An open letter to Holden from a crybaby

by Sanjay3 min read12th Sep 202018 comments



In 2007, Holden Karnofsky wrote a blog post on the GiveWell blog entitled "An open letter to crybabies". As it's many years old, I thought that everyone must assume it is no longer representative of GiveWell. However despite its age I've seen it quoted even quite recently.

In it, Holden argues that "funders should be blunt, honest, and public in their feedback to nonprofits ".

I agree about the value of public and honest feedback. But Holden makes a distinction between 'honest feedback' and '“nice” feedback'.

In this post, I ask: can't we do both?

At this point, you might be subconsciously bristling.

The question "can't we do both?" is sometimes used to dodge important questions. For example, imagine you've discussed the amount of impact achieved by Charity A and Charity B with someone, and you've agreed that Charity A achieves much more good outcomes per pound donated. Maybe 100x more good outcomes. And then the person says: "can't we donate to both?" And somewhere in your heart, you might be thinking:

  • "No. Not with the same pound note we can't. Once you've given a pound to Charity A, you can't give that same pound to Charity B as well."
  • You might go on to think: "And if we donate some money to the charity that does 100x less good, then that's essentially 99 beneficiaries who are missing out on a better life (scaled for size of donation), and all of them are real people or sentient beings who deserve to be taken seriously. And they matter. And I have empathy for every one of them."
  • You might even think: "this person is punishing 99 out of 100 beneficiaries by not making better giving decisions."

If you have thoughts like these, they come from something beautiful: a passion for making the world a better place, and the laudable ability to not fall foul of Stalin's maxim: "one death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic". I applaud your empathy.

But speaking for myself, I try not to say it in exactly those words.

Because it's blunt.

And being blunt isn't always nice.

But giving feedback that's simultaneously honest and nice isn't like simultaneously giving money to Charity A and Charity B. You actually often *can* be simultaneously honest and nice. Sometimes it's hard, and I know I've got it wrong in the past, but it *is* possible. It's certainly possible some of the time, and might even be possible all of the time.

I could justify my preference to avoid being blunt in lots of ways. I could say that it's because if you're blunt, you're not being effective. And this is probably true -- if I looked for it I could probably find some research somewhere which corroborates this.

But I don't want to justify it in those terms.

The analysis done by organisations like GiveWell and Open Philanthropy Project seeks to understand how money donated turns into better lives for people and animals -- ultimately leading to better emotions.

I believe emotions matter.

Let's try not to trample on them on our way to achieving our goals.

At this point, I'd like to add some points directed specifically to Holden.

Dear Holden,

  • I think you're great. You've been pivotal in bringing about GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project -- two things that I think make the world enormously better. Much of your work has inspired me, and I am glad on a personal level and an altruistic level for the things you've done.
  • I did not appreciate your open letter to crybabies.
  • I thought that the tone was unhelpful, unconstructive and disingenuous.
  • I also thought that the use of images was unbecoming of GiveWell: the image of a crying baby's face superimposed on a man in a suit against a background image of people in Africa was unprofessional.
  • I also disapproved of the image of a very small violin shown next to an enlarged ant for scale, labelled with "Did someone criticize your wonderful nonprofit and hurt your feelings? Let me play you a song on this violin". It seemed clear to me that your intent here was wholly unkind and condescending.
  • Ironically, your letter disappointed me because the vitriol got in the way of good reasoning. A useful version of your letter would have tackled the question of whether it's possible to be *both* honest and kind. Your letter implicitly assumed that you can't do both, and left this assumption unchecked. I very much hope you don't allow your passion to get in the way of good analysis in the rest of your work.

I hope these comments do not come across as unfair. I'm sorry to bring up something that you wrote a long time ago. I also appreciate that you were writing at a time when you perhaps had few allies, but you had vision and passion for a world in which people took philanthropic decisions as seriously as the investment decisions. This is a wonderful, beautiful vision which I share, and I can understand that your emotions might have driven you to write your open letter in anger.

I understand that because I know you're human. We all are.

Holden, I know that you're busy, but it would make me happy if you said publicly that this blog post no longer represents your view, and asked GiveWell if they could include a note at the top to say that this no longer represents GiveWell's view either.

It would make me happy because I think people look up to you. And they have lots and lots of good reasons to look up to you.

But this blog post isn't one of them.

You ended your post by asking people to be harsh when they provide you feedback, and if you focus too much on people being "nice" to you, they should to remind you of the letter and be even harsher to you, and if that still doesn't work, you asked them to "kindly bludgeon me on the head".

I'm going to end by making my own asks to anyone reading this:

  • At times I will need to hear feedback; saying it to me is good for me and good for the others influenced by my work too, so please do so if you can.
  • When you do so, please try to be nice. The feedback might hurt my feelings, and if you make the effort to lessen my hurt, I will really appreciate it.
  • If you are blunt, I might cope. If you are brutal and also condescending at the same, and if you use a tone similar to that used in Holden's open letter, I might need to stop listening to protect my welfare. This would be sad, as your feedback might be really valuable for me and my attempts to make the world a better place.

By the definitions in Holden's open letter, I believe this makes me a crybaby. A crybaby who is asking everyone to do something tricky: be both honest *and* nice.


Sanjay, a crybaby.