During my last two years at Harvard, I co-ran Harvard Effective Altruism, bringing it from a membership of one to an organizational board of ten students and scores more who routinely attended our talks. In the hope that some of these tips will help other students start groups of their own, here are some lessons I learned.
A couple caveats apply to these notes. First, my sample size is small—I only ran one group! Second, my lessons might not generalize: HEA probably faced a different set of problems at Harvard than we would have at other schools, and I faced different personal problems than someone with a different skillset might have. So interpret these notes with caution.
Notes: Cross-posted from benkuhn.net. Thanks to Ryan Carey for combining the articles and cleaning the HTML.
Looking to start an EA student group? Please get in touch if you’d like! Starting a student group is a great way to improve the world and you’ll learn a lot doing it. I’m always happy to help new student groups in whatever way I can.
Have two people
Far and away the most important factor in HEA’s success is that we had two co-presidents.
At first, it was just me running things, and my motivation and excitement about my plans came in bursts. I would get a new idea for a project or event and start organizing it in a flurry of energy—but soon problems would come up, I’d start to think it was doomed to failure and get demoralized, and everything I’d set in motion would grind to a halt. Obviously this was self-defeating and not very helpful for our club’s operations.
Fortunately, towards the end of the first year, John Sturm took the initiative and got involved with organizing events as well. With John to take care of half the organizational burden (and frequently more) and plug away even when I was demoralized, I felt much less overwhelmed about running things. This broke down my aversion that running more events would start another boom-bust motivation cycle for me, and allowed us to do way more things than we could have with just me.
If you’re more resilient to setbacks and more of a natural leader than I am, it may be less important for you to have a co-organizer. But given that finding a second person is also one of the most popular pieces of startup advice, it seems like it applies to most people, even if they’re as resilient and leader-y as most startup founders. So I’d recommend making it a high priority to find a co-organizer.
That’s hard, of course, because a co-organizer needs to have a lot of initiative and agency—they have to care about the project even when you don’t. On the other hand, if you can’t find any good co-organizers before you start your group, don’t worry too much—I didn’t know John before I started HEA, and only met him when he joined the group and came to some of our events. So you can probably recruit a co-organizer from your membership; just keep your eyes peeled for good ones, because it’s a huge boost in organizational capacity.
Don't be embarrassed
The first time Harvard Effective Altruism did any sort of publicity was at Harvard’s “student activities fair,” where literally every student group at Harvard lined up at rows of tables, and masochistic students ran the gauntlet in a doomed quest to find meaning in undergraduate life.
We were running a Giving Game in which we presented people with three charities and asked them to choose one to receive a dollar.
Here’s how a typical HEA pitch went:
(student walks past)
(another student walks past)
(third student walks past)
(fourth student walks past, awkwardly glances towards the HEA poster)
Student: Um, hi, what is Harvard Effective Altruism?
Ben: (sheepishly) Okay, so I know this sounds cheesy, but we actually try to figure out the best ways to improve the world and then do those things.
Ben: Like it turns out some charities are WAY better than others! Want to play this Giving Game?
(bemused student makes excuses and leaves)
After three hours of such pitches we had a grand total of one person who came back for more than one meeting.
The reason our publicity was so disastrously bad is that I was bad at talking to people, for a couple of reasons:
- I realized that the idea of HEA seemed crazy: “join us and we’ll try to figure out how to maximize the good we do in the world!”—it combined the tired cliche of trying to save the world with the taboo of declaring that some ways of saving it were better than others. But my mistake was letting other people know that I knew HEA seemed crazy. As soon as they realized that I myself felt goofy, it was game over for convincing them to get involved.
- Because I felt like I was pushing a crazy idea, I was also worried about wasting people’s time. This was just silly. If the students didn’t want their time wasted, they shouldn’t have tried to run the activities-fair gauntlet. And anyway, they were perfectly capable of extracting themselves from the pitch if they wanted to. We should have been less polite.
By contrast, here’s a similar pitch from when we were advertising in a dining hall this year:
(student walks past)
(Ben walks up to them, holds out a dollar bill)
(student automatically takes dollar bill)
Ben: Do you want to donate this dollar to charity?
B: Like, we have a list of charities, and you can pick one to give this dollar to.
S: Oh, okay, I guess.
B: Awesome! It’s actually not literally that dollar, it’s this computer form. Can you read through these three blurbs and select whichever one you think will do the most good with your dollar?
(S reads through blurbs)
S: So what’s the deal with this?
B: I’m glad you asked! So, like, you want to improve the world, right? (S: Yeah.) And you prefer improving it more if you can, right? (S: Yeah.) So we try to figure out how to improve it the most. It’s weird how nobody else is doing that, huh?
