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January 01, 2008


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I can't help but think that Holden would have been less likely to have made this mistake had he taken our conversations about the pitfalls of leaning to hard on the business and market metaphors. I wonder just how much is lapse of judgment as opposed to faulty thinking. Working in a competitive mode to launch the organization, and get the message out there. If instead the mode was telling friends and well-wishers about an opportunity, the thought of using a pen name would never have occurred.

The Tutor can keep his medieval cycle of penitence, the more modern sequence starts with the sting of the public revelation of error and the accompanying embarrassment. From there several scenarios are possible. A simple apology for making a mistake and transgressing community norms, and hopefully not to make it again. Much better than not to have done, but not as good as gaining real insight.

I doubt this error will slow Holden down much, he seems to be a quick learner, but I also hope he takes a step back and looks at the whys and wherefores of network communities. Welcome to Bloggerville, Holden, there may be a lot of bad manners and impatience for outsiders who don't quite get-it, but there is also a lot of tolerance of mistakes. We all make mistakes, and the more we try to do and learn, the more mistakes we will make. Regrets are a waste of time unless you are learning from them.


Correct (up to date) URL for the Agitator link is here:


Thanks, Rumple, fixed the link.


I don't understand the impulse to forgiveness. In the world of philanthropy, especially, the corporate kind, is not this kind of dishonesty -- and it goes *well* beyond a little astorturfing --cause for termination? Is not doing this kind of damage to a firm for which you are a supposed professional CEO cause for termination?

GiveWell's reputation for honesty, if it had one -- and its main claim of innovation is in fact the "transparency" of its approach! -- has been badly, badly tarnished. If Holden worked at a law firm or a hedge fund (still) he'd be out on his tail yesterday.

Shows you that privileged kids don't have to face consequences like the rest of us, I guess. But GiveWell is sunk.


Um, Holden tried the "simple apology." He also tried bribery, lying, and misleading statements. He kept having to come back and add to the list of things he was "apologizing" for after claiming to have revealed all of his deceptive transgressions. He claims to have stolen the online ID of a GiveWell EMPLOYEE to post spam PR emails. He has libeled GiveWell's competitors repeatedly under an anonymous handle.

Apologies are way in the past now. Firing Holden is the ONLY thing GiveWell can do to recover its reputation, and it had better do so quickly.


Umm, any chance "Gerry" is related to "Geremiah," Holden's "anonymous" partner in deception on the AskMe thread that started all of this?

If so, Holden, you're still at it. If not, I apologize for my suspicions. But those suspicions tell you how a lot of people now think about GiveWell.

Among other things, GiveWell just tossed a HUGE amount of mainstream media puff coverage ("wunderkind hedge-fund boys turn their skills to good work," NY Times, NY Mag, NPR, CNBC) right into the trash. If I were on the board of GiveWell, I'd be furious, and either Holden would go, or I would.

And I do sit on boards.


RCM, do you manage people? Grounds for termination is one thing, termination is another. How many strikes before someone is out? How much of the condemnation of Holden is an expression of simmering resentment against what is deemed privilege? You can convict him of having gone to Harvard, working for a hedge fund, and at that point making almost 200,000. He is also young, and he is brash, as have been generations of social venture types coming into philanthropy and setting others right, until the newbie awakens to how different the citizen sector is from business, and how these differences are not defects necessarily. Holden is a talented beginner. It is good his sock puppeteering was exposed and condemned. The question is how much punishment and shame and scathing criticism is enough? At what point does this begin become crowd sourced, or vigilante, justice where the emotion driving it has not much to do with Holden himself, and a lot to do with resentment of Wall Street and the Ivies?

Michael J.

"Gerry" is NOT related to "Geremiah" -- he's been a long-time poster at this site and others I frequent.



I have known Gerry for years and he is not at all connected to Holden. We have been blogging philanthropy here and Holden has been part of our blogging circle. So, to us he is a sometimes exasperating blogger friend, not just the guy who emerged on the scene with the press coverage and then this debacle. How the Board responds is, I agree, an important next step. Will they be furious? Or will internet stuff seem distant to them from the "real world"? I hope they take it seriously and respond with gravitas. From the metafilter thread one of the most sobering comments was about other people's money. Taking in and giving out other people's money is indeed a role of stewardship that requires trust and trustworthiness. The behavior goes to the issue of reliability. That has to be looked at closely at the Board level, not blown off. They have to satisfy their constituents and the press and the internet community that they have checks and balances in place. How well run is Give Well and Clear Fund? Who is in charge? What systems are in place? Those are legitimate questions that the Board has to make sure are answered with clarity and sobriety. Manic moments we all have, but when you take in other people's money, and give it out on their behalf, you have to have controls in place to maintain what amounts to a fiduciary standard. Is Holden operating at a Trustee level of Stewardship. No. Does he recognize that he must? Probably does now. Can the Board take responsibility for saying that he will operate at that fiduciary level going forward? What controls are in place to make sure he or anyone in his role at Givewell does? The Board should step up with answers and get them out transparently. Hope they will.


I do manage people. A lot of people. I've terminated people.

And as for privilege, I went to Harvard too, so I'm not some bomb-throwing populist here. In fact, I am embarrassed for Harvard because of Holden's actions here.

I repeat that this has nothing to do with vigilantism. Holden abused the public trust repeatedly over a period of time, not in a one-time "lapse in judgment," as he originally claimed, stemming from "sleep deprivation." If you take the time to actually discern the bill of particulars here, and if you have experience managing people and running a business, you'd see that any first year law associate or consulting associate or hedge fund manager would be instantly terminated for the shame Holden has brought on his organization. Instantly. Probably never to work at the same level in the industry again. That's the corporate world reality, and Holden should really know that as a "CEO." That the board allowed this immature, inexperienced kid to assume this title and these responsibilities tells me all I need to know about the entire management team at GiveWell.

Is he your friend or something?

Anyway, my apologies to Gerry for my suspicions. But those suspicions will be typical of how people think about GiveWel from now on thanks to Holden's actions. I cannot believe the amateurism with which GiveWell has proceeded to date in responding to this. It tells me Holden is surrounded by other people who are similarly inexperienced and unprofessional.

He may be a nice kid. I'm sure he is. He just damaged, badly, a project in which a lot of other people were invested, albeit to the piddling tune of a mere $300K so far.

Again, if GiveWell were a bank, a law firm, a major web business, or a school, Holden would have been fired. Period. Already. I am sure of it.

Thank you for your response.


There's nothing Candidia likes better than to have a little "cause for termination" on everyone. It gives her security to know she can strike fear into their hearts with an offhand comment, or satisfy her sadistic whims as she pleases.

Funny that I've been mistaken for a sock-puppet a couple times lately. I've always said that I write behind a certain kind of mask of myself. Maybe that is a success of sorts.

Hi Michael, long time since I've seen you post around these parts. Good to here from you, and your friend Jeff too. Thanks for the validation of identity. Good company.


There's nothing Candidia likes better than to have a little "cause for termination" on everyone. It gives her security to know she can strike fear into their hearts with an offhand comment, or satisfy her sadistic whims as she pleases.

Funny that I've been mistaken for a sock-puppet a couple times lately. I've always said that I write behind a certain kind of mask of myself. Maybe that is a success of sorts.

Hi Michael, long time since I've seen you post around these parts. Good to here from you, and your friend Jeff too. Thanks for the validation of identity. Good company.


There's nothing Candidia likes better than to have a little "cause for termination" on everyone. It gives her security to know she can strike fear into their hearts with an offhand comment, or satisfy her sadistic whims as she pleases.

Funny that I've been mistaken for a sock-puppet a couple times lately. I've always said that I write behind a certain kind of mask of myself. Maybe that is a success of sorts.

Hi Michael, long time since I've seen you post around these parts. Good to here from you, and your friend Jeff too. Thanks for the validation of identity. Good company.


Sorry about the repeats. Typepad wasn't returning a confirmation page.

Kevin Jones

Holden was wrong, repeatedly wrong in a way that seems to run counter to his basic mission and "brand." But it seems clear he deserves a chance to make things right because he was doing so many other things well. This exchange is another reminder, as if I needed one, of how suddenly vicious this medium can become in a heart beat because it lacks the moderating impact of physical world contacts and relational context.


