Epistemic status: not sure how reliable my intuition is, but I do have more experience with these programs than most.
Making sure >30 participants have regular opportunities to spontaneously gather, active programming, basic food and medical amenities, and common knowledge about visit dates hugely increases the benefit of residential fellowship programs.
For transparency, I should note a stronger, less confident belief of mine that I will not defend here. My instinct is that all of the above factors are not merely beneficial but necessary in order for these programs to be worth their cost (assuming that their goals are indeed as I describe below). I am aware that some factors come with large time or money costs. If these costs are prohibitive, so be it.
I ran one of these programs and participated in two others. So what follows is a post-mortem of my own mistakes as much as it is feedback for organizers and recommendations for funders and organizers considering future initiatives.
It’s worth emphasizing that I got lots out of each of these experiences, and that I feel very grateful to fellow participants and organizers!
I take the goals of these programs to be some combination of:
- Increasing short-term productivity,
- Generating counterfactual collaborations/relationships, and
- Moving participants towards more impactful careers at an accelerated rate.
I take the method of these programs to be some combination of:
- Hosting people who largely do not know each other in a new physical environment for a small number of months,
- Covering the cost of accommodation, co-working space, and travel to-and-from, and
- Organizing social and professional activities.
Things that I am not talking about include:
- Communities where many people already know one another, and
- Themed retreats, or other temporary communities organized around a professional aptitude/cause area/etc.
Number of participants
My intuition is that hosting 35 participants is much, much better than hosting 25. Not only in total, but on a per-participant basis.
Evidence for the directional claim:
- In the program I ran, the overwhelming majority of reported positive impact anecdotes came during the ~50% of the time we hosted >30 participants.
- In fact, I need to get to the joint-30th most subjectively impressive anecdote before finding one I think came about during the time we hosted <=30 participants.
- A possible exception is the first few weeks of the program, when participants came across many novel ideas, relationships, and physical spaces even with smaller numbers of participants.
- With >30 participants, shared spaces were often packed in evenings, participants participated in and ran a wider variety of well-attended activities, the office felt alive, and work felt urgent.
- Among other ~vibes~ based on discussions with participants, my time as a participant, and my time as an organizer.
- 30 might feel like an arbitrary cut-off: readers might think that I don’t mean this literally. In fact, I am tempted to defend this close-to-literally. One piece of evidence: in my experience, there are almost no spontaneous gatherings of most participants below 25; these gatherings become somewhat more likely beyond this, then shoot up around 30. They continue increasing beyond 35, albeit more slowly.
My guess is that the effect runs through two mechanisms:
- The chance that someone's professional experiences are highly complementary with your own increases sharply around this point.
- Maybe because some small clusters of people with shared interests choose to participate at the same time — although I think this was largely not the case.
- The chance that someone will join you if you spontaneously wish to socialize increases sharply around this point.
Participants will have many more opportunities to meet cool people — and have more fun — if they can meet cool people ~at will. Numbers help with this. But, if participants do not have a common non-office space that they expect to find others in, it will be highly effortful for them to gather in groups of more than a couple of people.
This problem is solved by having a large, shared, private-to-the-group, always-available social space, ideally located where participants live, with organizers creating common knowledge about the best times for gathering in the space.
The residential fellowship program has brought a bunch of people together. Participants have a shared social space. But social coordination problems still abound. They want to hear about everyone’s cool projects, but don’t have the energy to set up 20 high-commitment one-on-ones. They want to attempt projects or productivity programs together with other participants, but don’t have the time to coordinate a medium-sized group.
By “active programming” I do not mean anything elaborate, like the kind of programming one might do for a retreat or conference. Instead, I mean solving social coordination problems in the cheapest ways possible. Ideas include:
- Shared calendar — you add all participants as editors, they add their own events.
- Low-effort talk series — you coordinate participants to show up, they listen to whomever signed up to speak (on an open sheet), you keep time.
- Hackathons — you coordinate participants to show up, they suggest a project for the day, they build things, you coordinate peer judging.
- Poetry night — you coordinate participants to show up, they bring a poem they like.
- Coffee/chocolate/etc. tasting — you coordinate participants to show up, someone whose hobby this is expenses some inexpensive flavors, they taste.
- Themed party — you coordinate participants to show up, you rip off the work-appropriate subset of Richard Ngo’s party ideas, they have fun.
No need to confirm/rely on attendance, no need to pay for stuff above and beyond what would already be provided.
The only aspect that should be effortful is frequency. The average day should have at least one such event. Participants are busy. They aren’t interested in everything, nor should they be. Having more events allows them to fit the social calendar to their preferences and schedules.
Much of this feels like pretty standard stuff for a well-functioning group house of young professionals. The main difference is that the participants don’t start off as friends, so they need frequent, gentle shoving to do the things they want to do.
I have three things in mind here.
- Buffer office food and internet access. Participants are coming and going, they have different dietary preferences, and the last thing you want is participants not coming to the office because they expect to waste time finding food elsewhere. Similarly, internet issues can severely constrain some participants’ preferred work habits, and as such should be treated as a minor disaster. If you are renting office space or accommodation and do not have confidence in their WiFi — consider arranging for a back-up private connection.
- Easily-shared items that participants would otherwise have to go out of their way to buy. Water, detergent, etc. I resisted this one for too long because I thought that (1) this was not the responsibility of organizers, and (2) there wouldn’t be an end to participant requests. I now think this is wrong: participants incur lots of fixed costs by coming to a new place, and organizers can save them a tonne of time by covering the basics.
- Medical care. Health problems are going to happen. Being sick in a foreign country is tough. Organizers need to have a plan for this.
A problem common to all of the EA residential fellowship programs this year has been that participants do not know one anothers’ dates of arrival and departure. In this state, participants can struggle to plan meetings with those they most want to get to know.
I think the problem is caused by organizers forgetting to ask participants for consent to share their travel dates. This means that there’s an easy fix: think about it early!
(If the blocker is instead a system for sharing the information with participants, I have a nice airtable implementation I can happily share.)