pm said:

GiveWell: The Internet Spammer of Charities.

• Well, if worse comes to worst, he can always go back to the hedge-fund business.

So, please explain who you are, your connection to this fraud, and why it should matter.

I’m sorry, what? Who are YOU and what is YOUR connection to this fraud? One anonymous poster disagrees with you and you’re ready to prosecute? Argued much, Jeff? Why do my words have any less merit? Because I’m not willing to post my personal address and email in a public forum? Come on now.

In a just society, they’d be tried and jailed; then publicly flogged and flushed out a sewer on the next outgoing tide.

Hyperbole much?

Do you always threaten to prosecute those who disagree with you?

I don’t disagree with your anger at Holden or his deceptive methods. I do disagree with your impulsively unstable and frenzied approach. You’re either part of the problem, or part of the solution.

• Don’t let the bozos grind you down!

You made some controversial comments in the internet without identifying yourself. Big deal!

You apologized so let’s now move on and focus on more important things than this stupid disucssion!

• Holden does not speak politely, which turns a lot of people against him, and did a deceptive act (possibly more than once), but he did this to increase exposure for his cause that he cares deeply about, which is to make charities more effective.

I think it’s a good cause to fight for, better than many other things people work on, and he might be able to add to it and make a difference.

Holden made a mistake, but he is human like everyone, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t made a mistake. It’s a terrible mistake for him to spread the word about the site without identifying himself, especially among charities where trust is most important, but I don’t think that this alone should characterize Holden as dishonest in all respects and should render all of his work worthless.

I think Holden will be penalized severely for this, both in terms of lost credibility and time that it will take him to rebuild some of his trust (although it can never be fully rebuilt.) He took full responsibility for his terrible act, which is a start, and I think we should give him a chance to show that from now on he works fairly, honestly and does all he can to accomplish his mission, which is a good one if it results in making charities more effective.

Also, Holden: It may help you to be less combative toward people who donate to less effective charities and toward charities that are less effective, b/c it’s better for them to do a small good than to not do any good at all. By bickering you may be turning people away from giving to anyone, while a polite conversation on how to improve charities and understanding that we’re all working toward the same goal: to help others, would help charities in general, keep conversations more civil and your ideas (you have a lot of good ones) would be listened to by more charities. Also, donors who agree with your ideas will still look at your research and likely donate to charities you found to be most effective.

• It appears that “Basti” is doing a bit of PR work for Holden… He also minimizes the whole thing over on Lucy’s Blog..

Basti, who are you my friend??

For the record, Holden has done little “research”, those other charities you mention are not “less effective”

Good ideas? Name one.

He made a mistake, admitted it, apologized, and asked for a chance to improve. I think he deserves one. Even people who accidentally kill someone are given 2nd chances and aren’t crossed off automatically.

For the record, Holden has done little “research”, those other charities you mention are not “less effective”
I think he and others spent a lot of time trying to figure out which charity saves the most lives per dollar, which one helps people in inner cities most, and he’s willing to show his reasoning and engage in conversations with everyone on his work. It would take me too much time to do this, while working, and I believe that what he found will help my donation help more people.

Good ideas? Name one.
For example facilitate a discussion about what it means to help best inner-city people, what it means for a charity to be most effective, get information on charities that’s not always available, compare charities, put it all in 1 place. Probably most of it can be found on different message boards / websites, and could be found if someone looked long enough, but would be difficult to find and time consuming, and this website made it easier.

Unfortunately I won’t be able to look at this board now b/c I have to work, but I’ll try to check back after work or tomorrow.

Have a good weekend everyone!

• Anonymous on January 4, 2008 at 11:15 am said:

I am casually familiar with the operations of, but unbiased about and unaffiliated with, one of the organizations GiveWell claims to have reviewed for operational efficiency. GiveWell’s published review of that organization consists of: a narrative by someone unqualified to judge the international operations and somewhat controversial medical approach central to that charity, the grant application response, and republishing the organizations existing documentation which is available elsewhere.

However, what I find most telling is that said charity has an annual budget around 29 million dollars and operations in at least 6 countries. The CEO of that organization, an active participant with over 20 years of non-profit experience and extensive subject area training, has a smaller salary than either Mr Karnofsky or Mr Hassenfeld.

For someone seeking to guarantee my donation is well used, I fail to see anything uniquely valuable in the analysis of operational efficiency on GiveWell.net. Considering Givewell & ClearFund’s own notable inefficiency, it is no surprise that they are unable to review other organizations for operational efficiency.

I hope the board will address how GiveWell intends to carry out its mission of judging operational efficiency without subject area expertise. That is a key issue to determining whether there is a future for GiveWell and Clear Fund as currently constituted.

• Josh Millard on January 4, 2008 at 11:30 am said:

Even people who accidentally kill someone are given 2nd chances and aren’t crossed off automatically.

Absolutely. And I’d say anyone writing off Holden as a human being or someone genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of helping people is being unfair.

On the other hand, where Holden’s actions have been a heck of a lot less violent than manslaughter, they’ve also been a heck of a lot less unintentional.

And the question of second chances is answered a lot differently in terms of basic human compassion (can he be forgiven?) vs. responsible program leadership (is this who should be running this organization?)

Asking that he be forgiven is reasonable, on a personal level, but I’d say it’s irresponsible to not be damned clear when you do it whether you think that a personal desire for forgiveness extends somehow to excusing a major ethical breach from someone helming a charitable organization in principle devoted, loudly, to that very ethical standard.

• Even people who accidentally kill someone are given 2nd chances and aren’t crossed off automatically.

This is a wildly inappropriate analogy. What Holden did was not accidental, for one thing, and he hasn’t really apologized for anything except astroturfing. Read the metafilter thread (or at least the Metafilter wiki entry).

To compare this pattern of behavior with the death of a person trivializes both killing and Holden’s behavior. “Nobody died, what’s the big deal?” doesn’t help the situation at all, especially when the issue behind the issue is that his actions have hurt the cause of charity. Think about that.

• Holden,

I was to see such a thread, but you did good in owning up to this. Lesson learned.

I am still curious to see what research and impact GiveWell has in the coming year. Happy New Year and good luck.

-Alan.

• sorry. that should have read “I was surprised to see such a thread”.
-Alan.

• Jonathan on January 4, 2008 at 5:47 pm said:

Somewhat ironic that Holden did the astroturfing not 24 hours before the European Unfair Commercial Practices Directive comes into force here in the UK. As of the 31 of December 31, 2006, Holden’s actions would be illegal here and he would be facing a very large fine or possibly even a jail sentence.

Personally, I think Holden must resign, and every day he remains as CEO makes the board of GiveWell look worse.

• Tom G: Even people who accidentally kill someone are given 2nd chances and aren’t crossed off automatically.

Perhaps by the legal system, but not always by the Public At Large. I’d suggest that you look into the effects and uncertainties that such a hypothetical conviction – or even much lesser ones – can have on the guilty party in terms of job opportunities and housing, before you try minimizing the effects of Holden and Elie’s actions. Ditto Basti.

• From the Deep Net on January 4, 2008 at 8:57 pm said:

Even people who accidentally kill someone are given 2nd chances and aren’t crossed off automatically.

EH had the best response to this. But if you really insist on the analogy this is like the director of OSHA accidentally killing someone during the demonstration of how to use a new safety ladder she insisted was better and safer than all the existing ladders. On Christmas. After repeatedly bashing the manufacturers of the existing ladders for making crappy ladders. In disguise. At cocktail parties.

• @ Bob
I’m not affilated with Givewell, Holden or Elie at all. Coming from Germany I recently stumpled about their blog by chance and really liked what and how they are doing things.

Regarding this debate I just don’t get it. Holden made some controversial (but interesting) comments while hiding his real identity. That was neither cool nor smart, but he publicly apologized and even invited others to comment on this. If he would have told outrages lies or insulted someone really badly and personally it would be a different thing, but as far as I know, he didn’t.

