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Summary: Professional organisations are more transparent, with clearer boundaries, norms, and responsibilities compared with 'communities'. I'm not saying 'we should erect barriers' or 'we should stop being inclusive' but the 'community' model is riskier when scandals hit.


Weakly held hair-brained idea that I want challenged by people smarter than me. While I'm chair of EA Australia, this idea doesn't represent the board.

What is a community?

A community is a social unit (a group of living things) with a shared socially significant characteristic, such as place, set of norms, culture, religion, values, customs, or identity. Wikipedia

Some problems with communities are the lack of clear membership of the social unit. It's also unclear who is speaking for the community. As written by Dustin Moskovitz:

When a group has a shared sense of identity, the people within it are still not all one thing, a homogenous group with one big set of shared beliefs — and yet they often are perceived that way. Necessarily, the way that you engage in characterizing a group is by giving it broad, sweeping attributes that describe how the people in the group are similar, or distinctive relative to the broader world. As an individual within a group trying to understand yourself, however, this gets flipped, and you can more easily see how you differ. Any one of those sweeping attributes do apply to some of the group, and it’s hard to identify with the group when you clearly don’t identify with many of the individuals, in particular the ones with the strongest beliefs. I often observe that the people with the most fringe opinions inside a group paradoxically get the most visibility outside the group, precisely because they are saying something unfamiliar and controversial.

It also creates reservations among the community's biggest funders:

I expect to spend some time thinking about how we should relate to the effective altruism (EA) community. While we are the largest funder of organizations in that space, many of our programs have little or no connection to EA. I’d like to see if there are ways for us to continue to capture the huge upside some of our EA funding has enabled while having a little more independence from a community and brand that we can’t — and don’t want to — control. Alexander Berger, Open Philanthropy CEO

What is a professional association?

Professional associations are organisations of people from the same industry. They help educate members, maintain high standards and ensure ethical behaviour within an industry. ACCC

A professional association is also known as a 'professional body' and is a group that represents the interests of a particular industry. As umbrella organisations, they can assist individuals and organisational members through learning, networking, quality control and research. Most professions will have a professional association or body and many of these associations will have a student membership option where you can gain industry insights and contacts. Adelaide University

These sound pretty close to what we're trying to do, as a global community.

What I'm not saying

  1. I'm not saying we should erect high financial or administrative boundaries to joining the community. For example, students could join for free or for $20. Those funds would obviously go into building the professional association and doing things professional associations do (e.g., advocating for the principles, marketing the principles, growing the association, educating members, facilitating networking)
  2. I'm not saying we should remove people from the professional association on a whim. I won't weigh in on the Nonlinear controversy. Regardless of what side people are on, most can agree the process was controversial. I don't imagine either side is happy with how it played out. Professional organisations almost always have their own version of the community health team. These would conduct investigations and decide the appropriate course of action.
  3. I'm not saying we shouldn't have organisations processing donations in each country. I am staying it might be clearer for people who just want to donate where their money goes. I have had at least one donor ask this week about whether his donations to global health go toward community activities (they don't. Still, he seemed concerned). Separating 'charity' from 'professional association' makes each user journey clearer. Want to donate, go to the charity (e.g., GWWC). Want to work on this stuff, go to the professional association (e.g., 80k). Fellowships might still feed into each. Presentations about EA might still feed into each, but it'd be obvious who should go where.

What bullets we might need to bite

  1. We're unlikely to get tax deductible charity status in many jurisdictions (at least in Australia). Instead we'd get professional association status. 'Dues' and 'training' could still be educational expenses, so at least in Australia, likely tax deductible. Still, we might end up with fewer people 'in the community' than 'in the professional association' if working professionals are expected to pay for the difference between expenses and grants (e.g., the CBG might foot chunks of the bill, but if expenses are higher, members might be expected to pay dues)
  2. Many professional associations are governed by member voting rather than the board making the selection via committee. For example, from the other EA

The Board is made up of six directors from Engineers Australia’s membership who are elected by Engineers Australia's National Congress. A further two directors can be appointed directly by the board and do not need to be engineers. Any member of Engineers Australia who has the required skills can nominate to be considered for the Board.  

This might be controversial. Many community members might like it because it creates more accountability for the board. In contrast, it might create painful politics within EA ranks. Major funders might expect seats on the board. Membership voting also isn't mandatory. The Australian Medical Association selects their board by committee, not membership voting (as far as I can tell). 

