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Best way to donate? Do your research

Holden Karnofsky, co-founder of GiveWell.net

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: Lean times mean a lot of us are trying to stretch our budgets and, given the season, trying to stretch our charitable contributions Because as great as it feels to get, it can feel even better to give.

Today, as we continue our look at philanthropy, how we can put our dollars to work more effectively. If there's less money to donate this year, should you give your time and volunteer?

Holden Karnofsky is the co-founder of GiveWell.net. That's a nonprofit charity evaluation website.

Holden, welcome to the program.

Holden Karnofsky: My pleasure.

RYSSDAL: As people look to cut back in this economy -- and philanthropy's going to be one of those areas -- does it make sense to volunteer time instead of money?

Karnofsky: I would actually make a different suggestion. I would say that if you're finding yourself this year with more time and less money than you usually have, I would encourage you to put that time into researching and really thinking hard about where you're giving rather than volunteering. I think volunteering is often adverstised as being more than it is for a very specific reason. Which is that volunteering is often about recruiting donors. And so what I would say is that there is some volunteer work that's certainly valuable, especially if you have a particular skill such as . . . let's say you're a cleft palette surgeon and you're going over to perform corrective surgeries. But a lot of time, when a charity's asking you to volunteer, what they're really trying to do is get you involved, get you excited, and the real benefit to them is the donation anyway.

RYSSDAL: All right, well let's get to the econometrics here, then. How do I know what to look for when I want to maximize the charitable return on my dollar?

Karnofsky: Right. Well, it all depends on what you're aiming for. But the general advice I give is, I would just try and go out there and really push charities to say, "All right, what's the evidence that this is changing people's lives for the better?" And a lot of times programs that sound really good in theory just don't turn out to have the impacts you would hope for in practice.

RYSSDAL: There is obviously a set of criteria that you guys look at. What are the top couple? I would imagine it's administrative overheads versus amount actually given. It's staff versus volunteers -- those sorts of things?

Karnofsky: Actually, we don't like to emphasize the administrative-overhead aspect because we think that, for one thing, it's often a distraction. It doesn't matter how much money you throw at a problem if you're not doing a good job of it, and if you're not taking the right approach. And a lot of times taking the right approach means being able to measure what you're doing and learn from it. Which often, depending on how the accountants want to do things, gets classified as overhead.

So, we actually feel that when people insist that as many pennies of my dollar as possible need to go straight to the children, what they're doing is they're leaving out a lot of the overhead that's needed to hire great people, to do self-evaluation, to figure out what really works and to do a good job.

RYSSDAL: What about newer charities that are just getting off the ground and maybe don't have the data trail that will let you figure out whether they're worth it or not?

Karnofsky: Well, in my opinion, there's a lot of those charities out there that may be doing great work. And if you are close enough to one that you've really seen it and you're very connected to it, then that may be all you need to have a lot of confidence that they're doing good.

But, you know, if you're not in that position, and you're trying to find a charity that you can have confidence in that you haven't heard much about, I think it's the wrong approach to try and guess yourself which of these new, unproven charities really has what it takes.

I think you're much better off with a bigger, more established one. And I think that oftentimes in charity there's too much discussion given to the next, big, great revolutionary idea that's going to solve the root cause of poverty and not nearly enough attention given to, "Hey, what are the things that already work and how can we do more of them?"

RYSSDAL: Holden Karnofsky is the co-founder of GiveWell.net. That's a group that studies the effectiveness of charities and advises donors about them. Holden, thanks a lot.

Karnofsky: Yeah. My pleasure.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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I must concur with the majority of comments. I am disturbed by the statement that the recruitment of volunteers is merely a guise to obtain donors. I now see from the comments that this person may not be such a credible source of information on this topic, he appeared to be self-serving. Thus I hope that Marketplace will do a follow up story with someone more in tune with volunteering. I know that the organization that I work for could not exist but for our volunteers (over 200) and we do not seek any donations other than their time.

Similarly, I volunteered for my local NPR radio station during its pledge drive and I was not solicited for donations either. Marketplace should have turned right around to the local NPR stations for a comment on volunteers.

I am on the staff of a non-profit arts association who regularly recruits volunteers for an annual playwriting contest I oversee. I can honestly say that we are not recruiting volunteers simply because we want to recruit donors. We recruit volunteers because there is no practical way this annual contest would HAPPEN without a team of volunteers reading and evaluating 300 scripts.

For the most part, these volunteers are people of similarly slender financial means, and while having a check on hand from any of them would be great, I can honestly tell you I'd rather have a pair of eyes reading a script and a brain forming an opinion about it than I would have a check.

