Strategy-development for EA groups: Lessons learned from EA Denmark

by SebastianSchmidt7 min read17th Aug 20195 comments

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Personal Blog

Epistemic status: Parts of the described process is based on mere speculations (i.e. my intuitions) which haven’t been tested outside the context of EA Denmark. The majority of this process, however, is based on advice and feedback from CEA and LEAN which, as far as I know, have gotten it from literature such as Decisive and via iteration from working with many local groups. I should add that CEA and LEAN haven’t read this post and thus this doesn’t represent their views.

Summary

This post describes how EA Denmark facilitated a process which led to the completion of several projects and engaged the equivalent of 6-10 new members. After having facilitated this process, I believe that other EA groups should consider facilitating a strategy-process too. In this post, I’ll focus on how EA groups could do this but I’ll also describe why I think EA groups should consider this; that is, what impact it (probably) had. I hope and expect that this post will strongly decrease the time it takes to facilitate a similar process in other EA groups.

I expect that the sections with the highest yield for others to read are (in descending order of yield):

  • Conclusion
  • Deciding on Projects (the process)
  • Formulating the Overall Goals of EA Denmark (the process)
  • Formulating the Overall Goals of EA Denmark (the result)
  • So did it even work?

Keywords: Local community building, strategy-development, member engagement, project completion, project ideas, workdays are pretty great.

Thanks to Jonatan Granner Lund for making an illustration, thus adding a bit of color to this post. Sadly, I could only insert it as a picture so you have to follow this link to go to a version where the hyperlinks work.

Table of content

Intro

Formulating the Overall Goals of EA Denmark - Strategy Workday#1

  • The Process
  • The Result

Generating Project and Activity Ideas - Strategy Workday#2

  • The Process
  • The Result

Deciding on Projects - Strategy Workday#3

  • The Process
  • The Result

Developing Project Plans and Setting Objectives - Post-strategy process

So did it even work?

  • Project completion
  • Member engagement

Conclusion

Intro

This post describes the important aspects of the process which EA Denmark went through to come up with a strategy. We worked on it during three strategy workdays which took place from October 2018 to February 2019. All members of EA Denmark were invited to participate in the process, and the results of each strategy workday were adopted by the Common Council (our primary body for deciding on strategy).

The process was facilitated by Sebastian S. Sudergaard Schmidt, that’s me, who had gotten advice and feedback from organizations such as The Centre for Effective Altruism (Harri Besceli) and The Local Effective Altruism Network (David Moss).

Formulating the Overall Goals of EA Denmark - Strategy Workday#1

During Strategy Workday#1 we decided on 7 goals. We view these goals as a conceptual guideline for thinking about how our organization can make a change, for example by using them to generate ideas for projects worth pursuing. Additionally, we also sought to understand our current situation wrt. resources, opportunities, and funnel analysis.

The Process

We came up with the goals by going through this process:

  • Each participant used this template to document their thoughts.
  • For every important prompt in the template everyone had...
    • 5-10 minutes to ideate for themselves.
    • 10 min to discuss with their neighbor.
    • 20+ min where we discussed in the plenum. During this discussion, we incorporated the consensus view in a master document which was displayed on a projection screen.

The Results

Overall goals

  1. Create a visible, reflected, and inspiring community of effective altruists in Denmark*
  • Build a sustainable organization
  • Enhance people’s focus on using their career to do the most good
  • Explore and test projects with a high expected value in Denmark*
  • Raise the donation norm for people in Denmark - both in terms of the amount and the effectiveness
  • Influence the public debate and policies to adopt EA principles
  • Organize a poster-child activity/event

For an elaboration on the goals, please check out this document.

*It should be added that a couple of the goals above (including phrasings) have been derived from EA Norway’s strategy, so shout-out to Eirin Evjen and Jørgen Ringvold Ljønes for sharing their goals back in the fall of 2018!

Our Current Situation - Resources, Opportunities, and Funnel Analysis:

After deciding on the goals above we came up with estimates of questions such as:

  • How many people hours do we have available to us?
  • What skills do we have available to us?
  • What possible sources of funding do we have available?

All of us thought that this was the least valuable part of the process. It’s not entirely clear to me why that was the case but I think it has something to do with:

i) it’s more motivating to think about high-level goals and ideate on projects than this, ii) we had a workgroup which was looking into a funnel analysis and wanted to let them work on that, and iii) at this point we’re entirely driven by volunteer efforts and thus there’s a lot of variation in e.g. how many people hours we have available. Some projects motivate people much more than others and we found it difficult to come up with estimates in this very high-level-thinking phase.

With that being said, I still think it’s important to spend some time on this part of the process and I expect that organizations which have paid workers, and thus more stability in the number of people hours, will benefit even more from this it.

Generating Project and Activity Ideas - Strategy Workday#2

During this strategy workday, we focused on generating as many project ideas as possible. Afterward, the “creator” of the specific projects briefly described the “what” and “why” plus linked it to the relevant overall goal(s).

The Process

This was pretty straight-forward and we brainstormed first individually and secondly in groups of 2-3 people. We used the prompts found within the same template as we used at Strategy Workday#1. To highlight a couple of those prompts:

  • What have other people done in the past?
  • Who else has solved this problem?
  • What can we do to achieve our high-level goals?

