Stanford EA has Grown During the Pandemic; Your Group Can Too

by kuhanj10 min read25th Dec 20206 comments

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Many EA group organizers I’ve spoken to at the EA student summit, EAGx Asia-Pacific, and elsewhere have talked about the pandemic slowing down their groups’ momentum, and in some cases causing groups to stop operating altogether. This is very understandable. The pandemic has uprooted many of our lives. Zoom fatigue means more time on a screen is the last thing people would want for fun. And many types of meetups that EA groups have become accustomed to are currently dangerous to run. That being said, Stanford EA has grown and become more active (around twice as much weekly programming as pre-pandemic, and around twice as many active organizers) over the course of the pandemic. I thought I’d share what has worked well for us, in hopes of sharing ideas with other organizers, generating conversation on how to take advantage of this unique situation we’re in, and sharing ideas, resources, and collaboration opportunities. 

Before continuing, it is important to flag that I have been on a community-building grant during the pandemic, a privilege most groups don’t share. Our key organizers were also less affected by the pandemic than many other organizers around the world. Our situation is fairly unique, so many of our suggestions might not be feasible/sensible for other groups, but hopefully some of these suggestions are useful to everyone. 

As well, if you’re interested in discussing ideas in this post, or collaborating with Stanford EA (e.g. to trial running an EA fellowship, or co-hosting a reading group) feel free to reach out to me (kuhanj@stanford.edu), or sign up for a call on my Calendly (http://calendly.com/kuhanj). In the comments, I’d also love to hear what has (and has not) worked well for other EA groups during the pandemic.

So without further ado, here are some suggestions for group organizers and descriptions of how Stanford EA has acted on these ideas:

Strengthen Friendships and Community

Community has been hard to create over the pandemic, so we have to compete less with other groups/sources of community than we would normally. Some of our first-year members (who have already gotten quite involved!) mentioned that outside of student organizations, there aren’t many opportunities to meet other students. We’ve tried to offer a variety of different community programming options, and have been mildly successful (but there’s only so much that can be done online, Zoom fatigue is real). 

Becoming great friends with fellow organizers has been a crucial motivator for ramping up Stanford EA’s programming and trying out new ideas. I’ve listed a few ways Stanford EA members have become better friends over the pandemic and built community below.  

Virtual Socializing Options 

Here are some ways we’ve kept up community during the pandemic. 

  • Co-working - On top of co-working being a good opportunity for socializing, I’ve found my and other members’ productivity goes up a lot when sharing our screens during co-working sessions (highly recommend). Working with others on Stanford EA tasks also makes the tasks much more enjoyable to do, and more likely to actually get done.
  • Daily Goal Setting - A few of us have a call each morning to share three goals for the day, discuss how the previous day went, and brainstorm how we can help each other with our goals (e.g. financial incentives, setting up co-working times on our calendar, public commitments, etc.).
  • 1:1s - We set up a 1-on-1 system to match group members each week to build community. These haven’t gone as well as planned (many people did not do the 1:1s they were signed up to do), but I still think it was worth it for the conversations that did happen.
  • Weekly Discussions - Turnout has not been great for weekly discussions, but I think the discussions have been interesting, and an easy option for one-off engagement.
  • Board Games - Board games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but they’ve been one of the highlights of the pandemic for me and many other group members. They are also easy to run with other groups. Our board game sessions are run in collaboration with many other Bay Area EA groups/community members (this might be a good option if your group isn’t yet big enough to sustain a lively board games group).
  • Active Group Chats - I’ve found Facebook Messenger to work best for our group, but other platforms may work better for other groups. Also limiting the group chat to people who will engage keeps it small enough so people don’t feel hesitant to message the chat.

Many of these options are feasible to run with other groups, so if you don’t have a critical mass with group members, consider co-organizing with other organizers.

Projects

An alternative to running events is working on projects/organizer work that isn’t affected by the pandemic (like handover documents, discussion sheets/presentations, and syllabi for fellowships). These can offer a nice way to provide group members with useful ways to engage with EA while there are fewer events going on.

As a concrete example, Stanford EA wanted to make the most of the surge of interest to do good resulting from the pandemic and resurgence in racial justice organizing during the early months of the pandemic, and decided to give an Intro to EA presentation to incoming first year students over the summer. Mauricio and I were particularly impressed with Ajeya Cotra’s introduction to Effective Altruism (video here), so we tried creating a very high-quality intro to EA presentation inspired by hers. I plan to do a write-up on this process soon (by early January when people will be planning intro EA presentations for the start of the new term, yay public commitment), stay tuned! 