Reversal test

Imagine we were a series of professional associations (the world's various medical associations). Members were paying dues at whatever level covered expenses. Some countries had two associations, which was fine. They competed. Students still attended conferences, many on scholarships or reduced fees. We ran events as a professional association, people tax deduced their educational expenses. SBF did something obviously stupid and the relevant professional association did their own investigation  (because it's obvious who's responsible for it) and they rescinded his membership alongside a public admonishment.

In this world, do we switch back to an unstructured 'community' (social unit) with no clear membership? I imagine so if there's no product-market fit: people who receive benefits from the professional association are be unwilling to spend enough on it for it to be commercial viable, or funders don't agree with the model on philosophical grounds. Both of these might be true. I just haven't seen anyone play with the idea.

Case study: Psychologists

In Australia, there are at least 3 professional organisations for the profession (AAPi, APS [at least 40% of all psychs in this one], ACPA). Maybe the fact there's three reveals how dysfunctional they are. Being transparent, I stopped my engagement—didn't get enough return on investment. Still, they do all the things we'd expect community builders to do: networking events, professional advocacy, marketing the profession, conference. When a psychologist does or says something stupid that contradicts the code of conduct, usually the APS will confirm 'stupid things' veracity, then rescind membership, and issue a position statement. This might have more sway than statements from individual community members, community 'leaders', or CEA. Not everyone will agree with the statement, but it might have more authority.

With these associations, it's clear what the quid-pro-quo is. You get these things for your dues (and the grants). Maybe you don't get enough, but it's less ambiguous than the 'community' or if you imagined 'strong minds' also educated/represented /advocated for psychologists (how at least one donor sees us). Googling mental health community gets you either a professional association or community mental health services (public health or charities).

What do you think?

Why should we stay as a 'community' with links to charities rather than being a 'professional association', one 'that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice.' Is this a dumb model or does it help us avoid the worst of both worlds:

"where many people think that EA is highly centralised, whereas really it’s in-between. We get the downsides of appearing (to some) like one entity without the benefits of tight coordination" Will MacAskill

My hypotheses are that using professional organisations to increase centralisation would:

  1. Cost 5-20,000 USD in time set up a new 'professional association' or to pivot from a 'we give money to the poor charity' or 'community' to a professional association (60% confidence)
  2. For someone naive to EA (e.g., university freshmen), advertising as a professional association instead of community will reduce the phyg perception from 10-30% to 1-3% (70%)
    1. The number of views on mass media articles using the world 'phyg' would go down from 200,000 views per year to 150,000 (60%)
  3. Faster and more direct feedback between the members and the professional association will lead to:
    1. 5% higher satisfaction rate in events (60%)
    2. At least 1% of donors using the donations processors (e.g., GWWC) would pay dues >$50 USD (60%)
      1. This would increase 'professional organisation' revenue in the top 10 EA countries by enough to pay for a CEO (least 0.5 FTE; 70%)
  4. Conference attendance would remain flat (80%)
  5. The time between 'norm violation' and 'investigation releases results' would reduce from >6 months to <6 months due to clearer role clarity (75%)

These are weakly held, so please change my mind.


Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash




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I guess I'm a bit skeptical of this proposal.

I don't think we'd have much credibility as a professional organisation. We could require people to do the intro and perhaps even the advanced fellowship, but that's hardly rigorous training.

I'm worried that trying to market ourselves as a professional organisation might backfire if people end up seeing us as just a faux one.

I suspect that this kind of association might be more viable for specific cause areas than for EA as a whole, but there might not be enough people except in a couple of countries.

OK, I guess the tone of my original reply wasn't popular (which is fair enough I guess). 

The OP raised the subject of a non-trivial proportion of people perceiving EA as being a 'phyg' as a problem, and suggested with moderately high confidence that the transition to a "professional association" would radically reduce this. I'm not seeing this. Plenty of groups recruiting students brand themselves "movements" for "doing good" in some general way whilst being relatively unlikely to be accused of being a cult (climate change and civil/animal rights acti... (read more)

That’s a good point. All AMA members have to meet certain criteria. I can see how ‘’8 week reading group” pales in comparison to a medical degree.

