Giving Tuesday and GiveWell

November 26th, 2012 § 1

Thanksgiving.  Black Friday.  Cyber Monday.

And now: Giving Tuesday.

Tomorrow is the inaugural Giving Tuesday, an effort to create a national day of giving at the start of the holiday season. The media reports widely about the unabashed consumerism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  Giving Tuesday aims to deploy traditional media and social media to stimulate charitable giving and volunteering, something much more in keeping with the holiday spirit of gratitude and generosity.

I serve in an advisory role to the team of folks behind Giving Tuesday, and I’ve tried to do two things:

First, get credit card companies to drop or eliminate transaction fees for individual donations made to nonprofit organizations on Giving Tuesday.

Transaction fees charged by credit card companies and other online giving platforms range from two to five percent of a donation, meaning that a $100 gift to a nonprofit is in reality only a $95 gift, with $5 lining the pockets of American Express, Visa, or Mastercard.  Dropping or eliminating the transaction fees, even if just for a day, would not only deliver more money to nonprofit organizations but might stimulate individuals to donate more than they otherwise would, knowing that on this day fully 100% of their donation will get to the charity they wish to support.

On Giving Tuesday there will be several options to make donations without transaction fees: for CapitalOne credit card holders here, and for mobile donations made via PayPal.  More in the works for 2013.

Second, while Giving Tuesday champions giving of all kinds – time as well as money – to any charitable organization, Giving Tuesday is highlighting giving opportunities for some of the most highly rated and effective charitable organizations. My hope is that Giving Tuesday will not only stimulate more people to give money away but for them to give money away more thoughtfully.

There are a number of charity evaluation organizations that provide a wealth of information about nonprofit organizations: Charity Navigator, Guidestar, Great Nonprofits.

I think the best of these organizations is a small outfit called GiveWell.  GiveWell examines only a small handful of charities in a small handful of areas: international development and American primary and secondary education. Their website provides more information than a donor could likely process, and unfortunately in a singularly user-unfriendly format.  But their analyses are first-rate.

I trust their evaluations.  And GiveWell has just released its annual recommendations for the top charities, the organizations it deems most worthy of a charitable donation.  Why most worthy? Because a donation to these top charities will have a large and demonstrated positive impact.

GiveWell’s top rated charities for 2013 are:

1. The Against Malaria Foundation

AMF provides long-lasting insecticide-treated nets (for protection against malaria) in bulk to other organizations, which then distribute them in developing countries.

2. GiveDirectly

GiveDirectly transfers cash to households in the developing world via the M-PESA mobile phone-based payment service. It targets extremely low-income households and aims to deliver at least 90 cents directly to recipients for every $1.00 in total expenses.

3.  The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative

The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) assists African governments with treatment of neglected tropical diseases.

Tomorrow, on Giving Tuesday, I will be making a charitable donation to GiveWell’s top rated charities.  My hope is that because of Giving Tuesday, and with the information provided by GiveWell, others will do the same.

Post-Doctoral Fellowships at Stanford PACS

November 14th, 2012 § 1

The Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society will once more appoint two post-doctoral fellows for a 1 or 2 year fellowship.

Full description of the fellowship is below, and information about how to apply is here.

Postdoctoral Fellowship

Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society

Application deadline: January 9th, 2013

Stanford PACS invites applications for a one or two-year postdoctoral fellowship. The Center will award fellowships for two scholars to spend time at Stanford University and participate in Center activities. We seek to appoint promising post-doctoral scholars who are actively engaged in research on topics related to our core scholarly mission, which is to develop and share knowledge to improve philanthropy, strengthen civil society, and effect social change. It is a broad mandate, encompassing scholars from across the university. Potential applicants can get a sense of the wide range of scholarly projects under the PACS umbrella by consulting the research projects of current and past PhD and postdoctoral fellows at the Center.  Topics range from the ethics of humanitarian aid, debates over school financing and form, assessments of the efficacy of foundation efforts at field-building, organizational capacity for continuous innovation, studies of altruism, and the role of social movements in civic engagement, to name only a few topics.

Each fellow will be affiliated with a disciplinary department or school at Stanford University and with the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.  The postdoctoral fellowship provides young scholars with the opportunity to pursue original research related to philanthropy, social innovation, civic engagement and civil society and to work closely with a Stanford faculty member, while participating in program activities such as our research workshop on philanthropy and civil society and monthly public events.  The fellowship provides ample time for the fellows to pursue their current line of scholarship and also expects collaboration with Stanford scholars.