So far, we’ve had two iterations of the presentation, with an average attendance of ~50 students and strong feedback (as evidenced by large sign-up numbers for our fellowships, which were advertised during these presentations). As with our fellowships, we opened up our intro to EA presentation to non-Stanford students, and advertised to students of universities we were collaborating with for our fellowship. Our current slides and script can be found here: script and slides. We’d be happy for others to use it as inspiration for your own intro to EA presentations, and welcome feedback as well. 

Collaborations between groups:

One of the upsides of the transition online has been the opportunity to open up programming to community members all over the world and to collaborate with other groups. Here are some of the ways Stanford EA has done so.

Collaborative fellowships

When the pandemic started, we decided to move our spring intro fellowship online. Since our programming was no longer in person, we decided to run our spring fellowship online and open it up to the public. We thought this would be a great opportunity to give people who hadn’t gotten the chance to participate in a fellowship before the chance to do so. The costs were relatively small on our end (several of our committed members were willing to spend an extra hour or two facilitating extra sessions for the fellowship to account for the anticipated increase in demand). I think this ended up being a great call. Opening up our fellowship has led to EA groups at UCLA, Caltech, Rice, Erasmus and more to co-run fellowships with us. Over a dozen international organizers have completed our fellowship and a few have plans to run fellowships of their own now, with the confidence of having gone through one themselves. For smaller/newer groups, I highly recommend joining existing fellowships, or collaborating with other groups to run one together. For larger groups, I recommend opening up your fellowships to others if you have capacity. 

Resources for running fellowships can be found here.  I know Yale EA has successfully run their fellowships with other  groups, and other groups like Cambridge and Oxford have opened up  their fellowships as well.

Inter-group socials

Now is a great time to run social events that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise (or that wouldn’t have as high attendance while online events aren’t the default). We’ve had online socials with other EA university groups from around the world, as well as a virtual escape room.

  • Shoutout to Harvard EA (and Rachel Sadoff in particular) for creating an incredible EA themed Cards Against Humanity deck for our social with them and NYU Abu Dhabi (cards here, tutorial here). This was one of my favourite EA socials ever, highly recommend other groups try it out.

Inter-University Cause Area Subgroups:

A few reading/cause-area groups that wouldn’t have enough interest or organizational capacity at Stanford alone became possible when run in conjunction with other groups. Over half of the participants in our spring The Precipice reading group weren’t from Stanford. An inter-university biosecurity group came out of a Stanford Cambridge EA social (yet another reason to run these!). 

Stanford EA has spawned several new subgroups and reading groupssince the pandemic began; some of these might be options for your groups as well. Subgroups and reading groups have been a great way for new group members (often fellowship graduates) to continue engaging with EA. Graduates of our fellowship have started cause-area subgroups: 

and two reading groups: 

Inter-University Reading Groups:

On top of running our virtual fellowship, we decided to run a virtual reading group on The Precipice (discussion sheets here). As we did for our fellowship, we opened up our reading group to the broader EA community. Over 50% of our participants ended up not being from Stanford, and I’m glad we did open it up. Opening up our programming to others is good to do by default when it’s easy to do so, and doesn’t compete with better alternatives (that e.g. a local group might be better suited to provide for its own members). Secondly, as attendance dropped off as the reading group progressed, opening up our reading group to everyone meant that we had a critical mass each week, when we would not have if our group had only been open to Stanford students. It’s been nice to have a shared Google doc with discussion sheets open over Zoom calls, and having searchable books enhanced our discussion. 

Speaker Events

My main advice for speaker events is to invite speakers you wouldn’t be able to invite in person. We’ve had speakers call in from the UK, Australia, Sweden, and more during the pandemic. Take advantage of this opportunity to organize and share speaker events that wouldn’t regularly be an option for your group. The EA Hub also has resources for running speaker events.

By default, for everything you’re running, think about whether or not the event can/should be opened to members outside your group (I’ve found that most of our programming should be), and think about opportunities to collaborate. As well, advertise events that other groups are running to your own group. Effective Altruism Online Events is a great platform to share your events and find others’, as is the EA Groups Slack (invite link which expires 30 days from Dec. 24).

Next Steps:

Some potential next steps for group organizers:

  • Reach out to organizers from other groups you might want to collaborate with (e.g. those in compatible time zones).
  • Try out different ways (a few options are given above under "Virtual Socializing Options") of building community/friendships and see what sticks.
  • Come up with a system for sharing your programming open to the global EA community, and for sharing others’ programming with your group members.
  • Check out the EA Hub for resources on programming you might want to run (also feel free to use resources linked in this blog post).

Conclusion: 

Key takeaways - collaborate with others, and prioritize community/strengthening relationships within the group during the pandemic. If you’re an organizer of a larger group with additional capacity, supporting newer groups can be a great use of resources. It’s also particularly easy to do during the pandemic (examples of how to do so shared above), so take advantage of this opportunity while it lasts!