Would you really get fired from your current position if you would make some comments in the internet without totally identifying youself?

• Would you really get fired from your current position if you would make some comments in the internet without totally identifying youself?

You’re kidding, right? Or did you somehow completely miss 90% of the back-story here?

• “I don’t know what I’m talking about, but…”

• Josh Millard on January 5, 2008 at 12:55 pm said:

Would you really get fired from your current position if you would make some comments in the internet without totally identifying youself?

If I were caught by the corporate employer doing what Holden had done, I’d be out on my ass like that, yes.

• From the Deep Net on January 5, 2008 at 4:15 pm said:

I think that one of the aspects of this that some are missing is that it’s being regarded as an action of the same severity as if Holden had made some anonymous self-promoting comments on the internet in his private life. But there’s a major and material difference: there are lots of things that would be perfectly okay or unremarkable if done in private life that have drastically different ethical significance if done in the name of the company, particularly when done in the name of the company by an officer of the company.

• Basti… Yes

You can bet your paycheck that! If I, as the ED of a NPO, lied on the net, bashed other organizations, and attempted to manipulate donors as Holden did, my Board would show me the door.

This doesn’t even speak to the impulsive, poor judgement that would indicate that I should NOT be the ED of an organization…

• Interesting… but I still don’t get it. Making controversial statment about other organizations is kind of necessary in order to justify Givewwell in the first place. If Charitynavigator and all the others were doing a perfect job, why leave Wallstreet? “Manipulating” donors is of cause a dumb idea, but doing so with a very few comments on the internet and without telling any lies about the organization itself it should be forgiveable. Was their any factual lying besides not using the real name and pointing out the connection to Givewell?

Anyhow, let’s wait till the board meeting. I’m very interested what they have to say and if the comments on this blog are really representative.

• Tushar on January 6, 2008 at 10:24 am said:

I don’t necessarily view the comments as “bashing other charities” even if the wording was harsh. I think people are constructing that view based on the fact that Holden (and presumably others at Give Well) feels strongly about how much better they think they can make the world of philanthropy.

After reading the MeFi thread, I was also surprised at the comments that seemed to pick on the members’ lack of experience to imply that the status quo is the best way to operate.

I’m curious as to whether MeFites (?) know of any other charity / foundation is as active in engaging / transparent with its donors as Give Well; I agree that what Holden did is wrong, but don’t dismiss the cause without investigating its merits.

For full disclosure, I overlapped approximately one month with Holden at his prior firm. I didn’t work directly with him, but I spoke to him about Give Well a bit and still believe in his passion / belief to execute well in this cause.

• Josh Millard on January 6, 2008 at 11:55 am said:

Interesting… but I still don’t get it. Making controversial statment about other organizations is kind of necessary in order to justify Givewwell in the first place.

I don’t think anyone would have been surprised if Holden had approach the problem solely through posts on, say, this blog. An argument like “Why I believe we’re doing x better than CharityNavigator” as a post here, where it is unambiguously an official voice of of the firm speaking in an official capacity, would be bog-standard Company Blog stuff.

What differs here is how he elected to make that sort of argument, choosing at times to take some or all of the following paths:

– Posting in comments of other blogs without explicit acknowledgment of his position;
– Posting in the tone of a third party rather than a Givewell principal
– Setting up false dialogues between multiple voices to buffet pro-Givewell sentiment
– Attacking other organizations in reaction to positive comments from other posters

Any one of those would be questionable behavior from someone acting as the ED of an organization dedicated to transparency. The mixing-and-matching he did is worse, and in part it’s the sum of so many different and varied bad decisions over the period of a couple of weeks that, I think, has people wondering what this guy is doing in a leadership position.

It’s frustrating, as I’ve seen a few other people note in the various blog discussions about this, to see this mitigated because it All He Did was “make some comments in the internet without totally identifying” himself. If this had occurred in print, or over the phone, or at a propped up “third party” press conference, consider what the reaction would be — and then consider why, exactly, “the internet” gets a pass?

The web is not an ethics-free playground, as much as Holden and a lot of his defenders seem to have mistaken it for one in the last month.

