This page logs mistakes we've made, ways in which our organization has failed or currently fails to live up to our values, and lessons we've learned. As of August 28, 2015, this page focuses on issues that could affect the impression that people external to the organization have of our work and its reliability. We don't list missteps whose main cost was to our productivity or our growth. (This page as it stood prior to August 28, 2015 is available here.)
A full review of progress to date – both accomplishments and shortcomings – is available here.
Please contact us with other items that should be listed here.
- Major issues
- December 2007: Overaggressive and inappropriate marketing
- 2009 to 2012: Errors in publishing private material
- December 2011: Miscommunicating to donors about fees and the deductibility of donations to our top charity
- Ongoing: diversity
- 2006 to 2011: Tone issues
- July 2009 to November 2010: Quantitative charity ratings that confused rather than clarified our stances
- June 2007: Poorly constructed "causes" led to suboptimal grant allocation
- Smaller issues
- December 2014: Errors in our cost-effectiveness analysis of Development Media International (DMI)
- November to December 2014: Lack of confidence in the cost-effectiveness analyses we relied on for our top charities recommendations
- January to December 2014: Completed fewer intervention reports than projected
- November 2014: Suboptimal grant recommendation to Good Ventures
- November 2014: Not informing candidate charities of our recommendation structure prior to publishing recommendations
- July 2014: Published an update to the intervention report on cash transfers that misstated our view
- February 2014: Incorrect information on homepage
- January to November 2013: Social (non-family, non-financial) relationship between GiveWell staff members and staff of a recommended charity not publicly disclosed
- February to September 2013: Infrequent updates on our top-ranked charity
- May to June 2013: Unpublished website pages intermittently available publicly
- April to December 2012: Taking too much of job applicants' time early in the recruiting process
- March to November 2012: Poor planning led to delayed 2012 charity recommendations release
- June 2012: Failure to discuss sensitive public communication with board member
- July 2007 to March 2012: Phone call issues
- December 2011: Poor communication to donors making larger donations (e.g., greater than $5,000) via the GiveWell website
- December 2011: Problems caused by GiveWell's limited control over the process for donating to our top charities
- Late 2009: Misinterpreted a key piece of information about a charity to which we gave a $125,000 grant
- August 1, 2009 to December 31, 2009: Grant process insufficiently clear with applicants about our plans to publish materials
- November 25, 2009: Mishandling incentives to share information
- May 2009: Failed to remove two private references from a recording that we published
- January to September 2008: Paying insufficient attention to professional development and support
December 2007: Overaggressive and inappropriate marketing
How we fell short: As part of an effort to gain publicity, GiveWell's staff (Holden and Elie) posted comments on many blogs that did not give adequate disclosure of our identities (though we did use our real first names); in a smaller number of cases, we posted comments and sent emails that deliberately concealed our identities. Our actions were wrong and rightly damaged GiveWell's reputation. More detail is available via the page for the board meeting that we held in response.
Given the nature of our work, it is essential that we hold ourselves to the highest standards of transparency in everything we do. Our poor judgment caused many people who had not previously encountered GiveWell to become extremely hostile to it.
Steps we have taken to improve: We issued a full public disclosure and apology, and directly notified all existing GiveWell donors of the incident. We held a Board meeting and handed out penalties that were publicly disclosed, along with the audio of the meeting. We increased the Board's degree of oversight over staff, particularly with regard to public communications.
2009 to 2012: Errors in publishing private material
How we fell short: There were two issues, one larger and one smaller:
- Since 2009, we've made a practice of publishing notes from conversations with charities and other relevant parties. Our practice is to share the conversation notes we take with the other party before publication so that they can make changes to the text before publication. We only publish a version of the notes that the other party approves and will keep the entire conversation confidential if the party asks us to.
In November 2012, a staff member completed an audit of all conversations that we had published. He identified two instances where we had erroneously published the pre-publication (i.e., not-yet-approved) version of the notes. We have emailed both organizations to apologize and inform them of the information that we erroneously shared.
- In October 2012, we published a blog post titled, "Evaluating people." Though the final version of the post did not discuss specific people or organizations, a draft version of the post had done so. We erroneously published the draft version which discussed individuals. We recognized our error within 5 minutes of posting and replaced the post with the correct version; the draft post was available in Google's cache for several hours and was likely available to people who received the blog via RSS if they had their RSS reader open before we corrected our error (and did not refresh their reader).
