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TL;DR: Group organisers should focus more on developing themselves and their highly engaged members more than they currently do; goal setting, utilising pre-existing materials and external assistance can help organisers do this. 

Epistemic status: The ideas below have arisen from (i) conversations I’ve had with ~30 organisers, (ii) my own experience organising a medium-sized, reasonably ‘successful’ group, (iii) things I’ve picked up/observed whilst interning full-time then contracting part-time for the CEA Uni Groups Team, and (iv) a collection of my own and others’ armchair philosophy. The claims made are mine and should not be taken as representing the opinions of the CEA University Groups Team. Furthermore, I encourage readers to engage with my thoughts critically - it might not be the case that what I endorse applies to your situation. However, I do believe that many organisers overestimate the uniqueness of their particular group, believing that advice/ideas don’t apply to them; from my experience, EA university groups are quite similar, meaning that ideas and methods track well across them.

 

0. Introduction

This post was, in part, inspired by Jessica McCurdy’s post on advice CEA gives to newer organisers; I strongly recommend reading it before or after this, whether you are a new or an experienced organiser. 

As a contractor for the University Groups Team at CEA, I recently ran a retreat for university group organisers. I found myself giving similar advice to many participants: resources, heuristics, framings etc. Hence, I thought it might be useful to write this up so that I could (i) easily share with others that I have similar conversations with and (ii) assist those I don’t get to chat with. This post is intended to be a broad overview of some key things and ideas within university group organising - it’s not holistic and shouldn’t be treated as such. If anyone has specific questions about action-guiding advice, I would encourage them to explore the resources detailed in section 3 below. 

About me: I’ve been organising my group at the University of St. Andrews (a small yet somewhat prestigious university in the UK) for ~2 years. I interned with the University Groups Team at CEA in the summer of 2023 where I updated the EA Groups Resource Centre, and have been contracting for them since whilst doing my degree in philosophy. I always like chatting about at least one non-EA thing when I meet people in EA contexts; I can’t do that here, but in the same spirit, I’ll share that house and jungle music instantly improve my mood by at least 2 points and I think udon noodles (especially with a ‘dan dan’ sauce) are the best food ever made in the world. 

 

1. Development 

1.1 On developing group members

1.1.1 Backchaining to determine what you should do 

Within effective altruism we all share a common goal - to do as much good as we can. I think that group organisers will benefit significantly from thinking more about this final goal, and will get sidetracked less by loosely related goals - a recurring failure mode I see in groups. The process of backchaining can help avoid optimising for the wrong thing: think about your final goal, and work back from there until you reach an action step that you can complete now. Let us apply this to EA and group organising:

  • Final goal: the most good getting done
  • Sub-goal 1: the world’s most pressing issues being solved. 
  • Sub-goal 2: people solving the world’s most pressing issues. 
  • Sub-goal 3: people existing who are willing and able to solve the world’s most pressing issues.
  • Sub-goal 4: EA groups helping people who are motivated to solve the world’s problems become able to do so. 
  • Sub-goal 5: EA groups sharing EA ideas in a way that motivates people to work on the world’s most pressing problems (see point 2.1).

I think the above backchain can help us formulate our group strategy by ensuring we keep our final goal in mind. For example, many university societies are viewed as ‘succeeding’ if they have many members who regularly attend events. However, this is not necessarily a success for an EA group. If your group has 100 members who attend events, none of whom intend to take any kind of significant action in the future, this group may be less impactful than a group of 5 members, all of whom intend to go into EA careers. From this thinking we arrive at the heuristic of ‘depth over breadth’.  

I want to stress that the notion of ‘depth over breadth’ does not suggest you should always aim for depth and never breadth. The argument above could be criticised by saying ‘well, more members means a higher likelihood of finding people who will become deeply engaged’. This is entirely true; however, what this response highlights is that ultimately what we care about is deeply engaged members. The following examples provides clarification:

  • Example A: You have a group of 20 members. 15 of them don’t engage with EA ideas rigorously, but enjoy chatting about doing good - they would like to do a book club. 5 of the members want to use their careers to do as much good as they can - they would like to work through EA Virtual Programs’ Career Planning Program. You, as an organiser, only have capacity to run one or the other. In this situation, organisers should run the career planning program.  
  • Example B: Your group is 2 years old and you’ve built to a point where you have 8 reasonably engaged members. Those members each intend to spend 2-3 hours a week engaging with EA. Your introductory fellowship has 30 applicants. You have to choose either to accept all applicants (and have some of the 8 engaged people facilitate), or accept a smaller amount of applicants (meaning that the 8 engaged people focus on their personal development. Whilst there may be situations where it’s good to accept all applicants (e.g., all of the 8 engaged members are about to graduate and you need the group to be sustained), in most scenarios, it would be appropriate to run a reduced introductory fellowship so that the 8 engaged members can develop. 
     

1.1.2 Goal setting 

Group organisers will benefit greatly from setting clear goals for themselves, their group, and their group members. I highly endorse SMART goals. There is a lot of writing on this, so I won’t go into detail, but an example may help explain my point: imagine the goal of a group member is “I want to know more about x-risk from AI this semester”. The sentiment of this goal is good, but there is no clear path to achieving it, nor is there a clear way to tell if it has been achieved. Instead, we should set the goal as “I want to have written three 400-word failure modes for how AI could have gone wrong by X date”. Here, there is a very tangible thing for you or your group member to work towards. 
Having tangible goals to work towards makes learning much easier: I encourage people to ensure that they and their engaged members pretty much always have a SMART goal they’re working towards, as well as making sure that SMART goals are set for the group.

 

1.1.3 Outsourcing

One of the wonderful things about the EA community is that we’re all working towards the same goal. This means that unlike the finance world, or any other for-profit domains, when you ask someone to help you in the EA community, they will often want to help without requesting anything in return. The multiplier effect is strong, and people are aware that their impact will often come from facilitating others to have an impact. From this, it follows that as a community builder, you should try to build your network where you can: referring your group members to EAs you know is a low-cost way to help them.

The previous paragraph focused on outsourcing by connecting your group members to people they can chat with. However, another (easy) way of outsourcing is to connect people to opportunities that will allow them to progress in their EA development without you needing to be heavily involved. Some examples could be EAG(x) conferences or Global Challenges Project X-RIsk Workshops. Sign up to the things on this page to ensure you’re notified of future opportunities. 

 

1.2 Ensuring you (the organiser) are in the best position to do good 

1.2.1 The importance of your own development 

An idea that you may hear often in EA community building is that impact is heavy-tailed. This is the notion that a large amount of the good that is done in the world is done by a small group of people. If we’re thinking about which of the people in university groups are most likely to be in this small group, the obvious answer is the organiser! Hence, you should treat yourself like one of your members that you are responsible for helping. Focusing on your own development will help you have an impact, which is probably where a lot of the impact of your group will come. For further thinking on this, see here. You can use the ideas in section 1.1.2 (Goal Setting) to help you with your personal development; additionally, personal growth will likely lead to expanding your EA network, which will help with 1.1.3 (Outsourcing). 
 

1.2.2 Safeguarding your values 

One of the guests at the recent retreat mentioned above shared the idea of safeguarding values with me - I found that the notion deeply resonated with me; hence, I thought I would share my understanding of the notinon and takeaway. Safeguarding values in an EA context refers to taking actions now to increase the likelihood that in the future we will want to do good as much as we do now. 

To my knowledge, as people get older, their desire to help the world through charitable endeavours becomes overpowered by other desires: getting a mortgage, having more disposable income, caring for their friends and family, and having a successful career. Sometimes, this can result in charitable activities being deprioritised. Donating money to charity, acting in accordance with moral principles, and trying to help those whom we do not know may no longer be things that are viewed as especially important relative to other desires. This suggests that as we (group organisers) grow up, we are likely to care less about changing the world than we currently do

However, it is also well-documented that we can actively influence our desires. The job we do, and the people we spend time with, have a significant influence on who we are as people. In the same vein, performing an action makes us more likely to believe that doing that action is right. From this, we can conclude that donating money, being morally conscious about our diet, and actively spending time with EAs will increase our likelihood that we will still want to do as much good as we can in the future. This idea of safeguarding values becomes especially important when we consider that the majority of the impact we are going to have is likely to come at the latter end of our careers - when we have more career capital, experience, and skills to be able to influence situations in favour of doing more good.

Whilst I endorse living our lives in a way that is likely to result in our future selves holding our current values, I think we must be careful not to be too strict with this: it is unsustainable to do these things to a maximal degree. E.g., when someone first hears about effective giving, it’s probably not a good idea for them to take the lifetime GWWC Pledge straight away; instead, it might be a good idea to take the 1%, 1-year, trial pledge. Some may argue that taking the lifetime pledge exhibits the behaviour I’m endorsing; however, I think locking oneself into a ‘value’ too strongly is risky. If it is the case that you change your mind about effective giving in the future, you may then be resentful of your past self for being so quick to make decisions, and may then become resentful of EA ideas. Furthermore, locking yourself in when you haven’t had time to properly process the arguments for and against doing something is likely to result in you making the wrong decision!

