Introduction and summary

Who knew a year of work could turn a 1-organizer EA group into one of the largest EA groups in the world? Especially considering that the person spearheading this growth had little experience running much of anything relevant, and very suboptimal organization skills (It’s me, welp). 

I definitely didn’t, when I started running Stanford EA in mid-2019. But I did know it was worth a shot; many universities are absolutely insane opportunities for multiplying your impact--where else can you find such dense clusters of people with the values, drive, talent, time, and career flexibility to dedicate their careers to tackling the world’s most pressing, difficult, large-scale problems?

Stanford EA had effectively one real organizer (Jake McKinnon), and our only real programming was weekly discussions (which weren't very well attended) and the one-off talk for a few years. This was the case until 2019, when Jake started prioritizing succession, spending lots of time talking to a few new intrigued-but-not-yet-highly-involved members (like me!) to get more involved about the potential impact we could have doing community building and for the world more broadly. Within a year, Stanford EA grew to be one of the largest groups in EA. That first year of work turned Stanford EA into a very large group, and in the second year since, I’ve been super proud of what our team has accomplished:

  • Getting SERI (the Stanford Existential Risks Initiative) off the ground (which wouldn’t have been possible without our faculty directors and Open Phil’s support), which has inspired other x-risk initiatives at Cambridge and (coming this year) at Harvard/MIT.
  • Running all of CEA’s Virtual Programs for their first global iterations, introducing over 500 people to key concepts in EA
  • Getting ~10 people to go from little knowledge of EA to being super dedicated to pursuing EA-guided careers, and boosting the networks, motivation, and knowledge of 5+ more who were already dedicated (At Stanford, and hopefully much more outside of Stanford since we ran a lot of global programming)
  • Running a global academic conference, together with other SERI organizers.
  • Running a large majority of all x-risk/longtermist internships in the world this year, together with other SERI organizers (though this is in part due to FHI being unable to run their internship this summer)
  • Founding the Stanford Alt. Protein Project, which recently ran a well-received, nearly 100-person class on alternative proteins, and has also set up connections/grants between three Stanford professors and the Good Food Institute to conduct alternative protein research.
  • Helping several other EA groups get off the ground, and running intro to EA talks and fellowships with them

I say this, not to brag, but because I think it shows several important things:

  • There’s an incredible amount of low-hanging fruit in this area. The payoffs to doing good community-building work are huge.
    • See also these posts for additional evidence and discussion.
    • Maybe you think EAs are over-determined? I don’t think so; perhaps half of the hardcore EAs in our group don’t seem to have been (and this proportion could be even higher with more and better community building).
  • You (yes, you!) can do similar things. We’re not that special--we’re mostly an unorganized team of students who care a lot.

We still have so much to learn, but I think we got some things right. What’s the sEAcret sauce? I try to distill it in this post, as a mix of mindsets, high-level goals, and tactics.
 

Here’s the short version/summary:

  • EA groups have lots of room for growth and improvement, as evidenced by the rapid growth of Stanford EA (despite it still being very suboptimally run and lots of room for improvement!)
  • Useful mindsets for community building:
    • Take charge and responsibility: Be agentic, ambitious, conscientious, and check in with others - community building work is often public-facing, and reputational risks can be costly--first impressions are hard to shake!
    • Try to really figure things outs: Think critically about how we can really do the most good, and then actually do it. Instill this curiosity and drive in your group members.
    • Take ideas (and their implications) seriously: EA is filled with crucial considerations that drastically change how important certain things are to focus on. Lots of important ideas probably seem very weird and unintuitive. Perhaps the important part of taking ideas seriously is taking actions in accordance with the ideas you believe.
  • Becoming a strong friend group and team:
    • Because of our (Stanford EA core’s) shared values and goals, as well as lots of time we’ve spent together, there is a strong sense of us being on the same team, trying to help each other out as much as we can, and wanting to achieve amazing things together.
    • It’s also much more fun to do things for your group and with other organizers when you really enjoy their company!
    • Suggestions for how to make this happen for your group are in the lessons section - though I’d specifically recommend group chats for highly involved members, daily default (optional) meals with the group, and living together
  • High-level goals for your group:
    • A helpful proxy for doing as much counterfactual good as possible for EA groups is optimizing the number of members who are highly engaged with the EA community and pursuing career plans based on trying to do the most good possible.
      • Get others excited about community building; as you can communicate to them: university is a unique place to get talented people to make career changes, top priority causes are extremely neglected, and the multiplier effect on your impact can be huge.
      • Leverage the community (existing resources,  networking, asking for help, etc) and improve it (e.g. by sharing your resources and experiences running your group)!
      • Create a culture of: Curiosity (how do we really do the most good?), ambition and entrepreneurship (think of amazing things and actually do them), and an engineering mindset (constantly think and act on improvements for the group).
  • Best Practices and Lessons:
    • Lessons
      • Students are much more receptive to career-focused messaging than donation-focused messaging.
      • Recurring programming is much better than one-off programming for retention.
      • There is a lot of available funding in the meta-EA and longtermist space.
      • There is a lot of low hanging meta-EA fruit and you can do a lot without much prior experience.
    • Best Practices
      • Learn, reflect, write, and talk with people about EA (a lot)
      • Advertise aggressively
      • Focus on retention and deep engagement over shallow engagement
      • Prioritize 1:1s and personalized programming
      • Getting involved should be easy and clear
      • Make group involvement (highly) valuable to group members
      • Tight-knit community and support network and team
      • Prioritize leadership succession
      • Be proactive, entrepreneurial, and experimentative
      • Always think about how to scale things up and be ambitious
      • Try to have a strong reputation, especially with your target audience
      • Network and communicate with others a lot
  • Current Programming

Acknowledgments

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to making Stanford EA and SERI what they are today, the Stanford EA core team - and in particular Jack Ryan, Mauricio, Michael Byun, and Sydney von Arx, for all the incredible work you've done for Stanford EA and SERI over the past couple of years, Jake McKinnon for getting me motivated to prioritize community building, 80K for getting me involved in EA in the first place (and offering a lot of the best content our group uses), and everyone who commented on drafts of this post (Mauricio, Danny Wolfe, Michael Byun, Katherine Worden, Emma Abele, Jake McKinnon, Jessica McCurdy, and Bella Forristal). 

Context

I think EA groups could be much better than they are currently. 