In my home town, there has been huge controversy over a recent cheating scandal at the high school. (http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2007/09/19/school_cheating_scandal_divides_nh_town/) Some kids snuck into the school and stole tests and ended up being charged with criminal violations for the theft. The question that divides the community is over how severely they should be punished. Opinions range from "they have already suffered enough" to "a little jail time would do them good" and every conceivable point in between. The perception that the students were 'privileged' is a recurrent theme. I have been bemused by my complete inability to predict how my various friends and acquaintances will come down on the subject.

People have vastly different attitudes to the relative importance of 'repentance' and 'consequences'. (Or, looking at it from the outside, 'forgiveness' and 'deterrence'.) Personally, I guess that I side with repentance and forgiveness (when it is convincing - and accompanied by full disclosure) because I think it is important to act as if we believe that people can change. Also angry crowds scare me. (Besides being acutely aware of the meager and precarious state of my personal stock of moral capital.)

But I suspect that this is not a question susceptible to rational resolution. I suspect that it is bound up with how and where we trace the boundaries of the self.


Sorry about the truncated URL. For the voyeurs in the crowd, here's a tinyurl link to the boston globe article about cheating:


Hold on. What was it that Holden (and Elie, who should not be exempted from critique at all here) were doing "so well?"

If you really read the substantive critiques in the Metafilter thread (look especially for the pieces by a poster with obvious serious professional expertise in the nonprofit and philanthropic worlds named "Miko") the evidence emerges that GiveWell was very nearly a sham operation trying to do something it had no business -- not enough talent or capital or experience -- doing, for reasons that are not entirely clear but suggest even more cynical possibilities.

Sorry, but in any professional world I know well Holden would be fired already. I see very little evidence of "talent" here, at least not talent relevant to the domain of evaluative theories in social science (which is my field, sort of, and Holden has an undergraduate's grasp of the basic concepts); or the domain of philanthropy or nonprofit work as such, for that matter. He's a smart kid. But he is currently working at the level of his incompetence, "Heckuva Job Brownie"-style.


It should be noted that Holden was not alone in what he did. Evidence was uncovered (posted in the Metatalk.Metafiler thread) that his partner Elie also played a role, if not as large. This was a concerted campaign that was at best, a repeated lack of judgment, not an isolated incident by one person.


Gerry, I think the reason that you were suspected of being a sockpuppet in this case is that you characterized the issue as a matter of transgressing community norms. That's not the issue - deliberate and repeated deception in the course of promoting GiveWell and castigating GiveWell's competitors by the Executive Director of GiveWell is what people are outraged about, particularly in that he's willfully done these things across weeks or months in complete contravention of the avowed principles and values of GiveWell.

You lavish praise on Holden accompanied by a dismissal of any serious significance of his actions without regard to any specifics of what those actions may have been. That's the sort of thing that will make people who have been gradually uncovering incident after incident of irregularities and misdeeds on the part of GiveWell across the internet suspect that your comments may reflect complicity.

I think that I and others who have been following this would really be interested in a staunch and articulate defense of his character. But it would need to be accompanied by a sober review of the facts uncovered and the things Holden has admitted to rather than momentary lip service or a "shucks, it's nothin', this is just Bloggerville" dismissal as you offer above.

Here's a question: what if Holden wasn't the Executive Director, what if he was just a kid recently out of school who was doing some copy writing and web promotion for GiveWell? Would there be any question about whether the organization should abruptly and forcefully sever its association with him? I think that's the sort of situation that many of us can more readily identify with and the suspicion that things may work out differently since he is Executive Director is part of what's sparking some resentment of perceived privilege.


Very good points, Jeff. Each case is different, one can only hope the the tutor is equal to his charge.

So, RCM, you are saying there is no redemption possible? Even if Holden were to submit to whatever punishment the Happy Tutor might devise for his benefit and education? I can assure you there will be no doubt as to his confession and repentance when the Tutor gets done with him. All with consent, of course, no appeals to the Geneva convention on torture.


I don’t think the extent of deception engaged in by Holden has really been addressed in full in this post. It has been in the MeFi thread. The issue at the core of this is that Mr. Karnofsky violated the community norms of MetaFilter, but that he deliberately set out to deceive the members of several web communities, not only to drive traffic (and money) to his own project, but also to denigrate the works of other organizations more effective and qualified than his own.

To really give an idea of the scope of this, Mr. Karnofsky used his MeFi account to ask a question, fully knowing that he intended to answer it himself. After waiting for a few comments to roll in, he posted his own answer, and then gave his answer “Best Answer” status (note that on AskMe you can give multiple comments “Best Answer” status- he only gave that to his own). Note that nowhere in his question or his dupe answer did he disclose his relationship with GiveWell. This is unbelievably deceptive for a group that touts itself as completely transparent.

Metafilter has strict rules about self-linking in some areas of the site, however in certain situations referencing a project or association of yours to answer a question is allowed, provided you disclose your association. And really, this reflects a sensible ethic for any such situation- if somebody asks a question about a service, and my company provides that service, I’m allowed to discuss that service, PROVIDED that I state my affiliation upfront.

Holden didn’t do this. In fact, he didn’t even slip up and omit his relationship with GiveWell- he deliberately and with intent posted the question specifically so that he could deceive people and generate interest for his project (which, it has been noted in the MeFi thread, has a 50% administrative overhead, while claiming that overhead is not important when assessing charities- check your bullshit detectors on this one).

Furthermore, this behavior has not been restricted exclusively to MetaFilter. Mr. Karnofsky and his associates have engaged in this sort of deceptive behavior on other sites, including LifeHacker and Boing Boing, by commenting on GiveWell as if they had no affiliations with it. Some people may not find this outrageous, (apparently Lucy Bernholz, another member of GiveWell who promoted their organization in a Huffington Post column without disclosing her relationship to it, is one of them) but keep in mind that they not only promoted their own “service” in this manner, but they actually engaged in actively belittling and dismissing the efforts of other (competent and effective) organizations that facilitate a similar function, such as CharityNavigator.

Now again, some people may not find this repugnant and reprehensible behavior- in fact, some consider it business as usual- but we’re talking about an organization that is supposedly dedicated to charity here. These people get paid by soliciting donations from individuals who are convinced that GiveWell can make responsible and informed decisions about which charities are well-run and trustworthy, while demonstrating quite thoroughly that they themselves are neither.

GiveWell promotes itself as being a new way of responsible charity giving, while bashing the current process of charitable giving and claiming to know how to elevate charitable contributions to a more effective state. But as anybody with sense can see, the scam they’re pulling is really just business as usual: provide a minimal service, bash your competition, watch the cash roll in.

They slander their competition, promote themselves as transparent and effective, and solicit donations intended for charity by convincing their clients that they will be able to determine which charities are best-suited to handle their money. And yet, despite the self-professed superiority of their model, they feel the need to engage in this kind of under-handed and deceptive self-promotion. And half of the money they receive ends up in their own pockets.

Come on, people. In business this can be dismissed as sleazy shenanigans, but in charity this should not be dismissed.


Both Holden and his co-founder, Elie Hassenfeld, have used fake identities to slander competitors on multiple popular sites all over the web. They have discouraged people from donating money to DonorsChoose, Heifer International, and other charities and told people that Charity Navigator is a bad way to evaluate potential donation targets, all while pretending to be looking out for donors’ best interests. In fact, they were only looking out for their own best interests.


Gerry, I don't know what fantasy world such Tutors administer such Spankings, but that's all words.

In fact the point is moot. It looks very obvious to me that GiveWell has two choices. Fire Holden and discipline Ellie; or go out of business. This has mushroomed exponentially now. So this has to be the question: is GiveWell worth saving or is it synonymous with Holden and thus only worth letting die?

The issue is not what's fair to Holden at this point; it's whether he is man enough to step aside and try to save his project, or whether he hides behind the skirts of his defensive board and folks like you until this "blows over."

Due in no small part to Google, and the fact that he slammed his much better funded competitors, this will not "blow over." GiveWell is going down fast here, mark my words.

