FAQ on GiveWell and Astroturfing

Table of Contents

What is astroturfing?

Wikipedia defines astroturfing as follows: "Astroturfing is a neologism for formal public relations campaigns in politics and advertising that seek to create the impression of being spontaneous, grassroots behavior, hence the reference to the artificial grass AstroTurf..."

What were the astroturfing events involving GiveWell in January 2008 and the responses to those activities?

The two founding staff of GiveWell, Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, inappropriately promoted GiveWell on several blogs and in email forums. In these promotions they either hid or disguised their identities, and did not reveal their associations with GiveWell. Their actions were discovered and both founders acknowledged and apologized for their acts. The Board of Directors took action; demoting and fining both employees, posting a public statement about the event and actions taken, and offering to return any gifts to donors that so desire. The Board also established several new working procedures to put in place appropriate controls, to ensure the current work of the organization continues, and to meet commitments to donors and non-profit partners.

Where can I get more information?

The full account of these inappropriate activities is available here.

Mr. Karnofsky's apology is here.

The statements of the Board of Directors are here:

January 6th Statement

January 11, 2008 Statement

What has been the response of staff members involved in these activities?

Holden Karnofsky's public apology is available here.

Holden has agreed to continue working with GiveWell as a program officer, and will be participating in professional development opportunities (at his own expense) to build his skills as an organizational representative and leader. Elie Hassenfeld has taken a pay cut and is now focused entirely on the core functions of his program officer role.

What has been the response by the Board of Directors to this activity?

The actions of the Board are summed up in the statements noted above. In addition, an executive committee of the board has been set up and is meeting every two weeks, regularly reviewing workplans and outputs of the staff members, and reaching out to donors and potential donors. The Board is also continuing its work assessing the longer term viability, strategies, and focus for the organization.

What was the punishment for Holden Karnofsky?

He was demoted from Executive Director to program officer. He was fined $5000 and will seek professional development support to build his organizational skills. He has been relieved of his responsibilities as spokesperson for the organization. More information is available in the Board' statements on the GiveWell Blog.

January 6th Statement

January 11, 2008 Statement

What was the punishment for Elie Hassenfeld?

He was reprimanded and fined $5000.

What do you mean by "financial penalty"?

Holden and Elie were each fined $5000. This will come directly out of their salary. $5000 is being allocated to professional development opportunities for Holden. The remaining $5000 will be used to augment grants to the GiveWell causes.

How will the organization be run without an Executive Director?

The Board has significantly increased its involvement in the daily operations of the organization, is closely monitoring the staff work, is managing relationships and communications with external donors and constituencies. An executive committee of the board is managing these responsibilities.

What is the difference in responsibilities between Executive Director and Program Officer?

An executive director is responsible for managing the organization, its vision, operations, and external relationships. A program officer is responsible for conducting due diligence and program review, and implementing the program strategies developed by the Board of Directors.

Why does the board find it necessary to continue GiveWell following these incidents?

GiveWell is a startup organization that is attempting to do something totally new - online, transparent grant making. To have expected to do so without making any mistakes would have been hubris. We believe strongly in the potential of the idea, and are committed to carrying it out as far as we can. While these events were a setback, we believe the idea is worth pursuing. We are also committed to meeting our existing obligations to our donors and nonprofit partners.

How can I ask further questions about this situation?

Please send an email to info@givewell.net and the appropriate member of the board will get back to you.