Stanford University faculty members who are potential sponsors of a postdoctoral fellow include the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society Faculty Co-Directors Paul Brest, Woody Powell, and Rob Reich.  A longer list of potential faculty is available on the PACS website under the link for the faculty steering committee.

The Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society is a program of the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRiSS).  Since 2006, the Center has supported PhD students and undergraduates from across the university, and since 2010 the post-doctoral fellowship program reflects our effort to fund research from outside Stanford.

The annual fellowship stipend is $50,000, plus the standard benefits that postdoctoral fellows at Stanford University receive. The fellowship program falls under U.S. Immigration J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa activities.  Stanford University stipulates that postdoctoral fellows must have received their PhD within the past four years.

Please include the following information in both electronic and paper format:

  1. Cover letter detailing the reasons for the applicant’s interest in coming to Stanford, including comment on the faculty member or members with whom the applicant wishes to work.
  2. Curriculum Vitae.
  3. Fellowship proposal detailing the research that the fellow would undertake while at Stanford (five page limit).
  4. Writing sample consisting of either a dissertation chapter or a recent published paper.
  5. Graduate Transcript with proof that applicants have completed all the requirements for the PhD, or a letter from their PhD advisor stating they will do so by June 2013.
  6. Two Letters of Recommendation
  7. Please disclose if you have additional funding arrangements.

The deadline for submission is January 9th, 2013.

Applications should be submitted electronically to the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society via email to and may also be submitted by hard copy if necessary directly to the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, PO Box 20554, Stanford, CA 94309-8554.

Questions about the application should be directed to


Thrun on the Udacity model

January 31st, 2012 § 4

Felix Salmon kindly put the questions I posted this week about Udacity to its founder, Sebastian Thrun, and wrote up a lengthy post about it here.

Thrun helps to explain some of the uncertainty about the relationship between his various employers (Stanford and Google) and his new start-up venture, Udacity.

Read the entire piece, as they say.

Two things got my attention:

On Stanford and Udacity:

Looked at from a 30,000-foot view, Stanford is the institution being disrupted here, it’s not the institution doing the disrupting.

I doubt that the Stanfords and Harvards of the world are worried about their own business models. As a friend told me, it’s a really exciting time to be a first rate university or a first rate teacher, but a terrible time to be a third rate university or third rate teacher. But even if Stanford can be secure in its future, it seems to me lamentable that Stanford isn’t leading the way in online learning instead of simply getting out of the way (as is implied in the Salmon piece).

On for-profit vs. non-profit:

And in response to the question why he organized Udacity as a for-profit venture rather than following his own inspiration, Khan Academy as a non-profit, Thrun said:

“for profit is not forced to make profit. I needed to get people together really fast, and it’s much easier to do that under the ways of a Silicon Valley company.”

I wonder what his Silicon Valley VC investors think of his view that for profit is not forced to make profit. Are VCs investing in social returns over financial returns these days?

Some Questions about Udacity (and about creative disruption in higher education)

January 25th, 2012 § 8

Sebastian Thrun has made headlines for a variety of his accomplishments as computer scientist doing groundbreaking work on artificial intelligence. He has long been interested in robotic vehicles, leading the team that developed the car which won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. He is the co-inventor of the Google Street View mapping service and is the brains behind the Google self-driving automobile. He joined Stanford University as a full professor in 2007. (Full disclosure: I’ve never met him.)

Impressive though these accomplishments are, Thrun made an announcement about a new project earlier this week at a conference in Germany that might eclipse anything he’s done. He wants push forward some innovations in the postsecondary marketplace and change the world as an educator. Thrun has quit his tenured job at Stanford in order to start an online university called Udacity. He hopes to enroll 500,000 students for the first course – on the topic of building search engines – at no cost to the students.

There’s good reason to think Thrun’s ambition is more than a flight of fancy.

Thrun made headlines last year when he and some colleagues at Stanford offered an introductory course on artificial intelligence. It was a real course at Stanford, enrolling 200 Stanford students. There was also a parallel online version, with the same texts, quizzes, and tests that offered for successful performance not Stanford credit but a final certificate of completion. Enrollment in the online version of the course was free. After sending out an email to colleagues announcing the online class, the class went viral and ultimately more than 160,000 people from across the world signed up. Thrun told the audience in Germany that more people from Lithuania enrolled in the class than there are students at Stanford University.

With this track record, and with his deep connections to the Silicon Valley tech community and funders, Thrun’s Udacity is well worth paying attention to. And we professors in higher education had better pay attention. One of my colleagues at Stanford posted a simple observation on Twitter about the implications for the current model of higher education:

The prospect of opening up education to a global community via online learning is exciting for all kinds of reasons. But Thrun’s announcement left me with a bunch of questions in addition to excitement.

