EA Birthday Posts: An Alternative to Fundraisers

by kuhanj7 min read7th Nov 20207 comments

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For my birthday earlier this year, I spent a fair amount of time writing an EA-themed birthday post (reproduced at the bottom of this write-up). I think that this post did fairly well - 5 messages and subsequent calls about career plan changes (!), and 170 reactions on Facebook. As such, I'd be excited for more EAs to make similar posts, especially other highly involved university organizers with experience communicating about EA. In this post I share my thought-process for making this birthday post, what I could’ve done differently, some considerations for other EAs interested in doing the same, and the post itself. I’d love to hear feedback on the post and the ideas in this writeup, and similar successful examples of leveraging birthdays and other occasions for EA purposes.

Choosing the content of the post:

I initially decided to make an EA-themed birthday fundraiser, thinking it might be a uniquely strong meta-EA opportunity. At first I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what cause area I wanted to raise awareness for. However in the end, I ended up going down a different route than typical birthday fundraisers. Rather than picking a particular charity and asking for donations, I decided to instead make a different ask - to consider high impact careers (in particular, by highlighting 80,000 Hours and its Key Ideas page). I did this for three main reasons:

  1. A change in career choice is far more impactful than making a donation (and will probably lead to donations later on anyway). Even one person counterfactually making a career pivot towards addressing the most pressing problems as a result of reading my post could be worth upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations - several orders of magnitude more successful than I would expect for a regular birthday fundraiser.
  2. Birthdays are a good opportunity to ask people to do costly things that would make me happy, like donating to a charity I care about, or in my case, reading a lengthy FB post and website).
  3. I wanted to counter common misconceptions about EA. Many people I meet at Stanford who have heard of it already think EA = EArning (sorry) to give, or that it only focuses on donations to evidence-backed short-term well-being focused interventions. I thought my birthday post provided a good opportunity to address these misconceptions.

Ideas I wanted to convey through the post:

  1. What we choose to do with our careers is likely the highest impact decision we’ll make.
  2. 80000hours.org is a really great resource for (especially young) people trying to figure out what problems are most pressing, and how we can use our career to tackle them.
  3. Addressing common misconceptions about EA: That it is not just about donations or earning to give, or solely about global health interventions, or any single cause area for that matter.
  4. Short descriptions of the current cause areas prioritized in EA and why they’re prioritized. I wasn’t thrilled with the wording I ended up with for each of the cause area descriptions, but it’s a start. I’d be excited to hear others’ thoughts on how to best communicate about these causes to non-EA audiences.

Impact of the post:

Most excitingly, five people so far have taken me up on my offer to talk to them about changing careers/career plans. I’ve had calls and planned follow up with each of them to discuss their thoughts on the 80,000 Hours Key Ideas page and applying the content to their careers. A few others messaged me saying they’d read the 80,000 Hours Key Ideas page and really liked it. The post has received 170 likes and 5 shares, which is my most well-received Facebook post so far by quite some margin (nearly twice as much engagement as my second most popular post), so it looks like my attempts to make the post compelling were pretty successful!

Making the post compelling: 

Since the primary impact of the posts like this come from large levels of engagement, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make the post compelling to my non-EA friends. Specifically, in the post I:

  1. Began the post with an intriguing hook
    1. In my post: “I know a lot of people on Facebook do birthday fundraisers, and I was planning on doing one too. But as I thought about what to write, I realized there's something you can do for me that I’d appreciate far more than a donation: five minutes of your attention.”
  2. Highlighted a tension many university students feel when deciding career trajectory - aiming for (often unimpactful) socially prestigious and lucrative career paths, or dedicating their career to social impact.
  3. Shared a personal anecdote to make myself publicly vulnerable. I hope this got readers into the mindset of being introspective and made them more likely to take the post seriously.
  4. Tried to present EA cause areas in a palatable and compelling way. I spent a long time trying to figure out how to emphasize the severity of factory farming without turning people off, and similarly describe the scope of existential risk and the immense potential of our future without sounding implausibly fanatical or tone-deaf about current issues.

(Some) Things I should’ve done differently:

  • Salary is almost universally a very salient consideration for career choice, especially for students. Explicitly mentioning that many high-impact jobs pay quite well may have made readers more seriously consider EA career options.
  • Using a bit.ly link for the 80,000 Hours Key Ideas page rather than the direct link would’ve allowed me to track the number of clicks.
  • Cutting down the length of the post. It ended up being a bit long, but I didn’t feel great about cutting out any parts. I probably need to get better at editing.
  • Maybe I should have mentioned EA explicitly in the post. I already post almost exclusively about EA on my FB feed to publicize Stanford EA and other events/opportunities, so I didn’t want people to see it was just another regular EA post and ignore it. But at the same time, mentioning EA explicitly may have been important for achieving my goal of addressing the misconception of EA being exclusively/primarily about donations.

