Hide table of contents

Summary 

National[1] EA groups have a variety of strategies available to them, but many seem to focus on supporting local city groups as the main activity with less consideration of other interventions. I think this leads to neglecting more impactful activities for national groups. Potentially this is because they are following more established groups/resources where city groups are given as a default example. 
 

  • Most people interested in EA are not joining[2] local EA groups, and most people who could get more involved in EA don’t necessarily want to do that via joining a local group first
    • From EA London attendance data for 2016-18, out of ~1300 people roughly 75% attended just 1 event, and only 10% attended 4 or more which suggests that most weren't aiming to become regular members
  • There is an unseen majority of people who know about EA and want to have more impact who are neglected by a city-first strategy
  • EA should attract more people than those also looking for community
  • Community is still important, but should be seen as additional rather than a main focus 
    • Community can mean a lot of different things but I’m defining community in this post as a more densely connected subset of a network based around a location
      • In practice this means a community is more likely to involve social gatherings, daily/weekly in person touchpoints
      • A network will involve conferences, mentorship, newsletters/social media, monthly/yearly touchpoints 
  • There is probably value to having some city organisers if there is a critical mass of people interested in EA and the city has  strong comparative advantages[3]
  • Alternative strategies could include cause specific field building, career advising, supporting professional networks nationally, organisation incubation, translation
     
Upside down lightbulb with a city inside

 

The Unseen Majority

When most people hear about EA for the first time, it’s usually via an online resource (80,000 Hours, GWWC, podcast) or word of mouth. The message they receive is that EA cares about having more impact and that EA as a movement is trying to help people have more impact.

This can contrast to the experience of going along to a local group (which is regularly suggested as a good way to get more involved with EA), and experiencing the main message as ‘join our community’, with less focus on helping that person have impact. This could lead to people who are focused on generating a lot of impact bouncing away from EA. Anecdotally I have heard people say that they don’t find that much value from attending local group events but are still interested in EA and focus on having an impact in their career. 

For the subset of people who are looking for community, local groups can be great. But for a lot of people who do not have that preference/have other life circumstances, this isn’t what they are looking for.  People already have communities they are a part of (family, friends, professional, hobbies) and often don’t have time for many more. Anecdotally from conversations with other organisers the people most likely to join are those looking for a community - students, recent graduates or people who are new to the city.

This can be self reinforcing as the people who are likely to keep on attending meetups are the ones with spare time and lacking community. We often use neglectedness when choosing cause areas, leading to support of unseen majorities - people in poorer parts of the world, animals and future beings. But when it comes to movement building there is less thought paid to those who aren’t visible. A lot of strategies I have seen are about increasing attendance or engagement at events rather than providing value to people who may not be as interested in attending lots of events each year but still want to consider career changes.

This can also affect user surveys, where the people most likely to respond are those more interested in the community, leading to group organisers doubling down on benefits to current attendees. 

There will also be a lot of people who don’t happen to live in the biggest cities, or live quite far from the city centre where most activities happen. Focusing on a few cities can lead to allocating fewer resources to these people.
 

 

Community is valuable but can be separate

If people do want a community with similar values in their local area, it may be better to optimise this separately from their impact. Trying to build a local group that is impactful as well as being fun seems harder than having impact with careers/donations/networking and then building friendships with other people interested in EA in your city outside of the context of an EA group. National groups could still have contacts in each city who are happy to chat to people about EA or specific causes/career paths. 
 

There is a lot of value to having a sense of community in a workplace and for there to be stronger links between various subsets of the wider EA network, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be focused on location. Also community can often be self organising whereas national networks and projects are harder to get off the ground without dedicated time and employees. 

 

 

What Else Could You Do?

An emphasis on getting people to run local groups might lead to them neglecting better opportunities such as gaining better career capital, volunteering with more impactful organisations, helping with the national group or cause specific field building work outside of local groups. 

Alternatives

This will vary with comparative advantages and context but here are some ideas on other possible activities for national groups to focus more on.

 

If you have thoughts on any of the above[4] add a comment, or send me a message and we can dive into any disagreements or think about alternative interventions.