As I mentioned above, if you’re interested in discussing ideas in this post, or collaborating with a larger/more experienced group (e.g. to trial running an EA fellowship, or co-hosting a reading group) feel free to reach out to me (kuhanj@stanford.edu), or sign up for a call on my Calendly. In the comments I’d also love to hear what has (and has not) worked well for other EA groups during the pandemic.

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6 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:35 PM
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Thanks for sharing Kuhan! EA Philippines (and our student chapter EA Blue) has grown a lot as well and have had a good amount of people showing up to our virtual events. So I definitely see why Stanford EA has grown, and I think a few other chapters (mainly student chapters I think) have grown and maximized virtual activities during this pandemic.

Anyway, I have simple questions on two things you said:

1. On co-working:

On top of co-working being a good opportunity for socializing, I’ve found my and other members’ productivity goes up a lot when sharing our screens during co-working sessions (highly recommend).

Do you mean two or more people are sharing their screen at the same time? How does that work? We share our screens for group meetings, but I've never heard of screen-sharing during co-working sessions. Also, wouldn't people feel like they are being watched (or that they might show something private) if they are screensharing while working?

2. When you said you have "around twice as much weekly programming as pre-pandemic", around how many events on average is that per week exactly?  Also, how do you know that this is the right amount (and not too little or too much)? Is it your hope that every member at Stanford EA is showing up to at least 1 event per week?

Do you mean two or more people are sharing their screen at the same time? How does that work? We share our screens for group meetings, but I've never heard of screen-sharing during co-working sessions. Also, wouldn't people feel like they are being watched (or that they might show something private) if they are screen-sharing while working?

Yea we allow multiple participant screen-sharing on Zoom, which does run the risk of people seeing something private, but at least for me it really helps me not succumb to distractions, so the risk is worth it. You can't see other people's screens while sharing yours on Zoom, but everyone has the option of stopping sharing for a while and checking in on others, so the chance of that is often enough to keep us motivated. I think Focusmate might be another alternative, I haven't looked into other options yet. 

 

2. When you said you have "around twice as much weekly programming as pre-pandemic", around how many events on average is that per week exactly?  Also, how do you know that this is the right amount (and not too little or too much)? Is it your hope that every member at Stanford EA is showing up to at least 1 event per week?

It's hard to count since some members are involved in multiple daily activities (e.g. goal setting and co-working) while others just come to weekly programming (like our exec meetings/discussions/board game nights) but I've listed all of our recurring programming in the above post. I would love for every member of Stanford EA to show up to at least 1 event per week, and we have some systems in place to help with this (e.g. lots of mentors for our fellowships, many cause area subgroups to cater to all members' interests, etc.), but in practice this isn't the case. As for deciding how much  is too much, if attendance for an event is low and it doesn't seem to  be very valuable we're pretty comfortable cutting things. 

Interesting concept with the screen-sharing. The alternative I know is to share your video – that in itself can be motivating for people even if they technically could be doing other things. However, I’m mainly used to co-working that integrates the daily goal setting technique, and even expands it so you set a goal before each session (if you do it pomodoro style) and check-in in the breaks about whether you reached your goal or not + get feedback/support from others if you are stuck. In that way, it will soon become very clear if one was just browsing on youtube instead of working  😊
Another tool that supports co-working is Complice: you can share videos, set your goals and sub-goals and it has a Pomodoro timer (that one can adjust for the room). It only has text chat option though and not video chat. Technically you have to pay for certain features but for me the free version was enough.

[+][comment deleted]1y 0

I highly recommend Lightning Talks. Participants are allowed to present on any topic they want for 5 minutes. They've worked wonders for Effective Altruism DC.

The main consideration is how to do questions:  You can do these immediately after each talk. Or you can finish all talks, then do a giant free form discussion. Or you can finish all talks, ask who's interested in each speaker, and then split them up into breakout rooms. Or you can let people have ongoing conversations in the chat room. Or you can tell people to message the speaker individually.

The most orderly way is to do a short live Q&A after each talk. Then tell people to message the speaker directly for additional questions. This prevents the chatroom from spilling over into the next topic.

Other consideration would be getting enough people to do it in the first place. I suspect this event is great for sustaining momentum, but terrible for creating it.

As for topics, I suspect most groups should start by allowing any topic. The more restrictions you add, the less participation you'll get. Lightning Talks are primarily about lowering the barrier to presentation, and I have yet to hear of someone having too many lightning talks.

Another awesome (and low-effort for organizers) way to socialise is the EA Fellowship Weekend (which probably didn't exist when Kuhan wrote this post).