And what does "moral tutor to America's wealthiest families" even mean, Phil? Are you serious or is that the ironic subtitle of a blog dealing with rich kids misbehaving? Because if you consider yourself a moral tutor, please describe the concrete consequences you think the "talented" Mr. Holden ought to endure, not just the metaphorical "spanking" his reputation is taking online.



Morals Tutor is a kind of madman persona, or that of a Fool. Whenever we cast stones, or flay others, or lecture them, we have to at some point turn around on ourselves and ask about our own standing to do so. Casting stones so hard that they can literally destroy a person's business or reputation, and casting them as a group, with gusto sometimes amounting to glee, is not a spectacle that I find morally edifying. Yes, peer pressure is important. We have to keep one another straight, and we have to scorn those who flout standards. Yet, mercy, forgiveness, "second chances" also have to be weighed.

Yes, I would say I consider Holden a friend, though we have never met. We have only interacted through blogging and email.

The points raised in the Metafilter thread are substantive. The Board of Givewell has serious issues to address. For us to try the case in public beyond a certain point seems almost cruel. He has dropped to one knee. He has admitted he was in the wrong. How many times does he have to take a kick in the chops for the same errors from people on the net as he awaits the judgment and action of his Board?

If we hash out lessons learned, things that can be generalized, the conversation would have ongoing interest and value. There are points to be made about how we welcome into the citizen sector those who come from Wall Street or success in business who arrive, as many do, "with all the answers," while to the eyes of more experienced nonprofit people the newbies are still newbies despite, and even because, of their prior business experience and the outlook that goes with it. We saw a wave of people entering philanthropy in the dot com days. They too had all the answers, but have achieved humility and become fixtures in philanthropy over the years. I guess I see Holden walking the same path. The difference being the errors well documented at Metafilter.

In the end a man's reputation and career and his nonprofit hang in the balance. I think it is up to the Board to take the matter up. A certain solemn silence seems the most responsible approach. The charges have certainly been levelled. Evidence has been documented. Holden has admitted the actions. The Board has responsibility to make the next move.

maureen Doyle

I was struck by a point that emerged in the comments on GiveWell, something to the effect (forgive me if I don't wade back through them all to find the original) that the lapse in judgment by Elie and Holden is indicative of a different set of values in today's young people, a change which can be attributed to their extensive experience and comfort with virtual identities.

It is true that the average 20-something has spent his or her entire adult life (if not most of childhood) occupying multiple on-line personalities. Can you name a computer game that doesn't involve an avatar or imagined community? And if you look at any website discussion, don't you wonder who these people really are? And whether or not they're even people?

Don't get me wrong. Anonymity is one of the assets of the Internet. It is liberating, empowering, potentially creative. But is it also a liability? To the individual -- especially the young person -- who may lack a point of moral reference and a sense of humility which is most easily acquired through time? To our society, whose systems of justice, finance, governance are founded on an 18th Century conception of the self as a singular, rational actor?

I'm not advocating for a return to the antiquated, naïve and down right boring notion of identity or our "forefathers", certainly not for leading one's personal life. Fluidity in the self does not entail immorality or amorality. (Some -- such as, Gregroy Bateson, R.D. Laing -- might argue it’s the only path to personal psychic, and thus moral, salvation.) Besides fluidity introduces play, which makes life infinitely more worth living.

Nonetheless, I wonder if the next generations will have spent a dangerously, disproportionate portion of their lives dwelling in the virtual? Thereby never developing a concept of self with traction in the real world and complete functionality in society from the board room to the bed room? Is virtuosity acquired, at least in part, through some hard knocks in the real world with some real bruises to show for it? It's not a question of retribution for me but of reestablishing a bottom line of reality.

It will be interesting to see if the GiveWell crisis spills over into the non-virtual world or is it resolves itself completely on-line. Perhaps the Board will arrive at their decision via email?


Fair enough, Phil. I almost agree, though I think it is legitimate to continue discussing the broader issues raised by the episode, and to continue investigating whether Givewell is a serious and honest enterprise and this is a kind of one-off lapse in judgment and character (the two are related to me).

I agree that we are all sinners and should not cast stones in glass houses. I for one am not after Holden's blood for reasons of schadenfreude glee, at all. But I do deeply cherish the Metafilter community, and something about the way he abused our community really chafed a lot of us in ways that were made worse by his professed seriousness and good intentions and commitment to honesty and integrity.

We're all still working out how justice and ethics work in this medium. But I still expect the board to *do* something to Holden commensurate with what he has done to GiveWell, if it is a legitimate operation (I still have my doubts, and Holden can thank his own actions for that). His apologies, contrite though they were, were also continued deceptions. He was forced to come clean about many more actions of the sort he conducted on Metafilter only after being confronted with them, even after apologizing. He also admitted stealing an employee's email account to post spam emails, not at all a small matter and arguably a *criminal* act. If he hadn't gotten caught, his remorse would have never been necessary, and a lot of people would have been deceived by a quite blatantly fraudulent viral marketing campaign. And now that he has been caught, it has harmed his company because of the contrast of his actions with the enterprise's values and missions, and he has harmed philanthropy (especially online) in some ways as well.

So he surely feels like crap. We've all been there, maybe not as publicly. I'm sorry for him. He seems like a decent kid who bit off way more than he knew he was going to have to chew. But there is still the question at hand: how did someone so naive and inexperienced wind up in a position to *do* this kind of damage to his enterprise, if there was a responsible Board at the helm, and investors as well?

In any case, this is a good blog and I appreciate the back and forth and your willingness to engage with diverse opinions in a literate and insightful way. Best.




Thanks, I was deeply impressed, almost daunted in fact, by the caliber of many of the posts on the Metafilter posts on Holden. The sector would very much benefit if that brain power and high standards of probity could be brought into play more broadly. I an some others are blogging philanthropy back and forth from day to day, but seldom see a level of conversation as high as what many of the Metafilter comments reached.

I am coming partly from personal loyality. I have been trying to mentor Holden some over the last few months, or at least keep in conversation with him, as he finds his feet in what is for him a new field. It upset me viscerally to see a colleague take so many hard shots. As in a boxing match, when a man no longer defends himself, you want someone to jump in whether the referee or the cornerman before permanent damage is done in the heat of the moment.

As the Holden Story plays to its finish over the next few weeks, I hope that the Metafilter community will think about how best to have a continuing positive impact on the online conversation of philanthropy. You folks could force the discussion to a higher plane.

I have to admit that I really laughed when I saw myself referred to on Metafilter as "Morals Tutor to America's Wealthiest Families and Undertaker to America's Best Traditions." That is perfect.

Junius Martial has an aphorism about a physician who doubles as an undertaker. Either way you get your mother back. To the extent satire or public censure is moral medicine, the joke fits. The torturer, the surgeon, and the undertaker look a lot alike as they do their work. I am hoping that Holden is someone who can be healed, saved, reformed, set right, or however you could put it. Moral censure in public can be so harsh that the malefactor dies under the corrective lash. My impulse is to spare the man as he awaits his Board's session.

Anwyay, thank you for your comments. I hope it is the beginning of more lasting interchange between Metafilter and the so-called "philanthropy blogs." By the way, Lucy Bernholz is a long-established and highly regarded player on the philanthropy scene "in real life." So one way or another, Metafiliter has now arrived on the scene.

Blank Filling

Every value I hold is a value I've compromised in a moment of weakness, including the values most important to me. I wish that weren't true, but it is. The fact that I made this horrible mistake does not change the reason I ____________.


To some extent you are blaming the messenger. In the same sense that early hackers mainly served to point out lax security by showing how easy it was to do a little mischief, and that by extension how easy to do real damage and how unprepared the systems operators were.

I'm not condoning the sin, but pointing out that the real problem isn't Holden and GiveWell, but what many others may be doing without being exposed. The systems just don't hold up well to even minor attacks on integrity, and that has to be addressed. We also don't know the motives of those pressing for more retribution.

The thing is RCM, I suspect that your recommendation to be more careful about "letting inexperienced" actors get involved in this way would not have a positive impact. The bigger problem in philanthropy is ossified practices and wasted resource in duplicated administrative work caused by the silo structure of the field. It is not clear what the answers are, but getting more conservative hardly seems like a solution.


