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December 13, 2007


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Thanks for the shout out.

Interested in your thoughts on the new givewell.net . From past experience, I don't expect you to critique our decisions or calculations (though I'd welcome it), but I do want your thoughts on whether the site is built for transparency and public discussion (the most important goal).


I agree that you really have done something dramatic and wonderful, Holden, in forcing the issue of public discussion of grants and their effectiveness. Getting people to share their grant-making logic and research and results across the silos and to share in public is a noble goal. I share it and blunder about trying. But you have made more real progress towards that in a few months than the rest of us put together in all these years. Bravo! You know who else is a natural ally? Randy Ottinger, author of Beyond Success. Google him. He is quite accessible. Use my name or Sean's if you wish. He would welcome your line of thought and is working in his own way towards a similar goal. If you read his book, you will find in the chapter on Michael Milken's Foundation one model for doing what you are trying to do, create an open learning community around issues.

I did check out your new site and am impressed. As you work more towards your goal of opening a discussion, you might also check out the kind of work that Susan Davis has done. Google KINS or Tipping Point Network. She is the leader, I think, in getting conversations to go forward across prior silos to create a new learning/doing community for a specific purpose. She has put up a recipe on how to do it. I have studied that recipe over and over. I only wish I could bring the ingredients together. You, as a funder, who is becoming "almost famous," might have more luck. If you read her recipe and want to brainstorm let me know. I have one or two ingredients. You may have others. If we compare our lists, and bring in a few other conveners, such as say Lucy Bernholz, who is on your board, or Tracy Gary, or Albert Ruesga, or Sean Stannard Stockton, or funders who work in your issues areas, we might have a quorum for an online/offline tippling point network of our own.

What I am saying, Holden, is that for this to work you need a) top players in each issue area b) a technology platform c) a convening and face to face agreement on direction d) working groups who agree to come together again and to post their work publicly e) funders for the network itself, as well as for the specific causes.

Susan lays it all out based on her years of experience. She does make it work.

Beyond that, yes, I like the site very much. My caveat is that a conversation is only as good as those in it. To get the best minds, you have to be referred to them and invite them and hold them in the conversation by agreeing on purpose and process with them.

Hope that is somewhat helpful in brainstorming. By the way, in the article about you, the "Culture of No" concept caught my eye. Very helpful to have that mentioned. It enables me to see where you are coming from. I too love the culture of no, and agree that it is critical to breaking down dysfunctional silos and delusions. My efforts in satire come from a variant of the same broad neoclassical enlightenment tradition. "No pain," as the Happy Tutor says, "No gain."


Holden, here is a simple question about public conversation on the issues you follow: Whom do you want in the conversation? Experts? Funders? Anyone who comes by? That is a big question. You may find that experts and funders will only contribute if the site has a low level of noise.

"Public" and "transparent" can mean either: getting the findings published for all to read, or letting anyone participate in the learning community as a peer. I am inclined to think that the work needs to be done behind the scenes to get the right people to collaborate, and that some of those conversations are off the record. Then the group comes out from behind the screen and publishes their findings for public consumption and comment.

Most corporations work that way, right? Even the most transparent do many things internally behind a firewall. Trying to do everything in the open may drive off the very people you need in your learning community's inner circle.

I know this sounds elitist. It sounds like a departure from the internet philosophy of open conversation and crowd sourcing, but it reflects my own experience at Omidyar.net here at gifthub and sometimes behind the curtain with invitation only conferences.

Absent an inner circle of invited experts, operating in privacy, then coming into the public eye with findings, I think you will garner lots of noise and fewer experts than you might wish. One poorly informed constant commenter could drive off many well informed time starved experts. Try that thought against what you experienced at the Hedge Fund Firm or at Harvard. Elitism or quality control behind a fire wall, or behind a gate, has its place as a moment in a larger democratic and open process.

JJ Commoner

Your second comment, Phil, outlines the way things really work in most area of human activity ... only the sanctioned and invited, who are there either because they care (for betterment or worse) or because they are part of guarding the process and the invitation list.


The risk, Phil, is that you throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think you make a mistake by assuming that some conversations need necessarily to be limited in scope and participation.

