A Guide to Early Stage EA Group-Building at Liberal Arts Colleges

by vaidehi_agarwalla14 min read2nd Jul 20195 comments

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For the most recent version of this guide, please visit this live google doc where organizers can contribute advice, new activities, and resources.

Summary

This guide aims to address two issues: 1) the challenges of early-stage community-building and 2) the challenges that small colleges like Liberal Arts Colleges (LACs) face. You can refer back to this post at different stages of initial community-building for activities tailored for groups with limited organizing capacity and/or membership. I hope this guide will be useful for small, new and LAC groups. I envision this as a resource group organizers can use in addition to resources like the Chapter Starter Pack and those found in the Resource Map.

The guide makes the case for EA college and LAC groups, suggested goals groups should have and the challenges that LAC and other small groups face. It then covers the initial stages of community-building: Recruiting, Building out the community (creating a core of actively engaged organizers and members) and finally, keeping that core engaged with the movement. Each section contains descriptions of successful and failed activities that various LAC EA groups have tried. At the end of each section additional resources are listed.

Most of the ideas of this post come from mine and previous organizers experiences at Haverford EA, with significant input from Haven at EA Oberlin and Pedro at EA Wooster. Events marked with an asterisk (*) either require more planning capacity, or are more likely to succeed with a more established group.

Thank you to Haven, Arjun, Pedro, Rebecca, James and Kevin for invaluable comments and suggestions!

The Case

Why a College EA group?

College and University EA groups help the EA movement grow by getting people at a pivotal stage in their career to move into high-impact career paths, volunteering and donating to effective charities. College EA groups can help transition passive EA supporters or sympathizers into more active and committed members. Colleges students have time and interest to invest in learning about EA, and are easy to recruit from due to the concentration effects of a college campus.

Why a Liberal Arts EA group?

Liberal Arts Colleges (LACs) are well-suited to find effective altruists for two reasons. First, many LACs have social/mission-driven goals and attract people who want to make a difference with their lives. Second, LACs tend to offer a diverse range of subjects to all students, giving them the opportunity to experiment and potentially change or alter their career path more easily than those at larger universities. However, Liberal Arts Colleges face some unique challenges that make it harder for groups to start, and, once started, to continue to exist.

Goals for LAC EA Groups

Overall

  • Enable students to shift their focus towards high impact careers, both in terms of subjects studied and careers considered
    • Inform students about high impact career paths, especially those they have not considered before
    • Inform students about resources (e.g. 80K, the EA network) to make these decisions
  • Create a community they can draw on for advice, inspiration and resources
  • [Later Goal] Get students to engage with EA-aligned projects and producing EA-related content
  • [Less Important Goal] Increasing awareness about effective donation opportunities like GWWC, and the likelihood of future donations

Group-Building Goals

  • Have at least 2 co-organizers (this may be difficult initially)
  • Develop a core group of smaller, but more committed members over time
  • Getting people with no prior exposure to understand and engage with EA
    • If possible, find EA-adjacent people (e.g. LessWrongers, HPMOR readers, people with some exposure to 80K/Doing Good Better, people interested in AI Safety) to engage with EA. This can be done through activities like checking out local Less Wrong meetups, starting an HPMOR reading group, or informally through word of mouth.
  • Take advantage of educational/monetary resources available that may not be available outside of the college

The Challenge

1. Minimal Prior Interest

Smaller student population means fewer people who already know about EA, making it harder to kickstart the club. Running a club with a few members can be difficult. Most of the activities/events discussed in this guide are fairly low-energy events.

2. Oversaturation

LACs are often oversaturated with clubs, activities, sports and other commitments. You are competing for people’s time and energy. By getting first- and second years who have the time and energy to invest, you can maximize the chances of getting committed members who will be actively involved with the club. This guide suggests some of these activities in “Building Out the Community”.

