I screwed up bigtime.

This is probably how Holden Karnofsky, prime mover of the Give Well blog is feeling today.

For a couple of weeks in December, HK was the darling of mainstream media coverage of philanthropy. A brash young hedge fund manager, turned instant philanthropy savant, prodding establishment philanthropies on issues like transparency and penetrating empirical evaluation of grant impacts. Featured breathlessly by the Chronicle, the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC and several others.

He should have ended the year on a high. But he over-reached, and tried to manipulate the blog world, as he confesses in this sort-of “mea culpa” post on his own blog. He was “outed” for fraudulent self-promotion by readers of the blog MetaFilter, as you can read here. Holden Karnofsky has seriously damaged the credibility of the Give Well blog. [It will be interesting to see if any MSM follow-up on his transgression.]

Having given Holden an Agitator raise in my post of December 10, titled Who Wants Holden Karnofsky's Money?, here's my take on the sad affair.

As I originally said, I've felt schizophrenic about HK and GiveWell. On the one hand, I called him breathtakingly audacious, a punk. On the other, I applauded Give Well's philosophic orientation, analytic rigor and transparency of thinking.

My ambivalence continues today!

The evidence suggests that HK is an immature, under-informed, smart-ass. There's no excuse for his attempt to generate fake interest in his blog. A lot of folks in the philanthropy world will be grinning at this turn of the screw.

But as a provocateur, he is indeed asking the right questions. All centered at the end of the day (ironically, considering his blogging mis-capades) on the issue of accountability.

  • For funders, how carefully have they really vetted the recipients of their benevolence … do they really know what's working and what's not … and why aren't they transparent about their evaluation and decision processes, so as to benefit everyone trying to accomplish good?
  • For nonprofits, how well can they document that their strategies and programs are actually effective? Not just in process terms, but in terms of truly delivering the results they claim to be pursuing.

These are legitmate questions. To be sure, HK didn't invent them. But damn if he hasn't pushed them in everyone's face over the last year. For which he deserves some credit.

So today I'm deeply disappointed that HK couldn't be content with his considerable fame lately in the mainstream media. He's dug himself a deep credibility hole that will be tough to climb out of. He'll need to work overtime prove his integrity.

But I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I'll stand by my conclusion of December 10 regarding Give Well, with one qualifier about HK:

“I look forward to their work maturing and becoming richer with hands-on experience. Until then, I can live with what I perceive as the occasional intellectual misdemeanor or sensitivity lapse. And I'll urge everyone to monitor their efforts.”

The qualifier?

Thanks to the folks at MetaFilter, we know that, for now, we can't look at HK quite the same way. He's tarnished his reputation, even for those of us who are receptive to his message. One really bad judgement like this — not just a “lapse,” but a deliberate deception — we might tolerate (some of us, anyway … see below); but another episode like this and he's toast.


P.S. Most of HK's critics on MetaFilter are anonymous … and you know how The Agitator feels about anonymity (it sucks)! As is usually case, anonymous critics can get rather vitriolic and righteous. There's no shortage of venom in this MetaFilter outing. And almost no evidence that most of the critics have read any of Give Well's material. Which doesn't stop them from imputing all sorts of sins to HK. Let me be clear … there's no defense for HK's deceptions. But it's unfortunate that one needs to read through so much bile to get to the facts.

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