Gordon Irlam on the BEGuide

This post summarizes a conversation which was part of the Cause Prioritization Shallow, all parts of which are available here. Previously in this series, conversations with Owen Cotton-BarrattPaul Christiano, and Paul Penley.



Gordon Irlam: Philanthropist and Founder of Back of the Envelope Guide to Philanthropy

Katja Grace: Research Assistant, Machine Intelligence Research Institute


This is a summary of points made by Gordon Irlam during an interview with Katja on March 4th 2014. The summary was made by an anonymous author.

The Basics

The Back of the Envelope Guide to Philanthropy (BEGuide) is a one-man project that aims to quantify the impact of philanthropic causes and share information, helping philanthropists to prioritise spending in a way that delivers the highest value for money.

Gordon Irlam has been running the BEGuide for about 10 years and estimates that he’s spent between 200 and 600 hours on it in total, working on it in short sprees whenever promising new information catches his attention.

Gordon chooses which causes to investigate by gut instinct, looking at anything that he feels might turn out to be worthwhile. Almost every cause that he’s evaluated has turned out to promise a positive net impact.

Work normally begins with a seed in a newspaper article or radio program and grows within a few hours to an evaluation that can be published on the BEGuide website.

Gordon also runs the Gordon R Irlam Charitable Foundation and his work on the BEGuide is now the basis for around 99% of that foundation’s spending, around $200,000 annually in coming years.

What Gets Done

Gordon does no original research, but spends his time compiling available information and processing it to get results for the BEGuide.

Gordon considers this kind of work important, and laments that academic researchers get funded to go out and get information, but once they write a paper on it, seldom manage to direct it anywhere that it can be compared to other papers, so the knowledge doesn’t come into use and the papers are quickly forgotten.

Uploading the work to the BEGuide also takes time, but almost all of Gordon’s effort goes into the research. He muses that it would take a lot of time if he were ever to update the website, which currently has a simple design.

Gordon continues to update the BEGuide as new information emerges, both adding new causes and revising those he’s already worked on. He still revisits a lot of organisations that he’s been following for so many years, because a lot of those organisations that he looked into initially are still doing relevant work and expanding, as has the BEGuide, though Gordon’s own approach hasn’t changed since he began.

How It Works

Gordon’s method is, he says, quick and dirty, just as the name suggests. The back of the envelope calculation estimates the value of an activity as:

                           How big is the problem?                       
How much would it cost to do something about?

Once Gordon knows what the problem is, he searches the web, looks through journals and takes in information from other organisations until he has enough facts and figures to fill out the equation.

Gordon says that his background in physics has helped him to recognise that a lot of the problems in philanthropic evaluation can be addressed with Fermi estimates. He thinks this is a good approach because the field doesn’t have access to the detailed, accurate data that is necessary for more detailed calculations. Having studied pure mathematics and science, Gordon feels that it’s deep in his nature to appreciate and use these tools. He believes that quantifying everything is the right way to make philanthropic decisions.

Because of the complexity of many of the causes that he’s worked on, Gordon tries to hone in on the main thing that any funding decision would achieve, ignoring any flow on effects, which are, in his experience, harder to quantify and because of his selection process, inherently less important. If he becomes aware of good information on the long term effects of a funding decision, he would use the data, but believes it would be highly unusual for such information to be available.

Who Uses It?

The BEGuide website gets one or two visitors per day and Gordon doesn’t believe it’s used by any philanthropists outside his own organisation.

While smaller parties could find the BEGuide useful, Gordon posits that there is too much followup work for anyone but large philanthropic organisations to do in finding out which organisations best pursue what the BEGuide finds to be the best causes.

Gordon initially expected more interest in the website. He made it a wiki at one point, but it was quickly overrun with vandals, forcing him to retreat from that initiative.

