For helpful comments I thank Koji Flynn-Do, Abie Rohrig, Harry Taussig, Emma Abele, Sabrina Chwalek, Matt Burtell, Trevor Levin, Jemima Jones, Michel Justen, Caleb Parikh, and Max Daniel.

Some of my observations come from my experience grantmaking with the EA Infrastructure Fund. I am contributing in a personal capacity however, not as an EAIF assistant fund manager. (In particular, you are welcome to apply for EAIF funding if your plans mostly consist of the kind of activities I’m questioning in this post.) All views are my own. 

Epistemic Status: In this post I’m mainly referring to university group community builders. It’s possible that a lot of what I say will still apply to city / country / other groups, but I’m less confident of this. In my problem section, I give some percentage estimates of how much organizers are marketing (defined later) and how much they should be marketing. This is based off of some rough estimates, which I’m not confident in. I’d love to see someone better estimate this or run a survey.

Advisory Note: If you’re only going to read one section of this post, I encourage you to read the TLDR and the Solutions section.

TLDR: There are significant downsides to the current model of community building, which involves organizers spending a large portion of their time marketing EA, doing (often menial) operations work for EA, and explaining to other EAs how to market EA: 

  1. It trades off against some of the most promising EA students skilling up themselves
  2. It means that EA groups aren’t actually learning about object-level EA issues, and instead are learning things about small-scale marketing and club organization, which is significantly less important.
  3. It can give EA a “Ponzi scheme” vibe on campus, because EA groups are disproportionately focused on growing their group as opposed to skilling up and tackling object-level issues.

Instead, many group leaders should think about what would be most useful for them, and then invite others to join them in the activity they’re doing. For examples of this, skim the solutions section.  

Outline:

  • The Problem (in 4 Claims)
  • Solutions
  • Caveats and Why I Might be Wrong


The problem

The problem is that organizers and others at university EA groups (and possibly other EA groups) are spending too much time marketing EA and doing basic operations work when they should be skilling up. I think this is bad for the organizers, the epistemics of the group, the members of the group, and the external view of the group. 

By skilling up  - also referred to as skill building - I mean taking action to improve one’s epistemics, knowledge of key global problems, or career. Most of the actions that fall under skilling up involve cognitively intensive learning. Some actions that fall within the category of skill building would be extremely useful for some and trivial for others (e.g. doing an ML bootcamp may be great for someone looking to do AI safety research, but useless for someone interested in GPR). 

For the rest of this essay, I will define marketing as “marketing EA, doing (often menial) operations work for EA, and explaining to other EAs how to market EA”. I recognize this is a broader definition of marketing than is generally used. However, I want to be able to simply point at the issue I’m talking about, which is when individuals - often top organizers - spend too much time doing activities like: running fellowships, advertising at club fairs, creating marketing materials (posters, emails, websites, etc), pitching EA to others, 1:1 outreach, and some* events. 

* Note: Some parts of organizing an event would be included in my definition of marketing and some would not. If hosting an event involves a high degree of learning about a topic - e.g. the Nucleic Acid Observatory project - that you think would be highly valuable for your career  - e.g. in biosecurity - or general knowledge, the time spent doing that does not count in my definition. If hosting an event involves finding the venue, emailing speakers, or doing other coordination, that time spent does count in my definition of marketing. 

I claim that over 60% of organizers are spending more than 70-80% of their time marketing EA in a given semester. When I say that organizers and others are spending too much time marketing EA, I am referring to organizers who are spending more than half of their EA time on marketing. If an organizer spends 10 hours per week marketing their group, this would mean they spend more than 2.5 to 4.5 hours* of their time per week skilling up, alongside school work and other activities. Of course, the number of hours changes based on how much that organizer is organizing. I contend that less than half of EA organizers are spending this much time skilling up, which is not nearly enough. One individual I spoke with estimates that they spend about 90% of their EA-dedicated time marketing EA in a given semester. In order to avoid the adverse effects of marketing, I claim that the vast majority of university group organizers should spend less than half of their EA time marketing. The rest of their EA time should be dedicated to skilling up.  

*Spending around 2.5 hours per week per semester skill-building would mean organizing/marketing is about 80% of their EA time (given 10 hours of organizing per week). Spending around 4.5 hours per week per semester skill-building would mean organizing/marketing is about 70% of their EA time (given 10 hours of organizing per week).

Claim 1: Having the most promising people market EA is inefficient. 

The most promising people in a university group are often the ones that get the most involved. The most involved people generally become the organizers. It's inefficient to have these people sacrifice their highly valuable time marketing EA to others. It’s inefficient because:

  1. Skilling up is often more valuable
  2. The people they’re marketing to often are not amenable to their pitches
  3. If the people they’re marketing to are amenable, these new people often begin by marketing EA, because it’s what the people that got them involved are doing.