Well, if this is what non-ossified people bring to philanthropy, I'm sticking with the old guard, Phil.

I really can't believe you just said "the real problem is what this episode teaches us about the internet," in effect. Nonsense. Holden and Elie are not heros for showing us flaws in a medium we already know quite well. They exploited those flaws purposefully to shill their product and trash their competitors.

What does "moral" mean in "moral tutor" if it does not entail accountability?


My apologies -- I was responding to Gerry and not Phil in my last.


The nonprofit world has been described as the citizen sector. Amateurs should be welcome. I guess, the issue raised by Givewell his how "beginners" should get involved in regranting other people's money. My understanding is that initially Givewell granted money that it had received from friends who know the founders well. That calls for one level of supervision. But now Givewell is "suddenly famous," and is soliciting money from strangers. That does require, it would seem, more robust systems, checks and balances, supervision and Board oversight. "Fake it until you make it" is how many a start up goes. But when you are dealing with other people's money the systems and management have to be solid.

As a "take away," I wonder if a startup "regranting organization" following in the Givewell footsteps might not want to operate initially as fund inside an established organization, like a community foundation. That might bring the founders "under the wing" of more experienced grant makers and provide some underlying infrastructure for handling money, doing accounting, etc. It might help acculturate the founders. Board oversight is key too.


I didn't say they are heros, their analog in my example is vandalism by teens, and I give you that there is and should be more responsibility assessed in this case. What I'm saying is that the systems are vulnerable to fraud from those who will not appoligize and play nice when caught. The systems desing has to address that, and current systems are way behind on that.


But in other words, Gerry, the only one "blaming the messenger" here is you. And other defenders of Holden who seem to think Metafilter in particular, and Holden's other critics in general, are bad for revealing his fraudulent activities.

Morality 101, man. Excuses, excuses, excuses . . . someone broke faith with the public trust here, repeatedly, and with consequences that are not even fully known but are obviously serious. That someone was Holden Karnofsky and he was abetted by his partner Elie Hassenfield. Metafilter did nothing wrong; it policed its own rules and decided to investigate someone who broke them. How about condemning what Holden did before you condemn those who brought it to public attention?

Or do you still think it was trivial? If so, you don't have money invested in (or donated to/through) Givewell, and you haven't googled the words Givewell Scam yet. At a minimum, Givewell itself is seriously going to be set back and maybe shut down, and investors will lose at least a few hundred grand if that happens, $65K of which went into each of Our Heroes' pockets.

Even if the charges were not true -- which they are -- this would be Holden's fault.



Assume we were addressing a few dozen Wall Street whiz kids in their 20's. Imagine we were making the case for citizen engagement and philanthropy. We would probably want to encourage them in projects like pooling their money, researching charities, and having a person or two they designate make grants. If one or two wanted to take a huge pay cut and do grant research full time, and draw, with the permission of the funding friends a salary at a fraction of what they and their friends had been earning, that would seem laudable. I am not privy to the details, but the scenario above may be how this whole thing started. Once started, it took on a life of its own over 12 months, and now has come to this. Lots of lessons can be learned. I hope, though, that we continue to welcome and cultivate and educate the newbies, however brash they may be.


hat I'm saying is that the systems are vulnerable to fraud from those who will not appoligize and play nice when caught. The systems desing has to address that, and current systems are way behind on that.

OK, "heroes" was a strong word. But still, you mean this? Our systems are vulnerable to fraud from the perpetrators of fraud, not from their failure to "apologize when caught." If you mean this, you are saying that this all would be OK with you if only Holden had not been caught.

If he had confessed before being caught and apologized, I would perhaps agree with you a bit. But do you think that was ever his intention? If so, you need to look at what he has done in more detail.

Whether you are "caught" or not is irrelevant to the question of morality. Apologizing is not, but it loses force when done under duress, and Holden's apology was made under extreme duress, and in such a state of panic about what he had done (and how he had been caught, and what else might come out, and now has) that he *even offered to BUY OFF -- that is "bribe" -- MetaFilter to stop the bleeding, right in the thread.*

Make of that anything but a tale of bad conduct, if you can.



I would tell those 20-something kids (as a moral tutor, in fact!):

This is what happens when you lie and abuse the public trust. Just like if you did something like this that harmed your employer if you worked at a hedge fund or a law firm, you will be fired, your reputation will be harmed, and you will be publicly humiliated.

Do not abuse the public trust. Welcome to adulthood and the professions. Now do good.


Because there are plenty of 20-something privileged kids who DO NOT act like this.



Maybe what drives the discussion at this point is the perception that some take the matter seriously and others take it lightly. To be clear, I take it very seriously, but my role is that of a bystander and someone who considers Holden a friend. I don't have any authority or standing to discipline or reprimand him in any official capacity. All I can do is succor him or counsel him as a friend.

Reading the thread at Metafilter and your comments is causing in my own head a collision between contexts. On the net on our own time, we can mess around, adopt personas, and do things that might be considered foolish. Those can verge over into misrepresentation. When that happens the net at its best self corrects. A community enforces it's standards and self polices through relentless criticism, shaming, or even banning. Thatis one context. The other context that you and your Metafilter friends helped me bring into play for myself is the whole issue of fiduciary responsibility to other people and their money. If you take as an analogous context, say, a broker dealer, or registered investment advisor, or bank, or trust company, handling money entrusted to it, and invoke those standards, well, that is serious indeed. So much so that I hesitate to air opinions online.

The Board has the responsibility. They have had one heck of a "heads up." There's is the next move.


Whether a bad actor has a reasonably high probability of being caught and exposed, is a property of the system. The threshold at which it breaks down is a function of the "morality" of the population.

You stated that he would have continued without apology or change in behavior if not caught, and I assume that others have and are not known. Are you not concerned about this issues?

I am not contesting the importance of values and outing bad-behavior. I just don't think it is a black and white as you paint it, and I am not inclined to be punitive. As Jeff points out, it is hard to predict which of our friends will go one way vs. the other. The more familiar you are with someone, and the more moral force your opinions have with them, the more likely you are to go for repair and redemption over shunning and casting out. I just think the former are more effective and if you can't manage it because of social distance then you need to address that first.


I'm bouncing over from MetaFilter to say that Gerry's apologetics for Holden and Elie strike me as morally wishy-washy.

You compare them to vandals, but I see you blaming the existence of spray paint as the reason for this happening.

MeFi has rules. One of the clearest is to not self-promote. Holden violated that trust. When cornered, he started apologizing and attempting to throw money around.

That's not transparency -- a value he himself has said Givewell treasures. And the string of other similar incidents across the web world underscores the problem.

What I find sad is that it takes MeFites, a clan of people who aren't exactly among the philanthropic elite or the so-called mainstream media, to pull at the threads of the Givewell sweater. And I find that very frustrating.

We're not out to get anyone. We're using the tools we have, public tools, available to anyone, to better understand how we got to this point. As I told someone yesterday, you have Google -- start digging. And you all have Google too.

Transparency isn't a buzzword, folks. It's de rigeur on the web. If you act opaque, people will start digging, because they'll wonder what you're hiding.


Yes, this issue of context it critical, and I understand why Phil becomes silent on the latter. At least in the specifics of this instance, leaving that for GiveWell's board.

I wonder too about the issue of different rules for different contexts, or for the same context, different people. Like Phil says, the on-line ways of dealing with this work pretty well in and of themselves, but when it spills over into the value and mission of organizations that people are investing time and money in ...

Still, they hyper-professionals are well practiced at staying within the lines as they carry out a mission that is never fully revealed. Seems to me than some new blood that may make mistakes could be positive even if this sort of micro-scandal is more common. I'd rather have a thousand mini-scandal's like Holden's than one more Enron. Where are all those professionals in a case like this? For that matter where are they on the destruction of our democracy by a perversion of the arts?