• Robot Spammer on January 6, 2008 at 7:12 pm said:

https://blog.givewell.org/?p=90

An open letter to crybabies
By Holden

….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.

Best,
Holden

• Erich Riesenberg on January 7, 2008 at 2:13 pm said:

Holden is one of the most shrill and condescending commentors in the nonprofit sector. It was confusing to me why he got such positive attention, and it is confusing why people bother come to his defense now, when he has done little but blindly criticize others and publish superficial, spreadsheet analyses of a few charities.

• Erich Riesenberg on January 7, 2008 at 2:25 pm said:

Holden writes this: I hope you can recognize that the best thing I can do is admit it immediately, apologize, and not try to hide anything.

While the Board writes this: We would like to make clear that the actions that Holden took to conceal his identity were improper and indefensible, as were his attempts to ameliorate the situation by offering a financial contribution.

An outside news article (which had recently interviewed Holden in a positive manner) explains: He also offered to make a contribution to Metafilter to compensate for his mistake – an offer that was derided by Metafilter contributors as a bribe. http://philanthropy.com/news/updates/index.php?id=3715

It is sad Holden can’t even acknowledge what he did. He claims he admitted it “immediately” yet the news article and his own Board speculate on his attempt to make a financial contribution to make the story go away. His history of rude, insulting, ignorant comments should not be ignored.

• Jeffrey B. on January 7, 2008 at 2:27 pm said:

I think people paid so much attention to him, especially the media, because he worked at a hedge fund, and hedge funds are the sensational sexy news right now.

It seems to me that his personal problem is that he is extraordinarily unsavvy about interpersonal interaction, possibly because he’s been able to succeed without outgrowing the profound naivety of youth. I have not seen any evidence on this blog, at least, that he quite grasps the meaning of the feedback people give him about this developmental lag. Perhaps he is especially defended against new information, for some reason. At any rate, this was bound to happen at some point, given his aggressiveness coupled with extreme naivety. Who knows how he got that way.

That’s what I think, anyway.

• jfundraiser on January 7, 2008 at 2:55 pm said:

That this happened and will happen to others is not at all surprising. Don’t know Holden, and I don’t want to judge him. But I do know that the “new” web apps has created a slew of arrogant, incompetant, and naive “experts”. Everyone has a stage on the web and everyone is taking their 15 minutes. Just because they get a 501(c)(3) and create a web presence doesn’t mean they have the capacity to truly affect change for the better. It is getting very difficult to tell who’s legit and who’s blowing steam. I was turned on to GiveWell about three weeks ago. They seemed legit, talked good, looked good. I guess the old addage “if it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it must be a duck” no longer applies. How sad. How confusing.

• Jeffrey B. on January 7, 2008 at 3:06 pm said:

No, I think the whole project smelled of arrogant ineptitude from the outset.

• Robert Goodfly on January 8, 2008 at 12:04 pm said:

Holden can’t really still be on the payroll. Tell me you’re kidding

• Crystal on January 11, 2008 at 7:05 pm said:

He is still on the payroll because it’s his hedge fund pals that are donating to Clear Fund. No more Holden = no more of Holden’s hedge fund pals to donate money = no money to give away = charity ceases to exist….which in my opinion is exactly what should happen. It’s been said many times in the previous posts already, but 50% overhead and whopping dose of youthful arrogance does not make for a “revolution” in the world of philanthropic effectiveness.

• Frances Chen on January 12, 2008 at 5:18 pm said:

Everyone has made poor decisions in their lives, and Holden is no different in that regard. These particular decisions had good intentions behind them. Holden is making a uniquely positive impact on society through his devotion to Givewell, and should be respected for that.

• hesslei on October 19, 2008 at 10:25 pm said:

I can’t help but think that Holden would have been less likely to have made this mistake had he taken our conversations about the pitfalls of leaning to hard on the business and market metaphors. I wonder just how much is lapse of judgment as opposed to faulty thinking. Working in a competitive mode to launch the organization, and get the message out there.

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hesslei….