At the end of the year, many people make some last-minute donations to charity. Some do it because they get reminders from charities they’ve donated to before, some because they see an ad or read an article, some because they are in the spirit of giving during the holiday season, and some because they want to make sure they take advantage of their last chance to get a charitable tax deduction. Some do it for a combination of these reasons, and let’s face it, the last one is probably a big one for a lot of people. Not that this is always a bad thing – I think it is good that the government encourages philanthropy by giving some tax relief to people who donate to charities. I just have some idealist notions that tax deductions shouldn’t be the primary motivation for giving. But who am I kidding?
Anyway, at the end of the year, people who are looking to make some donations might be out scouring the internet for charities. Many go to sites like Charity Navigator and New Yorkers may go to a NY-only charity site like NY Charities. But many may also look elsewhere, such as message boards and community sites, to find information. And they may have come across information about a new kid in town, NYC-based GiveWell, that was getting a lot of internet and media coverage at the end of the year.
It turns out that a lot of the internet “buzz” about this new charity site was generated by one of the two founders, in a practice known as astroturfing (essentially creating fake grassroots behavior to drum up support). In the incident that caused the most fuss, founder Holden Karnofsky posted a fake bait question about charitable donations on Ask MetaFilter, a community site where members answer other members’ questions. He then created another account and answered the question with promotional links to his own site, all while not identifying himself as one of the founders. He also posted comments pimping his own charity on boing boing and Luxist, and those comments, while not quite as egregious as the fake question on AskMe, also did not identify the commenter as the founder of the charity he was recommending.
Holden has since posted an apology on the GiveWell blog, but to say that such conduct is unbecoming of the the Executive Director of a charitable organization is putting it mildly. Charitable organizations must be trustworthy and demonstrate a level of integrity that will encourage donors to feel confident that their money is going where they want it to. (I should also point out that during the shitstorm that was occurring in the various comment threads, some additional discussion was had about GiveWell’s high administrative costs and other questions about their business model. The astroturfing is not the only problem with this charity.)
Would you trust your money to someone who engages in shady marketing practices? I wouldn’t.