Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Importance of Being Earnest - by Maureen

This week "givewell" went from the limelight on page 1 of the New York Living Business section to the doghouse, when it was uncovered that some of its staff, including its Director were caught "astroturfing"" -- a neologism for formal public relations campaigns in politics and advertising that seek to create the impression of being spontaneous, grassroots behavior". Two givewell staff members, one of them the Director, committed the double crime of using their personae to bashing their competitors. Subsequently the virtual swords were unsheathed and battled occurred in the blogosphere, most notably GiftWell and "GiftHub"

Unfortunately for humanity's score card, the debate turned to debacle as an angry mob moved into some spaces clamoring for the demise of Givewell, its CEO and any person who didn't share its point of view. The mob failed to see the irony of the their assumed role as guardians of democracy and representatives of the people. The polite dissenters found themselves faced with the following dilemma: speak up and be decimated or say nothing and hope the angry mob would disperse.

The incident provided fuel for the fire of NPO critics. Over the past year or so, in response to market and public pressure, a number of charity evaluation groups, such as givewell and charitynavigator, have come into existence. The public wants them to do the work of due diligence on their behalf. Some entrepreneurs from the for-profit sector have seized this opportunity to introduce skills gleaned from the for-profit world and a new service to the Non-profit world. Because of the givewell crisis, the response went from mixed to volatile -- leading to debates in the blogosphere.

As the virtual dust settles and the all too real hurt feelings calm after this GiftWell crisis, the question NPO's facing, including Heritance, is who should be the guardian of transparency?

I do not believe in a universal metric for evaluating NPO's as some people have been advocating. Even Google proposes to join the band wagon as this blog explains, "What to measure and why in philanthropy": In my mind, a universal metric smacks of "administrivia" and homogenization of the service sector. It could end up yet another accounting hurdle for struggling non-profits (who've already got a heap of accounting demands) and a further consolidation of power, exposure and money in a small number of chosen NPO's. How does Google or any other NPO evaluator propose to compare the apples, oranges, bananas and pomegranates?

I think that NPO's are as individual as people, and like people, need to be considered as a whole. There needs to be a more holistic approach to evaluating NPO's, one in which the NPO is encouraged to undertake self-evaluation and the public is encouraged and supported in its own due diligence. Likewise the NPO should hold up its end of the deal by setting and reporting goals, devising and reporting metrics, implementing and reporting evaluations. Reporting, reporting, reporting. The equally critical piece is the active solicitation and consideration of the public, to include a wide range of disinterested outsiders. Furthermore, every NPO ought to dedicate a page on their website to presenting the whole kit and kaboodle and this page would link to an on-line discussion forum, where the NPO and the public can talk about how things really work and don't work.

The healthy system of the future may be founded on a "talking cure" -- people in the NPO conducting self-evaluations and people from the outside reviewing their reports and offering feedback. Anything less than a dynamic system strikes me as merely a simulacrum.

At Heritance, in our own humble way, we try to live by this philosophy, as you can see by visiting our Resources Page:

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