The Result

In this document, you’ll find an unprioritized list of the 60 projects which were generated during strategy workday#2. Warning: The list hasn’t exactly been optimized for being pleasing to the eye but I thought that it’d be preferable to give others the option of checking it out.

Deciding on Projects - Strategy Workday#3

During strategy workday#3, 10 people participated and cast their votes on the projects which they found the most promising (from the list from strategy workday#2). The voting process optimized for engaging members and ensuring completion of projects by making the votes associated with explicit commitment.

The Process

The voting process optimized for engaging members and ensuring completion of projects by making the votes associated with explicit commitment. Thus, each person had 3 categories of votes which they could cast:

  • 2 A points: The voter was ready to take the lead on the project (provided that one other person would help out).
  • 2 B points: The voter was ready to be part of the project, but not leading it.
  • 5 C points: For various reasons, the voter wasn’t ready to be part of this project but thought that it’d be valuable if someone else did it.

The number of points given to the voters within each category was somewhat arbitrarily chosen but it turned out to work quite well. If we were to do it again, I might prefer to let people have more points - if they firmly believe that they have the energy to back it up with action. For instance, people could have up to 3 A points and 3-4 B points (especially, if they were to vote on a small, less demanding project). Another thing that I would consider doing differently is having people think through their votes in their own tempo at home and then meet to cast votes. It’s not unthinkable that some people would’ve voted very differently upon further reflection. I think that these two amendments are even more preferable for organizations with full- and/or part-time staff.

For more info on the process at this strategy workday - see the presentation which I used at the workday.

The result

Here, you’ll find the spreadsheet we used and the projects we decided on. Just like the list of unprioritized projects, it hasn’t been optimized for people who didn’t participate in the strategy workday but I wanted to at least give others the option.

Developing Project Plans and Setting Objectives - [Post-strategy process]

This is certainly the weakest section of this post and I expect that other community builders will feel underwhelmed but, for the sake of completeness, I decided to include it.

Project Plans

The project coordinators of each project (people who voted A) have been in charge of developing the plan for their projects. I encouraged them to utilize this template when they created their project plans but only to the extent that it was useful. Rarely did every single component seem useful.

Setting Objectives and Key Results

Setting objectives and key results is important but we didn’t want to lose too much momentum by doing this extensively from day one. Therefore, we’ve done check-ins at our monthly common meetings for all of the medium-large projects where we discuss progress and state the next steps. It should be added that this would have been very different if our projects required significant funding or 100s of people hours. Thus, I think that this is much more important for groups with full-time staff to do this extensively from day one. If/when we reach that point, I’d consider some of the following:

Given our projects, specify our main objectives for the quarter.

For each objective, specify the key results (concrete observable outcomes) which will tell us whether the project has produced value and how much.
I expect CEA and LEAN to have valuable advice on how to measure this.

Once we’ve decided upon our objectives and key results, share these publically! This could include doing monthly/quarterly check-ins with representatives from other groups - social commitment-style.

So did it even work?

Project completion

I feel fairly confident that three projects were fully (or almost fully) carried out successfully because of this strategy-process. These projects included a Summer retreat for 10 people and the establishment of a regular biweekly workday where members meet to work on projects related to EA DK. Additionally, four medium-sized projects have been initiated and have maintained some momentum for around three months. One of these projects aims to bring together a group of software engineers and data scientists who volunteer by spending their free time to help effective charities achieve better results (e.g. help AMF get a better website).

Member engagement

I believe that two members went from zero/low activity to being moderately active to an extent which led them to complete a project independently (which in turn has led to 4 new moderately/highly active members). Additionally, I think that the process facilitated that 4 members went from a low/medium level of activity to independently take on new projects.

Of course, these counterfactual speculations should be taken with a grain of salt. Specifically, I doubt my accuracy due to three factors: i) I came up with parts of this process myself and thus I’d like this to have been a success, ii) I haven’t made a rigorous analysis of the results other than checking whether other members of EA Denmark agree, and iii) some of the expected value still lies in the future and it has yet to be decided whether many of the projects will make an impact.

Conclusion

In sum, I believe that facilitating this process has been one of the better things I’ve done within EA Denmark. As stated above, I think that it counter-factually led to i) initiation and completion of three valuable projects, ii) initiation of four other projects, and iii) engagement of the equivalent of 6-10 moderately/highly active members.

I think the most important parts of the process have been to:

  • formulate overall goals during Strategy Workday#1.
  • generate project ideas related to the overall goals in a fairly straight-forward way during Strategy Workday#2.
  • use the highly engaging voting system during Strategy Workday#3.

Thus, I recommend other EA groups to consider facilitating strategy workdays in some form. Especially if groups have paid staff - although I’d expect that most of these have done something like this already. I hope and expect that this post will strongly decrease the time it takes to facilitate a similar process which makes it even more worthwhile.

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If anyone wants to chat about this privately, feel free to reach out on sebastians.s.s@live.dk

I'd like to thank Mathias Kirk Bonde, Jonatan Granner Lund, Philip Porter, and Jeffrey Lins from EA Denmark for their reality-check and general feedback. Also, I’m grateful for the strategy-process input provided by The Centre for Effective Altruism (Harri Besceli) and The Local Effective Altruism Network (David Moss).

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