With Maureen's talk of twenty-somethings "never developing a concept of self with traction in the real world" and Gerry's assertion that there's some sort of problem involving analogies between executive management of philanthropic organizations and computer security which is a more serious issue than Holden's behavior, I'm inclined to think that there's a notion here that the internet and the things said on it are not part of the real world and that somehow mitigates the ethical significance of Holden's actions. Don't you see that Holden could have done precisely the same sort of thing, lied and misrepresented himself to potential donors, in person or in print? This isn't some sort of special or novel quandary just because the internet is involved.


Well, that metaphor has been beat into the dust.

No, I'm objecting to the mob's willingness to string him up for something that doesn't do any permanent harm. To the extent that the harm is less trust in the posts, and more checking of credentials, that is a good thing. It may be the MeFi has enough tools to self-police with an active community. The fact that it can be done and how effectively is a property of the system.

The issue that remains no matter how much you try to stop it is the desire to tag. Likewise the desire to self-promote. I'm certainly not a supporter of spam, but getting moralistic about it doesn't make it go away.


DN, please keep the concepts straight. I did not connect those things.

The point about the difference on the Internet is the fact that identity is not always tracked or available. He didn't have to publicly admit the transgression even if the facts were undisputable. He did, and while I understand that many feel it was grudging and incomplete, but that doesn't change the fact that he accepts that it was wrong and the responsibility for doing it.

While this isn't a moral high point, I hardly think it is the slippery slope to oblivion that others do.



Your point is well taken. I didn't mean to imply that the two contexts, online and off, are truly different when the actions are the same. The core issue is how a regranting nonprofit ought to conduct itself online (as well as off). The standards should be the same, I agree. As virtual nonprofits spring up, out of the internet culture, they will have to meet the legal, business, and ethical standards to which their brick and mortar peers are held. I don't see how anyone could disagree with that point, once they have reflected on it.


The issue that remains no matter how much you try to stop it is the desire to tag. Likewise the desire to self-promote. I'm certainly not a supporter of spam, but getting moralistic about it doesn't make it go away.

Yeah, but.

We're talking about a bunch of guys spouting about "integrity" and "transparency." They're running an NPO/foundation, one that takes donations from the public.

They shouldn't be spamming, because we expect -- and should expect -- that they have the integrity not to do that.

Those Chinese/Russian spam farmers, well, that's what they do. We expect them to spam, because that's what they do. Why is it wrong for us to expect that Holden and Elie shouldn't be astroturfing? They should be better than that.


I think that part of the general concern comes from both the scope of the issue, the number of incidents of misrepresentation or deception it entails, and the wide variety of minimizing or excusing attitudes and arguments that have appeared in the course of various MetaFilter denizens trying to bring this to the attention of people who can do something about it.

With the degree and concerted pattern of falsity that has been presented already there's a tendency to suspect that the ethical censure is a facade as well, doubled again by a suspicion that since Holden is regarded as such a wonderful person he won't be treated as someone else who did these things might be.

More thorough criticism of Holden by someone "on his side" would be the most reassuring to me personally but short, clear, definite statements of the principles involved, which you guys have made a few of here, also help.

[For some reason I'm having a great deal of difficulty posting to this site, it only seems to work about one in twenty times, so I may not be successful in responding to you further]

maureen Doyle

Touché, Phil. You put your finger on the essential point when you wrote:

"As virtual nonprofits spring up, out of the internet culture, they will have to meet the legal, business, and ethical standards to which their brick and mortar peers are held. I don't see how anyone could disagree with that point, once they have reflected on it."

I think that Holden and Elie will have some bruises after this encounter with the terrain. No matter that their gests occured in cyberspace.

Personally, I don't have an opinion of what specific outcome the Board should choose, other than to say that I believe it is their responsibility (as it is the responsibility of each one of us) to arrive at a story that maps onto who they want GiveWell to become. That story could have all kinds of endings and barring complete defeat will change continuously as the organizations lives its life.

Although I feel it is important for the "community" to offer push back when the limits of the acceptable are digressed, I personally don't want to play the role of Mrs. Grundy. Let's not forget we don't get to write our own eulogies. Besides, we've probably all got some personal work we could do to construct a better world.

Blank Filling

The Karnofsky Wringer:

o  Fire him

o  Forgive him

o  Pause, research, reflect

o  All of the above

Mini poll here.


Well said, Maureen.

Let me be clear, that I am not defending Holden's actions per se, and not being part of that particular community, it isn't really my place. For me the temporing is around the severity of the transgression, and the importance of mitigating circumstances. There is also an understanding that this is a new space and the rules aren't always clear and change from place to place.

Phil and I also see the culture clash of coming from the business world into the philanthropic world. The language and values are completely different. With all the buzz around "venture philanthropy", I see this as all very predictable. When we have conversed here, Holden is a little hard-headed, but I figured the world would help him with lessons and here it is.

If we make it into a death penalty, nothing is learned. What would be enough? Calling for the board to fire him is one thing, but expecting it as the only acceptable coarse is harsh to say the least.

Jeff Trexler

@maureen Doyle: Actually, a nonprofit does have an opportunity to write its own eulogy. It can dissolve, and its leaders can explain why they did it and how they are distributing its assets.

Perhaps Givewell has a chance here to do something truly distinct in promoting efficiency. Over the years I've heard a number of folks express concern over charities continuing well past the point of effectiveness. Givewell is young enough, however, that it doesn't have substantial lock-in of property or human capital. One possible path toward redemption would be for management to wind it up and to issue a public statement affirming the group's mission, apologizing for what happened, and expressing the commitment of everyone involved to continue to serve the charitable community.

I'm not saying this as a joke or an attack. Lawyers and consultants regularly advise start-ups to ask whether the work could be done as effectively through existing entities. Here we have an organization that has severely compromised its own core brand identity a few weeks out of the box. And the problem isn't limited to sock puppetry; the subsequent evasions and defensive attacks have arguably hurt Givewell as much or more.

This is a teachable moment. If there were ever an opportunity for a group to demonstrate its commitment to moving beyond irrational self-preservation, Givewell would seem to have it.



Thank you for the consistently thoughtful and gracious discussion. For the Board there is a lot of work to do. Given the commitment that Givewell has had to transparency, I assume they will be open and clear about their thought process and conclusions. Until that happens, I feel "all talked out."


Jeff, thank you for commenting here. I read your blog, Uncivil Society, regularly, including your recent post on Givewell. Maybe another option would be a reorganization? As long as we are playing what if.... What if it became a fund within a community foundation? Or a supporting organization? Does it provide comfort if the new org is in some way "inside" a bigger one, with more of a track record? All depends, of course, on how it is implemented.


One last observation I feel I need to make - Gerry said:

"Calling for the board to fire him is one thing, but expecting it as the only acceptable coarse is harsh to say the least."

I just went and searched the entire MetaFilter thread for the word "fire" and found only one person calling for that there, though I remember seeing it on other web sites. Many people cited similar situations in which they'd known someone to be fired or would expect someone to be fired but most of the criticism has been in the realm of pointing out that he has been unethical or hypocritical.


I haven't read the whole thread over there. I was remarking based on some things that were written here that seemed to be calling for that. (One of the earlier comments from RCM)

Here it is:

Apologies are way in the past now. Firing Holden is the ONLY thing GiveWell can do to recover its reputation, and it had better do so quickly.

Jeff Trexler

Phil, back at ya! If this were talk radio, I would have started with long-time-first-time.

Your suggested alternatives to dissolution might work, at least over the long term. Even before the meltdown, I got the sense that a number of people were concerned about the apparent lack of adult supervision. That might have been OK if what GW were doing were truly unique, but there are enough people focused on metrics nowadays that the outsize claims made the project seem a tad out of control.

Restructuring, particularly by affiliating with another group, could be a less drastic way of making Givewell less radioactive. In essence it's the sort of attention management that the team should be thinking about regardless. If you want folks to buy what you believe to be an innovative product, one potentially potent marketing strategy is to link it to something familiar. The same strategy can be useful in damage control, offsetting suspicion with an icon of trust.


Harvard Case Study in the making?

Rachel Tension

I have a complex relationship with Holden Karnofski. I consider myself a friend—a blogger colleague—and as such my first instinct is to support a repentant sinner and provide what comfort I can. I should also say that while I applaud the instinct that drives young people like Holden to attempt to shake up established philanthropy, I also have profound “issues” with the manner in which GiveWell approaches the proposition that “[n]onprofits should be thoroughly analyzed and compared with each other, in order to determine which ones can most improve the world.” GiveWell's M.O. sickens me, to be quite frank.