3. Campus Culture

Currently, many LACs have a leftist culture where students prioritize domestic over international issues in their everyday activism and academic research, which makes it harder to get them on board with EA ideas. Leftist cultures sometimes have a negative view of EA’s ideas and methods as well. Bad first impressions last (at least until everyone in one generation has graduated), especially in smaller LACs (<3000 students)

Resources on 3: On the intersection of the two, SJ + EA: Extreme Poverty as a Social Justice Priority, Privilege + Earning to Give, An embarrassment of riches

Recruiting

Addresses Challenge #1 Minimal Prior Interest

[Not including your own social circles and friends - which some groups have been successful at, like EA Oberlin]

Successful Activities

Lightning Giving Games

  • Each Game takes about 3 mins, so try to get two or three people interested at once (or have more people tabling!)
  • At activities’ fairs or tabling at your dining, campus or activities centers
  • Hand people a dollar bill and present them with blurbs of 4 different charities.
  • Once they make their choice they can pin that dollar to a board with the name of the charity on it.
    • EA Wooster got ~150 sign ups out of ~350 students, while the average student club only got ~30.
    • EA Oberlin also had good results from this method

(Images from EA Oberlin’s [top] and EA Wooster’s [boottom] Lightning Giving Games)

  • After the game, we give them a short EA/EA at our college pitch.
    • You have to know what concrete activities your club plans on doing. You can make a list of potential events beforehand to prepare.
    • Talking to strangers can be awkward and scary! This advice is super helpful.
  • Finally, we ask them to sign up for the mailing list (and coffees) if they seem interested.

1-on-1 (or 2-on-1) Coffees

  • ~30-45 mins per person (it can go over if the conversation is good)
  • Try to schedule these coffees as soon as possible, preferably within a few days or a week of first contact, or people might forget or lose interest
  • Contrary to the resource listed below, I suggest 2-0n-1’s. Why?
    • The person gets more of a sense of the EA community and more perspectives on EA
    • Different organizers may have different ways of communicating, so you maximize the chances of making a connection
    • Getting coffee can be a euphemism for going on a date, so having two organizers avoids confusion. For example, we often had coffee meetings in one of the organizer’s apartments, so having more people felt less intimate.

Resource: Guide to 1-on-1s

Socials/Parties*

  • Examples
    • A Beyond Burger Cookout [Oberlin EA]
      • Attendance of ~40 people
      • Club members met attendees and invited interested people to join EA
    • Movie Screenings: Dr. Strangelove [Haverford EA]
    • EA-themed games: “Silly Interventions” game, Moral Machine, 80K’s “Was this intervention helpful?” quiz [Haverford EA]
  • Co-host social events
    • EA Oberlin consistently hosts parties with other clubs (such as the Tennis team), and these events have been successful.
    • Co-hosting with another club is better because hosting a party alone has had mixed success in the past. You can rely on the other club’s social capital to bring people in, so there will be more people to talk to/engage with.
    • Co-hosting with another EA group is also great because you get to meet other invested EA’s (to get motivation and inspiration!)
      • EA Oberlin and Wooster did an event together which was memorable and fun.

Small, one-off speaker events

  • Much higher attendance than weekly discussion meetings if you’re lacking a core group
  • Check for EAs in your local area who might be willing to come speak
  • If you’re located in a very rural or isolated area, you could do video calls with speakers [Oberlin EA]
    • The downside of video calls lower attendance, this kind of event may be better if you are focused on just the core/most active members of the club.

Failed Activities

5-min EA pitch to philosophy classes [Oberlin EA]

  • Wasn’t very successful in getting people interested in EA
  • This might work for people who are already well-aligned with EA, which was not the case for the classes that Haven did at Oberlin. He thinks that most people will become interested in EA via personal connections.
  • It may be worthwhile to experiment with this kind of outreach again, perhaps with philosophy clubs discussing EA-relevant topics or classes relevant to EA, like ethics.
    • You could co-host a discussion meeting on an EA-relevant topic

Highly publicized events [Haverford EA]

Based on past experience we would be extremely careful about hosting speakers that could be controversial.