As someone who needed to spend my New Years Eve cleaning up after the mess Mr. Karnofsky made with his astroturfing last year around this time (for which, yes, he was removed as Exec Director at GiveWell) I'm a little dismayed to see him both touting "research" as a value at the same time he tosses around "don't volunteer, donate" instructions devoid of supporting data.

Going from "volunteering is often about recruiting donors" to "don't volunteer, donate" besides being a little self-interested also seems to me to be bad advice. Out here in rural areas we have many non-profits that literally would not exist without volunteers and extra money isn't going to help the food shelf doors stay open as much as someone who can actually BE there.

I'm sure what Mr. Karnofsky is saying makes sense at some level within the context in which he operates, but it betrays a real lack of understanding about how the lion's share of the small non-profits work in this country and I'm sad to see Marketplace giving his edgy unsupported claims any more airtime.

I've been listening to Marketplace every morning and afternoon for as long as I can remember (I was raised by NPR parents). I really enjoy and appreciate Mr. Rysdall's work in helping interested laypeople keep in touch of economic issues. In the past, you have set a very high standard for including content on the show.

This is why I'm both surprised and troubled by your recent "story" on Holden Karnofsky of Givewell. As has been amply documented (see the links provided by Mr. Gen, above), Karnofsky is a self-promoting flack who has not offered anything substantive to the existing resources for obtaining information on non-profits. His previous actions have demonstrated his fundamental ignorance about the field he has decided to reform, and also proved that he is committed to self-promotion at any cost.

More broadly, Marketplace has no business giving air time to a "story" that is essentially an advertisement for the interviewee's business.

I'm very disappointed.

I was appalled at the comments made by Holden Karnofsky regarding charitable contributions, especially his comment regarding volunteering. I volunteer with two organizations, that could not survive without volunteers. My parents instilled contribution of time and talent is equal to that of financial contributions. It is always ideal to volunteer and give financially but in these tough economic times that is not always possible. Volunteers are the core of many organizations that depend on volunteers, allowing charitable groups to stretch the dollar, to give the most amount of aid to the largest amount of people possible. It is harder to volunteer, giving of yourself, than to throw money at a problem. There are many places in each community that desperately need volunteers, Soup Kitchens, Food Banks, Meals on Wheels, Homeless Shelters, Outreach programs to senior citizens, Habitat for Humanity, Animal shelters the list goes on and on. I think Mr. Karnofsky has hurt many organizations by discouraging countless people to not volunteer. Charities will be grateful for any contribution whether time, talent or financially. NPR and Marketplace has disappointed me greatly. Marketplace should apologies for this segment and have a guest that is more knowledgeable about this topic that discusses the great need for volunteers across this country.

I am disturbed by organizations and people who "review" nonprofits on arbitrary grounds, often with no understanding of how nonprofit management differs from that of businesses - board management, volunteer management, consensus building, fundraising. In many ways, nonprofits are much more difficult. Applying "efficiency standards" from businesses is not helpful - nor is disparging efforts to recruit volunteers.

In my career as a staff member at and then consultant to nonprofits, I have seen hundreds of organizations recruiting, training and relying on the excellent work of caring volunteers. Without them, our communities would be in even more dire shape, having to provide services that these wonderful people do for free.

It is true that volunteers give more than those who don't volunteer. But even when board members are recruited - and some thought is given to their capacity and willingness to give - the first consideration is: "Will they do the hard work of being a board member?"

We should salute volunteers, not point to them as unwitting pawns in a fundraising plot.

I am so glad to read comments from those involved in nonprofits who challenged Karnofsky's statement that it is better to give money than volunteer. I am currently a volunteer with a city agency that provides services to low income senior citizens, including by matching volunteers with seniors to teach them how to use a computer. I came home tonight frustrated after my senior mentee was a no-show. As I groused to my husband he mentioned this story, which I had missed when it aired. It was a discouraging thought that perhaps it was misguided to even try volunteering, particularly since I currently have more extra time than disposable income. When it works out, I also find that volunteering provides psychic benefits to the volunteer that cannot be matched by writing a check. Thank you to those who have posted views that affirm the value of volunteers.

Long time listener, first time commenter. I notice that a lot of people seem to be trying to comment on the scandal rooted out by the metafilter folks, but they're being picked up by your spam filter. If you search for that site or metatalk and givewell, it'll turn up.

Long story short, Holden's been a little less than honest himself, which exposed Givewell to a bit of uncomfortable scrutiny, in which their methods and governance as a charity were called into question. The punishment was, apparently, a ten-minute slap on the wrist for Mr. Karnofsky, and a snarky back and forth with some of his employers. It's good reading.

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