Caught in the Rye

You have to feel someone saddled with the name “Holden Karnofsky,” but his conduct ought to (won’t, but ought to) put paid to the notion that the non-profit world ought to be automatically grateful for the attention of refugees from the for-profit world.

I always feel sympathy for the victims of child abuse, and naming a child “Holden Karnofsky” certainly qualifies as at least extreme neglect. Still, while victimization can help put an offense in context, it’s not actually an excuse.

Karnofsky made some quick bucks in the hedge-fund biz and then started a non-profit called Givewell whose mission was to evaluate other non-profits. The press, which always falls for the idea that people in for-profit business are basically smarter than people in non-profit enterprise or government and that therefore whenever a businessperson condescends to visit the NFP or governmental slums he ought to be treated with extreme respect, gave Karnofsky’s project huge amounts of hype without ever inquiring into whether it was actually doing a competent job.

In the meantime, it turns out that Karnofsky was using sock-puppetry to boost his outfit and tear down its rivals, until a sharp-eyed MetaFilter participant noticed identical IP addresses from someone who asked a question and someone who answsered it. Rather embarrassing, you’d think: an enterprise devoted to causing transparency in others surely ought to be transparent itself. But, so far, not embarrassing enough to cause the organization to fold or to generate resignations.

Obviously, given the size of the NFP world there’s a desperate need for some sort of external, or at least externally-validated, scorekeeping. But the old question keeps arising: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Hat tip: My sister Kelly, the Nonprofiteer

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: