If you plan on applying the principles of effective altruism in your life, whether through donations or direct work, that’s really awesome! Over the course of your life, you could be saving dozens of lives, sparing thousands of farm animals from factory farming, or helping humanity avert existential catastrophe this century — and more.
Now, imagine that over the course of your life, you’re able to enable two people to learn about effective altruism, and thanks to your efforts, they (counterfactually) go on to lead high-impact careers equivalent to what you would have done. That’s more than doubling your impact!
But that’s not just a hypothetical. By establishing an effective altruism chapter at your university, I think you could have this sort of impact. (If your university does already have an EA chapter, I strongly recommend getting in touch and seeing how you can help out.)
It’s easier than ever to start an EA university group. There is a wealth of resources that you can use to run activities at your university with little modification, and you can get ample funding from the Centre for Effective Altruism and the EA Infrastructure Fund.
In 2019 and 2020, though I was really excited about EA, I thought there was no way that I could get an EA university group off the ground. I’m one of the quieter people I know, and I had never been able to have my friends or family care much for EA. Maybe a handful of people would show up to meetings occasionally, but no one would learn very much about EA or really care about it. But in this past year, I’ve been able to start EA at Georgia Tech, and it’s been surprisingly straightforward and successful, thanks to all the resources that other EA groups have provided. After our first nine months of existence, our club has had 50 people learn about EA in-depth through an introductory seminar program. Three members have taken the Giving What We Can Pledge after participating in the introductory EA program, with minimal prior exposure to EA. By my count, about 7 people of these past participants plan on seriously applying the principles of EA in pursuing high-impact careers (starting from having no real knowledge of EA). I think that’s really cool! In the Spring 2022 semester, we had another 50 people participating in our intro seminar program, along with another 33 for AI Safety Fundamentals and 25 for our reading group of The Precipice. There are so many people at your university who would be really excited about EA and love to apply it in their lives, if only they learned about it.
I just graduated in May 2022. But after our first semester this past fall, our organizer team has now increased from one person (me) in April to nine people, for an estimated 2 full-time equivalents, and now we’re up to 17 organizers and facilitators! So, you could build a club that continues to have an impact even after you leave your university.
Other new groups such as Strategic Social Impact at Carnegie Mellon, Cornell EA, and EA BYU-Idaho have had a good amount of success from running intro programs, with about 10–25 participants in their first semester with the program. There’s no guarantee that your group will take off, but I think there’s a strong upside.
Are EA uni groups actually impactful?
I’ll reproduce what Global Challenges Project and the Centre for Effective Altruism have to say about this:
On your campus you have an absolutely insane opportunity for having an impact on the world: where else can you find such dense clusters of people with the values, drive, talent, time, and career flexibility to dedicate their careers to tackling the world’s most pressing, difficult, large-scale problems?
We want your mission to be to inspire and engage a whole new generation to take huge and ambitious action to fix the world. We want you to find and recruit the best and most altruistic talent to seriously tackle the world's most pressing issues head-on. This is a huge and worthwhile challenge; this ain't no student group.
To solve pressing global problems — like existential risk, global poverty, and factory farming - we need more talented, ambitious, altruistic people to focus full-time on these issues.
Hundreds of thousands of these people are clustered at the world's top universities.
University is often a time when people are thinking deeply about their priorities: what they care about most, and how they want the world to be. It’s also the last time most people will seriously consider so many possible career paths. This makes university a uniquely important time to help them learn about effective altruism and get their careers off to an impactful start.
Open Philanthropy’s data supports this: when they surveyed 217 people who they believed were likely to have careers with particularly high expected altruistic value from a longtermist perspective, their respondents on average first heard of EA/EA-adjacent ideas when they were college-aged. They also asked their respondents what had been most important for them to have a positive impact. Answers were split broadly across different areas, but local groups were most frequently on respondents’ list of the biggest contributors, and within local groups, most of the impact came from university groups. […]
One rough estimate from 80,000 Hours is that someone working in one of the most impactful roles creates millions of dollars of value per year. We think that the best Campus Specialists will contribute to creating around ten of these people each year (albeit with some delay before they start doing their most impactful work, and an adjustment for counterfactuals which would reduce the impact several-fold). That would mean a Campus Specialist could create tens of millions of dollars of net present value per year.
Claire Zabel, who’s made tens of millions of dollars of grants in the EA meta space, told us that, speaking from a longtermist perspective:
I generally recommend strong community-builders pursue movement-building activities rather than earn-to-give, even when they would be giving >$500k/year
I think top universities may be the single best overall situation for EA outreach/recruitment that exists in the world. As far as I know, nowhere/no-when else is there such a density of extremely gifted people (and people who will become very influential), for an extended period of time, during what seems to me to be the critical age for taking on new values and career plans.
There are massive opportunities for impact here, and CEA wants to help people to take them.
The post is about working full-time at top universities, but I think you could have a comparable effect by contributing your time part-time as a university student.
And when CEA says they want to help, they really mean it. You can get Group Support Funding for any group expenses. You can talk with other group organizers on the EA Groups Slack and reach out to them to schedule a call. There’s a lot of support available and others are eager to help.