We immediately emailed all of the organizations and people that we had mentioned to apologize and included the section we had written about them. Note that none of the information we published was confidential; we merely did not intend to publish this information and it had not been fully vetted by GiveWell staff and sent to the organizations for pre-publication comment.
Steps we've taken to improve: In November 2012, we instituted a new practice for publishing conversation notes. We now internally store both private and publishable versions of conversation notes in separate folders (we hope that this practice reduces the likelihood that we upload the wrong file) and have assigned a staff member to perform a weekly audit to check whether any confidential materials have been uploaded. As of this writing (December 2012) we have performed 3 audits and found no instances of publishing private material.
We take the issue of publishing private materials very seriously because parties that share private materials with us must have confidence that we will protect their privacy. We have therefore reexamined our procedures for uploading files to our website and are planning to institute a full scale audit of files that are currently public as well as an ongoing procedure to audit our uploads.
December 2011: Miscommunicating to donors about fees and the deductibility of donations to our top charity
How we fell short: Our top-rated charity in 2011 was the Against Malaria Foundation. We made two errors in the way we communicated to donors about the ramifications of donating to AMF.
- Fees: On our donate to AMF page, we told donors that "no fees are charged on donations to AMF." This was incorrect. Donors who give via AMF's website are charged normal credit card processing fees. We now understand that we miscommunicated with AMF on this issue; AMF did not intend to communicate that there are no processing fees and was unaware that we were communicating this on our site.
- Tax deductibility in Australia: On our top charities page that we published on November 29, 2011, we listed Australia as one of the countries for which donors could take tax deductions. We believed this was accurate because AMF listed Australia as one of the countries in which it is a registered charity. In early December, an Australian donor emailed us to let us know that while AMF is a registered charity and corporations can deduct donations to it, it does not have a status that allows individuals to deduct donations to it. (This issue is discussed in a 2012 blog post.) [November 2015 update: Gifts from individuals to AMF are now tax deductible in Australia. See this blog post for details.]
Steps we have taken to improve:
- Fees: We changed the language on our page to clarify that credit card fees are charged on donations via AMF's website. We also provided donors who wished to give for the support of AMF to give donations directly to GiveWell. Because GiveWell is enrolled in Google's Grants programs, Google pays credit card processing fees for donations. GiveWell then has the ability to regrant these funds to AMF.
- Tax deductibility in Australia: We took several actions. (1) We emailed Rob Mather, AMF's CEO. He agreed that the charity status page on AMF's website was misleading. AMF edited the page to clarify its status in Australia, and Rob Mather offered to refund any donations (or parts of donations) made by Australians relying on the fact that they could receive a tax deduction. (2) On our site, we removed Australia from the list of countries in which AMF is registered for individual-donor tax deductibility. (3) We emailed all Australian donors who had given to AMF (and had found AMF via GiveWell) since we had posted that donations to AMF are tax-deductible for Australians to let them know we had erred and we communicated Rob Mather's offer to refund donations. AMF is in the process of applying for tax deductible status for individuals and will inform us if and when that has been granted. AMF has also told us that the two donors that have asked for refunds have both said they will donate the same amount to AMF when the tax deductible status is in place.
How we fall short: Our staff is not as diverse as we would like it to be.
Steps we have taken to improve: we have continually strived for a diverse pipeline of candidates when hiring, and we intensified our focus on this issue in 2014. As of mid-2015, we have made significant progress but still feel we have significant room for improvement.
2006 to 2011: Tone issues
How we fell short: We continue to struggle with an appropriate tone on our blog, one that neither understates nor overstates our confidence in our views (particularly when it comes to charities that we do not recommend). A recent example of a problematic tone is our December 2009 blog post, Celebrated Charities that we Don't Recommend. Although it is literally true that we don't recommend any of the charities listed in that post, and although we stand by the content of each individual blog post linked, the summaries make it sound as though we are confident that these charities are not doing good work; in fact, it would be more accurate to say that the information we would need to be confident isn't available, and we therefore recommend that donors give elsewhere unless they have information we don't.
We wish to be explicit that we are forming best guesses based on limited information, and always open to changing our minds, but readers often misunderstand us and believe we have formed confident (and, in particular, negative) judgments. This leads to unnecessary hostility from, and unnecessary public relations problems for, the groups we discuss.
Steps we have taken to improve: We do feel that our tone has slowly become more cautious and accurate over time. At the time of this writing (July 2010), we are also resolving to run anything that might be perceived as negative by the group it discusses, before we publish it publicly, giving them a chance to make any corrections to both facts and tone. (We have done this since our inception for charity reviews, but now intend to do it for blog posts and any other public content as well.)
July 2009 to November 2010: Quantitative charity ratings that confused rather than clarified our stances
How we fell short: Between July 2009 and November 2010, we assigned zero- to three-star ratings to all charities we examined. We did so in response to feedback from our fans and followers - in particular, arguments that people want easily digested, unambiguous “bottom line” information that can help them make a decision in a hurry and with a clean conscience. Ultimately, however, we decided that the costs of the ratings - in terms of giving people the wrong impression about where we stood on particular charities - outweighed the benefits.
Steps we have taken to improve: By December 2010 we will replace our quantitative ratings with more complex and ambiguous bottom lines that link to our full reviews.
- September 2010 blog post on the problems with quantitative charity ratings
- October 2010 blog post on why these ratings don't fit with our mission
June 2007: Poorly constructed "causes" led to suboptimal grant allocation
How we fell short: For our first year of research, we grouped charities into causes ("Saving lives," "Global poverty," etc.) based on the idea that charities within one cause could be decided on by rough but consistent metrics: for example, we had planned to decide Cause 1 (saving lives in Africa) largely on the basis of estimating the “cost per life saved” for each applicant. The extremely disparate nature of different charities' activities meant that there were major limits to this type of analysis (we had anticipated some limits, but we encountered more).
Because of our commitment to make one grant per cause and our overly rigid and narrow definitions of "causes," we feel that we allocated our grant money suboptimally. For example, all Board members agreed that we had high confidence in two of our Cause 1 (saving lives) applicants, but very low confidence in all of our Cause 2 (global poverty) applicants. Yet we had to give equal size grants to the top applicant in each cause (and give nothing to the 2nd-place applicant in Cause 1).
Steps we have taken to improve: We have shifted our approach to "causes" so that they are defined more broadly. This gives us more flexibility to grant the organizations that appeal to us most. We now explore broad sets of charities that intersect in terms of the people they serve and the research needed to understand them, rather than narrower causes based on the goal of an “apples to apples” comparison using consistent metrics. For example, our recent research report addresses the broad area of international aid.
December 2014: Errors in our cost-effectiveness analysis of Development Media International (DMI)
How we fell short: In early 2015, we discovered some errors in our cost-effectiveness analysis of DMI. See this blog post for details.
Steps we have taken to improve: Going forward, we plan to improve the general transparency and clarity of our cost-effectiveness models, and explicitly prioritize work on cost-effectiveness throughout our research process. See this section of our 2015 annual review for more.
November to December 2014: Lack of confidence in the cost-effectiveness analyses we relied on for our top charities recommendations
How we fell short: We were not highly confident in our cost-effectiveness estimates when we announced our updated charity recommendations at the end of 2014, a fact we noted in the post, because we finalized our cost-effectiveness analyses later in the year than would have been ideal. See this part of our 2014 annual review for more detail.
Steps we have taken to improve: We plan to improve these analyses by reworking our cost-effectiveness models to improve the general transparency and clarity of the analyses and explicitly prioritizing work on cost-effectiveness throughout our research process.
We are also experimenting with more formal project management to increase the likelihood that we complete all tasks necessary for our year-end recommendations update at the appropriate time.
January to December 2014: Completed fewer intervention reports than projected
How we fell short: We published fewer intervention reports than we had planned to at the beginning of 2014. We completed two new intervention reports in 2014, but at the beginning of 2014, we wrote that we hoped to publish 9-14 new reports during the year. On reflection, our goal of publishing 9-14 intervention reports was arbitrary and unrealistic given the amount of time that it has typically taken us to complete intervention reports in the past. See this part of our 2014 annual review for more detail.
