(Crosspost from the Altruistic Agency blog.)
It has been a little over a month since Altruistic Agency was announced. The agency is currently in a six-month pilot phase where one goal is to gather data on how valuable of a service it is and another to get a good picture of the technical needs of EA organisations. During this first month, I’ve talked to around 30 effective altruism organisations of various sizes and started working actively with about 20 of them. This has provided a good foundation for achieving those goals and generated a lot of insight into how these organisations work and what they have in common from a technical perspective.
This is the first blog post of what I hope will be many that dive deeper into the specifics of those insights. Maybe more importantly, on this blog, I will make recommendations on how EA organisations can make general improvements to their tech setup. Another hypothesis I wanted to test during this pilot is that working with one EA organisation generates ideas and solutions that are highly relevant and suitable for all the others. This has already turned out to be the case. This perspective is in line with a system-level thinking about the technological platform of effective altruism as a whole I’ve found lacking in the community and want to promote through Altruistic Agency.
As background reading, I highly recommend Sasha Cooper’s four-part series of posts on the EA Forum about the agency as a model for EA tech work. Many of the practical uncertainties in those posts are being put to the test during the Altruistic Agency pilot. At the end of this phase, I hope there will be very little doubt that this is a successful model that creates excellent value for the entire ecosystem of effective altruism organisations.
This post is just a brief overview that tries to characterise what I’ve seen so far; keep reading the Altruistic Agency blog for upcoming posts that goes into more detail.
What the organisations look like
Generally, tech work in the context of Altruistic Agency begins with an effective altruism organisation getting in touch directly and asking for help with specific things. These have mostly been small to mid-sized organisations, including some requests from individuals who need help with their personal EA projects.
One common denominator among those that contact the agency is that their organisation does not have any permanent IT staff or even access to temporary tech help. If they have had such support in the past, it has often been unreliable and time-constrained, not because of anyone’s negligence but mainly due to availability. Most skilled technologists have full-time jobs in other positions and can spare a few volunteer hours here and there, and it’s precisely in this manner many EA organisations have managed to evolve their tech.
Most of the EA organisations I’ve talked to have a wishlist of technological improvements they would like, want to know more about or know that they should do, but do not have the skills within the organisation. This list builds up over time, and it’s not uncommon that months or even years pass before someone can help them out with the tasks they have in mind.
That so many organisations do not have tech staff is not just a matter of resources. Even for some well-funded organisations, it would make little sense in terms of workload since the needs come and go. It has become pretty evident that an on-demand model for tech expertise suits most organisations better, at least within the small but representative collection of organisations I have had the chance to work with so far.
This has added a lot of confidence in the Altruistic Agency offering, and the organisations themselves have been very enthusiastic about the (continued) existence of the service.
What technology the organisations use
The effective altruism organisations I’ve talked to are very similar in what tools and services they use, which isn’t a surprise considering they do similar things and have similar goals. Their main channel for communication with the outside world is their website. In almost all cases, it’s running on some popular website builder such as Squarespace or Wix or WordPress at a regular web hosting company. The upside of these ready-made solutions is mainly that anyone can use them, edit pages, add content, connect them to other services etc. The downside is that they are often highly rigid in what they allow, for example, a web developer to do, which is also a common point of struggle: Organisations outgrow their ready-made website and want to add features that are difficult, or even impossible, to add without access to the backend or the ability to write custom code.
The organisations usually have some kind of newsletter or other email subscription via a popular service such as MailChimp, some presence on social media in the form of pages on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. and other means of outreach but still use their website as the central point. Internally, the usual suspects among services are typical, such as Google Workspace for email and shared files, Calendly and Zoom for planning and holding meetings, etc.
Overall, most EA organisations’ tech setup results from regular users setting up and combining various commercial web services. There seems to be an extensive reliance on the big players that have been around for a long time. I sometimes think to a fault when there are much better services out there. Working in web development exposes you to a continuous evaluation of new and better options, and I hope Altruistic Agency can help transfer some of that insight to EA organisations. (For example, only one of the organisations I’ve talked to uses Webflow to build their website, a “no-code” tool that has become ubiquitous among start-ups in all sectors.)
What the organisations want help with
Many requests for tech help fall into the same few categories, maybe slightly primed by what Altruistic Agency lists as suggestions on the front page.
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is one of the most requested tasks. I generally find it a good idea since the organisations rely so much on their website, and the input-output ratio can be significant. There are many kinds of SEO work. I’ve tended to focus on technical on-page SEO at this stage, with a broader SEO strategy in mind once all the basics are in place. I think most EA organisations are exceptionally well-positioned to employ a highly successful SEO strategy due to their expertise in some specific and often neglected are. I will outline this in detail in an upcoming post.
