How to give away $5,000 on the Internet
Nadia Eghbal

Wanted to send you my thoughts on your grant experiment. Although it seems like a wonderful all-goodness, no-badness type thing, I have a few problems with it. (I know everyone is going to hate me now. Go ahead and “Booo!” everyone.) At first I could not put my finger on the problem, just had that tugging feeling that something is just not right. It had something to do with the fact that, as you said, “Being selected wasn’t so much about needing money as having someone believe in them. The $5K would signify that their idea was worth pursuing.” You had 2,000 applicants and chose three. So three people were validated while 1,997 people shared with you deeply personal ideas that were very close to their heart, their hopes for the future, which might just be the last drop of energy that kept them rolling out of bed and going every day….and were rejected.

I feel there is something wrong with that. First of all, although it is your money, that does not necessarily mean that you are the best judge of what is a good idea and what is not. Wouldn’t a better way to organize a grant be with a panel of people collaborating together and judging applicants rather than one person? Shouldn’t there be a pool of money from different sources, and a collection of people from different backgrounds and fields and interests judging what ideas would be the “best.” Besides the fact that one third of the money was yours, I don’t see why you alone should decide what is a good idea.

Another point: I think you understand the importance of confidentiality as you did mention this in your medium post. But it goes deeper than that. Privacy is the thing that makes us human. A person’s dreams is their MOST PRIVATE secret. That secret is something they usually share with God and no one else. You gave 2,000 people hope and they told you their secret, and you rejected 1,997 of them. How do they feel now? Used? I think they might feel that it was very hard to share themselves with a complete stranger and they did it because their dream was that important to them, and any possibility to make it real was something they had to try. But after being rejected, they must feel that they wish they never applied at all, that they never shared their dream with someone they didn’t know. It’s as if you cheapened the dream, made the dreamer less whole, and maybe they feel further from their dream now than before they sent it to you in their email.

I will just refer you to one other point: When you announced the grant, you stated it like this:

“I’d like to fund something that’s personally meaningful to you, whether that’s moving to the city of your dreams, building a better mousetrap, or bringing strangers together.”

After your decision, you described how you selected the winners with this explanation:

“As I went deeper into the applications, I thought about two dimensions:
Has this person worked to change their circumstances, despite facing challenges? (character)
If they succeed, would I personally be excited by the project outcome? (this is, after all, a personal funding experiment)”

The former is a misrepresentation of the latter. There is clear hypocrisy in your expressed intent to fund something that is meaningful to the applicant, bringing forth an onslaught of real sincerity and sacrifice of privacy and dignity (because it is a sacrifice of privacy and dignity when people share their closest thoughts and hopes with someone they don’t know, unwillingly…and it is unwillingly, because NONE of the applicants would want to put themselves in that position if they didn’t have to), and then making decisions based on personal bias as to whether you would personally be excited about their project. That seems wrong.

One last additional point: There was no cryptography used, and sending a plaintext email to a Gmail address is NOT private at all. IMO, you did not make the effort to safeguard these peoples’ ideas. They are all sitting in plaintext on Google’s servers and will be, forever.

Anyway, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way. I do think, there were great intentions in helping a few people out and hopefully inspiring other “comfortable people” not to be so stingy, greedy, materialistic, and selfish with their money. But I also think there was some narcissism and egotism and naivity on your part, if not a bit of arrogance too, to assume that because you have an extra 5k to throw around, that you are really worthy to judge all these peoples’ dreams. Their dreams and hopes might be worth much more than your ability to judge them. Maybe it was the wording: “…personally meaningful to you.” In a way, I feel you have a responsibility to ALL 2,000 PEOPLE who applied to make their confession worth it, and get them all funded.

At the least, you should do it differently next year, and do not make the decision alone, but enlist a group to make it. What would be great would be if the winners of this year’s grant became the judges next year, and so on. In any case, it should be more than one person making the decision. Also, please use an encrypted platform to safeguard peoples’ correspondences next time, especially when they are sharing such valuable information with you. One of those projects you rejected might be the next world-changing idea.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.