Steps we have taken to improve: We have learned more about how much work is involved in completing an intervention report and hope to make more realistic projections about how many we can complete in the future.
November 2014: Suboptimal grant recommendation to Good Ventures
How we fell short: In 2014, we erred in our recommendation to Good Ventures about its giving allocation to our top charities. We made this recommendation two weeks before we announced our recommendations publicly so that we could announce their grants as part of our top charities announcement. If we had fully completed our analysis before making a recommendation to Good Ventures, we likely would have recommended relatively more to AMF and relatively less to GiveDirectly. See this part of our 2014 annual review for more detail.
Steps we have taken to improve: In the end, we adjusted the public targets we announced based on the grants Good Ventures had committed to, so we don’t believe that donors gave suboptimally overall. In the future we expect to make — and announce — our recommendations to Good Ventures and the general public simultaneously.
November 2014: Not informing candidate charities of our recommendation structure prior to publishing recommendations
How we fell short: In our 2014 recommendation cycle, we did not alert our candidate charities of our "Standout Charity" second-tier rating prior to announcing our recommendations publicly. Some of our candidate charities were surprised when they saw their ranking as a "Standout Charity," as they had been assuming that they would either be recommended as a top charity or not recommended at all.
Steps we have taken to improve: We will be more cognizant of how we communicate with charities in the future and will continue to solicit feedback from them so we can identify any other ways in which our communication with them is suboptimal.
July 2014: Published an update to the intervention report on cash transfers that misstated our view
How we fell short: Elie assigned a relatively new Research Analyst to the task of updating the intervention report on cash transfers. The analyst made the specific updates asked for in the task, which led him to change the report’s conclusion on the effect of cash transfers on business expenditures and revenue. A Summer Research Analyst vetted the page, and we published it. After publishing the update, another GiveWell staff member, who had worked on the page previously, noticed that the report’s conclusion on business expenditures and revenue misstated our view.
Steps we have taken to improve: We have made two changes. First, when passing off ownership of a page from one staff member to another, we now involve all staff members who had previously owned the page via an explicit "hand-off" meeting, and by getting their approval before publishing the page. Second, we are now more careful to ensure that all changes made by relatively inexperienced staff are reviewed by more experienced staff before publication.
February 2014: Incorrect information on homepage
How we fell short: On February 4, 2014, we asked our website developer to make a change to the code that generates our homepage. In the process, he inadvertently copied the homepage content from November 2013. This content had two main differences with the up-to-date content. First, it described our top charities as “proven, cost-effective, underfunded and outstanding” rather than “evidence-backed, thoroughly vetted, and underfunded,” wording we changed in late-2013 because we felt it more accurately described our top charities. Second, it listed our top charities as AMF, GiveDirectly, and SCI, rather than GiveDIrectly, SCI, and Deworm the World. According to our web analytics, 98 people visited our AMF page directly after visiting the homepage, possibly believing AMF to be a top charity of ours. Note that the top of our AMF review correctly described our position on AMF at this time.
Steps we’ve taken to improve: We discovered the problem on February 25 and fixed it immediately. We have added a step to our standard process for checking the website after a developer works on it to look for content that is not up to date.
January to November 2013: Social (non-family, non-financial) relationship between GiveWell staff members and staff of a recommended charity not publicly disclosed
How we fell short: Timothy Telleen-Lawton (GiveWell staff member as of April 2013) has been friends with Paul Niehaus (GiveDirectly President and Director) for many years. When Timothy met Holden Karnofsky (GiveWell's Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director) in April 2011, he suggested that GiveWell look into GiveDirectly and introduced Holden and Paul by email. GiveWell later recommended GiveDirectly as a top charity in November 2012, before Timothy was on GiveWell staff.
Starting in January 2013, Holden started living in a shared house with Timothy, around the same time Timothy started a trial to work at GiveWell. Paul has visited and stayed at the shared house several times. We should have publicly disclosed the social connection between Paul and Holden and Tim.
Note that this mistake solely relates to information we should have publicly disclosed to avoid any appearance of impropriety. We do not believe that this relationship had any impact on our charity rankings. Tim was not the staff member responsible for the evaluation of GiveDirectly, and Holden has had relatively little interaction with Paul (and had relatively little interaction with Tim prior to moving to San Francisco in 2013).