Gordon says that he’s done very little to publicise the BEGuide. He initially wrote to Engaged Donors for Global Equity, who published a blurb for the website in their newsletter, but he has not maintained contact with any publication or actively advertised to other philanthropic organisations since then.

Gordon regrets that he has no real contact with anyone who might find the BEGuide useful and says he’d like to talk with other organisations about his methodology, however he hasn’t taken any steps to do so. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, approached him and expressed an interest in using similar techniques to quantify the value of some 800 nonprofit CEOs.

The Results

Causes are organised on the BEGuide by what it gives as the upper limit of their Leverage Factor, which is, in simple terms, value for money.

A Leverage Factor of 15 is equivalent to $15 worth of societal value per dollar of input. One virtue of this unit is that it deemphasizes the necessary fact that in quantifying and comparing various philanthropic causes, the BEGuide puts dollar values on such things as human lives. Exactly what that dollar value is, for various results where it might be controversial, can be found on the website, but not on its main page.

If the BEGuide has found one trend in cause evaluations, it’s that high value causes tend to be high risk.

The biggest example so far is hostile artificial intelligence, which the BEGuide ranks as the most fundable cause, with a leverage factor between 100,000 and 11,000,000.

Gordon thinks philanthropic organisations tend to be unwilling to take risks, probably because they feel an obligation to have every cent spent on something that will have a result. He doesn’t see that this reasoning should be more true of philanthropists than of anyone else, comparing the opportunities in philanthropy to those of ordinary finance.

Another tendency that the BEGuide has found is that popular problems, such as solving global warming, are low value, because, the associated costs are so high.

This means that the highest value funding opportunities turn out to be high risk endeavours that aim to reduce problems that not many people know about, which is a problem, because this type of funding is understandably very unpopular with philanthropists.

Expanding the Audience

The most important barrier between the BEGuide and philanthropic organisations may be publicity. If Gordon had resources to add to any part of the processes that enable the BEGuide vision, he would use them to market to philanthropists.

Because philanthropists are regularly swamped by organisations looking for funding, they tend to develop a barrier that makes them very difficult to reach directly.

For this reason, Gordon suggests that the most efficient way to improve interest in projects like the BEGuide would be to deliver workshops at philanthropy conferences, such as the upcoming EDGE conference in Berkeley or those listed by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. These are places where philanthropists might have their guards down and be willing to find out that methodological cause valuation exists and to learn how it might benefit them.

What Else Is There?

Gordon has been in contact with GiveWell and is a member of Giving What We Can, but he feels that these organisations are limited to examining things like developing world issues.

Gordon believes that the BEGuide is unique in indiscriminately assessing the possible impacts of causes and feels that there is a need for a lot more aggregating and sorting of the existing evaluations that are produced by disparate organisations.

Other bodies that Gordon has used to source data for the BEGuide include the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and the Disease Control Priorities Project, both of which produce publications.

Gordon also stresses that it’s important to know the market. The Centre for Effective Global Action at UC Berkeley, for instance, provides data that’s useful for the US Agency for International Development and might at first glance like a good place for philanthropists or philanthropic data agglomerators to look for information. However it investigates problems like the comparative value of giving $10 in aid, or $5 and a chicken, while philanthropists often only want to know which organisation to support.

Without knowing much about other methodological approaches to evaluating causes, Gordon, expresses the sentiment that philanthropy as a whole is probably missing any methodology and that perhaps work on something like a marketing statistics approach would be of more value to the field than simply doing more research.

If other people are interested in contributing to research, Gordon feels that while there may be high value causes that have escaped his attention so far, newcomers’ time would probably best be spent looking in more detail at the highest leverage factor interventions on the BEGuide, as those causes could be much more attractive to philanthropists if their value were clearer.

On top of that, some of the causes on the BEGuide need regular updating and others haven’t been fully explored. Gordon worries that for his hostile AI evaluation, he has so far only been able to look at advocacy, but there are other possible solutions to that problem which might be more effective.


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