Holden Karnofsky Interview

Holden Karnofsky and GiveWell have held my attention for a longtime. They have created a significant and respected presence online unique among online philanthropy. For GiveWell online giving does not necessarily mean only micro donations. In contrast to organizations that only tell a story and never show facts, their perspective on measurable donor impact is a influential and unique. I was extremely excited when Holden offered to spend a few minutes with me and let me interview him. Thanks Holden. -Jason

To what do you attribute GiveWell’s online growth? Do you have any strategies that you’ve used to increase your presence in the online space?

GiveWell LogoGiveWell is still relatively small, though I do believe we are creating a unique product that serves a certain audience well. The main thing that has worked for us has just been working hard on our research and continually publishing new content, particularly to the blog.

When we first got started we received a lot of press coverage, both positive and negative, and I think a lot of people were thinking of it as a “make or break” moment for GiveWell. But two years later, our website traffic and “money influenced” have slowly grown and completely dwarf what they were in 2007. We’ve gotten somewhere by doing good research and publishing our findings over time, and that’s been more important than any “lightning strike” press coverage.

How have you blended online and offline cultivation to engage your readers and donors?

Early on, we were more proactive about networking and marketing, using the connections we had as much as we could and making a lot of in-person pitches. We found that this wasn’t cost-effective, and we had a change of direction. Now we focus mostly on the website and blog. Sometimes a major donor or someone from the media or another good contact will find us, and in those cases we may develop relationships offline (i.e., not just through the website).

I’m interested in how using an online medium, your blog, website, and twitter, you’ve been so successful in getting donors to give to different causes, not only at the $100 level but even into 5 figures.

Honestly I’m not sure. My best guess is that, if we’re in fact getting bigger gifts than other online giving sites, it has to do with differences in our target audience. GiveWell was founded by donors who were frustrated with the information they were receiving from nonprofits because we wanted to make good, impact-focused decisions about our giving. There are donors out there – I’m not sure how many – who are really focused on making the most impactful gifts possible and would rather see facts about charities’ impact as opposed to more traditional fundraising pitches. I believe that this set of donors is under-served.

You mentioned that this group of donors that is underserved. How are these donors underserved? And how can nonprofits reach these individuals?

Traditional fundraising usually doesn’t focus at all on measurable impact. There is little place for the donor who wants to be intellectually engaged. Mobile giving is one kind of giving that seems entirely impulse-driven, but I think most individual giving currently comes down to social pressure and impulse and other things that aren’t based on helping people as much as possible. I hope that one day nonprofits will work with these donors in a different way.

There are individuals who are concerned about measurement and evaluation, and a lot of nonprofits are very vague about what their organization is doing and what evidence exists re: whether they are fulfilling their mission.

One way for a nonprofit to serve these donors better would be to post a technical section on its website. This section would include technical impact evaluations, details of how money is spent (not just audited financials but breakdowns of expenses by program), specific funding needs, etc. Including this kind of section might improve a lot of nonprofits’ GiveWell ratings.

Do you think that social media and online fundraising is changing the way that donors engage with an organization? How does this or should this change the way that organizations talk with their donors?

I haven’t done the market research on this but GiveWell does seem to appeal more to the younger generations. For example, for every major purchasing decision I make, I’m used to going online to make sure that it is the best decision I can make. The younger generation may be more prone to going online and doing some research to make sure the gift they are giving is going to the best organization making the best impact possible. As this generation grows up nonprofits may need to take a different approach and provide more information on impact.

It is definitely possible that in the future there will be a lot more interest in impact focused giving. If all an organization does is tell stories of individuals it serves without providing evidence regarding its impact it might have a hard time keeping donors.

What is the biggest obstacle to nonprofits showing measureable results?

Right now everyone is hesitant to evaluate impact, first because there is a sense that few donors care about evaluation, and second because it is seen as a non-program “administrative” expense. The obsession with administrative expenses seems to have come about partly because administrative expenses are the one statistic that is objective and measureable across the industry. Just about everyone knows that this statistic doesn’t answer the right questions, or the most important questions, but it is the only statistic that is easy to measure.

In the future, the same accountability-focused dynamic that has led to the interest in this metric could lead to the opposite: more interest in impact evaluation. So nonprofits that are currently doing no impact evaluation because of the interest in “spending all the money on programs” could find themselves left behind as the idea of “meaningful metrics” evolves. Suddenly the nonprofits that were willing to spend what it takes to evaluate themselves could be the ones that have the information they need in order to interest donors.


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