1. Why did Thrun need to quit Stanford? Why not pursue the project under the umbrella of Stanford, with its enormous and global reputation? Indeed, hadn’t he already carried out a demonstration proof of the concept with his Artificial Intelligence class at Stanford? Why not just continue with that in expanded form at Stanford?

2. Why is Udacity a for-profit company? Thrun said that Udacity courses would be free to students, and Thrun cited Salman Khan and Khan academy as inspiration and model for what he’s doing. But Khan Academy is non-profit. Stanford University is a non-profit. Thrun says he wants to democratize higher education, offering knowledge to the world for free. How does this mission fit with his for-profit online university?

3. What to make of Thrun’s apparent pleasure at the fact that 170 of the 200 Stanford students who had enrolled in the real, not online, version of the Stanford AI class stopped coming to class, preferring the online Thrun to the flesh-and-blood Thrun?

And then there are some questions about Thrun and his relationship to Stanford. How should Stanford University think about what Thrun has done? Felix Salmon expresses regret that Stanford was willing to invest millions in building a campus in New York City but seems unwilling to have helped Thrun build a virtual university with global reach under the Stanford name. Perhaps this is true. Or perhaps there is a much more complicated story beneath the surface.

There’s an interesting post by someone who signed up for the online version of Thrun’s Artificial Intelligence course and who actually read the Terms of Service agreement. It turns out that a company called KnowLabs Inc had developed the course website and accompanying course content (the same content that was being offered to the actual Stanford students). And then this statement: “We will provide you with, and you desire to receive, the first publicly available access to the Online Course on a non-commercial basis (i.e., beta access) to assist us in developing and evaluating the Online Course prior to any commercial release of the Course…” The Terms of Service apparently make no mention of Stanford University.

As the blogger observes, this makes the Stanford AI class sound more like a Silicon Valley start-up than Stanford University innovating with a new form of course delivery. This looks less like an Open Educational Resource initiative than a beta launch for KnowLabs Inc.

What exactly was the relationship between Stanford and KnowLabs Inc.? What is the current relationship between KnowLabs and Udacity? (The TOS on Udacity’s site make them look like related entities.) Who owns the intellectual property – the course content as well as whatever intellectual property there is in the website built to deliver the course online? If Thrun developed this class as a faculty member at Stanford – which seems to be the case – then doesn’t Stanford have some claim on at least the course content?

I see no reason to be suspicious of either Stanford or Thrun. But it would be good to see Stanford and Thrun answer some of these questions.

Bringing the knowledge developed within universities to a global population via online learning is a magnificent goal. And it appears tantalizingly within reach. All the more important, therefore, to begin answering questions about what organizational vehicle – a non-profit or a for-profit – is the better approach and to work out the thorny issues of intellectual property. If Udacity is – to use a favorite phrase of Silicon Valley – a “game-changer” that will disrupt the business model of higher education and produce enormous social benefit to boot, let’s hope that Thrun and Stanford stand ready to address these questions.

UPDATE (1/26): The few reports about Thrun in the news all mention that he gave up tenure at Stanford in order to do Udacity. But he apparently gave up tenure much earlier, in April 2011, for reasons unrelated to Udacity.

Home Schooling

January 5th, 2011 § 8

The New York Times is running a Room for Debate forum on whether the federal government should provide a tax credit to families who home school their children.  The Fordham Institute chief Checker Finn and Home School Legal Defense Association legal counsel William Estrada are among the contributors.

In my contribution to the forum, I express no quarrel with a tax credit so long as it comes with accountability strings attached.  The main point I tried to make is that we know astonishingly little about the academic performance of children who are homeschooled.  The sad truth about home schooling is that we have little more than glorified anecdotes.

The word limit for contributors is strict, so I could only baldly assert this in the NYT forum.  Here’s the argument and evidence for the assertion.

For a quick overview, first check out the comprehensive and detailed site maintained by Professor Robert Kunzman of Indiana University.  Kunzman has written sympathically about homeschooling, but he explains why the frequent claims that the “average homeschooler” outperforms public and private school students are unjustified.

For a more detailed argument, read an overview on why home schooling needs to be regulated a few years ago. Download a version of it here.  It contains a discussion of the lack of evidence on the outcomes of home schooling.