I’m not saying that all the most promising people in a university group get involved and then become the organizers, but I’d contend it’s true for around 70% of people. This would mean that about 50% of individuals in an EA group are doing EA marketing too much. 


Claim 2: Too much marketing causes bad epistemics in the group.

  1. As mentioned previously, too much marketing causes new people to internalize the idea that everyone should market EA, including themselves. Instead of spending time learning about EA and digging deeper into its ideas, these ‘new EAs’ adopt a soldier mindset. They go out into their universities attempting to explain, convince, and defend EA to others, rather than fully engaging with it first.
  2. Spending a large majority of the time marketing EA implicitly prioritizes the growth of the group over other group qualities, such as intellectual skepticism and moral seriousness.
  3. Too much marketing pushes away people who could be EAs by seeming too proselytizing. Individuals that don’t like proselytizing are less likely to engage with ideas deeply. Worse than just turning promising people away, too much marketing may have adverse selection effects. It may select for people willing to help with marketing over people that value intellectualism or epistemic rigor. Especially if the organizers doing the outreach don’t have a good understanding of problems themselves, they might be perceived as unconvincing by the epistemically-rigorous people they want to attract.

Claim 3: Too much marketing causes individuals to skill build less.

  1. Students’ time is extremely valuable. Spending more time marketing means that there is less time to learn about EA or skill building. A symptom of this is that students don’t spend sufficient time testing their fit for different career paths and object-level work. They then lack skills in other areas, so community building becomes the default path.
  2. Related to point 1 of claim 2, when leaders spend their time too much marketing, the idea that everyone should spend time marketing EA trickles down. Knowledge about EA doesn’t because that is more difficult to convey. This causes individuals to learn less about EA overall.
  3. Related to point 3 of claim 2, too much marketing pushes away people who could be EAs but who think that EA is just about proselytizing and not actually doing things. This causes there to be less knowledge about EA in the group overall, and often less expertise within a group about different cause areas. This makes it more difficult for 1) people to learn in general and also 2) for people to learn efficiently about another cause area. This is especially true for individuals who learn by debating or discussing ideas with others.

Claim 4: Leaders marketing EA too much causes bad perceptions of EA around campus. 

It’s difficult for outsiders to get a nuanced understanding of EA on first pass. Topics such as utilitarianism, cause-prioritization, or longtermism are difficult to convey through marketing - whether on mailing lists, at an activities fair, or even in a single presentation. Rather than associating EA with these rather complex topics, it’s easy for outsiders to instead associate EA with 1) certain memes, 2)  too much marketing or 3) the people doing the marketing. 

On associating EA with certain memes (point 1): It’s possible that outsiders will associate the group with what the organizers send out in their emails. However, because it's hard to convey EA in a high-fidelity manner, it makes people associate EA with memes like “EA is earning to give” or “all EA cares about is AI safety”. 

Referring to associating EA with too much marketing (point 2): If the leaders are marketing, the non-leaders are marketing, and the messaging the outsiders receive is marketing, it’s pretty easy to see how that individual would associate EA with marketing. An only half-serious example of this can be seen from a university-equivalent of Reddit. When one searches for ‘Effective Altruism’ this is the only thing that comes up: 

 

With regards to associating EA with the people doing the marketing (point 3): Associating EA with the people doing the marketing seems particularly relevant given the fact that certain demographics are dominant in EA. Even if an individual associates EA with “doing the most good” they may think of EA as they would a universalizing religion: they’re a group that has distinct values and the way to achieve a portion of their values is through converting others (i.e.  too much marketing). 

Solutions

I want to convey that too much marketing is bad and I think too many community builders are spending too much time marketing. Specifically, I think around 60% of EA organizers are doing too much marketing.

I don’t want to convey that all community building is bad. In fact, I think the solution is as much reframing community building as it is decreasing the amount of it that is done. 

If based on the information above, you feel like you are marketing EA too much, I want to empathize with that. It can be difficult to assess what marketing should get cut and what should remain. I propose some solutions below, but my list is by no means comprehensive. Here are just a few ways that EA community building looks better to me:

The focus of Uni groups should shift away from “marketing EA” or “explicit community building” to learning (if that is not already the group’s focus). This seems helpful for 1) the people who are doing community building that should be focusing on spreading higher-fidelity models of EA to their university and 2) the people who are doing community building but should instead be skilling up to do direct work.

Organizers can think of their EA group as a space where they figure out how to make the most positive impact in their life. The activities they run from the group is what would be most useful for them and their journey to making a direct impact on the world. 