That said, my message to you Meta-whatevers is "go f*ck yourselves." I hope you show the same zeal for truth when you encounter obfuscation and ethical lapses outside your irrelevant little online community. You've devoted considerable energy to outing Holden as a liar. I hope you've given a proportionate amount of time and energy to protesting secret CIA prisons and waterboarding, prisoners held without due process, an immoral war fought for immoral purposes.

What's the worst sin?:

a) Being dishonest in a way that betrays the trust of a small online community, in the service of a great public good? or

b) Getting all holier-than-thou in a community focused on questions like, "Familiar with the Las Vegas airport? I need some practical advice for choosing my flight/airline." Like go f*ck yourselves.

It's not that Holden didn't do a bad thing. It's that you guys are so inwardly focused and appear to have no mercy.

So go f*ck yourselves.

Alan Cordle

Harvard Case Study in the making?

This is typical Harvard as far as I can tell. Check out their star poet, Jorie Graham, and her hubby/colleague.



O boy, just when this thread had gentled down to silence. Should be good for my hit count tomorrow.


O boy, just when this thread had gentled down to silence. Should be good for my hit count tomorrow.


Alan, thanks for the link.


Rachel: what exactly is your objection to the question-and-answer part of Metafilter? Is there something wrong with a community providing a quick and easy place to ask 40,000 community members for advice or information? The questions range from bizarre to silly to very pertinent - and plenty of people have been helped in very concrete ways, which is what Holden's claiming to do too.

Check out the rest of Metafilter and you'll see that waterboarding and the war get discussed a lot, and information and strategies to appraoch that kind of injustice is also chared. But Metafilter doesn't "focus on" questions about the LA airport any more than it focuses on Holden. It's much broader than that, and so is the membership.


Hey Rachel

Right back atcha. Your ugly words tell us what you're about. You will find very little vitriol like that anywhere in the many hundreds of comments on Metafilter today.

Holden brought this on himself. Live by declaring yourself more virtuous than others, and then die by hypocrisy.

You don't know jack about Metafilter, which is the finest real online community on the web. Most of the people posting on the MetaTalk thread are serious professional people, well educated people, and people with relevant expertise, including some who obviously could have schooled Holden and anyone on this blog in the higher concepts of non-profit and philanthropical management. Have you bothered to read it? I didn't think so.

You only reveal yourself as a naive twit on the level of, say, Holden Karnofsky.



And Rachel, you continue the trend among holden's defenders of reducing his msibehavior to a violation of Metafilter's community rules. If that were all this was, this would be overkill But has been pointed out here and in many of the dozens of other blogs carrying parts of this story now (meaning it doesn't matter anymore who's right, only that something get done fast or Givewell is gonewell), HOLDEN DID A LOT OF OTHER BAD THINGS besides astroturfing Metafilter. It just took Metafilter outing his breach of conduct there to open the floodgates on a lot of breach of trust stuff, and at least one instance of outright identity theft, which might well be illegal.

Charitable non-profits have a responsibility under the law (never mind morally) to respect the public trust. Holden failed miserably at meeting this responsibility.

Mercy is just simply not the issue.


Rachel Tension


I've read many Metafilter threads. It's not much different than scores of other online sites I've visited or belong to: a lot of drive-by commenting, a piling up on this or that issue, a lot of words to no effect. This is what passes for "deliberation" in Cyberspace. It's pathetic. As if you can get to the bottom of an issue with one-liners and cognitive mutual masturbation inside ServerWorld.

Yes, perhaps I'm a naive twit. But I've read almost every word Holden has written, and while I disagree with him on many issues, he's no naive twit. Give me a list of all the good things you've done for the world and then I might start to respect your moral authority.

Perhaps Holden was a hypocrite. Have you ever been hypocritical? Have you, for example, ever expressed a love for animals? If so, should we discuss it over a burger some day? Do you buy products from China even though that country sends tens of thousands of people to the gulag each year?

Go f*ck yourself. I wipe my *ss with Metafilter. You mistake an incited mob for a community.

Rachel Tension

I'm not defending Holden's actions. That's between him, his god, and his board. I'm accusing you of a lack of perspective and charitableness.


My goodness. Are you 15 or simply mentally defective, Rachel?

Yes, I've been hypocritical. I am not the point here. Holden is. Holden was hypocritical, but he also violated the public trust, may have broken the law, and has certainly harmed his enterprise badly.

And what I have done for the world is irrelevant, though my answer would probably shame you. I see no evidence whatsoever that Holden has yet done anything for the world except sully it with his fraud.

You continue to try to reduce the issue to hypocrisy. The issue is fraud. You are an apologist for a violation of the public trust, flailing about for excuses.

You obviously, also, don't know the first thing about Metafilter, your bluster notwithstanding.

Your language really does not warrant a response, but I'll let you stand for a lot of other apologists, all heat and no light. Or perhaps you are also Holden, under yet another alias. No one will ever know.



And lastly, if someone breaches the public trust -- and breaks the rules of a web community -- it is not "between him, his board, and his god," any more than it would be if he had shot someone.

GiveWell solicits charitable donations and purports to tell people where to donate and evaluates legitimate charities ruthlessly and unfairly and, finally, trashes its established, legitimate competition unfairly. It's an unprofessional, low budget operation that has revealed itself to be a joke.

God ain't got nothing to do with it. It's between GiveWell and the public, including Metafilter's public.

Grow up and get real, moron.


Rachel Tension

Or perhaps you are also Holden, under yet another alias. No one will ever know.

We are all Holden, RCM.



In fact Rachel is a persona for a person who is well known in foundation circles, considered an innovator, and about as highly educated as a person can be and still function as an American Citizen. Click on the name, Rachel Tension, and follow the link to White Courtesy Telephone. A serious site presented in the light manner of Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.

Your team made a case, and should be applauded for what is reasonable in it, but that case could have rested 400 comments ago.

Why the energy now? The heat and vehemence? Normally, a judge does not fly off the bench, having pronounced sentence, cursing and flailing wildly about shouting, "This not about my being insane! It is about that sonofabitch being guilty.....Let's hang that bastard!" Such conduct is unbecoming a man of your wisdom, virtue, and sagacity. You do yourself a disservice, Sir. The theme is charity. Let us be charitable all around if we can.


Rachel is a professional in your field (not mine, so excuse my use of a non-technical term -- I mean managing philanthropies, OK?), you say.

What professional at the level you claim she occupies would write such coarse and stupid things under her own name on a public blog? What a joke. She ought to be worried about her job too, I think. She's clearly unstable.

You guys don't get it. This is not about one site being mean to one person any longer. There is not much joy being taken in Holden's downfall on Metafilter anyway. You're simply wrong about the preponderance of what is a very interesting discussion there. But the fact remains: GiveWell is in bad, bad trouble because of what Holden did. That can't be changed, and it wouldn't change if the entire Metafilter thread were deleted right now.

You're blaming the messenger. You've been doing it to excuse Holden's conduct (along with Gerry and Rachel) consistently all day.

It makes me think you're a bunch of cronies, a passel of privileged folks huffing about the ignorant mob shouting at the castle door.

That's how it looks. I have no personal stake in any of this. But this blog has revealed even more of the dark side of your world, a world where no one seems to be accountable, even as you all scream that others should be more accountable.

Pathetic really. But I'm done here, so over and out. Moral tutor, you say? Yeah, right.




Rachel is a persona, a mask. The site in question often plays with masks in the spirit of Oscar Wilde, another elitist. You seem a little off balance. When you are in a mood to repent of your own sins, rather than Holden's, I would be happy to provide a complimentary morals tutorial. Only Holden can repent of his sins, only you of your own. Perhaps we should all take a time out to examine our own conscience.


One last time, you change the subject. I am not the issue here, even if I were Ted Bundy.

Play with masks all you like. You play with the truth as well.