As I mentioned earlier, Stanford EA had effectively one real organizer until 2019. Just within the past two years Stanford EA has grown to be one of the largest EA groups in the world, and we’ve started and run most of the programming of the Stanford Existential Risks Initiative. I think that our growth is replicable, and that you do not need to be a superstar public speaker or highly experienced organizer to run a successful group (I sure wasn’t). That being said, there were definitely lots of factors in my favour. I was on a Community Building Grant so I was getting paid to spend time figuring out how to run Stanford EA well (In case it’s helpful, I’d estimate that I spent around 40 hours a week on EA). I also had the benefit of being in the Bay Area and had many amazing students and community members supporting me, while I also really enjoy learning and talking to people about EA and related ideas.  

I spent the approximate 40hrs per week through a combination of organizing, learning, brainstorming, and socializing mostly through 1:1s and small group discussions while completing my Masters degree. The 80/20 version of my work (e.g. running a high quality intro fellowship and 1:1s with promising members) could’ve been done in 10-20 hours per week, though I found that the additional time I spent on EA community building helped me to develop many of the ideas and programming that I’m sharing in this document. This extra time spent further helped me to get many other Stanford organizers similarly excited about EA and community building. 

Over the last two years running Stanford EA and the Stanford Existential Risks Initiative (SERI), I’ve learned a fair amount about running groups well. I’d like to use this document to share what has worked well for us along with best practices for EA groups in areas that require improvement across the board. I’ve written about our growth and programming during the pandemic in a previous post, so this post focuses more on the mindset with which I approach community building, high-level strategy, and concrete lessons and advice for organizers.  

 

Mindset

If I don’t do something, who will?

What has been most important for me is the mindset with which I approach community building (one that seems to be shared by many other highly engaged community builders). I see this mindset as feeling a strong sense of urgency about the state of the world and how much better it could be. Personally, I find my deepest resolve when I think about the possibility of all life on Earth ending, having all of our hopes and dreams for the future extinguished, and how much suffering already occurs—particularly in factory farms and low-income countries. I have found that engaging with texts such as Strangers Drowning and histories of slavery have been particularly powerful in cultivating and strengthening this mindset and my personal resolve. There is also an Anne Frank quote that really resonates with me: 

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” 

I’d like to add a caveat about unilateralist actions being potentially high in negative risk and would further like to underscore that extensive communication is extremely important for community building and before doing any public-facing thing. That being said, however, the basic idea that there is a lot to be done (with sufficient collaboration and feedback) is both true and important. 

For most people, thinking about how much better life could and will be if we improve our world is similarly motivating. Independent of the specific source of motivation, the mindset of “If I don’t fix or do this, no one will,”  feels, on balance, true ( e.g. “the fellowship won’t happen unless I run it”, or “these students who seemed interested and are about to graduate probably won’t get more involved unless I set up 1:1s with them and encourage them to apply to jobs on the 80K job board”). This mindset also inspires me to aim high, be strategic, try really hard, and convince others to join me in this difficult but highly rewarding quest to improve our world as much as possible.

Encouraging this mindset in fellow organizers has led to our group members being proactive, experimenting with new programs each quarter, making large-scale changes to continually improve our programming, and thinking about scaling up to provide value to the global community. 
 

Figuring Things Out: How can we really do the most good? What does the most good even mean?

Another mindset that I think is crucial for organizers to have—and one that I’m very glad is shared by core members at Stanford EA, is one of really trying to figure out how to do the most good, rather than finding a cause that we like that has been given the EA seal of approval and feeling content sticking to it. At its best, applying this mindset has looked like a handful of us reading and thinking extensively about our values and the world's problems, and frequently discussing these topics to learn from each other, especially to learn from our friendly and constructive disagreements (e.g. “You and I both want to do as much good as we can, so—if we have pretty different ideas about how to do so—we should figure out why that is and perhaps one or both of us should change our mind,”). 

Engaging with other people often—whether it’s through writing, talking or another means— also prepares you to talk about EA much better to newer members and demonstrates how much you’ve thought about these ideas and how much you care, and helps you have better thoughts on cause prioritization (how to actually improve the world, share and signal knowledge to other community members, and more).

This mindset is related to the general practice of backchaining/theory of change. Critical thinking from first principles, and more generally thinking hard about how to actually realize the changes you want to see in the world, are crucial for EAs, and group organizers in particular. Figuring out "what gets people really invested in EA/the group/pursuing the highest impact career they can?", where there isn’t much good existing knowledge to go off of. It's broadly useful to be able to find useful actions & do them yourself, rather than mime similar actions where you don't have a deep understanding of why those actions would be useful. A lack of deep understanding doesn’t let you see inefficiencies, ideate how things could be better, or identify crucial considerations that might suggest certain actions are much better/worse than they initially seem.

Take Ideas (and their Implications) Seriously

Crucial considerations about population ethics, moral philosophy, moral circle expansion, and other topics (e.g. longtermism, the meat-eater problem, the mere addition paradox, long-term indirect effects) might make the signs of certain actions and causes un-intuitively flip, or at the very least, make them less clearly highly effective (and conversely, things that seem un-intuitive or weird might be extremely important - like the wellbeing of animals and future people, and the likelihood of extinction this century). Other considerations (like the funding situation in the meta-EA and longtermist space) might make certain careers (e.g. earning-to-give) much less (or more) impactful.

One important part of taking ideas seriously is acting on their implications. If A implies action B and you believe A, you should really consider doing B. Examples of Stanford EA core members taking EA ideas seriously and applying them to our lives that I'd want to see more of:

  • Making our career plans primarily based on EA considerations/what they think would most improve the long-term future (I think this applies to all of our core members)
    • Relatedly, many of our members spend a lot of time thinking about cause prioritization, population ethics, comparing between cause areas and career options, and engage deeply with ideas that seem "pretty weird" (e.g. around how transformative AI will be, (wild) animal suffering, how counterfactual meta-EA work is, and more).
  • Taking the implications of thought experiments/ideas about morality seriously: For example, many of us think that failing to do a very good thing (like choosing a high-impact career, donating), even if we don't cause harm--is very bad. As a result, many core members spend a significant fraction of our time organizing for Stanford EA and SERI, learning about EA and relevant ideas, and talking to the broader community, on top of using these principles to make career plans.
  • Most core members are vegan (though I think diet is much less important to focus on than career when it comes to impact, but it is a concrete example). More importantly (for the animals), Michael and I co-founded the Stanford Alt. Protein project (impact of the group mentioned above).