Their EA group is a space where they encourage others to also figure out how to make the most positive impact in their life. The extent to which an arbitrary individual engages makes an impact, or stays involved is entirely up to that individual and isn’t pressured. It isn’t pressured directly or by excessive marketing. 

So if EA group leaders are spending less of their time marketing, what are they spending more of the time on? What actions and activities does this framing imply? Here is a short, non-comprehensive list of ideas in no particular order:

  1. Read, distill, or redteam articles that you think would be most useful for you and your skilling up.
    1. If you want to throw community building into this, inviting others to do this alongside you (potentially as a workshop or coworking event).
  2. Forecast in areas of interest. Participe in a forecasting competition (on metaculus, INFER, etc) or hosting a forecasting workshop for your group.
  3. Tackle any of the projects on FTX Future Fund Project Ideas (perhaps especially those less related to community building). Don’t expect to make significant progress, but learn from the experience overall.
  4. Spend a few hours each week digging into a cause area that’s of interest to you. Invite others to do this alongside you.
  5. Plan your career on a doc, list your key uncertainties, and make a list of people to potentially call. Invite others to join you as a coworking event or workshop.
  6. Take a job or internship in an area where you want to make a direct impact
  7. Run reading groups on research reports from GPI, FHI, Rethink Priorities, Founders Pledge, or other related organizations. Run reading groups on niche topics that an individual is interested in.
  8. Run a mock constitutional convention where people think about how to structure international governance institutions for the long-term future, or how to govern space settlement (from FTX Project Ideas)
  9. Host more debates / scheduled discussions on a particular topic, host debates with a knowledgeable speaker, etc.
  10. Watch a ton of Rob Miles’ videos. Make it into a “movie” night and invite others.

Important note: The idea isn’t that people should spend a lot of time doing all of these things. The idea is that maybe one of these ideas sounds appealing for you to skill build and learn stuff. And so while you do it, you can invite others to do it. Then, when someone asks what you do with your club, you point to one of these things (or a better version of one of these things) rather than immediately trying to get into a deep conversation. You invite them to an event and see if they vibe with it. You are essentially practicing “show don’t tell” in conveying what the group is about. 

As of now, I think that there are very few obvious ways for university students to “do EA” in an EA club, but that’s exactly what we want people to be doing. By “do EA”, I mean engage in cognitively intense activities aimed at modeling the world and making it a better place. To achieve this goal, we need to set up a culture of seriousness and commitment to working on (some of) the above projects and events (or others not included in this list). We also need to figure out how to make them work for busy students. Solving this problem will likely diminish the marketing problem.

Caveats and Why I Might be Wrong

Caveats: I’m not saying that everyone is doing this, nor am I saying that all marketing is bad. 

I think running intro fellowships and a small amount of broad-scale outreach is generally useful. I’ve found that in some cases, however, groups spend so much time community building that they lose sight of what EA is and what they want to do after university. When they could be doing other things (see solutions sections) to make both themselves and their group better off. 

Why I Might be Wrong: I might be wrong that this is a problem, either because people aren’t doing what I think they are (marketing too much) or because this amount of marketing is net positive. 

My estimate that “over 60% of organizers are spending more than 70-80% of their time marketing EA in a given semester” is from talking with other organizers. This was entirely informal; they took about 5 minutes to do a simple BOTEC. This is not an ideal way to collect data, and I’d be excited about someone conducting a more exhaustive study on the subject. 

I may be wrong about the fact that this level of community building is generally bad. It’s possible that my model of community building would slow down some of the growth that’s happening, and this may be a bad thing. It’s possible that in some special scenarios, spending 70-80% of your time marketing EA is a good thing. I’d be wary of this for the reasons mentioned above. I’d love to hear good arguments against the fact that this level of community building is generally bad. 

I may be underestimating the amount that marketing is useful for individuals. While it can greatly limit the skills an individual learns, it can also help them: develop leadership experience and responsibility, learn new software (Zapier, airtable, calendly, etc), or do general operations work. There are also quick feedback loops on one’s management skills. As previously mentioned, I think the value of this is generally overestimated and is occurring way too much at Uni groups. However, it's possible that in some scenarios lots of marketing is justified. 

I may also be wrong that organizers should spend less than half of their EA time marketing. Since my ideal percentages are based mostly on intuition, I’d love to hear others’ views about the ideal amount of marketing. 

My solutions, above, might be wrong. I feel pretty good about the fact that they are not entirely right. The list is non-comprehensive, and there are probably some ways of skilling up that I’m critically missing. You may disagree with my suggested reframing of community building, and think there’s a better model. I encourage you to comment your thoughts on how to make my solutions better or to come up with solutions on your own. 