How do you start an EA uni group?
There are two simple steps:
- Heavily publicize an introductory EA seminar program
- Run the EA seminar program, or outsource it to EA Virtual Programs
And I might also add a Step 0: have a solid introductory understanding of EA (25+ hours of engagement with high-quality EA ideas), such as by reading the EA Handbook or participating in an intro program.
That’s all you need to do to get started!
But what is an introductory EA seminar program? More often called an “introductory fellowship”, it’s essentially a reading/discussion group about the foundational topics of EA. Usually, there’s an application process to help ensure commitment and so that participants can be sure that they would be interested in EA, but applications don’t have to be selective. One common format is to have groups of 3–5 participants with a discussion facilitator, with 1–2 hours of readings/exercises every week and 1 hour of discussions, for a total of 8 weeks.
It’s the main way EA university groups, established groups and new groups alike, are able to get new members.
It’s honestly quite straightforward to run an introductory EA seminar program. Other groups have made a curriculum. You can use this application form template. There’s facilitator training and a facilitator guide with discussion questions and icebreakers you can use. Don’t worry about being especially persuasive or extraverted or anything — a facilitator is there to just guide the discussion and clarify misunderstandings. Just be empathetic and friendly and speak with nuance, and do the readings before discussions (or read the reading summaries by EA Cambridge), and be yourself!
But if you want to save some time, you could just leave the facilitation to EA Virtual Programs. They’ll pair students from your university together in their cohort assignments. They’ll handle all the logistics like reading applications, contacting participants, and running the program; all you’ll need to do is advertise the program to students at your school. I’d also recommend having some kind of casual in-person meetings throughout the semester. You could reach out to participants for 1-on-1 meetings, or host free weekly lunches or dinners at a dining hall (funded by CEA).
Publicity can be quite straightforward as well. Here are some methods you could use which don’t take too much of your time:
- Emailing department mailing lists or any other mailing lists with a lot of students. This is an extremely effective approach if this is an option at your university.
- Personally inviting your friends.
- Posting on your university Reddit, Facebook groups (e.g., for students of a certain graduation year), etc.
- Posting in large group chats (such as on GroupMe and Slack).
- Tabling at a club fair.
- Facebook ads? I haven’t tried this personally, but EA Philippines has had strong success.
- Putting up flyers.
You don’t even need to write your copy – you can copy the message text and graphics that other groups have made; see EA Groups Resource Centre - Publicising Introductory Programs.
You might be surprised by how many people would be interested in participating in a reading group about effective altruism! I certainly was. But an introductory seminar program actually can be framed in quite an exciting way – see Swarthmore EA’s and Yale EA’s pages on it.
Running an intro program
Running it yourself
If you want to run an intro program locally, here’s what that would involve:
- Create an application form (1 hour; you can copy this template, for example)
- Advertise it (3–15 hours over 1–3 weeks; you decide how much time you want to invest) – see the section above about publicity
- Notify participants that they’ve been accepted, assign them to cohorts based on their mutual time availability, and send them copies of Doing Good Better and The Precipice (5 hours)
- Participate in the facilitator training run by EA Virtual Programs (1 hour)
- Meet with a cohort of participants every week (1 hour/week if you’ve done the readings)
- The facilitator guide provides lots of interesting prompts and makes it easy to keep a thought-provoking discussion going
- If you haven’t done the readings before, it would take an additional 1–1.5 hours/week to do the readings. If you’re pretty familiar with the concepts already, you could probably get by with just reviewing the reading summaries (ask the EA Groups Slack for the link)
- Optional but recommended: Have 1-on-1 meetings with participants about EA (maybe 30-minute for each participant, at least twice a semester)
I think this takes about 5–15 hours/week across your organizer team (whether that consists of just you or multiple people).
Universities that have been able to start up with an in-person intro program include: Georgia Tech, American University of Sharjah, Australian National University, University of Queensland, University of Toronto, University of New South Wales, University of Cape Town, University of Auckland, University of Maryland, College Park, BYU-Idaho, and Georgetown, and more.
If you're interested in doing this, I highly recommend applying for the University Group Accelerator Program, which supports students in running their first intro EA program.
If there's a city EA group where your university is, you could recruit facilitators from it. I think EA UWashington and EA NYU have done this (or were trying to, last I heard from them).
Outsourcing it to EA Virtual Programs
Another option is to leave the logistics and facilitation entirely to EA Virtual Programs. So then here’s all you have to do:
- Let EA Virtual Programs know that you plan on advertising the program (10 mins)
- Make sure that the deadline for their intro program is at least a week or two away
- Publicize the intro program (3+ hours over 1–3 weeks).
- Meet with participants in-person several times a semester – you could have weekly lunches/dinners or set up 1-on-1 meetings (1–3 hours/week)
- Unfortunately, due to privacy concerns, EA Virtual Programs wouldn’t be able to tell you who from your school applied. Instead of directly sending people to the EA Virtual Programs application, you could have participants fill out a quick form made by you, which automatically sends an email to them with a link to the EA Virtual Programs form.
EA Virtual Programs offers some other options too, like leaving the logistics to EA Virtual Programs but facilitating programs yourself.