Michael Noetel
One lens to look at this is less through the ‘we’re all similarly qualified’ like the AMA but more through the ‘we’re working with the same values’ or ‘we’re working on similar problems’ like the Institute of Public Administration Australia. These have no qualification requirements. Still they offer similar things to what ea communities try to do https://qld.ipaa.org.au/for-individuals/
Chris Leong
Yeah, it's possible I'm taking a narrow view of what a professional organisation is. I don't have a good sense of the landscape here.

EA Germany is a membership association with about 100 members that elect the board that oversees the work of our team. However, there is no membership fee, and our programs are available to anyone, regardless of the membership. We have minimum levels of engagement and an interview for new members to ensure that people have enough context. I think this level of oversight encourages transparency and member engagement, although it probably does not change much of what we do.

In terms of naming, I think many different words are used for EA (e.g. CEA's website uses the term "global network"), and it probably depends on local contexts and how they are understood. Personally, I'm more interested in how we can ensure professionalism in our actions and showcase the behaviour we want to see than in the label.

I think I broadly agree. It would also help with attracting actual professionals. The "bar to entry" decision is talking price, but I am generally interested in it. The thing we lose is the ability to say is "Well, that person wasn't REALLY EA" but the thing we gain is the ability to say is "Well, that person was kicked out of EA/never joined" or something like that when talking about a bad actor who has not acted in an EA way but has connections to the community. I don't think that should be our main consideration, but it is worthwhile to know that the lever exists to distance ourselves from bad actors. My main consideration here is that it does look more serious, I've written before about Rotary and AIESEC and their membership, and how being a member has obligations and is a much clearer thing than EA movement as is.

On the other hand, I suppose in universities where EA clubs are university clubs they do have that more formal form, so perhaps we can investigate how things look like there compared to geographical communities, see if anything noticeable is different compared to countries where the clubs are not formal university clubs (I believe many countries do not have the western concept of University club, I think EA Hungary had student clubs not incorporated in universities for example). Probably there's too many other factors also correlated which confounds the study, but maybe we'd have enough data points?

Interesting question! Some quick thoughts below.

Right now I think of EA Netherlands as the national organisation for effective altruism. Our mission is to build a community of and for effective altruists in the Netherlands. We mainly do this through:

  • outreach and education (target group: proto-EAs), e.g., media engagement, social media, intro programme, etc.
  • organising (target group: local group organisers), e.g., 1-1 support, training, etc. 
  • GCR fieldbuilding (target group: GCR professionals), e.g. AIS retreat, etc.
  • network development (target group: existing EAs), e.g., EAGx, EA office, etc. 

Models I use to guide my thinking: mobilising and organising + SMS, ND, FB, and PUPO). I don't really think of us as running a national group, which is how CBG recipients are often described. 

We aren't currently a membership organisation but (without having looked into it much yet) I tentatively think we ought to be. 

I don't think 'professional association' is quite the right framing - mainly because it feels a bit weird to think of professional effective altruists. Maybe EA ought to be just a research field, but it's more than that at the moment.[1]

Therefore, from this list of civil society institutions (which includes professional associations), I'd say we're more like a voluntary association or a social movement organisation, similar to the NAACP or a national Greenpeace organisation.   

  1. ^

    GCR feels more analogous to psychology. Both are primarily research fields, both have people who work on them professionally, so I think it makes sense for both to have professional associations. 

These examples at the end are interesting and worth me mulling over. I do get the sense that Greenpeace or the NAACP would do many of the things you do

I think that this question framed as an all-or-nothing is difficult to answer - we don't know how to measure all the benefits as well as risks that the current community patterns afford us. Plus we can't exactly change "EA" as a whole - but we could add subcomponents that have tighter centralisation, official membership etc.

This could be a great undertaking as a "spin-off" brand that collaborates closely with existing EA community groups. There are some follow-on questions that come to mind like:

  • would the target members be primarily working in high-impact roles or would they be in other professions and have an interest in EA? (Less educational perks can be offered if the member base is from different industries)
  • is there a segment of people who would join the professional association and be a part of that community that wouldn't be otherwise interested in EA? (Maybe other philanthropy-focused professionals)

(Cons of a spin-off approach come to mind, namely confusing org structures)

(Nitpick: The title should be 'EA 'communities' should be 'professional associations.' Change my mind')

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