Any one who casts a stone against a sinner is already characterizing themselves and their own moral stance. That is the point of that episode, one you may remember from the Gospels. Jesus, as you might notice, did change the subject from the woman taken in adultery (apparently caught in the act) to the moral status of those who were about to stone her to death. Now, in that case, the citizens with stones quietly dropped them. They did not, in the Bible, say, "No fair, Jesus, you are changing the subject on us."

The subject here on this blog is moral development. Your's is important to me. I take your continued posting of comments as a plea for help or at least as an open invitation to be used for the purpose of pointing a larger moral. I don't say you are a bad man, but in pursuit of excellence we can all be better. I would like to think that your time here will leave you at least a little better as a person. That may be Foolish of me, but such is my Noble Trade.

Antoine Möeller

I had a similar thought to Rachel's. Is our rage at our own fecklessness in the larger issues near the bursting point? Are we subconsciously itching to visit it upon a "doable" target?


A winnable little war to bring the people of a community together in a spirit of triumphalism.


As someone who actually offers moral guidance as a profession, I simply observe your own lack of professionalism in the context of your masked drama here. You provide no reason for me to respect your moral judgment in general, let alone your specific enjoinders above to know myself.

I misjudged this blog. It's a waste of time. I really must be leaving.

PS And what makes you think I am a man?

Carson Blaker

For anyone who thinks that the discussion of these events at MetaFilter should be discounted because of its length and/or disposition, I recommend you load the (huge!) thread, press CTRL+F and type "posted by Miko". Her contributions to the fiasco--including the initial 'call-out'--are excellent, and all one needs to comprehend the implications of Mr. Karnofsky's actions. To be clear, I don't know Miko except by her words at MetaFilter; and I have read the entire thread over the past two days as well as most of the links made therein.

Rachel Tension says upthread: "I'm not defending Holden's actions. That's between him, his god, and his board."

I'd add to that list his donors, his selected charities, anyone to whom he's promised complete transparency, the organizations he underhandedly slagged, and the NFP sphere in general.

Maureen Doyle

RCM, this is a conversation not a conspiracy. I for one just met Phil a few days ago by commenting on a blog and I'm the E.D. of a start up non-profit trying to figure out how to map the way I think this world ought to work onto the terrain as it stands.

What's striking about your comments (as well as, Rachel among other's) is the depths of your anger. No one here has denied that Holden and Elie's did many wrongs nor that they have dug themselves into a very deep hole. I can see being upset about that to a point -- but only to a point. In my mind, it's more interesting for what it tells us about our society. People, especially groups of them, are often maddening.

You're also angry about the way the conversation has turned, claiming that every one in this blog is privileged and therefore somehow incapable of seeing the "truth" you see. There, I think you are doing yourself a great disservice, namely the ability to see straight yourself. You have been blinded by all of these words.

As petty (or quaintly zen) as it may sound, this exchange is in merely words. Or as Frank Zappa put it words, words, more words.


RCM, I would be pleased to know more about you. Gender would be nice to know, I guess. Would certainly be interested in how you teach morals. Are you an academic? A prison guard? Reform School Warden? A cleric? A street preacher? If you work through the teaching of morals and stop short of the conclusion that you are a Fool, then I think you have done our Noble Trade a disservice.
Socrates, even he, said that he was the wisest of men because he knew he knew nothing. A fool who knows he is a Fool is perhaps on the road to wisdom. I am a sinner, a fool, and even my claim to being born again is an outright fraud. I am now and always have been in bondage to sin.

That is my shtick, what is yours?



Yes, how can we laugh folly and knavery into good humor and good sense? That is half the art of satire. One benefit of blogging is that we can wear down these rough edges and become more "civil," without withholding our considered judgments.



"CTRL+F and type 'posted by Miko.'" Thank you for that. I had been thinking about going back to hunt up Miko's comments, not just for the light they shed on the Holden affair, but for the light they shed on the entire field.


(enrique? give her a shtik cake, she looks hungry.)

come, eat, bubele, you'll feel better!

Kelly Mullen

"Go f*ck yourself. I wipe my *ss with Metafilter. You mistake an incited mob for a community."

"Like go f*ck yourselves."

"So go f*ck yourselves."

Posted by: Rachel Tension

"In fact Rachel is a persona for a person who is well known in foundation circles, considered an innovator, and about as highly educated as a person can be and still function as an American Citizen. "

Posted by: phil

I'll take your word for it Phil. Still, she sounds like an angry 14 year old.

"Perhaps we should all take a time out to examine our own conscience."

Posted by: phil

I have and I'm good. But thanks for the input Phil.

Posted originally by someone posing as someone real

"In fact Rachel is a persona for a person who is well known in foundation circles, considered an innovator, and about as highly educated as a person can be and still function as an American Citizen."

Wow, is she really? She comes across as a potty mouthed three year old throwing a tantrum. And that thing she does, whaddayacallit, that logical fallacy thing, where you dismiss an argument by attacking the person arguing? (in this case, 'you people post about airports!! You haven't abolished waterboarding yet!! =You have no credibility!!)
Oh hell, what is that called?
(In case you hadn't guessed, my persona is a sociology prof, functions OK as an American Citizen, but pretty poorly in intelligent discourse)


RCM makes the interesting remark that Rachel "ought to be worried about her job." (For me, the fact that RCM thinks Rachel's remarks are grounds for firing detracts somewhat from his argument the Holden should be.)

And yet interestingly, we know who Rachel is and we don't know who RCM is. So presumably it is RCM that is worried about his/her job.

There is something peculiar about a heated discussion in which half the participants are anonymous - and complaining that those who aren't are 'wearing masks'. Not bad, mind you, just a bit peculiar.

Without taking sides, I guess I say that if you can't express yourself freely in public without worrying about losing your job, then maybe you should consider looking for a new job.

Maybe I should be fired too? To paraphrase Bob Dylan, "Everybody must get fired."


"interestingly, we know who Rachel is"

Do we? Can someone please tell me? Because I followed that link to White Courtesy Telephone and I didn't find anything that would tell me who Rachel is at all. I'd love to be enlightened, just so I can see if it's someone I've been quoting in my professional capacity...


Phil: you're taking an excessive amount of grief in this thread, but with all due respect, calling the MeFi response "triumphalism" and backhandedly accusing the community of taking this too far comes off as belittling, and bit high-handed.

There's no appropriate amount of reprobation for Holden here -- he set himself up for this in the worst way, and he was the one who raised the stakes, by trying to cover his initial falsehoods with more prevarication, and then falling conspicuously silent. He set up MeFi to prove him wrong by offering up a fairly flimsy and easily-disproved defense, and this response is hardly unexpected or excessive in that light. In fact, it was entirely predictable.

While you're obviously entitled to your opinion on Holden's culpability here, no one has the wisdom to proclaim the appropriately proportional response -- it was Holden who had the chance to set the tone right off the bat, and he did a poor job. Whatever might follow is merely the results of his actions and judgment, and it's not for any of us to pass on the "right amount" of backlash. That position is tantamount to assigning a moral valence to a weather forecast.


Why the energy now? The heat and vehemence?

WHAT heat? WHAT vehemence?

I mean, honestly. The backbone of the entire thread has been Miko's factfinding surrounded by a bunch of us having an ongoing discussion about whether Givewell's central mission, lack of direction, and desperate need for seasoned leadership make it a stillborn idea from the start.

I mean, their ideas around metrics just astound me. It sounds like they have no sense of what sort of work it will take to do their "special" numbers, and it doesn't sound like they understand the need to provide indirects to cover these costs.

What will their metrics show me that, say, a 990 and an audited financial report won't show me? And how will they value intangibles? If one poor kid goes to bed with a full stomach tonight, is that more or less valuable than one poor kid getting vaccinated for polio?

Of course, I speak from a higher ed background, not from an NPO background (though I was with a large one in a previous career). Cum grano salis.

Miko has real concerns. I have real concerns. Yeah, the signal-to-noise in that thread has diminished, but a lot of us are talking and writing about stuff related to Givewell that has nothing to do with the shivaree this started with.

I know "read the thread" is a painful thing to suggest, especially considering that it's almost 100,000 words now, but I really think that you have to go find the signal in there. Start with Miko's stuff and then work the angles. I think you'll find that we moved beyond lynching a long time ago, and what we're talking about now is the sort of stuff that you philanthropic bloggers should be writing about.

