Sep 28, 2018
We were two people who got a short-term EA community building grant from CEA to work on EA Denmark part-time (Sebastian Schmidt and Philip Porter). In the following, I (Sebastian) will share the lessons we learned which I hope will be of value to other local group leaders and EA grantees (skip to the conclusion for top-5 points).
Keywords: Local community building, a list of useful resources, heuristics for prioritizing projects, evaluation, project ideas.
Table of content
Intro to our grant period
EA DK was officially founded in September 2017 after being an interest group for several years. We currently have 44 members, but only a minority participate on a regular basis (15-20 people) and the majority of the work is getting carried out by 5-10 people. The majority of our group is students, but we also have professionals. The name “ EA Denmark” is slightly misleading since, currently, the activity takes place in the capital, Copenhagen.
We were two people who got a short-term EA grant to work on EA Denmark part-time. Specifically, the grant period ran over 3 months and sponsored 25 hours per week (shared between the two of us). The 25 hours was in addition to our existing responsibilities within and outside of the organisation (full-time studying etc.).
The overarching goal of our grant-related activities was to facilitate the development of more dedicated and effective altruists. Since our timeframe for this work was short, we focused mainly on activities that would create a sustainable foundation for EA DK to run well in the future, thereby hopefully increasing the likelihood of EA DK being a valuable pipeline for developing such dedicated, effective members in the coming years. Additionally, on a personal level, the goal of the grant was to free up more time to make EA Denmark more well-run and to test out movement building as a career path.
Reap the fruits of others
Fortunately, the global community has a lot of smart, productive and thoughtful people which means that there are a lot of good resources on community building out there! The tricky part is knowing that they exist and where to look. Something that turned out to be a useful heuristic for us was:
check whether someone has already done something relevant for the project you want to do - before actually doing it.
The following is a list of resources which I’ve found to be particularly helpful as a group organiser:
A Concrete Model for Running an EA group
Read for building a proper pipeline, choose between activities and general advice.
Read for specific activities, generally good advice and excellent suggestions for metrics to monitor (builds on the above-mentioned post).
Read for reasons to be wary of e.g. mass media outreach and suggestions for analysing the fidelity of a specific way of communicating EA.
Read for a distinction between different kinds of movement growth and why not all of them are good for EA.
A really awesome overview of most, if not all, EA related Facebook groups ranging from Career groups to all Local Groups worldwide
Everything from Career Workshop Ideas to Mass FB Invite Hack and logos.
For a much more extensive list of resources check out David Nash’s list
In the following, I’ll mention some heuristics, tools, and frameworks which have been particularly helpful during our grant period. The overarching theme of all of them is being very process-oriented.
Though it can be difficult to come up with robust estimates of the value of different activities, one can still approximate an answer. If you’re several people working together it can make sense to come up with an estimate independently and talk over discrepancies before reaching consensus on the estimate. When prioritizing projects we mainly relied on the following:
1. How valuable is this for reaching our overarching grant goal?
2. How valuable is this compared to our most promising project? We used a scale from 1-100 where 100 equals the most promising project. Our most promising project, at least initially, was to find and read resources (mainly blog posts) made by other community builders.
What steps does this project require and how much time will each step take? (see section below for countering planning-fallacy)
This ratio was the main factor in deciding what to pursue.
If we complete this project, will it make one or more of our other projects easier or obsolete?
Do we have to complete this before a certain point in time before it becomes irrelevant?
See an example of how we evaluate potential projects systematically in our spreadsheet here.
An additional aspect which turned out to be valuable for us was to inform our prioritization by making a survey of our members to get their views on key bottlenecks and promising projects. An example of this was that in an open question around 80% of the respondents emphasised “the community” and “interacting with other members” as being the best thing about being part of EA DK. This confirmed our hypothesis of the importance of in-person social events.