By this time, I had gotten over my feeling of goofiness, and just powered through. I often acknowledged that HEA was uncommon, but not that it was weird. Plus, I was more aggressive about initially engaging with students—they had come to be marketed at, after all. I still didn’t give people a hard sell if they didn’t seem interested, but I was okay with being pushy to get their attention away from all the other pushy people. As a result, students were way more interested and engaged.
Getting good speakers
If there’s one thing that I’m proud of about my tenure running HEA, it’s our programming. Last year we had over 10 speakers come to give talks to HEA, including Peter Singer, Jaan Tallinn, and many other extremely popular and busy people. We also raised thousands of dollars to cover honoraria from these speakers. How?
The trick is to be well-connected like me and John so that you know a diverse pool of famous people and deep-pocketed university organizations to lean on for favors. If you don’t have such a pool already, get out there and network!
…just kidding. I didn’t actually know most of our speakers before I invited them to speak. I just sent them a cold email asking if they wanted to give a talk for HEA (sometimes with an introduction from a friend or our excellent faculty adviser, Nir). We got a lot of silence—my archives are littered with the corpses of unanswered invitations—but we also got a lot of responses, and our awesome lineup of speakers was definitely worth the additional messages cast into the void.
I also have an important sub-tip here. For emailing potential speakers—and also for life in general—I found Boomerang to be totally indispensable. I set any sent emails to return to my inbox in a week if the recipient didn’t respond, and often if I sent them a second follow-up email I’d get a response after that. In fact, Boomerang is practically a requirement to communicate with some professors, who I suspect just have a policy of never responding to email the first time it’s sent… Again—if you rely on email to make important things happen and you don’t have Boomerang, start using Boomerang NOW.
Psychologically, I often found it demoralizing to send cold emails, since each one individually had a fairly low chance of turning into a talk further down the road—it often felt like most of my work was wasted (although our response rate was a lot higher than I thought it would be). I tried to fight this by valuing effort instead of results—I would phrase my goals in terms of “high-quality emails sent” instead of “responses received” or “talks scheduled.”
Overall, something like 20% of people we cold-emailed ended up giving a talk at HEA. I can’t promise that this will translate to student groups at other schools—we certainly benefited from the Harvard brand—but even if we had gotten a much lower response rate, we could have sent more emails or started asking less-busy people. The credibility and attention that we got from having such a great lineup was a huge boost when we were recruiting new members, so I’m really glad we did it.
Running a student group entails doing a lot of paperwork and getting through a lot of red tape. Especially at first, I had a hard time keeping track of everything, and frequently left things until the last minute (or later) when e.g. reserving space for events.
After spending one too many afternoons on tenterhooks waiting for the room reservation office to email me back, I finally cracked under the stress. For once I had actually paid attention to the booking deadlines and reserved our room a week in advance—but they still hadn’t confirmed two days beforehand. Come hell or high water, I decided, I was going to get my room reserved today. I put on my best starving-frantic-student-in-need face, thought up my best excuses, and marched over to the Science Center to demand satisfaction.
Instead of the hard-nosed, battle-ready bureaucrat I’d been imagining, I was greeted by a very pleasant gentleman named Ron. Ron had gotten some files out of order and then been swamped by requests, because it was the beginning of the semester and all the student groups wanted space. He hadn’t realized we’d been waiting so long, and was happy I’d stopped by to ask about it—especially since we had to have some back-and-forth about the logistics, which went much faster in person than over email.
As a software developer, I’ve been trained to think that if Harvard specifies an interface for students to communicate with institutions, that interface is a Holy Abstraction Barrier That Shall Not Be Crossed. But it turns out that bureaucratic abstractions leak even more than computational ones—the specified interfaces don’t really work very well. Combine that with the depersonalizing medium of email, where everyone is tempted to be rude or stop replying, and you have a recipe for unpleasant experiences.
I had the same experience again and again—room booking, financial forms, advertising space, and practically everything else we did went much more smoothly if we showed up in personwhen we got confused or had something complicated to do. I still try to avoid it when possible—it takes up people’s time and would probably get annoying if we did it excessively, and having to resolve issues in person is a red flag that we’re getting some other part of the process wrong. But if bureaucracy starts to drag on, showing up in person is an almost sure-fire way to speed things along.
One easy way that HEA achieved suprising or impressive-seeming things is that we reached out to lots of speakers. A second is that we had a ton of support from folks who weren’t in our “core audience” of Harvard students. Both Harvard faculty and other EA-minded people gave us huge amounts of information, technical assistance, introductions, and even offers of funding if we needed it.
An incomplete list of things that we’ve needed non-student help for:
Our amazing faculty adviser Nir gave us a lot of suggestions and introductions to speakers, checked in periodically when we were having organizational problems, gave us advice on hosting speakers, and was generally all-around ridiculously helpful.
