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I think local EA groups should start organizing community service projects. I'm writing this post to explore the idea, get feedback, and share the idea with my local EA group. I wasn't able to find anyone obviously advocating for this concept, so there might be some value here.

Let's first get this out of the way: local community service projects likely score very poorly in terms of expected marginal impact. Cleaning up public spaces or planting trees isn't going to move the needle very much.

However, I'm compelled by the idea of EA group service projects for very different reasons than direct impact. They seem like excellent ways to build social infrastructure and keep us honest and invested.

Build local social infrastructure

Done correctly service projects could allow EA groups to produce a small amount of positive impact while forging strong support networks and attracting possible EAs, all without displacing higher impact activities.

Allow me a speculative generalization: EAs tend to be more analytical, cerebral, and socially disconnected than the average person. If that's not true of EAs in general, it's certainly true of me!

The resources I found discussing local EA groups seem to support that generalizaton. They mostly suggest cerebral activities like career workshops, reading sessions, discussions, or outreach. All of these are useful, but I suggest that service projects could do a better job:

  • Attracting altruistic people who aren't already familiar with EA or don't have an outlet for impact. Someone who's willing to show up and do possibly difficult or dirty work is likely someone we could convince to make more impactful changes. People understand service projects, the concept is well-established. They're also usually a better format for meeting new people than a possibly awkward or boring discussion/presentation.
  • Helping members forge strong friendships and support networks. We trust and love those who work and sacrifice alongside us. Using our hands and feet together is the most primal way we feel connected to others.

Will these projects distract time and resources away from higher impact activities? I don't think so, it seems more likely they will merely substitute for lower fidelity and less meaningful socialization and leisure. The way I'm specifically pitching service projects is as one evening/day once a month or possibly once every two weeks. This isn't very much time. EA folks aren't robots, we need time to socialize too, so spending some of that social time doing something even only slightly useful is a strict improvement.

Will these projects attract the wrong sort of people? Will it grow social communities without actually increasing the reach of EA ideas? I don't think so as long as organizers do these things to frame the projects and point toward EA ideas:

  • Always have a brief discussion before service projects that explicitly raises the points of this post (that the project likely isn't the highest impact use of time and we're doing it for more indirect reasons).
  • Prompt participants to think about what broader social failures have allowed the problem being fixed to come about in the first place. Prompt them to ask how they could use EA tactics to more deeply understand and fix those social failures.
  • Alternate between service projects and more directly EA focused activities like career workshops and presentations and reading sessions. Be sure to call out these activities at service projects.

Service projects are also an excellent way to build bridges to existing non-EA organizations, and to possibly pull those organizations in more impactful directions.

Keep us honest and invested

Service projects could be a form of moral hygiene, to ensure our movement stays grounded to real people and places.

The EA arguments are extremely compelling. It's hard to argue that if we really want to make the world a better place we shouldn't be extremely analytical. There's absolutely no reason that doing the most good will feel the most good.

But we're still tribal primates. Actually doing concrete things in the world has a greater impact on our psychology than working toward abstract goals. Despite our ability to make complex abstract long term plans, the thing that usually really gets us moving every day is loyalty to our social group, and the desire to do something tangible. Our brains evolved to hunt animals and find berries and dance around fires, so if we can make our complex plans feel more like those activities, we're going to be more reliably motivated.

It seems useful to prove to both others and ourselves that we really are serious about making the world a better place, and concrete tangible work is more convincing than anything else. It seems useful to demonstrate we have "skin in the game".

Brushing your teeth doesn't change the world in any meaningful way, but it does prevent problems that would otherwise stop you from achieving the most possible. Service projects could be similar.

Doing concrete work with real people in the real places we live in will hopefully keep us connected to the conscious beings our big plans are actually supposed to help. The hope is for it to prevent us from drifting off into a cerebral imagination land, even if we remain convinced our highly abstract plans are the best use of our time.

How to concretely proceed?

It seems very natural to me to alternate service projects and normal EA activities on a two week cycle, so both types happen once a month.

The most important question: what service projects specifically? This is the most difficult part to get right, since service projects could easily do work that wastes resources or doesn't even unambiguously do good. Most local problems are difficult to even slightly improve without systemic change.

What we're looking for is activities that unambiguously do some good, where we can contribute a virtually unlimited amount of unskilled labor.

Here are some ideas that seem like they might not be awful:

  • Clean up public spaces.
  • Plant trees, or do other cheap/durable/uncontroversial beautification.
  • Visit and do housework for the elderly or homebound.
  • Maintain or improve nature trails.
  • Volunteer for local governmental organizations that are useful but under-resourced.

Groups can of course solicit their existing networks for good ideas. Different cities have different concrete issues.