  • Haverford EA invited Peter Singer to talk to the school. The event was highly attended (~30% of the student body) but it was controversial and the Q&A and subsequent campus discussion was hijacked by Singer’s views on disability rather than EA.
  • Thus, what could have been a great event was worsened by Challenge #3 - Leftist Culture and it affected Haverford EA’s image on campus for about 2+ years
  • It’s still possible that the event had an overall positive impact.
    • A student from the nearby Swarthmore College attended and was inspired to set up an EA club at Swarthmore. Although the club ultimately failed to take off, it hosted a few events and greatly increased the chances of an EA group at Swarthmore.
    • Others also told us that they liked the event.
    • Peter Singer asked for a $10,000 honorarium which he donated via a mini-Giving Game Haverford EA coordinated at the talk. Audience members voted to give between two of GiveWell’s then-top charities, the Against Malaria Foundation and GiveDirectly

Proposed Activities

Introductory EA TED talks event [Haverford EA]

We were planning on having an event where we watch a couple EA TED Talks and discuss them as a group (with snacks!). This might be a good event to do right after the activities fair and coffee 1-on-1’s.

Resources

Building out the community

Addresses Challenge #1 Minimal Prior Interest & #2 Oversaturation (and a little bit of #3 - Leftist Culture)

6-Week High-Impact Career Fellowship [Haverford EA]

Why do a fellowship?

  • It’s targeted at first & second years - younger students have more time and energy to commit, and are uncertain about their career plans (#2)
  • Complete newcomers engage with EA ideas over a period of weeks in a collaborative setting (#1) and those who are more familiar with EA can contribute to discussions and have the opportunity to get more involved in a structured way (#2)
  • LACs generally have mediocre career advice
  • In general, college students are in the best position to switch careers and go into high-impact roles. (Overall Goal 1: Careers)
  • Many of the students who participate (almost 30-50%) are international students. Haverford EA has had about 50% international students since its founding. International students:
    • Are more likely to be concerned with global or international problems (#3)
    • Have a better understanding of global poverty than their American counterparts if they are from developing countries. Their comparative advantage in this field could be invaluable to EA
    • Are more likely to engage with Career Advising Center-related activities because they are actively seeking career advice in an unfamiliar environment
    • Improve the movement’s and club’s diversity and inclusivity

Logistics and Content of the Haverford Fellowship

  • Haverford Course Materials
  • We have a short application for interested students, and the course is co-run with the Haverford’s Career Advising Center, both of which signal a level of commitment.
    • Despite this, we only have a ~50% completion rate (participants who attend >⅔ of the sessions). We think this is fine, because the more engaged fellows are more likely to become highly involved in the movement, which is the goal. Those who don’t complete the fellowship usually do so because of time constraints or lack of interest - so far we haven’t had anyone dropping because of negative interactions with the material.
  • Haverford's fellowship dedicates a good portion of time to learning how to network (sharing personal experiences and inviting alumni to give advice) and more practical advice (finding a summer internship, sending out resources for resume writing)
    • Students have concrete takeaways even if they choose not to engage with EA further at this point and are equipped with EA-aligned resources for the future
  • We include personal stories to contextualise 80K and general career advice for a liberal arts environment. We talk about:
    • How to approach Haverford alumni, students and professors
    • Specific departments, professors and courses that are EA-aligned or that make you think better
    • The limitations and benefits of LACs for professional and academic roles. For example, there is limited on-campus recruiting at LACs for professional roles, but alumni know this and will go out of their way to help you if they are able to.
    • Why job-hunting sucks and why networking is really, really important)

Resources

Keeping the Community Engaged

Addresses Challenge #2 Oversaturation

Attending EAGx/EAGs

  • Haverford and Oberlin had incredibly positive experiences meeting other EAs and getting a sense of the EA community
  • People were excited to get more involved with EA and the greater EA community as a result
  • (Let there be more EAGx’s!)