 

247

New Comment
39 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:20 AM

I broadly agree with your thesis and would love to see more university groups prioritize the types of activities you mention. I think EA university community building needs to hear this critique right now.

But I'm worried people could over-update on this, so I want to introduce three caveats:

1. You need a core group: Placing more emphasis on collectively skilling one another up only seems possible for groups that already have 3+ people seriously committed to doing the most good, which can't be said for many new EA groups. New groups might benefit from overmarketing to build up a core group.


2. You need to maintain some mass outreach component: Ideally, every student at your uni knows that an EA group exists and roughly what it does. I think there are low-cost ways to do this, like mass email and dept. emails with mail-o-meter that funnel towards an intro event or fellowship (or fellowship alternative). Nevertheless, I'd be worried that a group that focuses too much on self-skill will miss finding many of the "instant EAs" that could be a great fit for the group. 


3. It's hard to onboard new members into a group that's skilling up: Imagine your friend tells you about this cool new student group that's all about impact. You're super excited – you've been looking for something like this – and then you attend a co-working session on FTX megaproject sketching. Or a reading group on a GPI report. You would have zero context and I wouldn't blame you if you walked away unsure what the group does and didn't come back. If you invite lots of people who are missing context to your event, you also risk seriously degrading the quality of your event. If you don't have events for them, you're potentially missing out on a lot of talent and introducing exclusivity concerns.  I want organizers to think more about these competing concerns. The easiest potential solution I see to the lack of onboarding is lots of 1-on-1 conversations with people who show interest (which I think every organizer should hear a few more times anyways). 

I'm also still genuinely uncertain that the multiplier effect isn't just that good. I lead a student group, and I've people who I think will do cool work have told me they wouldn't have gotten into EA if it weren't for me. I'm not sure if skilling up multiplies my impact in the same way. However, the post effectiveness is a conjunction of multipliers makes me think that it can be easy to underestimate the importance of improving your judgment and working on the right problems (and sub-problems) – which you do by skilling up,  building models, and good faith debates with friends. Not marketing. 

I want to especially +1 item (3) here― the best actions for a skill-focused group will be very different depending on how skilled its group members are. Using my own experience organising a biosecurity-focused group (which fizzled out because the core members skilled up and ended up focused on direct work... not a bad outcome).

Some examples of the purposes of skill-focused groups, at different skill levels:

Newcomer = learn together

  • Member goals: Figure out if you are interested in an area, or what you are interested in within it.
  • Core Activities: Getting familiar with foundational papers and ideas in the field.
  • Possible structures: reading groups, giving talks summarizing current work, watching lectures together, collectively brainstorming questions you have, shared research on basic questions.

Advanced Beginner = sharpen ideas

  • Member goals: Figure out if your ideas and projects in an area are good, be ready to pivot as you learn more.
  • Core activities: Get feedback on your ideas, find useful resources or potential collaborators.
  • Possible structures: lightning talks, one person presents and receives feedback on their project, fireside chats or Q&As with experts.

Expert = keep up with the field

  • Member Goals: Make progress on your projects while staying aware of relevant of new developments.
  • Core activities: Find potential synergies with your work, get feedback and critique, find collaborators.
  • Possible structures: seminar series focused on project updates, research reading groups where summary talks are given by more junior group members.

Strongly agree with (1). I avoided organizing (and when COVID hit, keeping alive) my university's EA group because "it's better to skill up" (amplified by an incorrect heavy pessimism about how many other students would be interested in EA). I regret this.

I don’t think (3) is that bad. New members are not always better than shooting experienced members into good projects.

I wonder if 2- 3 year cohort models of fellows would be better in established campuses.

I agree it's these things are worth worrying about, though I think I don't totally agree with the bottom line "organizers should spend less than half of their EA time marketing."

My thinking is that EA student group outreach is an amazing opportunity. I think people doing it well while students often end up having more impact through it than they do in their later jobs.

In addition, someone working 15h per week on it is probably going to achieve more than 3x as much as someone working 5h per week. I also think someone being intentional about outreach can often achieve a lot more than someone who just does an object-level EA thing.

So, the model I would propose is that each uni group choose 2-3 people who make EA outreach their main focus (or whatever is needed to take the low hanging fruit; and maybe this should be a full-time recent grad), and then everyone else focus their EA time on something else (e.g. preparing for a career on an object-level issue).

I think there's then a somewhat separate and important discussion about how best to do EA outreach on campus (e.g. mass vs. high fidelity). My take is that there's a lot of value to be had from mass outreach (e.g. most students still haven't even heard of EA or 80k), but it's also easy to mess it up, and is important to combine with some more high-fidelity channels.

(Minor, but I  get the impression think the career capital you get from EA student group organising is better than you do e.g. I think learning to talk to people about EA on a small scale is really useful to doing later high-scale marketing; and running a student group of volunteers teaches you a bunch about management in general.)