 

 

  1. ^

    This may only be relevant for national/city group organisers or people thinking about EA/cause area movement building strategies. This is anecdotal and based mainly on conversations with other organisers and people involved in EA but not that active with city groups

  2. ^

     From the 2020 EA Survey with 1856 responses - 50% say that they are a local group member

    Compared to GWWC members - 9000+ and subscribers to 80,000 Hours - 160,000+, it looks like out of the potential population that is inclined towards EA ideas, few of them are regularly active in local groups

  3. ^

     Although maybe this would be better seen as people organising around a specific group - like Oxford university or the UK civil service

  4. ^

    Thanks to LT, EH and MC for feedback

67

0
0

Reactions

0
0

More posts like this

Comments8
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:22 AM

Most people interested in EA are not joining[2] local EA groups

[2] From the 2020 EA Survey with 1856 responses - 50% say that they are a local group member
 

 

I think this is technically true, but only a partial picture.

  • Highly engaged EAs are much more likely to be in a local group than less engaged EAs (31% vs 69% low/high in 2020).
    • This suggests that local groups are more important among highly engaged EAs.
    • It may be that many of the EAs who are not in a group (yet) are simply not engaged enough now, but will go on to become interested as they become more engaged. 
    • It may also be that some people are not interested in engaging with a local group because they are just not engaged with EA (and won’t go on to be more engaged with EA). 
  • Many EAs who are not in a group may want to be in a group, but simply not have access to one, because there isn’t one in their area. This would be a potential consideration in favour of starting more local groups.
    • The last time we asked about this explicitly was 2018
      • 65% knew of a local group near them, 35% did not. This may have changed substantially in the last 5 years, since there are more groups, but more EAs outside of core EA areas.
      • Of those who knew of a local group, just over 50% were already in one, and 16% said they would like to be involved in one (we don’t know what the barrier was- maybe they just hadn’t had time to join one yet). Just 9.2% said they do not want to be involved in a group and 24% were unsure. 
        • This does not seem to suggest clear, wide-scale disinterest in groups to me.
      • Of those who did not know of a local group near them, 34% said they would like to be in a group while 51% were unsure. I imagine the lack of certainty may be because they don’t know what the hypothetical group would be like, since a much larger percentage of those who are near a group want to be in one.
  • Group membership seems to vary dramatically across different cities, which suggests the level of interest is not uniform/invariant.
    • Looking at cities with a significant number of EAs, the percentage who are members of a local group varies between 19% (Bay Area) to >60% (Washington DC, Zurich, Oslo). London is toward the lower end and lower than the sample overall at 36% (this is EAS 2022 data, so the average across all areas is 44%).
      • This could be due to differences in geography or the EAs there. e.g. fewer people may join groups where the area is very spread out (SF Bay, London), although Los Angeles seems to have very high membership. 
      • But it could also suggest that group-specific factors are relevant, i.e. if one invests more / more successfully in a local group, more EAs may want to join.
         

I also think it’s worth rehearsing the general evidence for EA groups being important. 


- Notwithstanding the negative Forum articles you link, EA groups are not cited particularly often as a negative influence on people’s involvement in EA (6.5% of respondents, similar to the EA Forum and a lower absolute percentage than personal contacts or 80K [bear in mind that the absolute percentage of people selecting a factor may simply reflect the fact that lots of people have encountered it]). Its ratio for positive:negative influence is not particularly poor (less good than 80K, but better than personal contacts)

  • They are also joint top (with personal connections) as the key source for making new interesting and valuable connections within EA (significantly ahead of EA Global, which is also often touted as important for this purpose). Notably most virtual, non-in-person routes are cited much less commonly.

  • In addition, when we asked EAs for the top barriers to their involvement (in 2019), no close EA friends (30%) was among the most commonly selected options, with no local group (17%) also commonly selected. EA local groups were also the second most commonly cited factor important for retaining people in EA (26.8%).

 

Some responses to other points you raise:

There will also be a lot of people who don’t happen to live in the biggest cities, or live quite far from the city centre where most activities happen. Focusing on a few cities can lead to allocating fewer resources to these people.

I think this can be turned around and taken as a reason to invest more in making sure that more cities have local groups, since otherwise people outside a few cities, with groups, don’t have access to a group. This may become more important as more EAs join outside of older core areas.

Anecdotally from conversations with other organisers the people most likely to join are those looking for a community - students, recent graduates or people who are new to the city.

I think there’s something to this (ditto EAG attendance, which isn’t representative of the broader community). In particular, I think people who have been in EA many years and who are older may become less interested in attending groups (see below). That said, I worry about old-timer EAs (which includes many key decision-makers) beginning to under-estimate the importance of groups just because they themselves already have networks, or other commitments, or have otherwise lost interest, when they remain highly important for most other highly engaged EAs.