Interacting with college alumni [Haverford EA]

  • A few Haverford alumni were able to attend an EAGx with us. This was valuable because the current students could meet other/older EAs besides the regular organizers
  • Haverford EA has an alumni Facebook group chat where we discuss articles and blog posts about EA. We also have occasional skype calls that continue discussions

Weekly discussion meetings*

These can be very valuable. There are plenty of resources available to help plan them out, and they are a staple EA club activity.

Low attendance [Haverford EA]

  • Haverford EA lacked a good-sized core, so when we hosted discussion meetings they were poorly attended
  • We ended up doing organizer meetings that were open to the whole mailing list, which was a good compromise. If others came, we would talk do a discussion meeting, otherwise we would use the time to plan.
  • Low attendance is not a reflection on your ability to rally people, although it can sometimes feel that way. In general, I find it better to avoid activities that drain your emotional/mental energy because they are demoralizing. This is especially true if you’re the sole organizer - it’s easier to fail as a group. [This was seconded, thirded and fourthed by my helpful reviewers!]
  • You can try co-hosting discussion meetings and do topics specific to a particular club (for example, discussing population ethics with the philosophy club or AI Safety with a machine learning club)
    • At the beginning of the meeting, introduce both clubs to all the attendees
    • Your club can propose a discussion agenda, and help moderate the discussion
    • Unlike more involved events, discussion meetings should be fairly easy to co-host because it requires fewer resources and planning

Good attendance [EA Wooster]

  • In Fall 2018 Wooster averaged 12 students per meeting
  • Weekly discussion meetings were very good at building community (creating an interconnected group of people)
  • But, they were NOT good at advancing people's understanding of EA and getting members from the periphery to the middle

Lightning Talks [EA Wooster]

  • An email was sent out to people who had attended >=1 meeting that semester to sign up to give lightning talks (1-3 minutes) on any EA-related topic. Participants had 1 week to prepare a talk.
  • Participants could choose any topic, some picked topics they were familiar with while others didn’t
  • The activity aimed to get participants to engage with EA resources independently, and make them familiar with EA topics.
  • They had 6 talks in total, 3 per meeting over two weeks. There was about 15 minutes of discussion allotted for each talk.

The email:

We strongly encourage you to pick an article from one of our recommended resources, as one of the main goals of this activity is to get you to be familiar with the resources in Effective Altruism.

Here is the list of recommended resources:

Resources

Club Structure

There are many models for club structure. Oxford EA’s 3 Tiers Model is a useful starting point as it illustrates how to prioritize tasks according to group size. This section will not delve too deeply into any one model, but rather point out some important points for any club.

Have two organizers

  • Try to find others interested in organizing through EA channels
  • At a minimum, try to have 2 organizers (3 is even better). If and when setbacks occur, the club will be resilient against them.
  • If you end up in a situation where you’re the sole organizer, ask for help for specific events or projects from your mailing list. For example, when running a career fellowship alone I asked previous fellows to help me advertise.
  • Harvard EA has very helpful advice on this point

Don’t let the fire die out

  • It’s better for the embers of the club to exist, with relatively low output, than for the club to fizzle out completely. Don’t take on too much and risk burning out.
  • It’s easier to grow the club from this state, rather than rebuild it from scratch
  • You can maintain the club in a pretty low-level state without too much energy (for example, you could just do coffees and one or two events a semester)

Be realistic

  • Be honest about your abilities and limitations. In my experience, other EAs are pretty understanding about these sorts of things. Burnout could lead to the club ceasing to exist (see above).
  • Keep your expectations low. Don’t be disheartened if you get less people interested, or if an event fails. Get advice and feedback from the EA community, especially if you don’t have many organizers or experience.