Becoming a Strong Friend Group and Team

Becoming a strong friend group and community has also been instrumental for Stanford EA. Because of our (Stanford EA core’s) shared values and goals, there is also a strong sense of us being on the same team, trying to help each other out as much as we can, and wanting to achieve amazing things together. This is a pretty unique feeling that is hard to find elsewhere, but when it’s there it can be really powerful. For several of us, many of our best friends are fellow Stanford EA members, and knowing that our goals and values are shared strengthens our friendship and desire to help each other.  These strong bonds have led to much of our success (e.g. wanting to do more for the group since it involves productively spending time with friends, advancing each others’ goals, having fun, and (hopefully) having an impact). I think EA groups are uniquely situated to provide this level of support and friendship. When cultivated properly, you’d be surprised what a small group of dedicated, ambitious students can accomplish together (examples below, and in this post). 

Clear Vision and Strategy for your Group

The specifics of what EA groups should do are unclear, and differ from group to group (based on factors like the demographic you’re serving, the geopolitical context of your country/city/university/etc), but there are some common themes. My strategy for Stanford EA is as follows:

  • Primary Goal: Do as much good as possible and generate as much counterfactual impact as possible, based off the principles and worldview laid out here. What does this look like?
    • Finding, developing, and motivating highly thoughtful, impartially altruistic, talented, ambitious community members who are figuring out what “doing the most good” means, and actually doing it.
      • One helpful proxy for the primary goal is optimizing the number of members who are pursuing career plans based on trying to do the most good possible, and are highly engaged with the EA community (group organizing makes this engagement much more likely, but is not necessarily required). This will likely involve:
      • Get others excited about EA, your EA group, and community building! The main arguments that I and others find compelling:
        • Multiplier effect - your career only has 80,000 hours, but it will likely take far less than that to counterfactually get someone else to also pivot to a high-impact career.
        • University is perhaps the best place to find a large number of extremely altruistic, hard-working talented people with a lot of flexibility and free time, who are actively trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives (and career in particular)
        • There is lots of low hanging fruit in the community building space (hence Stanford’s ability to become a top group within a year)
    • Coordinate with and leverage the broader community:
      • Share your experiences and resources - When you find things that work well (or don’t), share them with the broader community (like this document!)
      • On the flipside, ask for help, and don’t reinvent the wheel when unnecessary (though sometimes innovation can be very important - but it’s often better and easier to start off with something concrete and iterate rather than building up from scratch). As a newer organizer, you’ll probably be doing more of this (asking for help) at the beginning, and that’s OK! We are happy to help!
      • Stay up to date on thinking in the community - knowing about current thinking about cause prioritization and the most promising solutions to issues, the funding landscape, talent bottlenecks, and opportunities for students to contribute helps inform how to advise students in your group about career paths, skills they should build, what concrete things they can do in the near term, and who to reach out to.
      • Network, network, network (expanded below)
    • Create a culture of being ambitious, trying things, and striving for excellence - I think EA groups are currently nowhere near their ultimate potential (this is definitely the case for Stanford). There’s a lot more to explore, and if something that seems good hasn’t been done, there’s a decent chance no group has thought to do it, or hasn’t had the capacity. Regarding the culture of entrepreneurship and ambition, things Stanford EA board members have done (within their first year of getting involved!) include:
      • Running a high-school summer program on critical thinking and EA (Sydney)
      • Running a US policy speaker series, and creating syllabi for and running reading groups on AI governance + existential risk and social sciences (Mauricio)
      • Making a syllabus for, recruiting professional mentors for, and running multiple in-depth fellowships (Jack)
      • Helping redesign effectivealtruism.org (Emma)
      • Running global intro fellowships and Precipice reading groups attended by hundreds of new community members (Michael)
      • Rehauling our onboarding process and running much of our 70-person summer research internship on existential risks and longtermism  for SERI (Oliver, though the summer program is a multi-organizer operation)
      • Running an online conference on existential risks attended by over 1000 attendees from 50+ countries (many)

Staying Connected to the Community

Being highly connected with the broader EA community has been incredibly valuable. I did a lot of outreach and networking on behalf of Stanford EA (details below in the networking bullet point) when I started my community building grant. This has been useful for many reasons. I based our first intro fellowship off Harvard EA’s syllabus. Our first career workshop worksheet was nearly a copy of London EA’s. I used Yale’s handover docs to determine how to run our retreats. The list goes on and on. Community members are really nice and want to help you out! :)

Secondly, being able to introduce promising, highly engaged members to the global community and EA professionals in particular has had many benefits for group members including:

  • Helping members realize that they can pursue a full-time career doing EA/high-impact work
  • Being supported by a global network of professionals, organizations, and funders
  • Fruitful collaborations (e.g. developing the US Policy speaker series), workshops (attending CFAR and AIRCS workshops and SERI mentorship), and other opportunities (e.g. funding to run a high school summer program on EA).
  • Connections to relevant experts in their fields of interest

Some helpful community resources and people I wanted to highlight - the EA Groups Slack, Catherine Low and community building grantees (like myself!) who you can reach on the EA Groups Slack, the EA Hub Resources Page (for resources others’ have created on how to start and run groups, FB Pages: EA Online Events/Job Postings, the EA Groups Newsletter, and the EA Forum (to read extremely useful posts like this one :P).

 

Lessons and Best Practices

Now I’m going to share some concrete best practices for running EA groups and lessons I’ve learned from running Stanford EA, along with our current set of programming.

Lessons

  • Students are much more receptive to career-focused messaging than donation-focused messaging. For example, when marketing our intro EA fellowship, mentioning career planning resources and mentorship seemed to be most successful at getting students to sign up. This could be for many reasons.
    • Firstly, many students are (or feel) financially insecure, and are often not working, not earning very much if they are working, or relying on parents, scholarships, etc.
    • Secondly, many people feel negatively towards donations in general, since donations open up a can of worms including questions around class inequality, how the wealthy have ended up in positions with access to disposable resources, whose right is it to decide how this wealth is (re)distributed, finding bandaid solutions with the system vs. reform, the list goes on and on. People do not have similar reservations about careers.
    • Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, what to do with the rest of our lives is the primary question most students are trying to answer. Universities give woefully inadequate support and information about careers in general, and even less about high-impact careers. Many students would love nothing more than to find an intellectually, financially, and ethically fulfilling career (though the relative importance of those characteristics differs a lot person to person (sads)). EA groups are very well equipped to address this inadequacy (thank you 80,000 Hours!). Where else can you find a group of highly altruistic, talented, hardworking students earnestly trying to help each other land their dream jobs tackling the world’s most pressing problems? (Not at slimy pre-professional clubs that are actually zero-sum and snaky 🐍).
  • Recurring programming is much better than one-off programming for retention: By recurring programming I mean programming with expected attendance and engagement (e.g. doing readings/exercises before meeting), ideally on a weekly or more frequent basis - so prioritizing programming like fellowships, reading groups, career intensives, recurring socials, and research programs over one-off talks, socials and workshops (without followup). We didn’t get any new committed members for a few years when we just had weekly discussions and a few talks. After starting our fellowship, we’re getting a couple of new highly engaged members every quarter.
  • There is a lot of funding available in the meta EA, community building and longtermist space. Take advantage of this (as long as funding is going towards making the world a better place). I am still figuring out how to do this well. If food drastically increases attendance and engagement, get food for meetings. If professional designers can make posters that lead to far more people signing up for your programs, hire designers. If paying facilitators makes them do a better job or increases capacity, consider paying facilitators. I made another post about how EA groups might use money.
  • There is a lot of low hanging fruit in the community building space. You can do a lot without much prior experience (though knowing your stuff is important)

 