Why do we lack such evidence? The reason is related to the massively de-regulated environment for homeschoolers.  Because existing regulations for home schooling are either so minimal or so little enforced, many parents do not notify local educational officials when they decide to home school.  At least ten states do not even require parents to register their home schools.  A great deal of home schooling occurs “under the radar”, so to speak, so that even if local officials wished to test or monitor the progress of home schooled students, they wouldn’t even know how to locate them.  Researchers and public officials have, quite literally, no sense of the total population of home schooled students.  This is the primary obstacle to studying home schooling.

A further concern is that an appalling amount of the research conducted on home schooling and given publicity in the media is undertaken by or sponsored by organizations whose explicit mission is to further the cause of home schooling.  Of course, that research is conducted by persons whose pay comes from organizations dedicated to promoting home schooling is no reason to reject the findings out of hand.  I would suggest, however, that we treat the findings of their research on home schooling in the same way the people treat the research on nicotine addiction funded by tobacco companies: with a very large dose of skepticism.

Consider one of the most widely publicized studies in the home school research literature, the 1999 report by Lawrence Rudner entitled “Scholastic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics of Home Schooled Students in 1998.”[1]

Rudner’s study was funded and sponsored by the Home School Legal Defense Assocation.  It analyzed the test results of more than 20,000 home schooled students using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and it was interpreted by many to find that the average home schooled student outperformed his or her public school peer.  But Rudner’s study reaches no such conclusion, and Rudner himself issued multiple cautionary notes in the report, including the following: “Because this was not a controlled experiment, the study does not demonstrate that home schooling is superior to public or private schools and the results must be interpreted with caution.” Rudner used a select and unrepresentative sample, culling all of his participants from families who had purchased curricular and assessment materials from Bob Jones University.  Because Bob Jones University is an evangelical Christian university (a university which gained a national reputation in the 1980s for its policy of forbidding interracial dating), the sample of participating families in Rudner’s study is highly skewed toward Christian home schoolers.  Extrapolations from this data to the entire population of home schoolers are consequently highly unreliable.  Moreover, all the participants in Rudner’s study had volunteered their participation.  According to Rudner, more than 39,000 contracted to take the Iowa Basic Skills Test through Bob Jones, but only 20,760 agreed to participate in his study.  This further biases Rudner’s sample, for parents who doubt the capacity of their child to do well on the test are precisely the parents we might expect not to volunteer their participation.  A careful social scientific comparison of test score data would also try to take account of the problem that public school students take the Iowa Basic Skills Test in a controlled environment; many in Rudner’s study tested their own children.

Rudner himself has been frustrated by the misrepresentation of his work.  In an interview with the Akron Beacon Journal, which published a pioneering week-long investigative series of articles on home schooling in 2004, Rudner claimed that his only conclusion was that if a home schooling parent “is willing to put the time and energy and effort into it – and you have to be a rare person who is willing to do this – then in all likelihood you’re going to have enormous success.”  Rudner also said, “I made the case in the paper that if you took the same kids and the same parents and put them in the public schools, these kids would probably do exceptionally well.”[2]

Absent rigorous, social scientific data on the outcomes of home schooling, we are left in the realm of anecdote – the home schoolers who win the National Spelling Bees – and the occasional ethnographic study of small populations of home schoolers.[3] But neither can give us any picture of whether home schooling “works”.  The very best research on home schooling – the combination of random samples of large populations and ethnographic studies, yields some good information about the reasons why people home school and demographic characteristics of their households.  But when we look at the academic performance of home schooled children, the bottom line is that we know virtually nothing.

[1] Lawrence Rudner, “Scholastic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics of Home Schooled Students in 1998,” Educational Policy Analysis Archive, Vol. 7, No. 8, 1999.

[2] Doug Oplinger and Dennis J. Willard, ‘Claims of Academic Success Rely on Anecdote, Flawed Data Analysis”, Akron Beacon Journal, November 15, 2004.

[3] For a good study with ethnographic components, see Mitchell Steven’s The Kingdom of Children (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

PACS + SSIR = exciting news

October 7th, 2010 § 2

The Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS) announced on Tuesday its acquisition of the award-winning Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR).  I serve as faculty co-director of PACS, a center that has seen huge growth since its founding several years ago.  Bringing SSIR into our fold will bring us a much wider reach.

Full press release beneath the fold.

» Read the rest of this entry «

Author Meets Critics: Charles Beitz’s On the Idea of Human Rights

May 6th, 2010 § 0

Stanford University will host an event on Friday, May 14 on Charles Beitz’s book On the Idea of Human Rights.

Discussants include Tim Scanlon, Barbara Herman, Jenny Martinez, and Jim Fearon.  Full details below.  The event is free and open to the public.  If you are interested in attending, please email Kelly Rosellen to register: rosellen at stanford dot edu

Full details below.

