TLDR: The goal of community building should be to build a healthy community with friendship and belonging. Pressuring people down the EA funnel is counter to this goal.

I recently became aware that it's common for community builders within EA to view their work as a tool for them to personally have impact, through encouraging others to have more impact. This can look like:

  • The community builder actively categorizes each person in their community based on their level of involvement with EA, for example "newcomer", "intro-level", "engaged", "career-changer".
  • The community builder measures their success by their ability to pull people down the funnel of EA engagement, where people who might come in interested in global health and development or animal welfare start to get interested in topics deeper down the funnel like AI safety and wild animal suffering.

Creating an environment with a social hierarchy based on impact is a recipe for a toxic community. Sasha Chapin wrote a great blog post on this.[1] Many organizers are also aware of issues in their members like burnout, depression, or low-impact angst, and perform emotional labor in helping individuals with these issues, without realizing that the organizing model itself may be the root cause of the problem.

The goal of community-building should be to create a healthy community for people trying to have impact.

  • the community is more likely to help with impact if it is designed to create friendships and a place where people feel like they belong
  • engagement with EA and impact should not be conflated

The sign of having a healthy community is that when people burn out and need to take a break from trying to have impact, they don't also feel the need to take a break from the community. The community is their refuge.

This doesn't mean that having events focused on helping people increase their impact is bad. There's a right and a wrong motivation to, say, run a workshop about the careers that the speaker thinks are the most impactful.

  • Right: you send out a survey to your community and ask what kinds of events they are interested in, and as many of them are students, they are looking for more EA perspective on their career, from someone that they can ask questions to.
  • Wrong: you feel that the careers of your community members aren't impactful enough and want to influence them to change

Good community building respects and supports members with the goals and needs they already have.

Examples of healthy community building activities meant to foster friendship and belonging

Fostering friendship

  • getting to know people in your community. knowing what's going on with their life, and being a person who cares.
  • picnics, hikes, karaoke, and other activities that are social and don't remind people of their level of impact
  • co-working[2]
  • eating meals together

Fostering belonging

  • having dedicated volunteers for greeting people new to the event
  • Making events kid-friendly for community members with children, for example by hosting events beside a playground
  • Hosting joint events with other local altruistic organizations that your members are interested in, even if they are not "EA"
  • Bringing in guest speakers from different backgrounds

Further reading

Addendum

  • It's theoretically possible to be in a situation where you have to make a choice between building an impactful community and building a healthy community, but in practice i think this is pretty unlikely
  • Thanks to Hamp, Yellow, and JDBauman for critical feedback on this idea!

Postscript

I organize every-other-month Effective Altruism picnics in San Francisco, often joint with adjacent movements like Progress Studies or YIMBY. If you're in the area and want to help contribute to a supportive, healthy, and fun community, please send me a message with your phone number. We can always use more volunteers :)


  1. Looks like the original was deleted; I linked the LessWrong linkpost. ↩︎

  2. actually the EA Gathertown, which is most commonly used for co-working, is the first EA space I've been where I've met people who are burned out of EA ↩︎

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I really like this point, and it sparks a few questions, confusions and thoughts I have about community building, some of which are:

(1) I believe what you are pointing at can be a good distinction between the tasks of national/regional groups vs. local groups at universities and in cities - the more local groups catering towards creating a healthy community (for example through the activities you suggested), and the bigger groups catering towards helping/"making sure" the community serves humanity in addition to itself.

(2) What do we actually mean with community building and what is the difference between a community building and movement building (and is one of them preferred)?

(3) Is what you're bringing up an example of Goodhart's law (this question may say more about my understanding of the law than about community building)? 

(4) (related to above points) I wonder if we weigh the intrinsic value of (the) EA community(s) too little, compared to its/their instrumental value, much like treating rest as a means to be, say, more productive, will make it harder to get proper rest (not sure if this is an actual thing, but I'm pretty sure there's a named concept for it which I have forgotten), and also missing out on the intrinsic value, of course! Making the community healthy would be, I guess, more of catering to the community for the community's sake, whilst also (probably) making it more likely for it/its members to have a greater impact.

Perhaps some of these points have already been adressed in previous posts on community building - would love to get tips on this!

I hope this doesn't interfere with the intent of your post; I really felt like sharing my associations! Please let me know if anything was irrelevant. Would love to hear if you have any thoughts on mine.

Great post!