I agree with these claims (extracted from your comment):

  • EA student group outreach is an amazing opportunity
    • people doing it well while students often end up having more impact through it than they do in their later jobs
  • someone working 15h per week on it is probably going to achieve more than 3x as much as someone working 5h per week
  • someone being intentional about outreach can often achieve a lot more than someone who just does an object-level EA thing
  • learning to talk to people about EA on a small scale is really useful to doing later high-scale marketing; and running a student group of volunteers teaches you a bunch about management in general

But I feel much worse about your proposed model. This is significantly for the reasons discussed in this post, and in my post on why it's important for community building to be well-integrated with direct work. But also because:

  • Mass outreach may be valuable, but a big advantage of "mass" is that it can be done by professionals (who can themselves have invested years in getting a nuanced understanding of what's needed in direct work); there's no need for this to be done by students
  • I think that non-mass outreach will often be more effective from students who are significantly engaged with the EA project in non-outreach-y ways, since it lets them talk sincerely about their own practice and experience, without it coming across as a Ponzi scheme (OK this was covered in this post as 3.3)
    • While I agree that 15h/week will achieve more than 3x as much as 5h/week, I don't think it's >>3x as much, and I think will typically be outweighed by the benefits
  • I think that many professionals in direct work should be making a bit of time for community-building, and I think the skill-building from having done a little bit of outreach at university will often be helpful for this, so I don't want to restrict this benefit to just a handful of people

Extra question: does it seem like the bigger scale university outreach opportunities are in fact going to be covered by full-time professionals, or will major low hanging fruit remain that student group leaders could otherwise focus on for the next X years?

Those are interesting points. I agree that if mass-outreach (& perhaps overall coordination of work) at universities  can be covered by full-time professionals, then it seems plausible current students should by default make skilling-up / career planning / being closer to object-level priorities their main focus, and do non-mass campus outreach as a secondary thing (e.g. via some combo of talking to their friends, showing up at events, volunteering for one year out of four).

So maybe that was the missing piece of the argument for me.

Less importantly, I still feel unsure about this: "I think that non-mass outreach will often be more effective from students who are significantly engaged with the EA project in non-outreach-y ways, since it lets them talk sincerely about their own practice and experience, without it coming across as a Ponzi scheme." When I think about the past organisers who got the most people involved, many of them made running the student group their main focus outside of studying, and didn't have significant engagement with non-meta projects. Of course, they were typically exceptional in other ways, were maybe more connected to EA leaders, faced more low hanging fruit, and did put some people off too. Still, I think there are often big gains from making EA outreach your main focus.

Interesting point re. part organizers who were particularly successful. I don't have a great grasp of the anecdata here; I had a rough impression that some of the very successful ones also got relatively obsessive about understanding object-level areas, but that might be wrong.

(If you're right, I'm also interested in whether they were the only people who had a serious/deliberate go at doing great outreach vs just doing it more passively; I'd update particularly if we had examples of people trying seriously to do say a 60/40 learning/outreach split and not getting far with the outreach.)

This seems like one of those things that might be best for the movement but not best for the individual.

A uni organizer who recruits 5 excellent future performers might have just had the most impactful portion of their whole career. But the general marketing skills they got might be less useful to them personally. Becoming an expert in X object level issue would probably be more rewarding and open more doors over the course of their career than being a generalist in marketing, and have lower earning potential than learning consulting, programming, or some research skills.

I feel more uncertain about this if they’re actually doing project management and people management.

Thanks for writing this, Emma! Upvoted :)

Here's one heuristic I heard at a retreat several months ago: "If you're ever running an event that you are not excited to be part of, something has gone wrong."

Obviously, it's just a heuristic, but I actually found it to be a pretty useful one. I think a lot of organizers spend time hosting events that feel more like "teaching" rather than "learning together or working on interesting unsolved problems together." 

And my impression is that the groups that have fostered more of a "let's learn together and do things together" mentality have tended to have the most success.

This seems like a good time to amplify Ashley's We need alternatives to intro EA Fellowships, Trevor's University groups should do more retreats, Lenny's We Ran an AI Timelines Retreat, and Kuhan's Lessons from Running Stanford EA and SERI.

If you're ever running an event that you are not excited to be part of, something has gone wrong

This seems way too strong to me. Eg, reasonable and effective intro talks feel like they wouldn't be much fun for me to do, yet seem likely high value

+1. The heuristic doesn’t always work.

(Though for an intro talk I would probably just modify the heuristic to “is the the kind of intro talk that would’ve actually excited a younger version of me.”)