Steps we have taken to improve: We publicly disclosed this fact in December 2013; at that time, we also created a page to disclose conflicts of interest.
February to September 2013: Infrequent updates on our top-ranked charity
How we fell short: We aimed to publish regular updates on the Against Malaria Foundation, but we went most of the year (February to September) without any updates. This was caused by our desire to publish comprehensive updates, and we allowed expectations of new information being available shortly to delay publishing brief updates that had meaningful but limited information.
Steps we have taken to improve: As of July 2013, we changed our process for completing top-charity updates. We began publishing notes from our conversations with these charities (as we do for many of the conversations we have more generally) which should lead to more timely updates on our top charities.
May to June 2013: Unpublished website pages intermittently available publicly
How we fell short: From May 20 to June 26, private content was intermittently available to the public on the GiveWell website. A change we made on May 20 caused pages set to be visible by staff only to appear, in some browsers, as a page with a login screen and below it, the unpublished content. Unpublished content includes both confidential information and incomplete research. Confidential information on unpublished pages is generally information that we expect to be able to publish, but which we have not yet received approval from an external party to publish. However, there are exceptions to this and it is possible that sensitive information was revealed. We are not aware of any cases of sensitive information being revealed.
Steps we have taken to improve: We fixed the problem a few hours after discovering it. We have added monitoring of unpublished pages to our list of regular website checks.
April to December 2012: Taking too much of job applicants' time early in the recruiting process
How we fell short: During this period, our jobs page invited applicants to apply for our research analyst role. We responded to every applicant by asking them to work on a "charity comparison assignment" in which each applicant compared three charities and discussed which charity they would support and why. This assignment took applicants between 6 and 10 hours to complete. During this period, approximately 50 applicants submitted the assignment, of which we interviewed approximately 8.
We now feel that asking all applicants to complete this test assignment likely took more of their time than was necessary at an early stage in the recruiting process and may have led some strong applicants to choose not to apply.
Steps we've taken to improve: We no longer ask all applicants to complete this assignment. In December 2012, we changed our jobs page to more clearly communicate about our hiring process.
March to November 2012: Poor planning led to delayed 2012 charity recommendations release
How we fell short: In early GiveWell years, we aimed to release updated recommendations by December 1st in order to post our recommendations before "giving season," the weeks at the end of the year when the vast majority of donations are made. In 2011, we released our recommendations in the last week of November, but then ran into problems related to donation processing. To alleviate those problems in the future, we planned to release our recommendations in 2012 by November 1st to give us sufficient time to deal with problems before the end of the year rush of giving.
In 2012, we did not release our recommendations until the last week of November (significantly missing our goal). We continued to publish research about the cost-effectiveness and evidence of effectiveness for the interventions run by our top charities throughout December, which meant that some donors were making their giving decisions before we had published all the relevant information. The primary cause of the delay was that we did not start work on GiveDirectly, the new 2012 top-rated charity until mid-September, which did not give us enough time to finish its full review by the November 1st deadline.
Steps we've taken to improve: In 2013, we again aim to release our recommendations by November 1. This year, we plan to explicitly consider possible top-rated charities on July 1st and move forward with any contenders at that point.
June 2012: Failure to discuss sensitive public communication with board member
How we fell short: In late June 2012, we published a blog post on the partnership between GiveWell and Good Ventures. We generally discuss sensitive public communication with a board member before we post, but failed to do so in this case. The post was not as clear as it should have been about the nature of GiveWell's relationship with Good Ventures. The post caused confusion among some in our audience; for example, we received questions about whether we had 'merged.'
Steps we've taken to improve: GiveWell staff will be more attentive in the future to sharing sensitive public information with the board member responsible for public communication before posting.
July 2007 to March 2012: Phone call issues
How we fell short: Throughout GiveWell's history, we have relied on Skype and staff's individual cell phones to make phone calls. This led to instances of poor call quality or dropped calls, but given the fact that GiveWell was a startup, those we spoke with generally understood. In addition, we had not always confirmed with call participants the phone number to use for a particular call or set up and send agendas for the call in advance. Earlier in GiveWell's history, participants likely understood that we were a very new, small organization just getting started and aiming to control costs. But, as we've grown this is no longer a reasonable justification, and both of the problems listed here may have had implications for the professionalism we've projected to those we've spoken with.