To be sure, there are issues to be dealt with to make radical openness work, but the benefits are also very great. The so-called experts often don't have the answers. The answers need to be produced by the action of the collaborative team. Whoever is there cannot be the right people if you didn't invite them, and you can't invite them specifically if you don't know them.

The idea that crosses the tipping point may come from an uninvited guest. Uninvited doesn't mean unwanted. Doesn't Jesus teach us to welcome the uninvited guest or even a beggar as if it were the Lord himself?

That said, you still have to find a way to control the conversation so that it cannot be hijacked by hostile forces. Some who arrive at the gate are Knaves, and while you may want to follow Jesus in being radically open, you cannot be passive in the face of threats and violence. The Knave must be handled as humanely as the beggar, but he must be kept from disrupting the larger purpose as well.

Neither Jesus nor Diogenes would allow the Knave to continue to damage himself and others without attempting an intervention. When you have convened an event or created a site with a particular purpose, the process of staging an intervention might divert that purpose, and drive away important resources. You may want to drag the Knave off and stage the intervention in a private scene room.

Still, you have to ask yourself, what would my model teacher do. It may take skills and experience beyond yourself or your facilitator to pull it off, but if you can integrate the scene into the event it becomes a learning parable for all. I think that is the ideal, but I don't think there is enough experience with this anywhere in the world. On the other hand, we won't get there by deciding not to try.


BTW, though I've never read "The Art of War" I understand one of the key themes is that you do not allow your opponent to choose the battlefield. Our purpose is not to defeat the enemy, but rather to convert him to our cause, but in principle it isn't that different. In war the purpose isn't to kill the enemy either, it is to gain control.

In convening an event or a web-site, you have a great deal of control to configure the environment so that individual battles and interventions are already tilted in your favor. You don't just give the Knave a microphone and let him take over the space. You might even stop him at the gate (another choice in configuration), or have plain clothes security hanging around to drag off the trouble makers.

Openness doesn't imply no norms or controls.


Wow - thanks for all the thoughts. These are very interesting points, and worth thinking about.

My quick reaction to the main topic at hand is that we don't need to choose between "everyone is invited" and "only the elites are invited." We can have both happening in different places.

Once we get a chance, we are transitioning our "comment" feature to full-blown forums powered by vBulletin. The forums will be the public square where anyone and everyone can come by. There are methods for keeping the trolls at bay, and we will do our best, though we can't guarantee that we'll be able to do it for that *particular* medium. In that space, we will err on the side of openness and freedom over order.

But we retain control over everything that appears on givewell.net, and that means we decide who is effectively a part of *our* silo. The answer isn't "anyone who wants to be," nor is it "only established philanthropy experts." The people I go to for advice range from traditional philanthropoids (Program Officers at major foundations) to progressive but experienced people in the field (Lucy, Tim) to people who have no credentials (or whose credentials I'm unaware of) but are undeniably valuable contributors to the discussion (Michael V, Phil S, and Carl S are all people I'd put in this category, and we met them all via the Internet and open comments on our blog). I hope the circle will continue to expand.

Then, there may be others who want to have a conversation with a different group. They're welcome to use our stuff too, and to include me or not include me. If the Ford and Gates Foundations want to get together in a room without riff raff - including myself - they can still use our information to the extent they want to. Seems like "no effect" is the worst effect we can have on these more exclusive dialogues.

For the first time ever, I think, I agree with Gerry. The benefits of radical openness are too great to leave on the table, especially when the costs of it are so low (as I said, we can have less open conversations at the same time). We have too much to lose by restricting the conversation to "experts" - my latest thoughts on this are pretty thoroughly written up on our latest blog post, http://blog.givewell.net/?p=203

Anyway, I'm still thinking about it. And I appreciate all the referrals; I'll have more time to sort those out after the new year.