Oh, and as for Rachel, the "persona" thing is so last year. We went through the Mean Kids and Kathy Sierra thing last April, and that was an incredible debacle that makes this battle look positively tame.

People who hide behind "personas," especially ones they use just so they can throw rocks in anonymity, always, always get revealed, and when they are, there be a terrible accountin'.

If the person behind "Rachel" were wise, he/she would retire it immediately and let it sink into obscurity. That is, if they still value their reputation in the greater community.


Also, Phil, baiting someone who doesn't quite get the gist of your ironic tone isn't all that becoming, either. Again, this comes off as high-handed. You're not making your rhetorical strategy all that clear -- so when people are getting obviously enraged, and the subject at issue is of the sort being discussed here, at some point refusing to step out of character seems to cross the line from friendly satire into needless provocation. A little clarification and circumspection would not be out of place just now.

Tim Kolar

The emphasis on the word "mistake" in this blog has come to disturb me while reading through it.

Failing to disclose your affiliations is a mistake. Bad mouthing the competition is a mistake.

Pretending to be two different people in order to have a "conversation" shilling your product is not a mistake. It is a planned deception, and one that allows considerable time for reflection on what you are doing.

I believe that a lot of the class issues that have come up (rather unexpectedly from my point of view) center around the characterization of Mr. Karnofsky's "lapse of judgment", as the title of this blog post puts it. For better or worse, it is well known in American society that activities that will land a minority or lower-income American in jail will be dismissed for the privileged white person. And here we have a privileged white person, a fraudulent activity, and the phrase "lapse in judgment" being bandied about. In retrospect, it is quite clear why class has become so entwined in the issue.

On a separate note, Mr. Karnofsky's fate has been forecast as "sent to the Dumpster forever", and it has been said that a "man's reputation and career" are on the line. And yet as Maureen Doyle so aptly put it, "this exchange is in merely words".

Does anyone here truly believe Mr. Karnofsky's fate will be decided by the current public drubbing he is taking? He is by all accounts a competent if slightly naive young man, and while he has created a hole to dig himself out of, I hardly think this is the end of his career regardless of his fate at GiveWell.

In short, it seems that some here have bought into the same illusions being bandied about in the Metafilter thread: that a black eye is a fatal injury, or that reputations once ruined can not be rebuilt. That people who know him are rushing to his defense speaks well of him, but I might suggest their time will be better spent helping him to retrench and rebuild after this storm has wound its way down. The worst damage has already been done, and at this point continued debate is only serving to keep things riled up.

Persona E Person

"We know who Rachel is"

Editor's note by Phil Cubeta at 1/5 1:46 CST This comment originally claimed to know who Rachel is and gave detailed information about her. That person was completely misidentified. She later wrote me saying she had received a threatening note from this site and asked me to help her set the record straight. In that spirit, I have eliminated the contact info for her that had been posted here by the commenter. I have put this footnote here for anyone who is trying to reconstruct this sequence after the fact. I would ask if you are following this sequence to help me bring things quietly to rest.


Oh, and two more things:

Triumphalism? OK then, whatever you need to do to dismiss some very smart and diligent people in the name of just saying we're all "bloggers in pajamas." I mean, if that's what helps you sleep tonight, by all means, run with it. But do so at your own peril. Entering the blogging world and not understanding the lay of the land, well, that's like one of those charities that goes into the Third World to "save it" without asking the people on the ground what they actually need. Some of us have been in this world a lot longer than you. Understand it before you dismiss it out of hand like some British colonial with his pith hat and his gin and tonics looking down on the unwashed.

And second... honestly, MeFi is nothing compared to Digg or Fark for venom. Heck, it's not even an venomous thread for MeFi.


To take another crack at conveying the perspective of a MetaFilter denizen whose thirst for Holden's blood will not be quenched:

I find things like lying on your resume, lying to a prospective employee about what a job's like, shoplifting, scamming people on the goods you sell them - little acts of fraud that serve to bump other people and their rights and concerns out of the way and line your own purse at the same time, I find things like that outrageous. And people who do them entirely deserve the material ruin that comes their way from it even if they're the most upstanding individual in the world. You faked a diploma from a college you never attended? When it comes out your career based on those false credentials should END whether you've been a noble, generous, virtuous, top-of-your-field achiever or a self-interested mediocre nobody.

Further up in this discussion, in related blog postings elsewhere on the net, and from the mouths / keyboards of MeFites who are involved in the sector, something I have heard repeatedly in the last couple of days is "oh, there are tons of unethical and corrupt people in philanthropy! They get away with this kind of thing all the time!"

Now I find that utterly vile. The self-serving falsehoods and frauds I mention above are bad enough on their own but when that kind of thing is done in the name of charity, in the name of the public trust, in the name of the Dickensian redemptable part of humanity, it is INEXCUSABLY VILLAINOUS.

No, Holden's case is not Enron, but Enron damn well better not be the lower bar for that kind of crime.

So when I hear "Awww, that fraud, that's just a newbie trip-up! He's practically a minor for these purposes." or "This is a matter between Holden and his board, no more public input, turn away" or "enough discussion, no more comments, stop talking about it" as Rachel Tension said it sounds to my incredulous ears like "One of these numerous, elusive, abhorrent violators of philanthropic integrity has finally been caught, red-handed, but just let it go, file it, move on."

I can understand a call for clemency because you know Holden personally and I think I'm allowing for that. But although you seem to articulate the same kind of principles I hold I get the feeling, perhaps a misinterpretation on my part, that you find the actions themselves substantially less troubling than I do. So that's where I'm coming from and where I think some of the others on MetaFilter are coming from. This is why we're relentless - because it looks like he might be able to contrive a way of getting away with this practically unscathed relative to the gravity of his actions.

[To demonstrate that it's not simple mob-think going on at MetaFilter: for my part I think it's silly to assert that Holden is stupid or incompetent. He seems intelligent and capable, if arrogant and perhaps a bit foolish in thrusting away several bits of clearly seasoned advice I heard given to him. I just find the list of things he's done to be earthshakingly unethical and I think that managers and leaders in the philanthropic field need to enter the field possessing a level of integrity to avoid those kinds of things beforehand.]

An aside to the visiting MeFites: the culture on MetaFilter is that outrage is wielded like nunchakus. If the objective is to convince the people here of anything I think we have to use it differently.


Persona: much obliged! Not someone I've either encountered or quoted.


I think RCM is a sock-puppet of Joseph Fosco.

This is my candidate for best thread ever. Phil, you numbers will be going through the roof.


Welcome MetaFilter denizens. Are you ready to R-U-M-B-L-E ??????

This is a complex community with ways of communicating that outsiders will not completely understand. Do you have time to read up on 3+ years of running satire across a number of blogs?

DN, I think we do appreciate the importance of the central issues. In essence I agree with the way you have grouped this with "ethical issues from real life". It is just as serious. Except this, because this medium is new, there is not yet a collective common sense about this. Someone young and brash as Holden who tromps over what is a serious offense in the real world thinking that the rules are different here is not excused, but I think you can understand a call for leniency.

His willingness to stand and be an example, to take what is deserved could also be an example. Compare our treatment of Conrad Black and his apologist. I'm a strong proponent of the idea of restorative justice, justice the heals the transgressor and the community that was injured. In this case that is the philanthropic community because you are correct that it is the transgression of those standards that is important.

A larger issue, that I have alluded to above, is the creeping of business values into philanthropy that this also represents. Marketing practice is to shade the truth, and in that world Holden's crime is to have done it badly. The criminals who are doing it well are still selling you their overpriced crap built on exploited labor.

As far as the MeFi "community", I agree with Rachel. If Holden had taken his lessons in the use of virtual sock puppets from the Tutor and Rachel's mentor, then he wouldn't have come to this grief. We tried to tell him.

The outsiders may think I am joking about sending Holden to the Tutor for punishment. In this world that is how we do it. Phil can ask them in private if they will consent, and Tutor will design the scene room at WB. It will be fun and educational for all, and Holden will learn his lesson to satisfy even RCM that he is sufficiently chastened.

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