GiveWell in turmoil after ‘horrible lapse of judgement’ by founders

A charity evaluation agency founded by two former hedge fund analysts is creating something of a stir in the world of US philanthropy, not always for the reasons it would wish. Founded by two hedge fund analysts, Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, GiveWell has been attracting attention both in the charity world and in the media for some time.
This is in part because of Karnofsky’s bruising assessments of charities and foundations. One target for the rough side of his tongue was Charity Navigator (a website that rates charities based on their tax forms), on which Karnofsky is quoted as saying, ‘I could show you how to get a four-star rating without doing anything charitable at all.’ The rather rueful response of Trent Stamp, president of Charity Navigator, was, ‘I’m not sure why they feel the need to tear down those who are also attempting to help donors, nor why they need to tell donors who use those services that they’re stupid.’ GiveWell was featured in the 20 December edition of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and its founders appeared on the same day on a CNBC TV programme.
Latterly, however, their media appearances have had a rather different colouring. Early in January, the board removed Holden Karnofsky as its executive director and board secretary after he was caught using online aliases to promote GiveWell. On an online message board, Metafilter, Karnofsky asked in one message for ideas on how to choose a charity to support and then ‘answered’ as another writer by touting GiveWell’s evaluations of non-profit groups. Metafilter members found other examples of Karnofsky’s praising GiveWell anonymously, and instances where he criticized other non-profit groups. He apologized for what he called a ‘horrible lapse of judgement’.
Barely a week had elapsed, however, before it was reported in the New York Times that the GiveWell board had disciplined the other founding partner, Elie Hassenfeld, after he had admitted a similar deception. Karnofsky will now serve as a programme officer. He will be obliged to undergo a professional training programme, the board said, and must pay a fine of an undisclosed amount. Hassenfeld has been fined $5,000 but will retain his position as programme officer.
New York Times, 20 December 2007, 15 January 2008
Chronicle of Philanthropy, 7 January 2008
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