Holden is trying, as I understand it, to compile knowledge of what works, not just opinion, but knowledge. Compare a blog to a peer reviewed journal of science. Which best serves the purpose of ending poverty, for example? Is that like a science, or journal of practical engineering, where peers should vet peers before publication, or it is a matter of opinion, where everyone should weigh in? Whether God created the world in seven days, and we descend from Adam and Eve, is that opinion where we can all have one, or is evolution a science where some people's opinion's should have more weight. From what I have seen of Holden's work it aspires to be knowledge, a science, not a political movement, nor spiritual discipline, or exercise in self-expression (That emphasis on positivistic knowledge, may be its weakness, actually.) Insofar as he wants knowledge, he should work with experts. Then publish to the masses and let them discuss, until new experts bubble up from the comments and get invited into the inner sanctum. (Holden himself has bubbled up in this way, as has his friend Sean, and they are now being included in the inner circles that publish in places like The Financial Times or get written about in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, or invited to the closed door meetings of Council on Foundations. It is kind of like being knighted, I guess.)


Thanks, Holden. Right, some conversations can be open, others invitation only. The two can and should play off one another. Conversations inside closed silos, conversations among the silos by invitation, and an open conversation in the public square, where aspects of it all are picked up by the larger media, to create something like the buzz of democracy, or a larger movement. It may take a societal awakening or movement to address certain issues, such as poverty.


I think your distinction between opinion and fact is too rigid. We are trying to publish educated guesses based both on fact and intuition.

On matters of fact, those most useful to us tend to be academics or the charities themselves. (And, potentially, foundation staff, though not to this point.) However, the question of where to give cannot be answered just by facts, and I have never even hinted otherwise. The people who have good arguments to make in the realm of interpretation, opinion and intuition can be anyone with common sense. Some of the questions that must be answered are classic philosophy questions such as what gives a life value, so philosophy professors can weigh in too. Etc. That's why we need a place where everyone can contribute.

(And again, we don't have to choose between this and more discipline-specific environments - there can be both. GiveWell.net simply has whatever we think is relevant to the question of where to give, weighted by its importance. Debates over parts of it can take place elsewhere and use our information as much or as little as they wish.)


Holden, I suspect that you and I agree more than you think, and with enough dialog both of our views would be richer and more aligned.

More and more I see all of this as a difference in an analysis by single-value vs. multi-valued logic. The world is demonstrably multi-valued yet we cannot get our single-value thinking around it. Fortunately for us the only part of our thinking is mostly stuck in single-value logic. What we think of as our "rational mind" is programmed that way from before Plato and Aristotle.

The productive speculation is that our brain programming is not fixed, and perhaps we can learn to think differently. Maybe that is what the great sages we revere were showing us, what is possible for the human mind. If this is true, and why not proceed as if it were, then our responsibility is to learn ourselves and teach our fellows.

Would this be a religious project? It certainly is a spiritual path, a path of heart based on faith in a sensible universe. Should we model our thinking about logic on Plato and Aristotle, or Scheodinger, Einstein, Goedel, Turing, Shannon and so on?

I'm not sure who to cite as the leading philosophers of the emerging paradigm, I can see it emerging in many domains and converging all the time. It is really too much to integrate, which is why it is particularly hard to recognize much less describe. It is the product of many minds, and cannot be summed up in a singular truth.

To the extent that we have knowledge, it is necessarily partial. A singular substrate of truth may support the universe, in fact that is the one thing I do have faith in, the comprehensibility of the universe. Its logic, its mathematical symmetries appear to be closer to the models of modern physicists than the ancients.

If it were not, then what have all those thinkers been doing over the centuries. You don't think God wrote the holy books himself, do you? No, he drops it on some poor seeker, and she has no choice but to witness the truth. Working out the details is a life's work, the gift is a genius a burden for one not prepared to express it.


How is this a difference? You guys both seem to confuse my claims that "measurement is essential" and "measurement is underrated in this sector" (both of which I believe) with "we will make all decisions based on pure facts" (which I don't). If you read our writeups, you won't make this mistake. In making these decisions and creating these writeups, we have wrestled with our consciences as much as with the data, and we need just as much discussion around our intuitions and philosophical choices as around our analysis. The question of where to give requires *all* of it.

(And yes, religion too, in a sense. I consider myself nonreligious in the sense that I don't have any beliefs that I refuse to question, but religious in the sense that I'm devoted to values that I consider spiritual, and that I have never believed to "come from logic.")

JJ Commoner

Phil's pretty good at working effectively with Knaves, trolls, Space Invaders and the like. Maybe he could train Holden's moderators and facilitators ?