When most people hear about EA for the first time, it’s usually via an online resource (80,000 Hours, GWWC, podcast) or word of mouth. The message they receive is that EA cares about having more impact and that EA as a movement is trying to help people have more impact.

This can contrast to the experience of going along to a local group… and experiencing the main message as ‘join our community’, with less focus on helping that person have impact.

This doesn’t seem like an inherent feature of local groups. It’s not clear we have reason to think many/most groups are emphasising community to the (net) detriment of impact. The fact that a majority of group members cite their group as being among the most important factors for their ability to have a personal impact suggests they are generally having a positive impact on EAs’ impact. 

We often use neglectedness when choosing cause areas, leading to support of unseen majorities - people in poorer parts of the world, animals and future beings. But when it comes to movement building there is less thought paid to those who aren’t visible. A lot of strategies I have seen are about increasing attendance or engagement at events rather than providing value to people who may not be as interested in attending lots of events each year but still want to consider career changes.

It’s my impression that, for many years, EA groups were neglected due to the illegibility of their impact. Their impact is mostly indirect through getting EAs involved, increasing their connection and engagement with EA, keeping them engaged and directing them to other paths of impact. It's possible to make the case that many other activities have a more direct relation to impact. And yet, per the above, very few activities seem to be as commonly cited as important by as many EAs as do EA groups (and this despite many EAs not having the chance to be a member of an EA group). 

In more recent years, fortunately, there's been an increase in the resources assigned to groups and a significant increase in the number of EAs who are members of groups. I think it would be unfortunate if this trend were to reverse.


 

Thanks for diving into the data David, I think a lot of this might hinge on the 'highly engaged EAs' metric and how useful that is for determining impact vs how much someone has an interest in EA.

Are you also able to see if there are differences between different types of local groups (National/City/University/interest)?

Thanks David.

Are you also able to see if there are differences between different types of local groups (National/City/University/interest)?

I'm afraid I'd have to potentially get back to you about this (in terms of whether individuals in different types of groups differ), because this would require manually coding a lot of individual references to groups to determine group type.

This post reminded me of a related point:

The way many people find out about EA is through reading (books & articles), but the community is not built to work (well) for people through those mediums. 

Much valuable networking (which opens up opportunities, strategic clarity, support, friendship) happens in person at conferences or by living in the right cities, and I think there's an assumption that this is just clearly better. 

It feels like there isn't much concerted effort from people who benefit from the in-person (and i've done this too in the past!) to adapt to that reality (covid helped somewhat, but things feel like they've mostly bounced back, in part aided by the FTX bubble in 2022). 

Strong upvote for a thought provoking read, thanks David.

I'm not entirely sold on the argument as stated, in part due to a different experience with city group attendance - a guess (with no data to support) would say my local group has <25% of attendees attend only one event in a given year, compared to EA London's 75%; and impact - we've had a significant number of regular attendees switch to EA aligned careers in ways that seem less likely had there not been a strong community.

I agree with a weaker form of the argument, that "National EA groups shouldn’t (primarily) focus on city groups" and as a result of reading this will likely think more about how to add value for non group-members in the future. 

I strongly agree that community builders thinking/operating on a National level should think about ways to engage with and support EA aligned people who are not part of regularly convening groups (for preference, geography, or other reasons).

David - you raise many interesting and thoughtful points here. 

I think in terms of local movement-building, there can be tradeoffs between increasing the strength of bonds and mutual support within the existing EA micro-communities (e.g. city-level groups), versus promoting EA ideas and insights in other groups. The latter could include giving talks or organizing discussions about specific EA cause areas (rather than 'EA in general') in local universities, churches, civic groups, political activist groups, etc. For example, in terms of impact, giving one talk about global public health issues at a local mega-church that has a couple of thousand people -- many of whom are already donating to (ineffective) charities -- might be more effective than running a local EA group for a dozen people for a year.

Thank you David, upvoted. Coming from a small country with one big city and a small community, I read this with Global vs National  in mind, as opposed to National vs City EA groups. I still think it's probably useful for new engagement and retention to have some minimum regular online as well as physical activities (e.g. at least quarterly meetups). Though there are some ongoing and semi-fixed costs, like IT infrastructure and database maintenance. Any specific words of caution you have w.r.t. relating what you wrote to Global vs (small) National?

Pretty much buy this, will be making some strategy changes in line with this. I will update this comment at a later point with concrete actions. 

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities