A Concrete Model for Running an EA group
The main goal of this approach is to identify, attract, and develop top talent–and help them have more impact.
I think EA local groups should focus on this because they have a comparative advantage at community building. The most valuable direct work often requires specialised skills and knowledge, and is best done in a professional context.
Because effective altruism is complex and heavy-tailed, people will provide the most value to the community when they have developed a deep and sophisticated understanding of how to do good. Local groups are a great environment for interested people to engage deeply with the ideas of effective altruism.
Therefore, I think local groups should:
- Focus on the most engaged members of the group and their career planning, as opposed to continuously trying to onboard new people.
- Focus on learning and developing a more nuanced understanding of the ideas of effective altruism instead of hosting public events.
- Not focus on having a lot of direct impact.
The approach in a nutshell
Stage I: Finding people
- Goal: Find new potential group members to attend a first event.
- How: Various broad and narrow outreach activities; introductory event.
Stage II: Getting interested people involved
- Goal: Identify the most engaged people; deepen their understanding of core ideas and get them more involved.
- How: EA seminar and face-to-face conversations.
Stage III: Career planning and integrating with the community
- Goal: Career planning for core members of the group.
- How: Deeper engagement and learning through discussion groups, retreats, career planning groups and workshops.
Conceptually separating the three different stages leads to increased awareness and more explicit focus on the goals of your activities.
General advice for local group leaders
- Deepen your own EA understanding: If you organise a group, you should have read most of the articles listed here. There are two main reasons why this is important:
- You might change your mind about your own plans. Since a lot of value from local groups comes from the group leaders themselves, this is an important consideration.
- We want to communicate EA ideas accurately and with appropriate nuance. This prevents dilution and makes effective altruism appealing to people who appreciate nuance and are skeptical of simple answers to complex issues.
- Reading on community building: Other people have thought about EA community building a lot. These resources are particular important for group organisers: Effective Altruism Community Building, The Fidelity Model of Spreading Ideas, How Valuable is Movement Growth?, CEA’s guiding principles.
- Offer, don’t sell: There’s no need to sell effective altruism to people very hard. If they are not interested when presented with the basic ideas and arguments, they will likely not become very engaged members of the community. Be happy with having offered the ideas–if they don’t bite, that’s fine.
- Use existing resources: There are more than a hundred active local groups around the world, so there’s a high chance someone else has created the thing you need already. Use e.g. the group organisers Facebook group or join the EA Groups Slack to ask people before putting effort into creating something new.
- Consider your options: Community building is great if done well, but it’s not necessarily the best use of your time. For some people it might be better to focus on building career capital, or deepening their understanding of effective altruism on their own. Among other things, this depends on how good you would be at community building and how big the target audience is in your location.
A comment on the following: I included a lot of concrete examples of how some steps could be implemented. In practice, groups will often have good reasons to deviate from various of these recommendations. They are best seen asabaseline to which group organisers can compare their activities.
Stage I: Finding people
This stage starts with outreach and promotion, usually a few weeks before lectures begin, and ends with an introductory event in the first few weeks of the semester.
Goal: Get potential group members to attend your introductory event.
- Create a Facebook event: Use this FB event to invite people to the event. Take a look at EA Cambridge’s best practices. Also provide information somewhere outside of FB for people without an account. Meetup.com is one option, or your own website, if you have one.
- EA pitch: For many of the activities during this stage you’ll need to have a good EA pitch. Spend some time developing one you like, and practice it. Take a look at the EA Pitch guide for examples.
- Some potential group members might not be able to attend your event. Consider sending them a recording of a good introductory talk, and inform them about the EA seminar (see below) if they indicate interest.
How to reach your target audience
- Referrals: Invite people from your personal network. Send them a personal message, and ask them to bring friends. Ask all current group members to do the same. This has a track record of working exceptionally well.
- Freshers’ Fairs: If your university has a well frequented freshers’ fair, participate with your group. The goal is to get as many email addresses as possible so you can send people an invitation to your event. More info: Student activities fair guide.
- Reach out to narrow target groups: Identify particularly promising groups (e.g. secular humanist groups, scholarship groups, the rationalist community), send them a short pitch, maybe a TED talk to watch, and invite them to your event.
- Facebook ads: Use Facebook ads to target people who could be interested and a good fit for the community.
- Promotion in classes: Ask professors if you could promote the event at the beginning of your university classes.
- Social media: If your group has a social media presence, send a personal message to people who follow your page.
Goal: Appeal to and identify potential group members, get them to sign up for the EA seminar, and/or schedule a meeting over coffee with them.
- What kind of event: Depending on your time and organic group growth, this could be an introductory EA talk, a more informal get-together, or a workshop. Talks are recommended if you have a great speaker and/or if you have very little organic growth. Groups with sufficient organic growth and time constraints could do a more informal event instead. Groups with sufficient organic growth and time could host an introductory workshop on the core ideas.
- Promote the EA seminar: Remember that the main goal of this stage is to appeal to potential group members and get them to participate in your EA seminar, and/or to meet them over coffee (see below). Optimise for this.
- Provide snacks and drinks: This usually leads to significantly more people staying, and people staying longer, too.
- Talk to people: Talk to as many interested people as possible to find out who might sign up for the EA seminar, and make sure they enter their email address into one of your lists. Even a brief personal interaction can significantly increase the chance that someone will decide to participate in the seminar.
- Contact info: You might not be able to talk to everyone. Address the audience and encourage people to get in touch with you in other ways if they’re interested, and make sure they know how to do so. Prepare a list for people to write down their email addresses.
A few notes on organising and logistics
- Start early: You want this event to be organised well, so you should start early. Finding a suitable room can be cumbersome, especially if you’re not yet an official university group. External speakers should also be approached at least a few weeks in advance.
- Assign responsibilities: One person should take the lead. Assign responsibilities for specific tasks to other group members, create checklists, and define how and when you want to check in with the team.
- Professional impression: There are some additional things that are low effort and can make a big difference in how your event will be perceived:
- Get a group roll-up banner.
- Put up signs so that people will find their way to the room.
- Be at the venue early so you have time to set everything up nicely.
- If you use projectors or microphones, test them.
Introductory EA talk
This is only relevant If you do decide to go for an introductory EA talk as your first event.
- External speaker: Consider inviting an external speaker who has given such talks before. External speakers draw bigger audiences and may have more expertise.
- Standard EA talk: If you do a presentation yourself, strongly consider using one of the standard EA talks. Take a look at these tips on public speaking as well.
- Topics to cover: These are the most important topics to cover:
- Commitment to Others: Why we try to do the most good.
- Scientific Mindset: Cost-effectiveness, expected value thinking.
- Openness: Cause neutrality and prioritization, overview of causes.
- Integrity & Collaborative Mindset: The effective altruism community.
- Q&A: Give people the opportunity to ask questions. People often find the Q&A to be particularly insightful. If you do the Q&A yourself, read through these EA FAQs beforehand.
- Feedback forms: Use these to learn how you can improve and as a means to getting in touch with people. Here’s a feedback form template.
- Informal discussion: Transition to informal discussions afterwards and encourage people to stick around and talk to others.
Stage II: Getting interested people involved
Meet people over coffee
Goal: Get interested people more engaged and provide them with resources.
- Why this is important: Face-to-face discussion are often the best way to get people more engaged with effective altruism. They allow you to discuss effective altruism and your group in more detail. Face-to-face discussions allow you to communicate with more nuance and address their specific questions.
- Timing: Focus on this right after your first event and before the seminar starts. Personal interaction is likely to be crucial for a lot of people’s decision to sign up for the seminar.
- Do follow-ups: You won’t be able to cover all relevant considerations in one or even several such meetings. Send people a personalised list of reading recommendations after you met them for coffee.
- Keep inferential distances in mind: If you do such meetings, keep inferential distances in mind and interpret their contributions accordingly. Consider what information they have, and how much exposure to effective altruism ideas they’ve already had when forming a judgment about their fit for the group. Pay attention to their willingness and ability to change their mind when presented with compelling arguments.
Note: While there are good reasons to do this before the seminar (see above), meeting people over coffee is something you ideally do year-round. The importance of face-to-face conversations is hard to overstate. If you only do one thing with your group, make it this.
Goal: Deepen the understanding of effective altruism ideas.
- Format: You could do two-hour sessions, one evening per week, over the course of 3 – 4 weeks. Alternatively, you could do the entire seminar in one or two days. You can use a combination of input talks, group discussions, and workshops. People should be willing to do some reading or watch talks to prepare for the seminar sessions.
- Why it’s useful: You provide a platform for interested people to engage more deeply with relevant ideas, learn more about the effective altruism community, and interact with like-minded people.
- Limit group size: Make sure the group size allows you to address everyone’s questions, and creates a familiar atmosphere.
- Outsource teaching: You don’t need to do input talks yourselves–plenty of good talks are available online, e.g. from previous EA Global conferences. You could also ask people to do a talk or a Q&A for the group over Skype.
- Registration: Have people register in advance (e.g. through a Google Form), and ask a few questions before confirming their participation. People should already have at least a basic understanding of what effective altruism is and isn’t about, to have a serious interest in doing the most good, and be aligned with the core tenets of effective altruism.
Example syllabus for the seminar
- Week 1 – Core concepts: Consider using Prospecting for Gold as a deeper introduction to many important effective altruism ideas and concepts.
- Week 2 – Cause prioritization: Reasons to focus on different causes (values, empirical beliefs, etc.). Consider discussing 80,000 Hours’ survey on what people who work at EA orgs focus on.
- Week 3 – The effective altruism movement: History, organizations, people. Important resources and ways to learn more.
- Week 4 – Rationality & other tools and concepts: Cover some widely used tools and concepts and resources, e.g. rationality, cognitive biases, EA concepts.
- Take a look at these resources for inspiration.
Stage III: Career planning and integrating with the community
This stage is where you reap the benefits of the work done in Stage I and II. Building on this, we you now focus on career plan changes and integrating new members into the wider effective altruism community. The following are some metrics for this stage (in order of importance):
- The number of A/B/Z career plans for group members, where plan A is one of 80,000 Hours’ priority paths.
- The number of group members who receive coaching by 80,000 Hours, or alternatively (since 80,000 Hours is currently quite strongly capacity constraint) group members who do a call with another senior EA who can give guidance.
- The number of group members who participate in an EA Global conference.
- The number of group members who take the GWWC pledge.
Career planning groups
Goal: Write and improve A/B/Z career plans.
- Why: Choosing a career is probably the most important decision many group members will make in terms of how much it can affect the impact they can have. Career planning groups produce value by improving the quality of this decision.
- Content: Read the 80,000 Hours career guide, the advanced career guide, and other blog posts and podcasts relevant to this.
- Format: You could watch content together, run discussions on career choice, sessions where members develop their A/B/Z plan, or feedback sessions where people comment on other members’ A/B/Z plans.
Goal: Further increase understanding of important ideas and concepts, cause prioritisation.
- Why: Further increasing participants’ understanding of effective altruism, and keeping up with recent developments in the community.
- Content: You could discuss recent top posts on the EA forum, 80,000 Hours’ problem profiles, articles published by other EA organizations (e.g. FHI, FRI, SI), or watch EA Global talks and discuss them. Cause prioritization in general is a great topic for discussion groups.
- Format: There are many different ways to structure the activity. A reasonable default is for one person to take the lead, and prepare questions for the discussion in advance. Group members could do input talks too.
Goal: Accommodate newly interested people; socialise with other group members.
- Why: New people might discover your group at this stage, but don’t yet have the same level of knowledge as other group members who e.g. participated in your EA seminar. Therefore, you might not want to invite them to one of the other Stage III groups right away. However, excluding them entirely until the next EA seminar would also be suboptimal. Regular social meetups (as well as meeting people over coffee) can serve as a good way of accommodating people in this stage without interfering with your other group activities. Additionally, informal meetups also strengthen the social ties in your local group.
- Content: No specific content. Briefly explain the approach of your group to new people, and explain how they can best get involved.
Goal: Immerse yourselves into a topic, learn more, and produce valuable research output.
- Why: Immersing yourselves into a topic can help you and others evaluating your fit for research roles, has high learning value and ideally results in a piece of relevant research output (e.g. as a post on the EA forum).
- Why not: Most groups and group members should focus on career planning and discussion groups during this stage, and research projects should only be tackled if you have spare resources and the benefits of these other activities seem fairly small.
- See here for more info on how you could do this.
Goal: Can help achieving the goals of different other Stage III activities.
- Why: Group retreats (or workshops) can create more focus, engagement and are a great way for group members to get to know each other better.
- Content: You could cover any of the content you would cover if you did one of the above-mentioned activities
- Format: Similarly, a combination of different formats can be used at retreats (discussion groups, career planning sessions, social activities).
Meet people over coffee
- Keep doing this: Listing this again for this stage to emphasise how important it is. As written above, this is something you ideally do continuously. It also works well for discussing specific uncertainties someone might have regarding their career plans.
This list is not exhaustive, but these are some further resources particularly relevant for local group organisers:
- A Model an an EA Group (a lot of overlap)
- Heuristics from Running Harvard and Oxford EA Groups
- Community Building Grants
- Mentorship and Funding
- Why communities of do-gooders should be exceptionally considerate
- Keeping the effective altruist movement welcoming
- Making EA Groups More Welcoming
- Guidelines on depicting poverty