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Dialogue about the Hewlett Foundation’s Nonprofit Marketplace Initiative

The following is a (slightly edited) response from GuideStar president and CEO Jacob Harold to the blog post by GiveWell co-founder Holden Karnofsky. In his blog post, Karnofsky reflects on the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Nonprofit Marketplace Initiative (NMI) – specifically Karnofsky experience with it, his opinion of its strengths & weaknesses, and his take on its conclusion.

Holden Karnofsky Holden Karnofsky

Harold, who formerly led grantmaking for the Hewlett Foundation’s Philanthropy Program and oversaw $30 million in grants that aimed to build a 21st-century infrastructure for smart giving – including grants to GiveWell – gives his perspective on the NMI and GuideStar’s role in continuing the work at the core of that ambitious initiative.

In the spirit of transparency and collaboration, Karnofsky sent his blog post to Harold ahead of time in order for Harold to review and comment. Thus, this post and the post on GiveWell’s blog are being published simultaneously.

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Jacob Harold Jacob Harold

In a sense, I think my view always came down to one number: 600,000,000. That’s the number of websites in the world (more or less). Putting content up on one of the world’s 600,000,000 websites (www.givewell.org) does not in my mind qualify as a distribution strategy. Without one GiveWell will always remain marginal, an island serving a small (though influential) community. That is, you will offer quality without quantity.

The dream (as yet unfulfilled) of the NMI was to address both quantity and quality by taking a “systems view” and consider how various individual efforts contributed to a larger system and connect them together. I think it’s fair to say that NMI

  1. significantly strengthened many key organizations (including GiveWell);
  2. helped build a community among those players; and
  3. created many critical technical pieces to weave that system together (BRIDGE, Charting Impact, etc.); but
  4. has so far failed to turn that community into a high-functioning, interconnected system and, thus;
  5. not yet fully achieved its goals.

If I’m honest, I think the fundamental flaw was this: NMI was absolutely predicated on having a core technical infrastructure that would weave together the many sources of data/content and the many channels to reach donors. The truth is that key organizations in the field—GuideStar included—were not yet ready to play that complex role.

That’s changed. GuideStar (and key colleague organizations like Foundation Center) are now starting to pull this system together at scale. The data are already starting to indicate very real quantity: the users of Charity Navigator, BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and GuideStar total more than 15 million; GuideStar’s data was used on other platforms (e.g. Fidelity & Amazon) 22 million times last year through APIs and tens of millions more through other mechanisms. That is, we have in fact already reached part of the NMI goal: >10% market penetration. But we have yet to reach the “quality” part of the goal.

And a note that while the NMI originally was focused just on individual donors, the truth is that after a few years we realized that the other consumers of that information—beneficiaries, researchers, government officials, nonprofit executives, etc.—could be just as important to social impact as donors. I think we may have erred in not articulating that shift more explicitly.

Now, in a sense I’ve bet my career that GuideStar can soon play the role I hoped it would play those years ago. Time will tell, but I am quite sure that parts of the NMI will live on—as a contributor to GiveWell’s growth and, I’ll hope, to the belated realization of a decent information system in philanthropy.

There are rich and important conversations happening in the broader “Effective Altruism” community that GiveWell helped to launch. But that community remains small and at times can, by my judgment, be disconnected from the on-the-ground realities of social change. So I very much hope that as GiveWell evolves it will continue to engage a big and broad community about how to maximize impact from society’s scarce resources.

To read Holden Karnofsky's post on the GiveWell blog, please visit http://blog.givewell.org/2014/08/05/thoughts-on-the-end-of-hewletts-nonprofit-marketplace-initiative.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice