Context: Community builders are trying to figure out what the most effective community building (CB) techniques are. One uncertainty is when and how EA retreats are useful. Specific points of contention may be how severe diminishing returns for successive retreats are and if, for uni organisers to get motivated and inspired, EA professionals need to attend the retreat. To make some progress, I’ve compiled some positive outcomes of the recent UK Uni Organisers’ Retreat and a few mild criticisms of its usefulness. 6 other attendees have contributed to this list. Still I wrote about one sixth of the points, so it may skew towards my views.
 

This is NOT a quantitative analysis of the impact of this retreat or retreats in general. I’m not making any cost-benefit calculations, this is simply to be read as a curation of notable positive outcomes (+ some criticisms).

 

Thanks to Jessica McCurdy for coming up with the idea for this post. Thanks to Kris Chari, Jemima Jones, Tom Blake, Erin Robertson, Halfdan Holm, and Aryan Yadav for writing most of the points below. And thanks to Kris, Jemima, Aryan, and Jessica again for editing suggestions!
 

I’ve structured the uses of the retreat into 4 categories + miscellaneous. Whenever I quote in the following, I’m quoting one of the 6 contributors mentioned above.

 

1. Motivation to Community-Build

  • I think the retreat left everyone feeling more motivated about CB, but to differing degrees
  • The effect is much larger for people for whom it was the first retreat
    • One attendee notes that they became an organiser because of their first retreat in Aug 2021. This second retreat had substantial but less impact than the first one on their motivation, “but that’s almost entirely because of diminishing returns to attending successive retreats”
    • There may be a similar effect if it’s not the first retreat, but the first retreat in a while
  • The effect may be larger for people whose local group is new/small/not that excited about EA
    • Attendee: “you lack the feeling of being part of a large group of committed EAs, which felt very nourishing at the retreat”
  • The effect may be larger for people who’ve felt stressed out about CB and for whom it started to feel like work, since they were able to reconnect to their excitement about EA at the retreat
  • The effect may not be that large for already highly-engaged and networked EAs. However, these EAs provide a lot of value to others at retreats, so don’t seem expendable.
  • The retreat even motivated some people to consider doing CB full-time
    • Attendee: “Made me consider being a full time community builder which I hadn't considered at all before - will apply to jobs in the field. Has made me magnitudes more likely to continue CB post-uni.”
  • The retreat inspired people both to go out and build communities, and sit down and think deeply about issues of CB (and EA generally)
  • More specific examples from retreat
    • Attendee: “I felt pretty sure that I didn’t want to do CB in my second year prior to the retreat. [...] Being at the retreat has changed my mind to an extent and am probably more likely now to run [my group] next year.”
    • Attendee: “Will probably spend around 3-4 hours more a week organising.”
  • Criticism
    • As mentioned, the motivational effect has diminishing returns for successive retreats
    • Having EA professionals attend might be even better: “talking to EA professionals in Boston made me especially excited about community building. [...] I think spending time with EA professionals, Open Phil fund managers, CEA execs, and others gets you totally pumped about EA as a movement and what we might achieve”
       

2. Impactful Connections “Matching”

(I.e. matching someone with a person who can offer them exactly what they need, e.g. a job opportunity.)

  • People are excellent intelligent libraries and can often point someone with a specific need in the right direction
  • In general I think it’s great to “increase surface area” by bouncing people off of each other and increasing the chance an impactful connection will happen (aka networking)
  • The highest benefit was of course for ppl who knew no one pre-retreat
  • Examples from retreat
    • An attendee found a co-founder for an EA journal that they’re setting up now (There’s going to be a forum post soon! Contact effectivealtruismjournal@gmail.com with any questions.)
    • An attendee was able to talk to Henry from the Global Challenges Project about interning there
    • Two attendees have been doing 10+ study sessions together since the retreat
    • Several attendees will potentially go visit each other (and make even more EA connections)
       

3. Generic Information Dissemination

(“Generic” is meant as opposed to “customised”, i.e. information relevant to every organiser as opposed to a specific organiser. If it was only relevant for a specific organiser, I’d put it under Impactful Connections “Matching”.)

 

3.1 Information about CB group strategy & tools

  • There was a LOT of information dissemination happening, so I’ll just mention a few indicative examples
    • Kris Chari, an attendee, took notes of all his learnings, which might be useful to get an impression
  • The retreat was useful for getting all of the basics straight: What are things every group/organiser is doing, what works reliably, what are the directions to explore more
    • Good for new organisers or if you missed a basic item (e.g. missed that there’s a facebook chat)
  • It was also useful to spread more specific CB techniques that people have had success with, e.g. running all fellowship cohorts at the same time + a big social after
  • Several attendees internalised the importance of 1-1s for CB
    • I myself am going to aim to schedule ~10 1-1s this semster. Probably around 5 of that are counterfactual.
  • Several people understand the funding opportunities for CB better now, which seems high-value
    • An attendee “applied for infrastructure funding as a direct result of the retreat (this definitely wouldn't have happened otherwise)”
    • Attendee: “I didn’t for example know much funding was available to run stuff at groups. [...] we probably will just be a lot more motivated this term since we all now are paid/potentially paid part-time”
  • More specific examples from retreat
    • Attendee: “Led to me organising an EA [local group] retreat at the end of Jan”
    • Attendee: “We’re being much more ambitious this term, in large part because of the retreat (running 4 separate discussion groups (intro, advanced, animal, career))”
    • I got a mini-intro to the Global Challenges Project. I would probably have read into it at some point, but when is unclear. I’m planning to use most of their resources this semester already.
  • Criticism
    • Attendee: “I did get some quite useful advice about fellowship strategies and career 1-1s though I probably would have got this advice without the retreat. (just via virtual 1-1s and Uk groups calls).”
       

3.2 Information about cross-group/meta level strategy & tools

  • Several attendees only learnt at the retreat about the wider UK CB landscape, e.g. rough number of groups, supporting orgs, opportunities, and bottlenecks
    • This seems useful insofar as it will allow them to collaborate better across groups and do meta-level projects (like the Global Challenges Project)
  • Attendee: ”I hosted a speedfriending event with 23 attendees because of it.”
  • Attendee: “Corunning an online event with EA Ireland and probs wouldn’t have otherwise”

 

3.3 Information relevant for both group and cross-group/meta level CB

  • Attendee: “Being in contact with part-and full-time organisers made me realise that I could very realistically do that too”
  • Attendee: “I didn’t know if what I was doing [(CB)] was worthwhile to my career in the short term or even the long-run.” (They came away changing their mind a bit on this.)
  • Henry Sleight got a lot of people thinking about what he calls “agenticness” at the retreat. It’s the idea that we really haven’t figured CB out yet, and we all need to be proactive in thinking about and implementing innovative CB interventions. I don’t think many people thought of CB that way before
  • Retreats seem useful for propagating good norms within EA, many of which can only be picked up in-person: e.g. culture of information sharing, kindness, building one's own models, being allowed to consider weird ideas, can I contact this impressive person/org?—Yes, you can, productive disagreement
  • General networking seems to have supported continued information dissemination post-retreat
    • Attendee: “I got to know people well enough so that I won’t hesitate to contact many of them for any reason.”
    • I personally am now often contacting organisers I know to ask them about CB topics and have gotten valuable information for career planning that way
  • Criticism
    • There will be severe diminishing returns to the information dissemination for successive retreats. Attendee: “But because uni groups change management so often, I think the case for uni organisers retreats is very strong.”
    • Attendee: “The important info I gained was mostly from Henry. Maybe having more people with high expertise would be useful as he was extremely busy.”

 

4. Incubating EA Projects

  • As mentioned, two attendees are going to found an EA Journal (effectivealtruismjournal@gmail.com if you have any questions)
  • I personally am seriously thinking about running a “bootcamp” for new organisers, fellowship facilitators, etc. as a direct result of the retreat. I’ve spoken to Jessica McCurdy from CEA about this and there’s a ~50% chance I’ll actually do it

 

Miscellaneous

  • Enjoyment
    • Attendee: “Generally was one of the highlights of my term - made friends, had a lot of fun, left feeling buoyed up and happy”
    • Attendee: “I enjoyed every minute I spent there and made sure to spend as many of them as possible being with others rather than e.g. sleeping.”
    • Attendee: “I enjoyed everyone’s company so much that I didn’t want to sleep.” (The not-sleeping thing was a common theme at the retreat.)
  • Personal learning about non CB-related things
    • Attendee: “It was great to get more perspectives on various EA ideas.”
    • Probably especially applicable to things that are hard to learn only by reading about EA/online interaction, e.g. the norms mentioned above, how do other people apply EA to their career?, whom to reach out to when, …
  • Advantages of retreats over other formats
    • Attendee: “didn’t require much preparation for participants, so I actually had the time to go. Didn’t feel like I had the time to go to a conference.”
    • Attendee: “not a big fan of zoom and wouldn’t have been up for spending 3 days worth of time on zoom”
  • Someone reported having their first sip of Huel at the retreat
     

With that thought, I shall end the list. I want to reiterate that this is not a cost-benefit analysis of the retreat, but simply some thoughts that can serve as a memory aid in further discussion on EA retreats. In that way, I hope this post will help in creating better EA retreats and figuring out better CB strategies in the future!

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"I personally am seriously thinking about running a “bootcamp” for new organisers, fellowship facilitators, etc. as a direct result of the retreat. I’ve spoken to Jessica McCurdy from CEA about this and there’s a ~50% chance I’ll actually do it"

I'd be curious to hear more about this idea. What's the plan?

Thanks for asking! The pitch goes something like this:

Uni groups are constrained by their organisers' time. The typical way of getting a new organiser is to find an excited EA and to slowly give them more and more responsibilities (e.g. intro fellowship facilitator -> run a social -> committee member). This takes time and there's dropout at every stage. The observation is that organisers are usually the most motivated after a retreat/conference/... So we might be able to significantly speed up this process and reduce dropout by having a retreat-ish thing early on. Several group organisers have already recognised this and have sent newer members to these things. There seems to be high value in running something specifically aimed at people in the early stages of organising.

So I propose to run a "bootcamp", where newer organisers, facilitators & similar are skilled up and gain lots of motivation from interacting with others in-person. This seems doubly useful since other organisers seldom have time to skill up new organisers and few new organisers would read into CB resources on their own (especially if they are not yet highly excited about CB).

I'm imagining something like 30 -40 people, 3 nights, with learning and upskilling sessions and ample opportunities to socialise with other participants.

Some ideas for sessions: how to 1-1s, facilitation training, mental health, pitches for EA short and long, people management & project delegation, Personal productivity, Effective planning, Movement building strategy and strategic prioritization for groups, creating positive epistemic norms, "Agenticness" (as explained in my post), how to trade money for time

Some more thoughts:

  • We will still need a good amount of highly engaged EAs present to set good norms and get the advantages of information dissemination. Maybe like a fourth to fifth
  • We will need programming options for different stages participants are at (e.g. not everyone will need full-on group strategy)
  • Unfortunately it probably can't be an international thing, since it might be hard to make people at an early stage travel internationally
  • If this is successful, that would increase the chance that CEA would take over running bootcamps in the future

 

I am very interested in any thoughts or potential collaborators! Luise.antonia@hotmail.de if someone wants to contact me.

Intro fellowship facilitator -> run a social -> committee member

Seems like you could let someone run a social essentially straight off, as it's pretty hard to mess up a social.

That said, I agree with your core point, it's important to provide people exciting opportunities when they're most enthusiastic:

This takes time and there's dropout at every stage. The observation is that organisers are usually the most motivated after a retreat/conference/...

That said, your ideas for sessions all sound really useful:

Some ideas for sessions: how to 1-1s, facilitation training, mental health, pitches for EA short and long, people management & project delegation, Personal productivity, Effective planning, Movement building strategy and strategic prioritization for groups, creating positive epistemic norms, "Agenticness" (as explained in my post), how to trade money for time

I guess my main skepticism is the following:

This seems doubly useful since other organisers seldom have time to skill up new organisers

It seems like there is a lot of effort in running a retreat and that this would likely involve multiple people, so I don't see you coming out ahead here. That said, I expect you'd end up with more highly trained organizers at the end of this both because of increased amount of training time for each organizer and from the peer-to-peer exchange of ideas.

I agree you could let someone run a social straight off. In general I guess people are more likely to agree to running a social if they are already a fellowship facilitator (fellowship social), and more likely to agree to become a committee member if they are already organising socials. The whole idea of moving people down a funnel etc.

To your skepticism: Thanks for raising the point! It's true that if we had perfect organiser training either locally in the groups or in one big bootcamp, it's unclear the bootcamp would cost less organiser hours. However organisers locally often don't have the time/skills to train new organisers. So the comparison probs isn't decisive. Hope that makes sense!

I guess that makes sense.

I suppose organising such a bootcamp is probably one of the most useful things that national level organisers could be doing.

Background: I'm running two retreats this week whilst working with Swarthmore College EA. Both retreats are along the lines of what you described as a bootcamp ("where newer organisers, facilitators & similar are skilled up and gain lots of motivation from interacting with others in-person"), but for ~18 people.  I think talking together about this sounds promising! 

I agree with your response to casebash:

It's true that if we had perfect organiser training either locally in the groups or in one big bootcamp, it's unclear the bootcamp would cost less organiser hours. However organisers locally often don't have the time/skills to train new organisers. So the comparison probs isn't decisive. 

How are you thinking about the intended ‘quality’ (broadly defined, somewhat similar to production value) of the proposed bootcamp, relative to: the quality of generic EA retreats, the retreat mentioned in your post, or a larger event like Icecone? I’d love more details on this.

I'm running two retreats this week whilst working with Swarthmore College EA. Both retreats are along the lines of what you described as a bootcamp

Ah, super exciting! I'll DM you

Thanks for writing this up! It would be really cool to see some reproducible programming and advice for folks interested in organizing an organizers retreat. They seem very valuable. 

I'm aware of such a resource for group member retreats from Olivia Jimenez "Next Steps" retreat resource, but I don't know of any content that could help a group organizer plan an organizer retreat. 

For example, there is a nascent EA Midwest collaboration arising between UChicago, UW–Madison, Northwestern, and U Michigan. I could see us running an organizer retreat in the future, and some resources on key considerations and programming would be useful.

Agreed! In the meantime, it's definitely worth it contacting a prior organiser of an organisers' retreat for guidance. Henry Sleight ran this one, and Jessica McCurdy ran the one in Boston.