by Ekaterina llin, Nils Oelfke and Florian Ulrich Jehn
What is the status of the EA community in Germany? What topics are worked on and what are the needs of local groups? To answer those questions we, the German Effective Altruism Network (NEAD), conducted a series of interviews with the coordinators of all local groups in Germany that are known to us. This is part of our effort to grow a sustainable and effective German EA community.
- Germany has 25 active local groups with around 150 active members.
- 6 of those groups are unsure if they will continue to exist.
- The most common group activity is giving intro to EA talks.
- The groups would like to be more connected to the rest of the German EA community, but are hindered by not having easy access to a national structure.
The interviews were conducted from February to May 2020 by Nils Oelfke and Ekaterina Ilin. All interviews followed a pre-planned set of questions and were done in German (except for one case). However, the questions were relatively freeform and therefore most interviews did not cover all questions. Each interview took between 30 minutes and 1 ½ hours, plus some time to finalize the report. The analysis of the interviews was done by Florian Ulrich Jehn. All interviews were scanned manually for mentions of topics and activities. For example, if a group mentioned that they did a presentation on animal suffering, this was counted both for the activities and the group topics. Findings in regard to the mentions of topics and activities are probably undercounted, as we did not ask for specific activities or topics, but counted only those that were mentioned by the interviewees. A single group could mention several activities and topics. All code and data used can be found in this repository.
The interviews can be made available on request, subject to the interviewees' approval.
The German EA community consists of 25 active local groups. Most of them have around 5 to 10 active members, which results in around 150 active (which is also almost the same number as German EAGx Virtual 2020 participants) and roughly 300 total members. While the oldest group has existed since 2014, most groups were founded in 2017 or 2018. The groups themselves often do not have much contact with other EA groups and around 6 of the local groups even have doubts that their group will exist for much longer. Those groups mostly link their problems to losing their most active members (mostly job related). However, there also seems to be at least one group that dissolved due to internal conflict.
Around half of the groups report being in contact with CEA and/or NEAD. Moreover, the most frequently mentioned support needs are networking between groups and overall structure and organization for the EA community. Thus, the main problem seems to be a lack of connection and overarching structure. Most stable local groups report that there is at least one member who is highly motivated to keep the group together, and is a generally nice person to just hang around with.
Currently, the only paid community builder is a CEA CB grantee mostly responsible for the local group in Berlin (until 2021: Manuel Allgaier). From our contacts so far, we estimate that there are 10-100 motivated individuals outside local groups spread across the country who would profit from an overarching structure like NEAD in the short term.
Lately, COVID-19 has been hampering networking and other activities in the community.
Outside of EA the local groups seem to have few contacts. Only 8 of the groups report being in regular contact with another local non-EA organisation, like Amnesty International, Rotary Club, etc.
Most groups focus their efforts on giving intro presentations to EA to try and find new members, and make core EA concepts more well known. In addition, a wide range of activities is reported, ranging from giving games to career coaching or workshops.
The most mentioned topics that groups worked on or were discussing were animal suffering and rationality, but even those were only mentioned by 8 of the 25 groups. There does not seem to be a dominating topic in the EA community in Germany, but a broad set of interests. Interestingly the distribution of topics is different to that of the overall EA community. For example, animal suffering was mentioned by around a third of the groups as a topic they worked on, but only 9 % of global EAs think that this is the most important EA topic. However, our interview might have only highlighted which topics are the easiest to do presentations about, or the ones where individuals in the group have most expertise, and not the ones the groups think correspond to the most important causes.
Lessons learned by the local groups
Most groups mentioned things they have learned over time on how to best run their group or how to decide on topics. Note that those lessons might be unique to the situation of the group.
- AI is a topic that can draw large crowds (~80 people) with a little bit of targeted advertising (e.g. Computer Science students). Other topics like intro to EA or animal suffering brought in much fewer people.
- Public presentations should not be longer than 15 minutes. People are much more engaged in the following discussions than in the presentation itself.
- Open socials are a good way to attract new members.
- Community retreats like the German Unconference 2019 are quite valuable, as they foster the growth of a better and more reliable network.
- Using flyers to attract new people to the local group did not work.
- Organizing workshops is quite valuable, as it attracts people from all over Germany and brings the organizing group together.
- Slack is a useful tool to organize a local group.
- Discussions in the local group are hindered by differences in the depth of knowledge between group members.
- The German Unconference 2019 and 1-on-1 Career Coaching were a big success.
- It is often more valuable to focus on people directly instead of hosting events when trying to recruit new people to the local group.
- Getting small amounts of funding from CEA is surprisingly easy.
Things we would do differently next time
Even though the questions were the same for all interviews they were often answered quite differently, as the questions were relatively open ended. This led to interesting interviews, but made it much harder to evaluate and compare the answers. For the next iteration of this we therefore plan to split the interview process into the interview itself with open ended questions and a questionnaire to ask for standardizable things like topics or group size. We also plan to include additional questions.
Lessons for NEAD
The interviews were conducted during a period of re-orientation at NEAD, so we could incorporate the immediate lessons we learned from the interviews directly into our structure and strategy. Working with local groups is not the ultimate goal but should be considered in the context of our purpose to grow a sustainable and effective German EA community. In the upcoming year, one of NEAD’s main activities will be to increase the number and quality of connections between EAs in Germany. To this end we are working to connect local groups, and individuals within the community. This serves two ends:
- Creating a tightly knit network beyond local groups which mitigates the risk of people leaving the community.
- Building shared expertise about how to successfully run a local group in Germany which decreases the risk of a local group disbanding or driving people away.
The chances that someone leaves the community should depend less on their location. People were regularly reported to diverge from the community when:
- their local group disbanded
- they did not find a local group to participate in
- their local group focused only on topics they did not prioritize
- they did not feel represented by the local group demographic
Still, groups play an indispensable role in the community. Local groups are what makes the community a community, and for many they are the entrance point to the movement. So we also want to support local group organizers to decrease the costs of maintaining a local group, and running it effectively. We do so by:
- offering IT infrastructure, such as a video conferencing app, a forum, and a cloud. Our IT is built on open source solutions so that it is inclusive to individuals with digital privacy concerns
- providing financial infrastructure that allows local groups to outsource bookkeeping, and help them with grant applications and legal questions
- organizing workshops for local group leaders led by experienced community builders in Germany to exchange best practices, and helping groups to learn from each other
- gathering, curating, and sharing resources such as introductory material or presentation slides, from local groups, and creating new content that local groups can use
Less directly but importantly the current demographic structure of the EA community will likely change over the next few years, as the currently largely student-based community will find its way to the job market. As we refine our short- and long-term strategies, we added the following questions:
- How will the number, size and locations of local groups evolve over time without interference from an umbrella association?
- What role should NEAD play in steering the development of local group demographics?
- And if we decided to play an active role - what is the structure we would want to work towards?
The latter two are particularly important yet unanswered. We are opposed to intervening in local groups without their consent, even indirectly. We therefore encourage EAs who are involved in local groups in Germany to become members of NEAD so that they can partake in our decision making and strategizing, elect the board, and hold it accountable. The most effective way of steering the community remains active involvement in NEAD’s projects, which we strongly encourage at this point. Currently, NEAD’s bottleneck is the lack of volunteers who are willing to invest about 20h per month to work with us on our prioritized projects.
Find out how to become a NEAD member here (in German).
Thanks to Florian Zeidler, Devon Fritz and Birte Spekker for proof reading this manuscript and providing valuable comments.