Thanks, Akash! I haven't thought a lot about how this might apply to larger-scale events like retreats, but this makes a lot of sense to me. Somewhat unrelatedly, I think it'd be nice to have a catalog / google doc of workshops that are all about skill-building (or "learning together or working on interesting unsolved problems together." as you put it).  I felt like the Bright Futures Retreat had a lot of good examples of this. University group organizers then have a good reference of what types of events are useful, and they can either 1) use the catalog as inspiration for spin-off workshops 2) host workshops from the catalog as one-off events during term, or 3) compile their favorites for a retreat. This would likely save them a lot of time and diminish the amount of ops-related work they do.  

I'd also love to see such a catalog

(Weakly held personal opinion) I would go further and say that you attract people like you.[1]If what you or your core group is signalling most to outsiders are your community building (or marketing) qualities, you're likely to attract folks who are also keen on community building (and put off folks who are likely keen on the object level work you're recruiting for). 

Here's an intuition pump I have. Imagine two EA uni group websites that are exactly the same except for one difference in their profile page:

  • Website A showcases students who have internships in orgs solving x-risk issues, has co-published a paper on cost-effective poverty interventions, wrote a series of blog posts on effective animal advocacy, etc.
  • Website B showcases students who have basically none of the above

I feel pretty confident that A will attract the right kinds of people into EA.  

I also feel somewhat confident that B will be a net negative. I could imagine that each cohort of students coming into B  gets worse in quality each year, until it becomes "ponzi scheme'ish" entity. 

  1. ^

    https://medium.com/@michelbachmann/start-with-who-15b8857ed718

I was surprised to see that the word "class" appears nowhere in this post.

Once you've paid your tuition, college classes are free. And they teach a lot of useful skills if you pick the right ones. It's great to read articles and work on small projects and find other extracurricular ways to skill up. But I'd hope that anyone organizing an EA group is also choosing good classes to take.

Examples of classes I took in college that felt like "skilling up" (which, collectively, took much more time than founding Yale EA, even on a per-semester basis):

  • Several writing classes
  • A negotiation class (funnily enough, Ari Kagan was one of my classmates)
  • An entrepreneurship class focused on building and scoping a specific business idea
  • A class where I learned the R programming language
  • A class on marketing via behavioral economics

I also did a ton of extracurricular campus journalism, which has been exceedingly useful in my career despite being quite disconnected from EA-focused upskilling.

None of this was as time-efficient as targeted reading on EA topics would have been. But targeted reading doesn't come with certain benefits that classes offer (external project deadlines, free project review from experts, office hours with said experts). And because you have to take classes at college anyway, getting at least some value from them is a huge counterfactual win.

*****

It actually seems okay to me if most of organizers' "EA time" is spent on marketing-like activities, as long as they are learning and practicing useful skills in their classes and non-EA activities (and as long as group members can tell that their organizers have cool stuff going on outside of EA marketing).

This is similar to something I've thought about recently, which is that one option for a highly impactful person looks basically like having their head down and studying for many years, getting into a conventional position, and using the skills they've acquired and the leverage in that position for good. I think this is underemphasized and I wonder if that is just because it seems less exciting and different.

Anecdotally I've observed some people taking long leaves from college/talking about dropping out (edit: I took a leave from college and it was very beneficial for me! And dropping out might make sense for some people.). There is sometimes a mood of "classes don't matter." But I think they often do.

I also think optimizing too much too early can be bad. Some of my most useful classes weren't what I would have expected them to be before I took them.

Great post, Emma, with valuable insights. I'd just add one point regarding university courses and the role of EA-aligned faculty.

As a psych professor,  I've taught a course on 'The psychology of Effective Altruism' three times for 20-25 upper-level undergrads at a large state university. My university doesn't have an EA student group, but there are other EA-adjacent groups, e.g. for veganism and AI research.  

I've noticed that there's often a social/intellectual firewall between student groups and formal courses, such that the student groups don't realize how easy it might be to recruit a professor to teach a course on EA, rationality, or specific EA topics -- or for student group members to give guest presentations about EA in an existing course (such as ones on AI, judgment & decision-making, microeconomics, or moral philosophy.)

One  efficient way to promote the skill-building  mission of student EA groups would be for student organizers to be less bashful about approaching faculty like me about doing more formal teaching, conference organizing, colloquium inviting, and other 'service work' in support of EA. Our promotions, tenure, and raises depend in part on doing this kind of service work, and most faculty I know who are open to EA would rather do EA-related service than other kinds of service we could be doing (e.g. serving in a Faculty Senate, an IRB committee, or  department website committee.) 

So, student groups might even find that they can offload some of the community-building and skill-building to faculty mentors and allies -- especially since we're already paid and encouraged to do this kind of service.