» Read the rest of this entry «

Disrupting Philanthropy — Panel Discussion in New York City, May 11, 2010

May 3rd, 2010 § 0

I’ll be participating in an interesting panel in New York City on Tuesday, May 11 on the topic of “Disrupting Philanthropy: Changing the Rules”. Much has been written about the blurring of the boundaries between the non-profit, for-profit, and state sectors. We now have (for-profit philanthropy), philanthrocapitalism (socially purposed for profits), and foundation-state collaboration (such as the efforts of major foundations to supplement the Department of Education’s Race to the Top funds). So much experimentation is now underway that we need discussion about how public policy can keep up with all the innovation. That’s what this discussion will cover: whether we need to revise public policies.

Steve Gunderson, President and CEO of the Council on Foundations

Diana Aviv, President and CEO of Independent Sector
Lucy Bernholz, President and CEO of Blueprint Research and Design, Inc, blogger at Philanthropy 2173
Rob Reich, Faculty Co-Director, Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society

Full details below.

PACS NY Event Flyer

Teach For America and Civic Engagement

January 3rd, 2010 § 5

The New York Times has an interesting article by Amanda M. Fairbanks on Teach For America. She reports on the findings of a recent study by my colleague in the sociology department, Doug McAdam. McAdam finds that TFA corps members, after their two years of teaching, score lower on civic engagement measures than applicants to TFA who were accepted but did not matriculate or than corps members who were accepted but dropped out before completing two years of teaching. In what respect lower? Lower voting rates, less charitable giving, less public service work.

The article reports this as if it represented a dust-up with the TFA mission. Fairbanks quotes Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA, who records her disappointment with McAdam’s study.

But Kopp and TFA shouldn’t feel disappointed. There are a variety of explanations for the lower civic engagement rates. First, TFA corps members were already off the charts on civic engagement when they applied to TFA. If participating in TFA transformed them from their already very high levels of civic engagement, that finding would be remarkable. Second, after the TFA experience, it should be no surprise that the alumni of TFA take a “service break”, so to speak, akin to what is sometimes called “donor fatigue” by fund-raisers. Third, the McAdam study didn’t attempt to measure specific forms of educational engagement, which the TFA experience might plausibly be thought to effect. For example, are TFA alumni more or less likely to vote for a local school bond measure, relative to their pre-TFA experience or relative to non-matriculants or dropouts? Are TFA alumni more or less likely to follow education policy discussions? Are TFA alumni more or less likely to make a charitable contribution to a charter school organization or a scholarship fund for disadvantaged children? My guess is that TFA alumni would do better on these dimensions of what we could call educational civic engagement.

Full disclosure: I’m quoted in the NY Times article and also provided feedback to McAdam as he prepared the survey whose results form the basis of his article.

PACS Center Event on New Approaches to Philanthropy, Nov. 17

November 16th, 2009 Comments Off

Join 21st century leaders in philanthropy to learn about how they launched successful new philanthropic models impacting society change. Moderated by Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society Executive Director, Kim Meredith.

WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009, 5:00 – 6:30PM
WHERE: Stanford Humanities Center, 424 Santa Teresa LanePACSEvent 11-17-09

Panel will include:

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, Founder Silicon Valley
Social Venture Fund SV2:
• Founder of SV2 a donor network that leverages its financial, intellectual, and human capital to make a meaningful, measurable impact in Silicon Valley and beyond.
• Co-founder and advisory board chairman of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.
• Faculty member at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Stanford University, focusing on creating and teaching courses on Strategic Philanthropy.
• Laura holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, an MA in education from Stanford University School of Education, and a BA and MA in art history from Stanford University.

Russ Hall, Co-Founder Legacy Venture:
• Co-founder of Legacy Venture, a philanthropic community that invests in premier capital funds to amplify the size and effectiveness of their philanthropy.
• Managing Director of Legacy Venture and Chairman of Legacy Works.
• Russ is on the advisory board for Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, Full Circle Fund, Good Capital, and the Global Philanthropy Forum.
• Russ holds an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business where he graduated as an Arjay Miller Scholar, an MS from the University of California at Berkeley, and a BS from the United States Military Academy.

Jessica Jackley, Co-Founder Kiva:
• Co-founder of Kiva with a mission to connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty.
• She has spoken widely on microfinance and social entrepreneurship in more than 30 countriies.
• Jessica has worked in the Stanford Center for Social Innovation to launch the inaugural Global Philanthropy Forum.
• Jessica holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business with Certificates in Global Management and Public Management, and a BA in Philosophy and Political Science from Bucknell University.

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