Cleaning up public spaces seems like a winner to me. The work is never-ending, and it's hard to argue that public spaces should have more garbage or decay. Even if those public spaces are maintained by public employees it seems unlikely a small group of volunteers would in some way displace them or cause bad incentives.

Thank you!

Have I missed something important? Are the social and groundedness goals I've given important enough to be worth the effort? Would these projects waste time and resources? If we're looking to work and sacrifice together maybe we just start ultra-marathon groups? :worried-laugh:

I look forward to the discussion.





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I'm really impressed with this post, I think you did an excellent job describing both the need and possible benefits of this approach. 

A few thoughts

Working side-by-side on a common goal is important for bonding - As you state, "We trust and love those who work and sacrifice alongside us. Using our hands and feet together is the most primal way we feel connected to others."

Make it fun, and have it culminate into something - When I was in high school I participated in an event where we did various odd-jobs and yard work for people for donations, and then used those donations to buy and deliver thanksgiving groceries for families in need. At the end of the day we had a community dinner. This was an incredibly memorable and bonding day, and the fact that it culminated in a dinner made a huge difference.

Consider choosing something where there is an observable impact on other people - While picking up litter is great, I might consider choosing something where there is a tangible impact on other people that you can see. That will be more motivating.

Involve local social impact organizations - As you state "Service projects are also an excellent way to build bridges to existing non-EA organizations, and to possibly pull those organizations in more impactful directions." I would contact some local organizations that are doing work that you really respect and find out what their needs are. If you can organize events around helping existing organizations, you can start to really build a movement/ecosystem that others will be attracted to.

Try to incrementally progress towards a quantitative goal - Whatever activities you choose, if you can create some quantitative goal that everyone is working towards over time, that will be very motivating.

I'm in the early stages of building a community hub along the lines that you're thinking about, so I've been researching ideas like this for a long time.  This stuff is really tricky to get right, but you seem like you've got a great head start on thinking this through. 

Thanks for the post, I think this does a good job of exploring the main reasons for/against community service.

I've heard this idea thrown around in community building spaces, and it definitely comes up quite often when recruiting. That is, people often ask, "you do all these discussion groups and dinners, but how do you actually help people directly? Aren't there community service opportunities?" This seems like a reasonable question, especially if you're not familiar with the typical EA mindset already.

I've been kind of averse to making community service a part of my EA group, mostly for fear of muddling our messaging. However, I think this is at least worth considering. Prefacing each community service session with a sort of "disclaimer" as you're describing sounds like a step in the right direction, though it also may set a weird tone of you're not careful. "You might feel warm and fuzzy feelings while doing this work, but please keep in mind that the work itself has a practically negligible expected impact on the world compared to a high-impact career. We're only doing this to bond as a community and reinforce our values. Now, let's get to work!"

I'd be very interested to see a post presenting past research on how community service and other "warm-fuzzy activities" can improve people's empathy and motivation to do good, particularly applying it to the context of EA. Although it seems somewhat intuitive, I'm very uncertain about how potent this effect actually is.

Maybe the process of choosing a community service project could be a good exercise in EA principles (as long as you don't spend too long on it)? "Given the constraint that they must be community service in our area, what are the most effective ways to do good and why?"

Service once every two weeks intuitively seems like a lot on top of all the typical EA activities a group does. I can imagine myself doing this once a month or less. If you have many active members in your group and expect each member to only go to every other service event on average, this could make more sense.

Maybe the process of choosing a community service project could be a good exercise in EA principles (as long as you don't spend too long on it)? 

I like this idea and would even go further -- spend as much time on it as people are interested in spending, the decision-making process might prove educational!

I can't honestly say I'm excited about the idea of EA groups worldwide marching out to pick up litter. But it seems like a worthwhile experiment for some groups, to get buy-in on the idea of volunteering together, brainstorm volunteering possibilities, decide between them based on impact, and actually go and do it. 

Yeah I completely agree the disclaimer needs to be carefully worded ha. It feels like the disclaimer should err towards being a prompt about how we could be more impactful in our local community rather than simply stating that this activity isn't very impactful. I'm gravitating toward something like this:

This activity is definitely making our community better, because (whatever reason, trash or decaying buildings are bad). But effective altruism is all about finding the most impactful ways to make the world better. As you're working today be thinking about other projects we could do that would have an even better effect, and we'll discuss it today or next time.


I think many of these benefits could be achieved by local EA groups working on a high-impact project together (maybe like those in Impact CoLabs?).  Some people in my local EA group have started working on AI research together and that seems to be going pretty well. I worry EA groups doing community service in an official EA capacity may muddy the waters about what effective altruism stands for.

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