I would reframe this as 'community builders don't spend enough time on other EA things' rather than 'community builders spend too much time community building'. I know the thought is that less time marketing -> more time on other stuff, but I think it's worth setting a different tone. I worry there's too much of a meme going round like 'community building is not that good a thing to do', where it should be 'we are finding ways community building could be done better - exciting!'

To me, this is a great post for suggesting how community building could be done better through more direct experience - exciting!

Strongly upvoted. 

In my view, part of the problem are feedback loops in the broader EA scene, where focus on "marketing" was broadly rewarded and copied. (Your uni group grew so large so fast! How we can learn what you did and emulate it?) . 

Also - I'm not sure what metrics are now evaluated by central orgs when people ask for grants or grant renewals, but I suspect something like "number of highly engaged EAs produced" is/was prominent, and an optimizer focusing on this metric will tend to converge on marketing, and will try to bring in more (highly engaged) marketers. 

Thanks for writing this post!

I do think there are some cases where there isn't a clear line between what you call "marketing" and "skilling up."

If I do the "menial operations work" of figuring out how to easily get people to go to an EA conference, is that "marketing" or "skilling up"? It depends; if my goal is to do technical research only, then it probably isn't a useful skill, but operations is a very useful skill that you can build while doing EA community building.

If I know a group organizer has done the gruntwork of operations, I know that they can handle work that may not be that intellectually stimulating (regardless of the kind of work). I know that they are highly conscientious and able to not let tasks slip through the cracks. These are extremely useful traits in anyone. Of course, group organizing isn't the only way you can get these skills, but it's a pretty good one.

Thanks, Thomas! I think that's a fair criticism. What I was trying to get at with "some actions that fall within the category of skill building would be extremely useful for some and trivial for others" is that to a certain extent, it's up to the individual to define what skill building is for them. I'm amenable to the fact that maybe these definitions weren't lenient enough to a range of career paths. I do worry, however, that too many individuals are going into ops/community building without building up other aptitudes. 

Referring to your last paragraph, I think it'd be better if a group organizer could get those same skills in something a bit more catered to a prospective career path, although maybe this is unrealistic. This also doesn't hold if the individual's career interest is in ops. 

Great post! I especially like your ten bullet point suggestions for what community builders can be doing to skill up.

An inconsistency I noticed is that early on you write:

I claim that the vast majority of university group organizers should spend less than half of their EA time marketing. The rest of their EA time should be dedicated to skilling up.  

And you argue for this position throughout. But then in your penultimate paragraph you say:

I may also be wrong that organizers should spend less than half of their EA time skilling up.

I think this must be a typo, and that it should read "organizers should spend less than half of their EA time marketing" or, equivalently, "organizers should spend more than half of their EA time skilling up"?

Good catch! I've just edited to correct this, thanks.

Thought-provoking post, thanks a lot for writing it! 

I broadly agree that it’s good for community builders to spend significant time on learning/direct work, especially if their long-term plan is not to do community building, but I think I disagree with some of your specific reasons.

I think the post sometimes conflates two senses of marketing. One is “pure” marketing, the other is marketing as you define it (i.e., marketing and ops), which includes things like organising content-heavy events and programs like fellowships. My instinct is that:

A. Most of the negative effects of “too much marketing” that you identify are negative effects of “pure” marketing, rather than marketing-and-operations. I think this is especially true of claim 2 and 4: It doesn’t seem to me like organising a talk or fellowship creates bad epistemics or makes EA comes across as pushy or single-minded. It’s maybe not always the best thing organisers could be doing (e.g., because of claim 1 and 3), but doesn’t seem harmful otherwise. 

B. It’s not true that 60% of community builders spend 70-80% of their time on “pure” marketing.

I’m curious if you disagree with either of these claims. (But even if not, I think the central argument could still be true, though for slightly different reasons, e.g., that organisers spend too much time on “pure” marketing, or that spending significant time on learning/direct work makes you a better community builder.)

Completely agree, and I'll second the impression that EA marketers primarily activate and recruit other EA marketers. 

Another way to frame this dynamic - 

If someone is making the claim to you that these problems are the overwhelmingly most important things to do with your life, then why aren't they working on them? In a way it almost feels self-defeating. The people who best activated and motivated me to work directly on hard problems were people who themselves were working on them.

This is all anecdotal, of course, but I do think we need an epistemically healthier model of community building, for these and other reasons.

Thanks for creating this! I thought it was really useful and easy to read.

Minor point here, but I think phrases like "soldier mindset" and "high-fidelity" could have been hyperlinked to relevant definitions or articles for clarity.

Strong upvote. 