Best Practices

  • Learn, reflect, write and talk with people about EA (a lot): This is extremely important for many reasons:
    • Knowing what you’re trying to optimize for in the first place: Given that we are trying to do the most good possible, thinking about what this entails is quite important. Power law distributions exist for the impact of work in different causes (in terms of scale/neglectedness/tractability), and the impact of different interventions within causes (e.g. deworming or educating parents about the benefits of education compared to free uniforms).
    • Crucial considerations about population ethics, moral philosophy, moral circle expansion, and other topics (e.g. longtermism, the meat-eater problem, the mere addition paradox, long-term indirect effects) might make the signs of certain actions and causes un-intuitively flip, or at the very least, make them less clearly highly effective (and conversely, things that seem un-intuitive or weird might be extremely important - like the wellbeing of animals and future people, and the likelihood of extinction this century).
    • Getting better at optimizing for what you want - many people, especially in this community, have similar goals to yours, so reading what’s already out there, and talking to people thinking about similar questions, can make you much better at achieving your (and the broader community’s) goals
    • Effectively communicating your vision and goals with others: You can communicate with the people you interact with better, have well-reasoned thoughts on how to best improve the world, have well-thought out responses to common questions, misconceptions, and criticisms; while also being able to teach and signal knowledge and commitment to other community members.
    • Leaving strong first impressions and minimizing reputation risks: Practicing how to introduce and talk about EA well multiple times, and knowing why you believe what you believe (and counter arguments and responses to them) and how to articulate your ideas well is quite important for being a strong community builder and for motivating others to get more involved.
    • Concrete recommendations for learning more (I’d love to hear recommendations from others!):
  • Advertise aggressively: Make sure people who would be interested in your group if they knew what it was find out about it and are able to get involved. This could look like making a website, a mailing list, an FB page (and inviting all your friends to like it), Instagram, inviting friends personally to events or programming (highly recommend), posting on class social media pages (especially first and second years - undergrad and postgrad), emailing every relevant mailing list you have send-access to, physical posters, and anything else you can think of.
    • Places to advertise: Check out this awesome resource for recommendations. I also shared my experience with Stanford in this doc.  I’ve also included other places to advertise in the “Staying Connected to the Community” section.
    • There’s lots of good EA content out there to advertise that’s intro-friendly, like what I’ve mentioned above.
  • Focus on retention and deep engagement over shallow engagement: Highly engaged members planning on dedicating their career to doing the most good will likely be much more impactful than people who are sympathetic to the ideas, but not enough to change their career (or donation) plans. Additionally, highly engaged members will help you grow your group. Many high priority cause areas within EA (especially meta and longtermist causes) are largely constrained by people not funding. As Ben Todd discusses here, these causes need more highly dedicated, altruistic, talented people willing to use their careers to make progress.
    • Examples: Concrete steps Stanford EA has taken include running an in-depth fellowship after our intro fellowship:
      • Sib-fam program for new members to befriend more experienced members,
      • a career-planning intensive,
      • a system for checking in on formerly involved members - quarterly calls and check-ins (currently being set up),
      • and several reading groups.
  • Prioritize 1:1s and personalized programming: When I think about the most transformative moments in my EA journey, I think nearly all of them are either readings (e.g. Strangers Drowning) or 1:1 conversations. Engaging with EA is very personal - especially when it comes to deciding how EA will guide your career path. 1:1s also offer you the chance to demonstrate how a real person puts abstract EA concepts into practice. I intellectually understood what opportunity cost, counterfactuals, and expected value meant, but seeing them come up constantly in discussions about cause prioritization, what to do with members’ careers, or how to spend our limited SEA exec member time, made these concepts, and the importance of their repeated application, much more salient.
    • As for the importance of personalized programming - when Stanford EA first ran our fellowship, we ran one big section of 15-20 fellows in one big weekly discussion. Despite weekly catered food, only one fellow got more involved with the group afterwards, and that was largely due to friendship with an exec member (not the fellowship).
    • I then decided to switch our model to 2:1 to 5:1 (fellow:organizer) small groups (largely depending on capacity as I’ve had the most success with 3:1 groups so far). This increased attendance, reading completion and engagement, the ability to personally address questions, criticisms, and key takeaways from the material, and also led to fellows befriending organizers.
    • Since this change, we’ve regularly had 5-10 Stanford fellows express interest in getting more involved after the fellowship, and 1-3 becoming highly engaged organizers per quarter.
  • Make getting involved very clear and easy: Stanford EA is still figuring out how to best do this, but our (simplified) current pipeline is: Intro fellowship → In Depth Fellowship/ Sib Fam/Joining Organizer Team + attend socials/events →Career Intensive/Reading Groups/lots of 1:1s with experienced members → Board Member (running the aforementioned things, and thinking of other high impact things to do with their time + career).
    • Emphasize the next step and best way to get more involved multiple times (e.g. post-intro fellowship email, (multiple) 1:1s with eager fellowship graduates, communication on social media right before deadlines).
    • Regularly check in with people who have previously expressed interest and then dropped off (set up a community database and reminder system to make sure this happens).
  • Make group involvement valuable to members: Make members want to get more involved with the group, rather than having it be a chore that they must partake in begrudgingly due to their moral scruples.
    • Ways EA group involvement can be beneficial to group members:
    • Involvement advances their careers, improves their social lives and integrates them into a community, networking and professional connections, enhances their cause prioritization, teaches how to think and be an agent, how to improve time management, productivity, reliability, etc.
  • Make your group a tight-knit community, team, and support network
    • Programming Suggestions (more details can be found here):
      • *Default Daily Meals* - Stanford EA has a default dining hall (location) and time of day for daily lunches (this would work for dinners too) - if you don’t have another place to be for lunch, there’s a default time and place to eat and hang out with other SEA members. This has worked quite well for people who attended to become better friends.
        • It can also be good to invite newer people outside the core group for meals (either just with yourself or with the broader group) to integrate peripheral members into the community, and prevent cliquiness.
      • Group chats - Group chats have also been a great way for SEA members to become better friends with each other. While they started out mostly for quick response-time SEA administrative tasks, our group chat over time slowly turned into a friend group chat (especially from socializing after doing EA organizing work)
      • 1:1s (meals, walks, chats, calls, Donut)
      • Coworking (in person and online)
      • Sib-fams and other opportunities for people to spend time together weekly (or more often!) and bond (fellowships can also serve this function)
      • Living together (can be incredible (it was for me), but not always a good idea - see brief discussion in the comments)
      • Accountability buddies and goal setting
      • Other recurring social programming
        • Board game nights, dinners, etc.
  • Prioritize succession: Prioritize finding at least one or two highly engaged members who will reliably keep the group running for the next ideally 3+ years if you were to leave, since this is a big issue for many EA groups.
    • Advice from Yale:  try not to have someone leaving the group the following year as the sole president (so they can advise the next president(s) the year after). Many former highly successful groups have (almost) died (including Stanford), so this is a very real concern.
  • Be proactive and experimentative: No one really knows how to run an EA group perfectly and we're all trying to figure it out together (see above), so try things and don’t just stick to the beaten path!
  • Be ambitious and always think about how to scale things up - Community Building/meta-EA work rewards time investment and getting others involved. Returns can be super-linear to effort and number of people (e.g. maybe you can’t run a fellowship with just one person, but can with three). It is possible to make significant contributions without having been involved for very long.
    • As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, Stanford EA had effectively one real member until July of 2019. But within the last two years Stanford EA has become one of the largest EA groups in the world.
    • We saw that there were very few internship opportunities for longtermist students, so even though we only started last year SERI is running a 70-person internship program for existential-risk-interested students, and ran a conference on existential risks attended by over 1000 people (both run almost exclusively by student organizers and myself).
    • When the pandemic hit, we realized the online transition was a great opportunity to open up (nearly all of) our programming (specifically our intro/in-depth fellowships, Precipice reading group, SERI summer program and conference) to the global EA community, and helped lay the foundation for the global EA virtual programs. This decision has played an important role in the creation of new EA groups, and in one case, even a new existential risk initiative and summer research program. And there is so much low-hanging fruit that has not yet been picked! That being said, coordination is important. If you are interested in scalable student community building, consider applying to the EA Infrastructure fund, and/or reach out to me (kuhanj@stanford.edu) to discuss ideas.
  • Try to have a strong reputation, especially with your target audience:  When you’re thinking about doing work that is public-facing or has a large potential audience, checking in with others to make sure the upsides outweigh the downsides (which can easily not be the case because of things as seemingly trivial as wording!) can prevent PR risks and bad first impressions, can give you more perspectives on what others find compelling/interesting, and more. Regarding your group's reputation, two helpful questions are "how do outsiders/new people (especially people who could be highly impactful if they got really involved) perceive the group? Do we look like really smart, thoughtful, caring people working hard to improve the world, or do we look like preachy, out-of-touch, fanatical technocrats? How can we make our reputation more of the former?"
  • Network and communicate with others a lot (both inside and outside the community): It’s good for yourself (for professional reasons, developing social skills, learning more about the world, etc) and other group members (who you can then put in touch with relevant connections).
    • Communicate with other organizers/the EA community: the EA community is almost always very eager to help others out, by sharing resources, offering to give talks/Q&As/workshops, edit blog posts, and more. If you want to run something, chances are, other people have too, so ask others for resources, advice, etc. Specific community resources are mentioned above.
    • EAG(x) conferences are a great opportunity to network. Most people I know at EAG try to fill up their whole conference with meetings with cool community members - take advantage of that! A simple “Hello, I run Stanford EA and thought it might be good for us to discuss potential collaborations or to connect group members interested in [insert potential reason for connection] with you interested in learning about your work.“ has a pretty high response rate.

Current Programming

Our fairly up-to-date list of programming can be found in this post I wrote about Stanford EA’s programming over the pandemic

Some new updates I’d like to highlight - we’re running a sib-fam program, are setting up a CRM system (through Airtable) to set up recurring (quarterly) calls/check-in messages with formerly active members, and will likely be rolling out a High Impact Careers program in the fall (I will probably share a draft soon in another post). Feel free to contact me (kuhanj@stanford.edu) if you’d like to discuss any of these. 

Sharing Best Practices and Feedback

I hope my experiences and advice are helpful! I’d love to hear your experiences, best practices, and lessons learned in the comments. I’d also appreciate feedback and criticism on my above suggestions.


 

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26 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:58 PM
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Just popping up to say that I am continually amazed by your work :) I get the best mentees and mentors from you and I am blown away by your hardwork.  Thank you so much! 

Thank you so much Kathryn! I'm inspired by all the work you do for WANBAM/mentorship in EA (which I'd love to build on moving forward, it's one of my top priorities), and everything else you do! :) 

Note: commenting before I've read the post fully because I wanted to show appreciation ASAP 

As a fellow Uni organizer, I am astounded that EA Stanford grew into what it currently is in the span of one(!) year. 