Steps we have taken to improve: We have continued to be more vigilant about confirming that all participants are aware of the number to use for scheduled calls. In March 2012, we set up dedicated lines and handsets for our calls.
December 2011: Poor communication to donors making larger donations (e.g., greater than $5,000) via the GiveWell website
How we fell short: In giving season 2011, there were 3 major issues which we communicated poorly about to donors:
- While Google covers credit card processing fees for charities enrolled in the Google Grants program (which includes GiveWell, itself, and many of our top charities), many charities are not enrolled and therefore donors who give to them via our website do pay credit card processing fees on their donations. While these fees are small in absolute terms for smaller donors, a 3% fee on a $10,000 donation is $300. Some donors may realize this and choose to give via credit card regardless. Some, however, may not have realized this and would have preferred to have mailed a check to save the fee.
- People making large donations very frequently run into problems with their credit card companies (due to the fact that they are spending so much more on a single item than they usually do). In our experience, about half of donations over $5,000 are declined the first time a donor tries to make the gift and are only cleared after he or she speaks with his card company. This creates confusion and unexpected hassle for donors trying to give to charity.
- Giving via appreciated stock has beneficial implications for donors allowing them to reduce future capital gains taxes and therefore give more to charity (without giving more "real" money). We have never broadcast this message to donors.
Steps we have taken to improve: Though GiveWell's responsibility for communicating about the points above varies, communicating well about all of the above furthers our mission. We plan to communicate better about these points to larger donors in 2012. (More at a 2012 blog post.)
December 2011: Problems caused by GiveWell's limited control over the process for donating to our top charities
How we fell short:
- On December 21, 2011, a representative from Imperial College Foundation (the organization receiving donations for the support of the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, our #2-rated charity in 2011) emailed us to let us know that its Google Checkout account had been suspended. Donors who wanted to give to SCI via the GiveWell website give via Google Checkout, and though the Google Checkout button is on the GiveWell website, the charity owns the Checkout account and donations go right to it. GiveWell staff therefore did not know there was a problem until the ICF representative informed us of it. We still do not know how long the problem lasted or whether any donors attempted to make donations during the time the account was suspended. (We do not even know how Google communicated to them about the error). ICF contacted Google but has not determined what led to the account suspension.
Once we learned of the problem, we reconfigured donations to go through GiveWell.
- As noted elsewhere on this page, many larger donations made via credit card are initially declined by credit card companies due to the fact that many donors give a larger amount to charity than they spend in a single purchase throughout the year. Because donations go directly to our charities, at times, GiveWell has to coordinate with charities representatives to cancel charges so that donors feel safe resubmitting their donation. This creates confusion, wastes time, and doesn't allow donors to complete the transaction as quickly as they would like.
- Setting up trackable donation processing for our top charities requires individual communication with each charity. This means that we must spend time communicating with each charity, and each charity must spend time creating its account. Also, in the event that the charity does not have time to set up the account or sets up the account but it has a problem, the required tracking may not be in place. With several charities in 2011, tracking was either not set up at the time we released our recommendations or we needed to create a one-off workaround to track donations to them.
Steps we have taken to improve:
- We plan to better advise larger donors of their non-credit-card options for donating and potential hassles of donating via credit card.
- We are now considering switching over donations to all charities to go through GiveWell so that we are immediately aware of any problems.
- We aim to complete our recommendations earlier in 2012 than 2011 (to give us additional time to address any problems that come up).
Late 2009: Misinterpreted a key piece of information about a charity to which we gave a $125,000 grant
How we fell short: When reviewing Village Enterprise (formerly Village Enterprise Fund) in late 2009, we projected that they would spend 41% of total expenses on grants to business groups, because we misinterpreted a document they sent us which projected spending 41% of total expenses on business grants and mentorship expenses. We do not know what mentorship expenses were expected to be so we do not know the magnitude of our error. Village Enterprise ended up spending 20% of total expenses on business grants in FY 2010. We caught this mistake ourselves when we were updating the review in August 2011. Village Enterprise plans to spend 28% of total expenses on business grants in FY 2012.