HEA was actually required to have a faculty adviser per Harvard’s regulations, but I highly recommend having one even if your school doesn’t require you to—you can invite a sympathetic professor to be your official adviser and then meet with them, ask them advice by email, or whatever works for you.
Other Harvard faculty mentioned our activities in their classes, advertised our speakers, donated to our fundraiser, or had discussions over dinner with our members. These were all immensely helpful. In retrospect I wish we had tried to interact with more faculty, and more closely, than we did—I think many of them would have been happy to help even more.
If you don’t know where to look for faculty, try the professors of philosophy (especially ethics), economics (especially development), public health (especially medical ethics), and psychology (especially moral psychology). Also try emailing me, as I may be able to connect you with other folks nearby.
Jeff and Julia usually give the first talk of every semester, introducing new members to the ideas of effective altruism. Since they’re more relatable to college students than HEA’s typical speakers are (many of whom are professors or nonprofit executives), they’re great at providing a friendly and welcoming introduction to effective altruism.
An (anonymous) local effective altruist sponsored a matching challenge for our first winter fundraiser, which made it much more credible and much more motivating for people to donate. This made the fundraiser way more exciting both to the students running it and to the folks who donated.
Another supporter offered us a substantial amount of money in back-up funds if the Harvard grants that we were applying for didn’t come through. Although we didn’t end up needing the funds last year, it was very helpful to be able to promise speakers with certainty that we’d be able to reimburse their travel and lodging expenses.
Other folks from the local Boston EA group came to our talks, advertised them to their friends, donated to our fundraiser, let us know when interesting speakers were passing through Boston, and generally provided a ton of miscellaneous advice and help.
I can’t speak for other kinds of student groups, but if you’re starting an effective altruism student group in particular, finding people who are willing to help is pretty easy—just post in the Facebook group or email me and I’ll put you in touch with folks who can help!
Lessons From the Philanthropy Fellowship
The event we ran that really got our membership going was what we called the “philanthropy fellowship.” Although the content was specific to HEA’s mission, I think the idea and lessons generalize to any kind of student group. Here’s how the philanthropy fellowship worked:
We cold-emailed a bunch of awesome people asking them to give talks for Harvard Effective Altruism’s philanthropy fellowship.
We also got an anonymous donor to promise to match any funds our philanthropy fellowship raised for the term.
At all of our events at the beginning of the year, we told everyone that we were running a “philanthropy fellowship” program in which fellows would apply and be accepted to attend a series of talks and dinners with our awesome speakers, and run a fundraiser at the end. At this point I believe our list of promised speakers included Peter Singer and Jaan Tallinn, so this generated a fair amount of interest.
We put up an application with some basic questions, gave it a deadline, and publicized it to a ton of mailing lists (both ones for which it was on-topic, and dorm-wide mailing lists where it was permissible to hawk random clubs/activities.
After the deadline, we called back all the applicants we thought were a good fit for a short one-on-one interview with one of the HEA organizers, where we asked them a couple questions (mostly to get to know them) and gave a little spiel about how the fellowship would go (schedule, expectations for attendance, the fundraiser at the end, etc.).
We weren’t very selective at all with the application—we mainly used it to screen out people who were obviously there just to promote their own charities, and I think we invited everyone who interviewed to do the fellowship.
But it still ended up creating a core group of people who came to nearly all of our events and engaged with HEA a lot. I’m not sure about all the factors that led to the success of the philanthropy fellowship, but I have a couple theories. (Note that these are only theories, i.e., not empirically verified—so generalize at your own risk!)
There was a big incentive for joining the fellowship. Although our speakers’ talks were open to the public, the dinners with them were restricted to members of the philanthropy fellowship. We advertised this fact heavily and I’m sure the prospect of dinner with Peter Singer got at least one person to join.
Scarcity creates value. If people perceive your group as hard to get into—even if it isn’t—then they’ll value their membership in it more, and get more excited about your events. This is why we had an application process, even though it was more work for us and we only rejected a couple people.
We asked for an explicit commitment to attend events first. A problem for a lot of groups is that students are really interested at the beginning of the semester, but as classwork piles on they start to feel swamped and stop going to as many events. Since we asked students to commit to attending the entire fellowship at the beginning of the semester, they tended to make it a higher priority.
Of course, there are plenty of other lessons we learned from the fellowship as well—mainly about how we could have run it better.
HEA tried a lot of different ways of getting people’s attention. Here are some of our workhorses—strategies that we use frequently and generally work well:
(Note: somewhat EA-specific, though the general spirit applies to other types of groups.)
One thing almost all student groups do a lot of is tabling. We’ve found that interactive activities work pretty well—we often run Giving Games where we put up $1 for each participant and they decide to donate it to one of a list of charities we provide, based on which one they think will be the most effective.