I've been lamenting the lack of similar development for my group and I sometimes resort to thinking, it's 'not really my fault' because past organizers didn't set up sustainable models. I always had the sense that was a bit dishonest but frankly, now I'm realizing that

  1. I very much could kick my butt into gear and help grow my group,
  2.  Every time I justify not doing so because I'm working on other EA things (e.g. career planning), I need to be really honest about whether I think that's actually the highest-impact thing to do. I think I've been averse to running a cost-benefit analysis on how much time is needed to make significant improvements to my group.

Relatedly, I do think my group suffers a lot from not being friends and I've been thinking about that a lot today. I think that's possibly a common problem plaguing student groups at my Uni, as I had a similar experience with a non-EA group I ran, although I doubt the pandemic helped.

So excited to read this and I really laud you + EA Stanford for providing a model of a flourishing Uni group that helps build the community's knowledge of community-building!

To clarify/set realistic expectations, much of the growth happened in our second year (2020-2021 academic year), e.g. all the things mentioned in the intro + summary bullets, the first year mostly involved getting 5-10 highly dedicated core organizers and getting SERI started. I also caveat all the things I had going in my favour (including being in the Bay, being on a CBG, and getting lucky with very dedicated and competent co-organizers).

It can be hard to sacrifice career planning/advancement for group organizing purposes, but as I mentioned in my other comment running your group well has lots of career benefits (both from within the EA community, and the skills you develop from becoming a kick-ass organizer :))!

That makes sense, thank you for expanding on the timeline! I also really appreciate your acknowledgment of other factors. My original comment (intentionally) discounted the many other factors that contribute to a group's success, simply because I am confident that my group has a better-than-average mix of factors and so should not be at its current state.

I 100% agree that it's not a binary trade-off and in fact, if someone is potentially interested in community-building as a career, this could be one of the highest-impact things to do. Even if not, I also agree that exclusively maximizing for EA career prospects is not necessarily the best community norm to set!

Another reflection: I think the belief in community-building as being EA is really helpful in sustaining an effective team. I am fairly confident that has played a significant role in the lack of progress my group has made.

For example, the current organizing team for my group was, as far as I know, 'picked' quite haphazardly. I personally just fell into leadership  - I was asked to help lead the Intro Fellowship and I guess the existing team assumed I'd also be helping organize the group - and while I love EA community-building as a cause area, I don't see it as the highest priority. Hence, I've gotten much more caught up in other areas such as improving institutional decisionmaking, which has led me to prioritize my personal career over organizing. I don't know much about my other organizers but I know that, for at least one of them, that seems to hold true (except they are more oriented towards AI).

All this to say - I think the occasional reminder that this work has the potential to be very high-impact might be a low-effort yet significant way to boost an EA group's chances of success! Similarly, if one is in the position to be selective about the next generation of leadership, selecting for people who genuinely believe that would be helpful.

Thank you for your kind words Miranda! EA group organizing can be quite difficult when others don't see it as potentially highly impactful and the group isn't doing so well - I hope this post can help change how useful EAs (and in particular students) think community building is, and help us do a better job at it so it feels more intuitively impactful and exciting!

The support system for organizers who want to put a lot of effort into their group is getting better and better. I'm always happy to have calls (or texts/emails) with organizers, to discuss how things could be better, and how to get your group members excited about EA and community building.

I didn't emphasize this much in the post, but putting a lot of effort into community building has been very rewarding for me personally (on top of being good for the group and (hopefully) the world more importantly) - in terms of job opportunities, my EA network/connections/friendships, my skillset, motivation/productivity (from being inspired by the other highly dedicated EAs I surround myself with to run our group), and impact. 

On board with you there! I think there's a lot of great people already trying to do that, like yourself or Catherine Low, but perhaps to inconsistent effect. This might warrant me sitting down with my group and trying to figure out how we got motivated to organize in the first place. : )

Completely not surprised by your experience re: community building being rewarding. As someone who's been very connected to non-EA communities in the past, I definitely think community-building doesn't need to compromise non-community-building priorities! After all, you're directly shaping the future of the EA community and testing the messaging of EA on-the-ground and building connections throughout. Truly, community organizers are doing so many things all at once.

Again, very inspired by your + your group's example. So grateful for all the work you do to publicize your experiences and spread best practices!

This post is delightful! I really appreciate how much effort you put into offering honest context (including things like funding and per-week hourly commitments). Especially in combination with your discussion of mindset, friendship and motivation, and the detailed best practices (with links out to resource documents! nice!) the work that went into this post (and Stanford EA more broadly) makes sentences like the following:

I think that our growth is replicable, and that you do not need to be a superstar public speaker or highly experienced organizer to run a successful group (I sure wasn’t).

ring true! Congrats on writing such solid motivation fuel.

Thank you Tessa!

Wonderful post Kuhan!  I've been thrilled with what you & everyone at Stanford EA have been able to do over the past 2 years, and all the hard work I know you've put into that

And while I'm glad I finally started taking the group seriously in 2019 - and spending a substantial amount of time, as you mention, with people in the group - what you've accomplished makes it really clear that I might have done so much more had I prioritized the group earlier

My single biggest college regret is waiting until I was <1 year from graduation to invest more time into the group & really talking through EA ideas with unfamiliar, newbie EA people like 2018 Kuhan (over dinners, multiple times a week).  To whatever extent regret-minimization is a good framework, seems worth noting for the sake of current university group organizers :)

Thanks Jake! Stanford EA and I would definitely not be where we are now without your initial mentorship/ motivation, and ongoing guidance and support! I can't thank you enough. :) 

Thinking out loud / random comments:

  1. In my experience, running local group events was like an o-ring process. If you're running a talk, you need to get the marketing right, the operations right, and the follow up right. If you miss any of these, you lose most of the value. This means that having an organiser who is really careful about each stage can dramatically increase the impact of the group. So, I'd highlight 'really caring' as one of the key traits to have.
     
  2. I think one-off talks can be powerful, but they have to be combined with one-on-one follow up, or otherwise funnelling people into a fellowship etc. We did a lot of this in the early days and found a lot of great people like this. One-off talks should be optimised for marketing & reach, to find people for the more in-depth programmes.
     
  3. I feel a bit uneasy about encouraging people to live together. It sometimes works well (& I've done it), but it can also lead to drama (e.g. romantic entanglements), a loss of work-life balance / ability to separate your doing good life from your personal life, and for people to lose their friends outside of EA, and I have think having a social network outside of EA is really valuable. One option is just to do it for 1-2yr as a way of making deeper friendships.
     
  4. I agree a career focused pitch seems most attractive - that was part of why we set up 80k in the first place :) I hope we can create some better resources for the local groups to use, like the next version of key ideas (turned into a series of articles more like the old career guide), and eventually a better career-focused book.

Great points, thanks for commenting Ben!  Responding to each of the points: 

In my experience, running local group events was like an o-ring process. If you're running a talk, you need to get the marketing right, the operations right, and the follow up right. If you miss any of these, you lose most of the value. This means that having an organiser who is really careful about each stage can dramatically increase the impact of the group. So, I'd highlight 'really caring' as one of the key traits to have.

I think I mostly agree with this (and strongly agree that 'really caring' is a key trait to have - I imagine that comes across in the post but perhaps stating it more clearly would be beneficial). I'm not sure we'd disagree on this, but I do think aggressive 80/20ing often makes sense, rather than being a perfectionist (e.g. it's probably fine not to do follow up with everyone who participates in your fellowship/comes to your intro talk, but you need to do good follow up with the few people who seem most likely to get get highly involved/be very impactful). Maybe that's what you meant by doing things "right" in the first place though, in which case there's no disagreement. 

 I think one-off talks can be powerful, but they have to be combined with one-on-one follow up, or otherwise funnelling people into a fellowship etc. We did a lot of this in the early days and found a lot of great people like this. One-off talks should be optimised for marketing & reach, to find people for the more in-depth programmes.

I agree. One thing I forgot to mention in the post that I'll add in after this comment (although it is already a novel rip :P) is that Mauricio and I spent a bunch of time trying to make our Intro to EA presentation as good as possible (script and slides here - the slides could definitely look much better), and I give it each quarter to get people to sign up for our fellowship and offer 1:1s with anyone at the event who's interested. I think making a good intro to EA presentation is one of the highest value things I've done in the last year. Thanks for bringing this up!

I feel a bit uneasy about encouraging people to live together. It sometimes works well (& I've done it), but it can also lead to drama (e.g. romantic entanglements), a loss of work-life balance / ability to separate your doing good life from your personal life, and for people to lose their friends outside of EA, and I have think having a social network outside of EA is really valuable. One option is just to do it for 1-2yr as a way of making deeper friendships.

Interesting, I guess in the context of student life living with friends is quite normal, and my guess is the upsides (largely becoming better friends, learning a lot about EA, seeing how dedicated EAs lead their daily lives) tend to outweigh the downsides, but of course this depends a lot on the specifics of the person, who they're living with, for how long, etc. 

I agree a career focused pitch seems most attractive - that was part of why we set up 80k in the first place :) I hope we can create some better resources for the local groups to use, like the next version of key ideas (turned into a series of articles more like the old career guide), and eventually a better career-focused book.

These all sound amazing - I can't wait, and would love to help out where I can. Thanks for all your work starting and running 80K, it's how I first found EA (when I googled something like "Highest Impact Careers"), and I've been hooked ever since. Keep up the incredible work, the value you're providing to students (and others/the world) is tremendous! :)

That's great to hear!

I should have clarified my points weren't meant as disagreements - I think we're basically on the same page.

I do think aggressive 80/20ing often makes sense

Yes, I agree. One way to reconcile the two comments is that you need to focus on the 20% of most valuable activities within each aspect (marketing, ops, follow up), but you can't drop any aspect. I also agree that it's likely that 'really focusing on what drives impact' is more important than 'really caring', though I think simply caring and trying can go a fairly long way.

On living together, I'm not concerned about living with friends in general (esp for students), just the idea of living 100% with EAs, while EA is also your main thing outside of studying. The more general point is that I think it's valuable to have friendships outside of EA. So, if someone is new to EA, I might encourage them to live with EAs for a few years to make deeper friendships there, but if someone is already heavily involved, I might encourage them to live with people who aren't in EA.

The intro to EA talk looks cool! I made some comments on a copy that I've shared with your stanford email address.

To use EA terms, this was an absolute banger of a post. As someone who's 2 weeks from the process of starting up a club from scratch I will certainly use the tips and tricks in this post in the future, great fricking job man!

On a side note I've had some ideas about running an EA related competition on campus, have you thought about something similar before? I was thinking it would be like an essay competition with the goal of coming up with an idea that saves the most lives. You give the people interested information that they can evaluate their ideas with (EA stuff) and when they're done you rate the idea on estimated effectiveness. This should increase interest in EA ideas as they get to do something interactive. I am planning on running a small scale experiment of this and some reflections on whether and how to do it would be appreciated!

That's very sweet, thank you Jonas! I have been in some conversations about EA essay/idea competitions similar to what you've mentioned, but haven't thought much about it. I think we're also thinking about ideas like hackathons as experimental outreach mechanisms to try out. How do you think something like what you're proposing would compare to the more standard intro EA programming (like intro talks and fellowships)?

One of the bigger parts is probably that it would have a public prize attached to it. I get the feeling from people outside EA  that altruism is charity and nothing that you can actually do a career within. A person has a certain threshold of motivation before digging into EA. I believe this threshold would be easier to get through if you had a potential explicit reward at the end of it (a carrot on a stick). It might also generate some interesting ideas that could be tried out. Essentially, the idea is that it would turbocharge the fellowships as they would have something to apply the ideas of EA to.

It seems like the impact of running a local group well is often underappreciated, but I think it's one of the highest-impact things you can do as a student or recent graduate, and also one of the highest-impact volunteer opportunities.

It's great to have this write up making a more detailed case. I recently released this stub profile on running a local group, and have added a link to this post.

Let me note that on top of all your concrete accomplishments, you're just a very sweet and caring person, which has got to help a lot in building this vibrant community. I'm happy to know you!

Certainly some impressive achievements here and a lot that resonated with topics I've been thinking about, e.g. about the entrepreneurial attitude in EA movement building; I have an outline for a forum post specifically on that topic but not sure if I'll get round to writing it up.

<<As for the importance of personalized programming - when Stanford EA first ran our fellowship, we ran one big section of 15-20 fellows in one big weekly discussion... I then decided to switch our model to 2:1 to 5:1 (fellow:organizer) small groups (largely depending on capacity as I’ve had the most success with 3:1 groups so far). This increased attendance, reading completion and engagement, the ability to personally address questions, criticisms, and key takeaways from the material, and also led to fellows befriending organizers.>> I would love to know any more detail about this that you're happy to share, especially on attendance + retention as the fellowship progressed.