Steps we are taking to improve: We have updated our review of Village Enterprise to reflect the correct distribution of expenses. Going forward, before publishing a page, at least one additional GiveWell employee will check the original source of figures that play a key role in our conclusions about a charity or program.
August 1, 2009 to December 31, 2009: Grant process insufficiently clear with applicants about our plans to publish materials
How we fell short: Between 8/1/2009-12/31/2009, we accepted applications for $250,000 in funding for economic empowerment programs in sub-Saharan Africa. We attempted to be extremely clear with charities that we planned on sharing the materials they submitted, and that agreeing to disclosure was a condition of applying, but in a minority of cases, we failed to communicate this. We conceded these cases and gave the charities in question the opportunity to have their materials - and even the mention of the fact that they had applied for funding - withheld.
We try to avoid keeping materials confidential unless absolutely necessary, and in this case our unclear communications led to confrontations and to confidentiality situations that could have been avoided.
Details at this blog post.
Steps we have taken to improve:
- We offered the minority of charities with whom we'd been unclear the option not only to have their materials omitted, but to have us not disclose the fact that they applied for funding from us.
- We added clarificatory language to the top of our charity reviews, in order to clarify what a "0-star rating" means.
- In the future, we may publicly publish pages on charities we consider before we accept materials from them, in order to make our intentions about disclosure and public discussion absolutely clear.
November 25, 2009: Mishandling incentives to share information
How we fell short: A blog post discussing the Acumen Fund paraphrased information we'd been given during Acumen's application for funding from us. An Acumen Fund representative told us this had come off as a "bait and switch": using the grant application as a pretense for gathering information that we could use for a negative piece. (This was not the case; we had invited Acumen to apply in the hopes that they would be a strong applicant, and would have written a similar blog post afterward if they had simply declined to speak with us.)
We try to avoid creating incentives for charities to withhold information, given how little is available currently. Therefore, we are generally careful with how we use any substantive information that is disclosed, and generally check with the charity in question before publishing anything that could be construed as "using it to make a negative point." (An example is our post on microfinance repayment rates, which uses voluntarily disclosed information to raise concerns about the repayment rate while attempting to be clear that the organization in question should not be singled out for this disclosure. We checked with the organization discussed before making this post.)
In this case, we published our post without such a check, reasoning that we were not sharing any substantive materials (only paraphrasing general statements from representatives). Doing so gave the impression that sharing more information can result in more negative coverage.
We continue to struggle with the balance between disclosing as much information as possible and avoiding disincentives to share information. We will not find a solution in every case, but feel that we mishandled this one.
Steps we have taken to improve: We have let Acumen Fund know that we regret this incident and resolved to be more careful about quoting from representatives and grant applications in the future.
May 2009: Failed to remove two private references from a recording that we published
How we fell short: In May 2009, we discussed the Millions Saved project with a staff member of the project, Dr. Jessica Gottlieb, and then published a copy of the recording of the conversation to our website. Dr. Gottlieb approved making the recording public on the condition that we remove personal references that she made during the conversation. We partially removed the references, but we failed to remove one person's email address and Dr. Gottlieb's suggestion that we speak with a particular person. We noticed this error in February 2014 while preparing to use this recording as part of a test assignment for potential employees. According to our logs, no one had downloaded the audio file during the previous year.
Steps we have taken to improve: We notified Dr. Gottlieb about this mistake and apologized to her. Subsequent to (and unrelated to this error), we had implemented a formal procedure for reviewing uploaded files to confirm that all requested changes to files have been made.
January to September 2008: Paying insufficient attention to professional development and support
How we fell short: At our board meeting in January 2008, we agreed to explore options for professional development and mentoring, in light of the relative youth and inexperience of our staff. GiveWell staff put a lower priority on this than more time-sensitive goals, and while we explored a few options, we made little progress on it between January and September. At the September Board meeting, the Board criticized this lack of progress and reiterated the need for professional development and mentoring.
Steps we have taken to improve: We now have two highly regular mentoring relationships, and two more in a "trial phase." We have also stepped up Board oversight through a monthly conference call (attendance is optional but has generally been high) and more regular calls with Board Vice-President Lindy Miller. An update on professional development was presented at our July 2009 Board meeting.