Giving Games are cool in that they’re very easy to study scientifically—if you display peoples’ charity choices on a computer, you can very easily randomize what text and what options people see. You can then measure how many people give you their emails at the end of the Giving Game, as a proxy for how engaging they found the game. HEA did some of this researchat the end of last semester and found some interesting results.
First, including more speculative charities may decrease people’s engagement. HEA tested a group of three global poverty charities against a group of one global poverty charity, one “meta” charity, and one charity working on existential risks, and found that people offered the latter choice were significantly less likely to put down their emails.
Also, the data suggested (weakly, not-quite-significantly) that including information about how effective charities were decreased people’s engagement in the game. This might be a real effect, but it’s possible it was due to confounding because the descriptions containing effectiveness info were longer, and people got bored. Or it’s possible that it’s a mere statistical fluctuation. More research is needed to find out, but either way, it’s a good reminder to keep Giving Games short and sweet.
If you’re running an EA group and want to run one, there’s more information at the link above. You can also get in touch with The Life You Can Save and they may be willing to fund your Giving Game.
Giant eye-catching posters
And I do mean giant. Harvard has a set of four sandwich boards at the gate between Harvard Yard and the Science Center, which can be reserved one face at a time. Most student organizations take their normal event posters and tile the entire face of the sandwich board with about 20 of these. For our first talk of the semester, we instead decided to blow up our poster of Larry Temkin‘s face by a factor of 20. A surprising number of folks at the event told us that the poster was how they found out about it, and I think a lot of this was that it was more eye-catching than the typical student-group poster.
Often if you’re holding an academic-ish event, professors in related fields will happily promote it in their classes. HEA has had success asking professors in philosophy, economics, and public health to advertise various of our events. Professors also make great allies in general, and asking them to introduce your event in class can be a great icebreaker.
Asking your friends to go to your events isn’t particularly scalable. But for more targeted things like applying to the philanthropy fellowship, we’ve had good success with individually asking friends if they’d be interested in applying. Of course, you should only do this with friends that you actually think would be interested, since it’s rude to pester your friends, and if they end up not enjoying the event they might get annoyed. But
HEA has a mailing list of a few hundred students, and we also sent out emails to a number of general-interest mailing lists (e.g. dorm-specific mailing lists).
It looks a bit nicer to send emails to each list individually, and include a little bit of list-specific content in the email. But that’s annoying, because it means you have to cut-and-paste your email to a bunch of different lists. To speed up that process, you can set up a mail merge in Gmail and send a batch of emails with customizations from a spreadsheet.
We also used mail-merges sometimes when emailing applicants for the philanthropy fellowship, and it’s possible that you could use it for cold-emailing professors as well (although we haven’t tried it, and it takes some care to make the writing good enough and specific enough that the generic parts don’t sound bad).
The benefits of mail merge come not only from speeding up the batch emails that you were going to send anyway, but causing you to send much more email because it’s easier. Email can be quite effective at drumming up interest for talks and fellowships, so this is a pretty big boost.
Facebook event invitations
We created Facebook events for all of our talks and mass-invited our classmates to these. In addition to letting people know about the events, but it also helped us gauge attendance and distribute messages (e.g. updates about the event location or links to slides) to everyone who wanted to attend. We included event RSVP links in all of our emails to lists as well, to contribute as much as possible to having one centralized place where everyone going to the event could get info.
Mass-inviting all your relevant Facebook friends to every event is a huge slog, of course, because if you don’t want to spam people you have to manually curate the list of people you invite, which means looking through your entire friend list and making a decision for each friend for each event. Fortunately, there’s a much easier way, which takes advantage of the fact that if you make a “friend list” on Facebook, their algorithms will automatically suggest that you add other similar friends to it. Here’s how it works:
- First, create a Friend List and add maybe 50 or so classmates on it that you want to invite to your group’s events. Then go to the list and look at the friend suggestions—Facebook will suggest that you add the rest of your classmates. Add whomever you want (I suggest all of them, since invite spam is normal, but if you want to curate the list more heavily, Facebook will get smarter about who it suggests to be on the list).
- Now add a bookmark in your browser to the following link:
- Now when you want to mass-invite these people to an event, go to the event page and click “Invite Friends”. Click the dropdown that says “Search by Name” and select the list that you made in step 1. You should now see all the people on the list show up below.
- Scroll all the way down that list (this is important—the later checkboxes won’t appear until you scroll down, so you won’t end up inviting everybody otherwise).
- Click the bookmark you made in step 2. Everyone should be checked off and you can invite them!
- Facebook limits the number of people you can invite in one swoop, so to double-check that you invited everyone, repeat steps 3-4 and verify that all the checkboxes are greyed-out (this means the friend has already been invited). If not, repeat steps 3-5 as necessary.
This is way faster than manually checking a bunch of boxes—about 30 seconds instead of 5-10 minutes for me. It also means that we can reliably get all the organizers to invite their friends, which means our Facebook events have a much broader reach.