I would intuitively feel worried about setting up such small support groups; if one person drops out of your support groups, I would imagine it would be pretty demoralising for the remaining 1/2/3/4 people, because it would feel like such a big chunk of the group dropping out at once. The effect on perceived social norms / value would presumably be quite high. And do you ever end up with very small groups, or whole support groups disbanding?

Id also be intrigued to know if you have problems with people falling behind on reading / prep before their scheduled meeting times? In Animal Advocacy Careers' online course, the completion rates were higher than I had worried they might be, but we had quite a few people who fell behind on the weekly deadlines and then rushed through the content in a short space of time. (I don't mean they didn't pay attention to it, but cramming it in is likely worse for remembering the content; perhaps also worse for reflection + implementation, though that's just a hunch.)

Great post, thanks for sharing! Pretty much exactly the type of post I had been hoping for for a while. Just hearing that one success story of a local group that was in a more or less similar state as mine (albeit arguably in a higher potential environment), but made it into something so impressive, is very inspiring.

Given I only have ~10h per week available to spend on EA things (and not all of them go into community building), I was particularly happy to hear your 80/20 remark. I do wonder if it's possible to move a local group onto a kind of growth trajectory at only, say, 6h per week, or if that's just a lost cause. Maybe I should just spend the majority of these 6h looking for a person with more time and motivation to take over the role. :) 

Currently we're definitely leaving a lot of low hanging fruit on the table (or tree) though. And a lot of that may be due to relatively trivial issues and inconveniences. Some examples of such limiting factors (and I do wonder if similar things are true for other small local groups):

  • I've heard fellowships mentioned & recommended a lot in the last 1-2 years, but have a fairly limited understanding of the concrete details. Should we run our own one? Should we redirect people to other online fellowships? What would I even tell people in order to motivate them to do so? Timing also needs to be taken into account.
  • Fear of organizing things and (almost) nobody (new) showing up. We had quite a few talks and such that ended up only being heard by our core team, although we were hoping to attract some new faces. That being said, our marketing was often pretty shy rather than aggressive.
  • Lack of detailed knowledge about the European data protection regulation and its implications prevents us/me from systemizing our "funnel" (which hardly exists). I have no idea if it's even legal to have a database of names / email addresses / other personal information of people, whether we'd need to inform them beforehand, etc.
  • Most of our small number of members are busy with their own things / studies / careers and have hardly any capacity to engage with the group beyond one weekly social/discussion, so there's little room for organizing bigger things or spending more time on community building, and I find that situation somewhat demoralizing
  • We have a whatsapp group and a Slack workspace. Whatsapp is great to get new people on board quickly, but it's surprisingly difficult to get them to sign up on Slack, and if they do we can never rely on them seeing new messages, or looking in there at all. Right now our Slack workspace is almost exclusively used by our few core members, and others hardly ever engage.
  • I feel very aversive to "push" people to do things, and wonder if that's a necessary skill to have for a community builder, or ideally people should be motivated enough that they only need to be "enabled"/supported instead.

Hey Markus, I'm only getting started with organizing an EA group, but here are my thoughts:

  • I think 6 hours per week is enough time to sustain a reasonable amount of growth for a group though, but I don't have enough personal experience to know. If you think funding would enable you to spend more time on community building, you can apply for an EA Infrastructure Fund. And you can always get Group Support Funding to cover expenses for things you think would help, such as snacks, flyers, books etc.
  • I think the Intro EA Program is a surprisingly effective way for newcomers to learn about EA to a reasonably deep level, so I would prioritize running a fellowship. You can broadly advertise for the fellowship across various mailing lists, Facebook groups, and group chats. You can see some more templates as well as advertising templates on the EA Hub's "Advertising Your EA Programs" page. You can see Yale EA's fellowship page for some of the benefits for participants. If you have the time to facilitate discussions, it would be better for engagement to run a fellowship on campus instead of referring everyone to the EA Virtual Programs, if students are on campus. Facilitating takes about 1 hour per week per cohort if you have already done the readings in the Intro EA Program, and an extra 1.5 hours per week if you have not done the readings.
  • Marketing widely is probably quite helpful. Stanford EA and Brown EA have docs on marketing advice which I can also send you. I think the Intro EA Program is better for outreach than regular weekly discussions. I'm currently thinking of using weekly discussions for people who have already completed the Intro EA Program but aren't planning on committing to another fellowship like the In-Depth EA Program.
  • I believe GDPR only applies to businesses collecting data, not private individuals like you.
  • I think you shouldn't be hesitant about inviting people to do things, highlighting the benefits so they can feel motivated, etc. but you can't push people to do things.
  • Let me know if you'd like to set up a call and I can message you on the EA Forum.

Thank you Michael!

  • I personally am definitely more time- than funding constrained. Or maybe evem "energy constrained"? But maybe applying for funding would be something to consider when/if we find a different person to run the local group, maybe a student who could do this for 10h a week or so.
  • regarding a fellowship: my bottlenecks here are probably "lack of detailed picture of how to run such a thing (or what it even is exactly)" and "what would be the necessary concrete steps to get it off the ground". Advertising is surely very relevant, but secondary to these other questions for now.
  • on a slightly more meta level, I think one of the issues is that I don't have a good overview of the "action space" (or "moves") in front of me as an organizer of an EA local group. Running a fellowship appears to be a very promising move, but I don't really know how to make it. Other actions may be intro talks, intro workshops, concepts workshops, discussions, watching EAG talks together, game nights, talks in general, creating a website, setting up a proper newsletter instead of having a manually maintained list of email addresses, looking for a more capable group organizer, facebook ads, flyers, posters, running giving games, icebreaker sessions, running a career club, coworking, 1on1s, meeting other local groups, reaching out to formerly-but-not-anymore-active members, and probably much more I'm not even thinking about. Maybe I'm suffering a bit from decision paralysis here and just doing any of these options would be better than my current state of "unproductive wondering what I should be doing"... :)
  • will message you regarding a call, thanks for the offer!
     

Great work Kuhan, both overall and with this post!  Thank you for taking the time to do it.

Was really happy reading through this. I was just asked to take charge of my uni's small EA group so having a long list of simple goals and tips really helps with the new responsibility anxiety. Looking forward to trying to pull this off aswell.