Another prevalent request is a general website overview in terms of usability, content structure, security, etc. There are often many minor issues that are easily fixed and make for a better website experience. These issues can be broken links, duplicate content, accidentally exposed (via sitemaps, for example) internal pages, mixed content, website not running on HTTPS, and more. These are easily found with automated tools and can be fixed by an experienced web developer in a few minutes.
Two popular categories of requests are “tying systems together” and “automating manual tasks”. This can be about moving subscriber lists between the website and some external system, generating reports from source materials, setting up integration tasks in Zapier, and similar. These requests have sometimes turned out to be complex to a degree where they are out of scope because they would simply take too much time at this stage. I’ve prioritised helping many organisations with small and medium tasks rather than a few organisations with large tasks. I hope Altruistic Agency will be able to work on the larger tasks too, at the next phase of the project, with more staff available.
Help in choosing technology is another popular request, for example, what CRM to use, where to host a website, how to set up a form in a GDPR-compliant way, how to structure shared files and such. I tend towards giving a single recommendation for those requests for many reasons, which is another specific topic I will go into in a separate post soon.
In summary, the typical request is quite general and is about looking into potential improvements to the website and the internal workflows, from the perspective that there are some known problems, but probably also some unknown problems that a skilled technologist will immediately spot. The latter often turns out to be the case and is one of the ways in which I’ve found true synergies in working with many EA organisations simultaneously. This, too, will be a topic of a separate post, with concrete examples.
Altruistic Agency launched with the idea that there is substantial unmet demand for tech expertise among effective altruism organisations. Everything I’ve seen just one month into the project confirms this, not least the sigh of relief so many of the organisations have sounded. The agency model seems to be very well suited for this because the needs are so uneven and varied, and it opens up the possibility to instead help a large number of organisations. This, in turn, improves the quality of help that can be offered because the learnings can be reused and adapted.
Best of all, none of these EA organisations competes with each other in any traditional sense. They are a collective force, each focusing on a particular area, and any improvement to any of them is an improvement to that collective. This promotes a more ambitious view of the technical platform of the effective altruism community as a whole, which Altruistic Agency will actively promote in the coming months and years.
Hey, it would be good to confirm the attitudes in this post with users and people with experience, like talented developers and project managers, and by bring up specific use cases.
Like, I think I know someone who has spent time with a few executive directors and people with chief in their title or something.
Over the decades, these people see a large supply of meta advice, and this meta advice is of varying quality.
One realm of this kind of advice is in tech, and one subset is “use [my] [website/app/platform/framework] because [this other thing is a dinosaur] and [all the cool people are using it]”.
The downside of following advice is that people can be lead down the garden path, and distract and suck up time.
When new technologies are pushed without a specific explanation of usefulness, I think that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
I don’t think the solution is to set our “information cascade parameter” to maximum or choose the modal platform and get EA a Salesforce rep or something.
Maybe we can hear from a number of people in the community with good instincts and experience.
To be "inside model" or something, and talk on a pretty narrow set of claims concretely:
I know someone who built a few websites with Wordpress and also uses much cooler, no code apps (and there’s a fair supply of these apps nowadays).
Yeah, Wordpress has been around a long time, and I’m sure it’s clunky. But it also has a large marketplace of help that is available. Also, this person wasn’t an expert and built a WordPress site in about 15 hours, and it looks better than CEA or Open Phil.
Ok, so this gives the impression that WordPress is for starter websites. While it's easy to use, it's pretty limited. It is a tool that a sophisticated org should outgrow.
But what about claims we can find here?
From the above, it seems like the Walt Disney company, Zillow, TED Blog, BBC America, Blender use WordPress?
The point of the post is to be mostly descriptive. I don't see where you get the idea I'm trying to push any particular tech. I have not advised anyone to replace their web platform unless they have explicitly asked for it, and I think WordPress is an excellent choice. Using website builders is and has always been, a trade-off between user convenience and developer convenience, and if you work in this industry you know this. I think you're reading far too much into what I'm reporting here. Also, I've worked as a full-stack web developer for 15+ years, at larger companies, startups, web agencies, and as a freelancer.
To clarify what I mean by system-level thinking:
Instead of thinking of every EA org as an isolated entity with isolated needs, I think of all of them as a collective. There is technical knowledge to be transferred between them and improvements that can be made to all organisations at once. For example, several organisations I've talked to have an interest in creating a job board, or improving the one they have. At the same time, I have also talked to 80,000 Hours about their plans for their job board and the fact they are hiring a director to run that specific project. This tells me there's an opportunity for them to expand the functionality of their job board to a point where several of the other organisations don't need one of their own. Maybe creating job boards for smaller organisations shouldn't be a priority until it's clear what's happening with this popular, already existent job board.
I just think it's a good idea to think about the needs of all EA organisations at once because there might also be solutions that allow meeting them for everyone while avoiding duplicating work.