I confess to having a schizophrenic reaction to Holden Karnofsky's Give Well website and blog.

Karnofsky is a 26-year-old hedge fund expatriot who decided he wanted to give away some money (his own and some friends), but had serious problems with what he saw as the lack of credible metrics on the program accomplishments of charities.

So for about a year now, Holden and his associate, Elie Hassenfeld, have been researching the strategies, progress claims and program evaluation methodologies of hundreds of nonprofits involved in their targeted issue areas (e.g., saving lives in Africa, K-12 education in NYC).

Often their conclusions boil down to one spin or another on … “the emperor has no clothes.” Far more often than not, Holden concludes that the nonprofits he studies are pursuing unchallenged strategies with little rigorous, systematic examination of actual outcomes. Nonprofits simply persist with their chosen strategies because that's what they know how to do.

I've been fascinated to watch Give Well's investigation unfold … and to see my own reaction to it.

On the one hand, Give Well's audacity is breath-taking. Here's, arguably, a 26-year-old punk, who doesn't know what he doesn't know, telling legions of veteran do-gooders that they are possibly, indeed probably, wasting their time and their donors' money!

For example, his examination of 107 nonprofits working in the “Saving Lives” area yields a “cost per life saved” measure that would warm the heart of any zealous cost-benefit analyst. Others would find it naive or chilling.

He asks Give Well's grant applicants to jump through hoops of strategy and program justification that most nonprofits — doing their own cost-benefit analysis — wouldn't attempt for a half-million dollar grant, let alone the modest amount (they mention $140,000) they plan to allocate across their chosen few. Frankly, I'm astonished that his applicants have gone to the trouble.

On the other hand, Karnofsky is truly putting to shame much larger foundations and major donors who haven't shown any remotely proportionate determination to ask probing questions about the efficacy of the groups they support. Or to share the answers when they do ask.

If, hypothetically, your typical major funder devotes 1 erg of rigorous results analysis per dollar given away, I'd speculate that Give Well devotes 1000 ergs for each $1 it gives away?

I suspect that a group that does put itself through the “Karnofsky wringer” will find that its own thinking has been sharpened. They will have been asked to answer tough questions, justify their core assumptions, and document real outcomes … perhaps for the first time in a long time.

To the sheer level and rigor of their effort, add the fact that Give Well's analysis is totally transparent … it's all published online for any donor (or offended nonprofit) to examine, incorporate, improve upon or rebut. Another reason for so many other funders to be shamed.

So how to I resolve my schizophrenia about Give Well?

I look forward to their work maturing and becoming richer with time and 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 I can to monitor their efforts.

Give Well, just by virtue of its approach — its relentless and public search for strategies with documentable outcomes — is providing the philanthropic community with a terrific model.

Moreover, if you are a donor active in one of Give Well's issue areas of focus, you can find already a treasure trove of useful analyses and comparisons of alternative strategies and program effectiveness to inform your giving. Some of their specific conclusions and occasional tone might alarm you, but usually they've staked out a case that warrants consideration.

If Give Well sticks at it, they'll make a huge contribution. Not so much via their own direct giving, but rather through their provocation and the public sharing of their analyses, successes and failures (and I'm confident that if Give Well becomes dissatisfied with one of their charitable investments, we'll hear about it!).

And if Holden Karnofsky, in particular, sticks at it, maybe he'll become the Warren Buffett of savvy philanthropic investing, with all of us looking forward to his annual shareholders meeting and letter!

Holden, you deserve a raise!


P.S. Holden will be the guest for the Chronicle of Philanthropy's online chat on Tuesday the 11th. Be there!

P.P.S. And don't forget to take our quick “Bait & Switch?” poll on email fundraising tactics here.

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