To me, this seems more relevant for more established groups. Perhaps thinking about operational tasks vs skilling up shouldn't be thought of in terms of percentages, but in terms of necessary vs supplemental tasks. I would imagine things like sending emails, doing 1:1s, buying food for events, etc. are necessary for any group to stay alive.  So if you are the only HEA for your uni group, you might have to spend 90% of your time doing these (and tbh I think this would be the right call). But when it comes to things like doing an egregious amount of marketing or anything else that doesn't seem necessary, perhaps skilling up should be prioritized. 
Also, I didn't see the multiplier effect come up anywhere, and I'm interested to hear how heavily you weight it. 

Thanks for this! One response I've read about Claim 1 in particular is something along the lines of "promising students tend to emphasize CB while in school because they are positioned to have a greater impact that way, but when they graduate many (most?) of them slow down CB and move into up-skilling/direct work."

That may still not be an ideal scenario under Claim 1 because it means those promising people are delayed in realizing their direct impact, but I wonder if anyone has anecdotal evidence of this kind of effect persistent or decaying after university?

Hi Emma! Just read your post. We are looking to start our own Uni group, we'll consider the points you make regarding community building in our own journey :)

As I scroll through the existing comments I can’t help but think it sure would be nice if there were a way to have a more-structured media for discussion/debate on these claims (and people’s responses, recursively).

Cool idea. Are you working on this in a dedicated way? If this is useful, you could try it at a retreat or take 3-12 months to promote its use I bet, and see how it fleshes out.

It's funny you should ask, I just finished a post on a related project: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/9RCFq976d9YXBbZyq/research-reality-graphing-to-support-ai-policy-and-more 

Although that is about a different project, many of the same points apply: I just haven't gotten a sufficient demand/interest signal to feel justified (let alone motivated) to work on the project.

Minor note: "distill" and "redteam" link to the same article. 

I think this post touches on some really important topics, so thanks a lot for writing it! To push back on some things:

Would you say the same applies to newer university groups? It seems likely to me that following through on the advice of this post would limit the amount of people that hear about EA at your university. If you don't already have a mature university group, a lack of growth means it may never become one, which would be a very steep opportunity cost.

Phrased differently, this post appears to come from the perspective of a mature groups where the impact bottleneck is the organizers and active members setting themselves up for impactful work and projects, as opposed to a less mature groups where the impact bottleneck is finding and reaching out to people that would be interested in EA. If you limit  intro talks, fellowships and 1:1s, how much value can you really provide for people that aren't already EAs? 

Although the advice in this post could be very beneficial for groups in the second stage, it could possibly be harmful for the multitude of groups in the first stage.

Claim 1: Having the most promising people market EA is inefficient.

For newer groups, if the most engaged and promising people don't market EA, it is likely no one will. To change that, you need to build up a group and find various organizers, which requires growth, which can be hard to achieve without marketing.

Claim 2: Too much marketing causes bad epistemics in the group.

Can't say I've noticed this much, personally. From speaker events to fellowships and book clubs, marketing will generally point an event or program where exploring ideas and skilling up are central (though admittedly not necessarily for the organizers).

Especially if the organizers doing the outreach don’t have a good understanding of problems themselves, they might be perceived as unconvincing by the epistemically-rigorous people they want to attract.

Doesn't this also function as an argument for why the marketing should be done by the most engaged and promising people?

Claim 4: Leaders marketing EA too much causes bad perceptions of EA around campus.

I agree that the difficulty of accurately conveying what EA is and does through the brief moments of first impressions definitely poses a risk for reputation around campus. However, I feel this could also be used as an argument for spending more rather than less time thinking through how you signal and market EA.

Perhaps a good takeaway from all this is that marketing for university groups should ultimately be self-defeating, rather than self-reinforcing. To use marketing as a means of creating a solid core group of people interested in EA, after which it can take a backseat in the list of priorities and skilling up this core group becomes the focus.

Finally, I feel like a lot of this could be avoided by creating standardized pipelines for marketing EA and setting up the digital infrastructure (think of website, linkedin, instagram, facebook, slack, discord, circle, mailing list, announcement chat, calendar for events, calendly for 1:1s,  sharable QR code to a linktree, and perhaps most importantly, which ones of these you even need in the first place). This would both free up a lot of time for organizers, as well as allow for fine tuning the messaging to the extent that this is possible. Luckily it appears this is being worked on.

It seems like a poor division of labor to have the president doing so much of the outreach. Have you considered having a dedicated outreach coordinator? This would be a job good for a communications-focused member to have. Unlike a president, who as you said is likely wasting some opportunity to skill up, this role would be useful for the communications-focused person later in life as well.

Relatedly to time, I wish we knew more about how much money is spent on community building. It might be very surprising! (hint hint)

[+][comment deleted]5mo 1