Once you build up more organizer capacity, it’s better to run the program in-person, but having virtual facilitation by EA Virtual Programs is a strong option for starting out.
Some EA groups that I know of that are starting up this semester with this model are EA at the University of Georgia and at Hunter College.
So in summary, I think the time commitment is 3 hours for advertising (or more if you want), and if you outsource the programs to EA Virtual Programs, I think it takes about 1–3 hours per week to meet with participants regularly.
- Have a strong and nuanced understanding of EA before starting a club. You should probably have engaged with EA content for at least 25 hours and know the content in the Introductory EA Program. For example, if you’re mainly familiar with evidence-based giving for alleviating global poverty, make sure to also learn about impactful careers, longtermism, existential risks, biosecurity, AI safety, and factory farming. It’s also valuable to be aware of other EA causes which aren’t talked about as much, such as climate change mitigation, global mental health, and AI governance.
- Don’t try to persuade everyone. Most people aren’t going to be interested in anything like maximizing their positive impact on the world in a cause-impartial way, and that’s okay. Focus on talking with the people who are interested and helping them refine their ideas about how to do good (not in the sense of persuasion, but trying to explore the truth together).
- Avoid putting down popular non-EA ways of doing good. It’s better to focus on the incredible opportunities for impact.
- Focus on having highly engaged members. It’s much more valuable to have a few people who make high-impact career changes than many people who don’t do much based on EA.
- Try to boost interest in positively impacting the long-term future. The long-term future could be quite vast and there are promising ways to improve the lives of sentient beings over the long term, but outside of EA and longtermism, there aren’t many efforts to do this.
- Don’t neglect developing career capital for object-level work. EA movement-building develops valuable skills in organization management and community management, and is an impactful option for a full-time career, but you also want to develop your skills for doing working directly on an important cause.
- Stay in touch with experienced EA group organizers. EA Global conferences are a great place to meet lots of other group organizers (and EAs in general), but if you’d like to chat with another EA university group organizer, just reach out for a virtual call!
- Stay up to date with the EA community. I recommend subscribing to the monthly EA Groups newsletter, EA Newsletter, and Future Matters. Subscribing to other EA university groups’ newsletters is a great way to be informed about opportunities and get inspired by other groups’ activities.
University Groups Accelerator Program
Copied from University Group Accelerator Program (notion.site). I’m not affiliated with the Centre for Effective Altruism, and this post just represents my personal opinion.
The University Group Accelerator Program (UGAP) is a remote program run by the Centre for Effective Altruism to help make starting new EA university groups easy and accessible. To accommodate the growing interest in the program, CEA will have a virtual two-week starter program that will be open to a larger group of schools than UGAP itself. The starter program will provide resources for groups and help us identify who we think would gain the most value out of UGAP.
Applications for next semester are open!
There will be two rounds of UGAP this semester.
- Round 1: Southern Hemisphere Groups/Groups with early start dates.
- Please fill out this form by 11:59pm ET, June 19th. You will hear back by June 24th.
- The Round 1 starter program will start in early July.
- Round 2: Northern Hemisphere Groups/Groups with later start dates.
- Please fill out this form by 11:59pm ET, July 25th. You will hear back by August 1st.
- The Round 2 starter program will start in early August.
If you’re interested in starting a group, I would strongly recommend applying!
I think starting an EA uni group is incredibly impactful, and it’s fairly straightforward if you have some spare time, thanks to all the amazing resources available for publicizing and advertising an introductory seminar program. Such programs are a meaningful and effective way to introduce people to the key ideas of EA, so that they can have higher impact careers.
Two great options are starting a group are:
- Participating in the University Group Accelerator Program and running an introductory EA seminar program (5–15 hours/week), or
- Just publicizing the virtual Intro EA Program by EA Virtual Programs (~3+ hours total), and arrange in-person meetups with participants
If you’re interested in starting a group, shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I also recommend joining the EA group organizer Slack, where you can get help and advice from other EA group organizers around the world. CEA’s University Group Accelerator Program provides mentorship and support for starting a group, based around the model of running an intro EA program. Having participated in the pilot version of this program, I think it’s really great and I would highly recommend applying.
For more resources, see A collection of resources for Intro Fellowship organisers.
Also, if there’s any way that I can help, please reach out! You can send me a message on the EA Forum or schedule a call on my Calendly.
Thanks to Justis Mills for helping me edit this post. All mistakes are my own.
Note that I don't think this should be interpreted as the number of people who will actually have counterfactual high-impact career changes. Also, note that this figure doesn't include high-impact career plan changes from the Spring 2022 semester.
You might be worried about EA falling into a “meta trap”. If you work on helping more people learn about EA, and since EA movement-building is so impactful, those people spend more time on EA movement-building, then where does that leave people who are actually working on tackling pressing problems? It would indeed be concerning if it’s movement-building all the way down. But in my experience, most people are more interested in directly working on pressing issues rather than full-time movement-building work, so EA movement-building will have a very direct connection to making concrete progress on issues. It’s also totally fine to just do this as a university student and decide that you can have a greater impact on a direct impact cause and avoid the meta trap that way.