It is difficult to plan ahead and thus it can be beneficial to make batches of a few projects which you’re certain about doing and do these before you do other projects. In this way, you can ensure that you focus on the important things first and you can calibrate your time-estimates and ensure a reasonable allocation of time. As an example, during our first batch of projects we tracked the time we spent on each project in Toggl and towards the end, we could compare the actual time spent with predicted time spent. In our case, we learned that we had to multiply our predicted times with a factor of 2.2.
Doing check-ins, discussing strategies etc. is valuable, but it’s very expensive in terms of time - you have to multiply everything with a factor of 2 (or how many you happen to work together with). I’m not claiming that the overall time spent on a project doubles if two people are working on it. Rather, I want to emphasise the obvious fact that e.g. a meeting of 1 hour with two people “costs” 2 hours of work. Sure, working together can be ideal since you'll get an outside view on your thinking which might make you realize that you're diverging from the overall goal. However, we realized that we started out by doing it too much. Thus, it was important for us to be mindful of delegating and specializing as much as possible. However, co-working, where you do pomodoros and take breaks together, is also something which ended up being very valuable for us. We’d work from the same location, do pomodoros sessions of 50 minutes and briefly talk about potential barriers during our 10 minutes breaks. If we didn’t work from the same place we’d try to call each other during breaks. (See this Complice co-working room for a simple description of the concept).
Getting an outside view on your prioritization is very important. It can be especially valuable to get feedback from other local group leaders/facilitators and people who just have good judgement in general. Specifically, this led to us not doing a project which we would have otherwise spent the majority of our time on.
During our grant we ended up doing the following things:
1. Conducted a survey of our members using open questions, which revealed valuable areas to work on for the organisation.
2. Identified several valuable movement building resources which informed the strategy of the grant and EA DK.
4. Generated a prioritized list of projects with a high expected value/effort-ratio to enable current and future members of EA DK to have a larger impact.
5. Developed practices for introducing new members and communicating well at meetings.
6. Provided one-on-one career coaching for 5 members
7. Sparked new workgroups including
i) a member involvement group focused on making members more dedicated and engaged (organising socials, setting up Buddy Programs etc.)
ii) an outreach group focused on finding ways of doing high-fidelity outreach.
Since our timeframe for this work was short, we focused mainly on activities that would create a sustainable foundation for EA DK to run well in the future, thereby hopefully making EA DK a valuable pipeline for developing dedicated, effective members in the coming years. Whether we succeeded at that isn’t obvious at this point in time. As one might expect, it’s difficult to measure changes after a couple of months. However, we did attempt to measure things such as impact-adjusted significant plan changes and whether our members had become more satisfied with being part of our organisation. Heavily inspired by EA Geneva, EA Sweden and 80,000 hours we made this questionnaire which we sent out to people whom we thought we had impacted the most.
The most significant result was that we caused one person to “completely change” plans, and the person now intends to pursue a career focused on mitigating the risk posed by emerging technologies. Another mentionable result was that we made a person in a high-impact career “more motivated, productive and effective within my existing career path”. Obviously, this isn’t a perfect way of measuring impact but it captured some of the changes which we caused - probably.
Although our grant probably has been fairly idiosyncratic (e.g. short period and relatively young group) I hope that others can extract some value from the lessons described. As a simplified conclusion, I encourage you to
1. Check whether someone has already done something which is relevant for the project you want to do - before actually doing it.
2. Prioritize your projects based on the expected value per hour (among other things).
3. Seek extensive feedback from others on your prioritization.
4. Make batches of your projects and track your time so you can calibrate your time-estimates and ensure reasonable time-allocation.
5. Co-work together with your colleague (if you have any), but delegate as much as possible to save time.
If anyone wants to chat about this privately, feel free to reach out on firstname.lastname@example.org
I'd like to thank Philip Porter for being an awesome colleague. Furthermore, I'd like to thank Markus Anderljung, Jørgen Ljønes and Remmelt Ellen for providing valuable feedback on this post.