Another benefit of (publicly) doing some of the things that safeguard your values is that you set a good example for your group. I have had countless conversations with group organisers who have said that the group members are similar to them in many ways; hence, embodying the values you want your group members to have encourages and empowers them to also have these values. I recently spoke to a fellow community builder about my donation plans, and they said that they could feel themselves wanting to donate more because of our conversation. 

 

2. Outreach and Communication

2.1 Frame EA as an opportunity, not as an obligation

When I first learnt about how rich I am relative to the world’s average incomes, how much it costs to help others, how much animals suffer, and how little attention the world is paying to potential x-risks, I wanted to grab every person in the street and tell them about cost-effectiveness, scope insensitivity, and the immense capacity we have as individuals to impact others’ lives. This information felt so important to share, and I had a deep emotional desire to almost evangelise about EA. I’ve chatted with some friends in EA, and they’ve had similar reactions. 

However, as you may have learnt, people don’t respond well to being preached at. Additionally, it is unlikely that someone who joins your EA group because they have been ‘persuaded’ and ‘preached at’ will remain engaged with EA for a long time. Instead, I think we should be framing EA as an opportunity. Some people see effective altruism as requiring great sacrifice - I understand this and sometimes feel it too. However, I am also extremely grateful to be aware of ways in which I can make a positive impact in the world; the fact that I have the potential to save lives and reduce existential risk amongst many other important things, is truly exciting. I think that if we share this enthusiasm instead of framing EA as a moral obligation, we will have better results. Slightly more tangible ways in which EA can be framed as an opportunity: (i) this post by 80,000 Hours, sharing findings that doing careers that do good often make people happier than otherwise; and (ii) how giving money makes you happier.

 

2.2 Separate socials and development 

One of the difficult things about running EA groups at universities is that the members of the group are students. Few students are looking to spend all of their free time reading in-depth articles about cost-effectiveness, career planning, and organisational tasks! Hence, it’s important to also try to create a social dynamic within your group. However, one potential issue with this is that you create an EA group where everyone is mildly interested in EA ideas, but is there mostly for socialising (see 1.1 ‘On developing group members’ for reasons why this is might not be optimal). If your group members do not intend to take any action because of EA ideas, it is unlikely they will have a big impact! 

One way to navigate this trade-off between engaging deeply with EA ideas and having a social dynamic within the group is to separate the two activities. In my group, when we are doing a reading group, workshop or career planning, we try to stay on task and not ‘mess around’. We’ll then often have a social straight after, where we try largely to not talk about EA too much - inevitably, conversations stray onto EA topics (often the fault of the philosophy students, we apologise!), but they are not explicitly about goals and planning etc. 

 

3. Resources

3.1 CEA

Before I started working for CEA, I didn’t utilise the assistance they can offer at all, and this definitely stopped me and my group from developing as fast and as effectively as we might otherwise have done. 

 

3.1.1 OSP

CEA offers a mentorship program for group organisers, involving weekly calls with experienced organisers + one-off workshops. Many of the people who are giving mentoring have mentors themselves (people mentor each other), which, I think, is indicative of how useful having someone to discuss ideas with and hold you accountable is. I cannot think of many scenarios or individuals where I wouldn’t endorse someone being part of this program. 

 

3.1.2 Community Health

I had the absolute pleasure of sharing an office with two members of the community health team this summer, and I cannot describe how warm and caring these people are. If you are having personal issues within EA, or have a difficult social situation within your group, you can reach out to the Community Health team for advice! 

 

3.1.3 CEA University Groups Team

This team is a small group of people who spend almost all of their time thinking about group organising! If you have an issue or question, someone in the team has likely encountered it, or at least has thought about it at length. If the EA Groups Resource Centre is not sufficient to answer your questions, I encourage you to reach out to us unigroups@centreforeffectivealtruism.org
 

3.2 Resource collections

3.2.1 The EA Groups Resource Centre

This collection of EA resources took ~500 hours to put together and draws data from over 40 user interviews with group organisers. It includes a selection of some of the best syllabi and programs we could find for your group to run, ideas on strategy, outreach, and conversations, and much more. See this short document on how it’s recently been updated and how it might be useful for you. 
 

3.2.2 The Eindhoven Syllabi Collection

This collection is a near-holistic guide to all of the resources available for EA groups. If you’d like to have your pick of everything that exists, instead of being shown what CEA thinks are the most useful resources, then the Eindhoven Syllabi collection may be perfect for you. 

 

Thanks to Joris Pijpers, David Solar, Elisabeth Rieger, Jessica McCurdy and Nick Robinson for their helpful comments on this post. All mistakes remain my own! 



 

Comments3
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:58 AM

Great post! Thanks for writing it, this is now on my default list of the resources I send to new organizers! :)

Oooh, could I see your list? It would be of much help. :)

Will send you a msg!

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