Get feedback

  • Ask people who attend your events what they liked, and what could be improved.
  • Early on, verbal feedback will be both easier to obtain and more valuable as you figure out the landscape of your college community
  • As your group grows, you can switch to online forms to get more data (although some in-person badgering may be necessary!), but strive to get some verbal feedback if possible, by adding an option for people to identify themselves and be contacted with follow-up questions

Keep records

  • Store resources (i.e. presentations, template emails, contacts for co-hosting events) for planning activities in a shared drive to save future organizers (or your own!) time
  • Store resources of activities even if they don’t pan out in case you might want to try them again in the future
  • Keep records of your failures for the same reasons

Resources

Funding and other resources

Addresses Challenge #1 Minimal Prior Interest and #2 Oversaturation

CEA offers funding for groups but there are plenty of funding opportunities within your college as well. Getting these resources frees up CEA money for groups who wouldn’t be able to get funding otherwise. There will also be many non-monetary resources, like social capital and access to mailing lists to help with outreach.

The Career Advising Center

Haverford EA runs our High Impact Career Fellowship in collaboration with Haverford's Career Advising Center

  • Funding: for 80K books + snacks
  • Outreach: Mass emailing to students who indicate particular academic or professional interests

Co-Hosting Activities

Co-host events with others if your organizing team is small to increase your reach and reduce the workload of organizing. Events that are good to co-host are: socials, speakers and discussion meetings,

  • Clubs focused on EA cause areas like: artificial intelligence, animal advocacy, environmental, microfinance, policy, international development etc.
  • Philosophy or ethics clubs
  • Departments or professors with EA-adjacent research interests (at Haverford we have an Economics professor who specializes in Microfinance) (Challenge #2 - Professors can give extra credit for attending events)
  • Other local EA groups
  • EA-adjacent groups, like local LessWrong communities or HPMOR reading groups

Tips for Co-Hosting

  • Try co-hosting events with people or clubs you know before trying to co-host with strangers, even if those events aren’t as successful or high-impact.
  • Reach out to clubs earlier in the semester before they have finalized their semester plans and have the flexibility to schedule your event into their timeline.
  • In my experience, clubs are often more than willing to co-host relevant events because it’s less work for them. However, the actual coordination can be difficult because it depends on the club leadership to make things happen.
    • Come prepared with a concrete event and how it relates to their club
    • Have low expectations: be prepared and willing to do the bulk of the logistics and planning if necessary (and if possible for your group to do so!)
    • Be proactive about following up with club leaders and set realistic and transparent deadlines
  • If an event doesn’t pan out you can always try again next semester, either with the same club or another one. Either way, strive to maintain good relations with other clubs and avoid misunderstandings.

Centers in the college or academic departments

  • They will fund students to attend educational and/or social good conferences or host speakers
  • Your club can use these funds to attend EAGx and EAGs, invite speakers and so forth
  • Haverford EA invited Peter Singer in 2016, and got grants from 5-6 different groups on campus for his speaker fees, including: The President’s Office (we just asked the President), the Provost’s Office, the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, the Religion department, Collections Committee, and the Microfinance fund. We simply emailed or approached in person these people and offices about funding for Peter Singer and had a pretty positive response.
  • Haverford EA has gotten funding from the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship and the President's Fund to attend several EAGs and EAGx conferences.

Local EA Groups

  • Find groups near you (national, city or other college) at the EA Hub
  • You can co-host events if you’re close enough to maximize the impact of any one event
  • EA groups in colleges which are geographically close to each other (like those in consortiums like the Tri-Co or the Claremont Consortium) can benefit from each others’ existence.
    • If you're the first in a consortium, you can recruit EAs from a bigger pool of students
    • If you aren't the first you can draw on the other groups' for advice and feedback
  • This section of the Student Tips lists several outside resources that are available

Resources

General EA resources

Student Organizer Resources

Questions & Feedback

In the spirit of feedback, if you found this post helpful (or not) please let me know! I would be interested in which sections or activities people found most valuable. If you have any questions, comments or concerns feel free to reach out to me (Vaidehi) on messenger, the forum, the google doc or email (vaidehiagarwalla@gmail.com).

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