One of my resolutions for this year is to improve at forming views on difficult amorphous topics. A way I want to work on that is by writing more down. This post is an experiment in doing so. The views I express are therefore quickly formulated and weakly held, and I’d love to hear people’s reactions to them.
There’s been some work over the last couple of years on how EAs might learn more professional skills. Animal Advocacy Careers’ survey indicated some interest in training from people at animal orgs. WANBAM was set up to provide mentorship to women, non-binary and trans people of all genders, and has also paid for trainings on topics including imposter syndrome. Most recently, the thing that sparked me thinking about this issue was Charity Entrepreneurship considering incubating an EA training organisation.
In this post I'll discuss my views on how EA might benefit specifically from additional training / skilling up. I’m focusing on professional skills such as fundraising or management, rather than learning about concepts in effective altruism, for which there seems to be a number of excellent programs happening.
What’s the problem?
There are many different people in EA who might benefit from training programmes, from people wanting to skill up in a new field in order to change roles dramatically, to people already thriving at an effective organisation wanting to further hone the skills they’re using there. My impression is that it’s pretty universally the case that those of us trying to figure out how to help the world as effectively as possible need to learn a lot and improve at a great number of things.
Learning things efficiently is harder than I would naively have expected. Some reasons why learning is hard don’t seem surprising: it’s hard to know in advance what you’ll need to know, and it’s hard to motivate yourself to do things in a self-directed way without a deadline.
Resources for sharing knowledge generally seem worse than I would expect. A stark example I’ve been dealing with recently is parenting: most of the books and blog posts out there have a lot of strong (opposing) opinions rather than evidence. The classes I attended generally conveyed surprisingly little useful information, particularly by comparison to how much time they took. There were also fewer of them than I would have expected: I would have thought that everyone should be taught basic infant first aid before becoming a parent, but finding and going on such a course (despite being willing to pay) was quite a hassle.
Finding the good information out there is hard, even aside from wading through the bad resources. That’s because it’s hard to know exactly what you should be looking for. For example, the ‘manager tools’ podcast, and associated ‘Effective Manager’ book, are among the better sources I’ve come across on management. Yet the advice often does not seem very apt for situations I’m in. By comparison, Y Combinator’s advice, for example on hiring, often seems very useful. That’s despite the fact that manager tools is targeted at managers in general, while YC’s advice is typically targeted at for profit tech start ups. My hypothesis for what’s going on here is that manager tools is mostly targeted at large organisations where there is a lot of risk mitigation to be done, and the typical employee isn’t that motivated to do their job. YC’s advice, on the other hand, is targeted at lean organisations which hire only people who are mission driven and keen to work hard, making the advice more relevant, even to organisations like the Global Priorities Institute.
Knowing which skills are most important for you to learn is not trivial either. To have a sense of that, you usually need to know not just what you’re currently good and bad at (which is hard enough) but also where you want to get to in future. Such longer term planning is tricky (who knows what the future holds?) and often aversive. (80,000 Hours has a career planning process to try to make this a bit easier!)
A problem that's even worse for mission driven organisations than others is that object-level work always seems more urgent and important than self-development. If your alternative is improving a campaign in order to raise more money to fund insecticide treated anti-malaria bed nets, spending the extra time instead getting a bit better at design can seem frivolous rather than effective. That’s so even when the improved design would lead to the next few campaigns raising more money.
Due to the reasons above, I’ve found it more helpful than I would have expected to get learning suggestions from other EAs around me. The more similar to mine someone’s situation is, the more likely they’ll be able to recommend resources tailored to me (for example, knowing that YC resources will be more applicable than Manager Tools). I’ve also typically found articles on the forum or advice from EA friends particularly evidence based, clear and actionable. I’m therefore keen for EAs to do more brief write ups of specific things they’ve learned and how - say, what they found most useful in learning how to write well. Of course, sharing them publicly (like on this forum!) is especially useful. But even writing suggestions up quickly and sharing them with colleagues can be really helpful - my colleague Brenton is particularly great at noticing things he’s learned and quickly writing them up for others to benefit from. Shared context within organisations makes this much easier than if you were going to make something public.
Being more ambitious, what are some projects people could take on to target the need for training in EA?
Courses by EAs
One option would be for a group of EAs themselves to learn how to provide class-type training on the kinds of skills often needed by EA organisations, such as how to write well. I feel a bit sceptical of this. For most of these types of generally applicable skills, it seems likely that there are classes out there (whether in person or MOOCs from good universities), and it would be surprising if effective altruists could quickly do a better job than the people currently teaching those.
Paying for courses
Instead, perhaps someone could take on doing the leg work to work out which courses in some important arena is best, and then secure funding for EAs to do those.
This sounds better to me, but I’m still a bit sceptical. I’ve found it hard to find courses that were genuinely useful, and have spoken to comparatively few people who have found courses they thought were efficient ways of learning. (With the exception of coding, where people seem to benefit a lot from courses.)
On the other hand, there are benefits to courses aside from transmitting information. Doing a deliberately designed course on some topic should give you the reassurance that you have a good overview of the area and aren’t missing anything important. You might also find it useful to meet others doing the course, who presumably are in a similar boat to you (fun fact, I originally met our excellent ops specialist in a global health course!). Often there is some momentum behind doing the work for a course, because you go somewhere on a particular day and so you readily prioritise it.
My favourite ideas
My impression is that the best way of actually improving at something is to get a lot of feedback on your work from someone who is good at that thing and understands what you’re aiming for. It seems to matter quite a bit whether you have a good fit with the person, because you want someone with whom it's easy to communicate, from whom you’re comfortable hearing negative feedback, and who you would actively like to spend plenty of time with.
The above is easiest to do with a manager within an organisation. Your manager will naturally want to see your work and have a lot of high bandwidth interaction with you. But I think it’s possible this could be replicated outside that formal context with a mentorship program. I’ve had a number mentors in different areas I’ve found very useful. Some other details of how I might imagine this working:
- You would need to do a large amount of vetting of both sides, to try to find people who were really well matched to each other in terms of what skill was being learned, and whether personalities meshed.
- You would want there to be a very graceful / easy way for each side to decide they weren’t a long run match.
- You might want to spend some time with the potential mentors before accepting them to figure out if they’re likely to be good at giving concrete constructive feedback to people.
- You might want to do some research into the best ways to give feedback, and give the mentors some guidance on it.
- You might want to pay the mentors for their time.
- I expect the types of people who would most benefit from this would be people who receive individual grants to do some piece of work (https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/6BXrSZGayibJjR9uc/long-term-future-fund-november-2019-short-grant-writeups), but who aren’t in a formal institution.
There are a bunch of things I could imagine going wrong with something like the above, including:
- It might also be that mentor relationships which don’t happen organically are decidedly less productive.
- It might be difficult to get mentors to be willing to go through a rigorous application process.
- It might be hard to get funding for a program like this because people expect mentorship to be given for free.
- A paid mentorship program could harm other mentorship programs and organic mentoring in the community by setting up an expectation that people providing mentorship be paid.
Paying for nudges
Another idea I could imagine working well is using small amounts of money to provide nudges to get people learning the things which seem most useful.
My impression is that often people don’t get around to reading as much as would be useful due to things like not knowing which book on a topic to read, and needing to actually buy something. Often the lack of action due to these factors isn’t endorsed. It’s just that when you think it might be nice to learn a bit more about (say) hiring, you remember that actually you’d need to read book reviews and think about how much money it’s worth spending on such a book etc, and decide none of that feels appealing right now. Then you go on to something else and forget all about it.
An extreme example might be coaching or counselling: in order to start these you have to figure out which person to try seeing. Coaches and therapists vary a lot, and it’s particularly unpleasant to have one you don’t get on with. And each session costs far more than a book. So I think a lot of people who would benefit from them don’t get them, because it feels so aversive to do the work needed to start.
Someone could have a go at reducing these kinds of costs for the community. For example, you could figure out which books seem particularly good guides to different areas, and email any organisations you think are doing great work offering to send them copies of those books (whether physical, kindle or on audible). You could offer to pay for anyone receiving an EA Funds grant to get a couple of sessions of productivity coaching or counselling, to make trying that out less aversive.
I think the above might still face difficulties:
- If someone isn’t prepared to pay for something, that’s some evidence they don’t really need it (in the case of training materials, the fact the employer isn’t paying could be evidence it isn’t needed).
- Perhaps it would be better to have different people in the community reading different books rather than having everyone use the same reading list.
- These types of actions may look objectionably like buying presents for people who are already well off.
Personally, I’d still be interested in seeing someone try something like this. I’d be interested to know how much uptake they got for these offers, and whether people reported afterwards having actually read the books / finding the counselling useful.
Thanks very much to Arden Koehler for comments on this draft. I work as an adviser for 80,000 Hours but this is written in a personal capacity. Note that my job might well mean I’m biased in favour of learning methods that look like coaching!
Edited to reflect more accurately what WANBAM does, at Kathryn Mecrow's request.