Master Phil

Thank you, Holden. Either you have evolved or my understanding of your work has, maybe both. If you leave room for meter as well as metrics, for Carnival and satire and riotous social change, for revolution through spiritual reform, as well as for cause and effect and logic models and input and outputs, we are at one. The emphasis can vary, but we need both Carnival and Lent, both reasoned discourse about means and ends, and also the inspiration that comes from God-knows-where and finds voice through madmen, artists, profits, and trouble makers. As a trouble maker yourself you bear witness to that.

The Culture of Yes and the Culture of No. The rock tumbler of the public square wears us all smooth and more civilized. Perhaps that is taking place in the back and forth abrasion of our various posts and comments. Thank you! By the way, if I can be of practical assistance, in building out the conversation and inviting people into it, let me know.

Master Phil

Holden, the generational differences between your generation and the Boomers largely in charge in the nonprofit sector are interesting. Your friends came of age online, in dialog and networks. Mine grew up with books and face to face circles of friends, and in marches, demonstrations, be-ins. Getting influential nonprofit people my age to come on line and interact openly with all comers is difficult. They just don't live on line. They husband their time. They are often uncomfortable with public exposure in an uncontrolled environment. You may need to reach them face to face through referrals from one to another and in small closed groups. I am sure you will have that opportunity. I hope having spoken at philanthropic closed gatherings that you will be a) tactful and discreet and respect confidences and all that but b) find ways to bring over into the public discussion what you learn behind closed doors in confidence. I try to do that, and sometimes resort to masquerade to protect confidentiality. (What happens in Wealth Bondage stays in Wealth Bondage.) I will be interested to see how you navigate and master these dynamics of closed and open spaces, and between the generations.

From your comments above it seems you grasp this double dynamic of closed (sometimes) and open (sometimes). I look forward to see how you continue to implement it.


Well, the difference between us is still there, in the sense that if the two of us were running charities, my evaluation budget would be way bigger than yours. I think that's all the diff has ever been though - a question of the weight on empirical evidence, not a delusion on my part that charity can be reduced to it.

I appreciate the dialogue and look forward to more.


I would suggest that it is productive for you and your node of the network to specialize in evaluation. Phil and I resist metrics only because some people apply them too rigidly, as the one tool in the toolbox. You are obviously not that, and so I would say you are the perfect person to start a revolution in evaluation, and apparently you have the resources to do it.

Even better you have the willingness and even desire to share what you learn with all of us, unless I have read you wrong. My passion is to assist the emergence of what we could call "The Common", the shared cultural, biological and physical spaces. I welcome your substantive efforts as an essential element in this project. Thank you.

For this to emerge, each of us needs to express our gift, to choose something to focus on and do it well, and then to express it and pass it on. The form of organization of the emerging institutions is the network form. To connect the expression of these gifts to the emerging network, each of us need to work with a team or teams that are nodes in this emerging network.

I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to connect his or her own gifts into a team that becomes a node in the network movement that is reshaping our world.

Holden, I too would help with your project in any way I can. My work background is in software engineering and systems in general, but what I really like (if you hadn't guessed) is integrating ideas, particularly in action, in practice and in design.

Working together in projects and experiments is how we create the links between the nodes of the network. When projects and experiments are successful, that reinforces the processes and practices that support certain network links and configurations. When projects fail, those connections are dropped and the network has learned how to do something. That something has to be determined by the success/failure criteria for project, hence we come full circle to measurement and evaluation. What you measure will to some extent determine what you get. It is a critical point, and hence an essential element.


I second Gerry's sentiments. We are each "called" or driven to particular contributions. Lacing them together is the key.

JJ Commoner

I just like opining about how hyperlinks and networks may help to create major change(s) in the traditional way(s) things are decided and managed. I'm supposed to be good at it (at least that's what I tell myself).

So, I'll be glad to help too, tho' my contributions may be hard to evaluate or find place for ;-)


Gerry, right on - we should each do what we're good at rather than trying to do it all. I appreciate all of your offers to help, and I'll keep them in mind as we progress (and of course the dialogue continues here at GiftHub).


Thanks, Holden. This is maybe how it is supposed to work. Wish all of the giving world were this transparent and open to connecting.

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