Considerations for making a post like this:

This kind of birthday post is probably not something you can do every year. Sharing the same message every year for a birthday post seems weirder than doing a yearly fundraiser for the same charity. When a post is meant to convey a compelling message, repeating the same message for multiple years may significantly detract from its intended effect. If it is the case that you only want to make a post of this sort once over many years, it is important to be strategic about when to make a career consideration focused post. Since I just graduated in June, and have many friends still in or just finished with university, this year seemed better than future ones for a birthday post about career choice. 

I think university and local EA group members should consider coordinating on EA birthday posts. It might not make sense for multiple EA group members with widely overlapping friend groups to make posts with an identical message. Coordinating with group members could be a cool way to highlight the many facets of EA, and the myriad ways of engaging.

Feedback:

As I said above, I’d love to hear feedback on the post, ideas in this write-up, and similar successful examples of leveraging birthdays and other occasions for EA purposes.

Full post:

(Facebook link here)

My birthday is coming up! I know a lot of people on Facebook do birthday fundraisers, and I was planning on doing one too. But as I thought about what to write, I realized there's something you can do for me that I’d appreciate far more than a donation: five minutes of your attention.

I see so many extremely hard-working, caring, brilliant people with world-saving ambition come to university with a burning passion to help and do good, only to be failed by our education system and unfortunate societal incentives (why are people paid so much to make social media and ads more appealing, ugh). This means that people who aspire to make the world better often have to make a tough decision: a) succumb to default, socially prestigious, lucrative careers that often do not tackle the world’s most pressing problems, or b) stick to their values and struggle to find socially impactful work, with no clear career guidance.

I faced this dilemma as I entered Stanford, and felt significant pressure to do what it felt like most of the students around me were doing - read “Cracking the Coding Interview”, and apply to internships which would turn into full-time offers at large tech companies. Compared to the daunting prospect of trying to address issues I cared about deeply, lack of a concrete path made the default seem pretty appealing. But a part of me wasn’t willing to let that happen, and I’m really glad I listened to it.

I got involved with activism and justice work in tenth grade, when I struggled with severe depression and anxiety coming to terms with my sexual orientation and gender identity, and the implications these would have on the rest of my life. In the process of getting through this, I realized that there were countless others out there going through situations similar to, and much worse than mine. I wanted to ensure others wouldn’t also have to go through intense suffering caused by the failings of our society. I started learning more about issues like racial injustice, misogyny, neo-colonialism, mass incarceration, climate change, and all the other ways our world does not adequately respect certain people. And I felt overwhelmed. There was so much work to do, and so little guidance about how to best do so, given our limited time, energy, money, work hours, and relationships.

One day, during my quarter-life existential crisis spurred internet browsing, I decided to Google “How to do the most good with your career”, and found this cool new site called 80000hours.org.

By default, I previously prioritized working on the issues that I'd heard people around me discussing, often ones that personally affected my communities. However, focusing on the issues that were brought to my attention most meant that I didn’t consider many issues that were much larger in scale, but not as widely known. 80,000 Hours transformed my thinking about which problems affect the most people and cause the most suffering. And most importantly, they provided concrete advice on how to best tackle them. I’ll highlight three issues in particular.

For example, I didn’t see the consequences of extreme global inequality. While the average American household earns around $69,000 per year, around 700 million people live on less than $2 per day (~$700 per year, and this is adjusted for lower living costs in poorer countries), and millions of people (often children) die each year of easily preventable diseases such as malaria and parasitic worms.

Similarly, I always knew factory farming existed, but I didn’t realize just how horrific the conditions farmed animals are raised in truly are, and the terrifying extent to which this occurs. 70 billion land animals and over 1 trillion aquatic animals were killed for food in 2019, but the issue gets next to no attention compared to other well-known causes.

And finally there’s the issue of safeguarding our future. The number of people that could exist in the future is incredibly vast. Future people are also disenfranchised; they have no say in who we elect, the policies they enact and the actions we take. Yet it is they who will suffer the price of so many of our short-sighted measures. Existential risks, which could permanently curtail humanity’s future potential (through extinction or other catastrophes) are estimated by many experts to have a likelihood greater than 10% over the coming century. To be clear, this is a 10% chance of all life on earth ending - all our friends, family and everyone we’ve ever known, and a permanently extinguished future. But if all goes well, human history is just beginning. Humanity could survive for billions of years, reaching heights of flourishing unimaginable today.

I’m currently working on building the community of people working to mitigate these risks with Stanford’s Existential Risks Initiative, and feel deeply satisfied and grateful to be able to work full-time on an extremely pressing problem. I think there are many others out there who are like me, who would love nothing more than to get to tackle the world’s biggest problems with their careers, but don’t know where to start. I hope I can help fix that.

It seems quite compelling to me that the best way to have a positive impact by far is to dedicate the approximately 80,000 hours of our careers to tackling the world’s most pressing problems. So it would mean a lot to me if you took some time to reflect on the role you want impact to play in your career. Specifically, I’d love if you read https://80000hours.org/key-ideas/ to learn more about the most pressing problems and how you might use your career to address them. 80,000 Hours also has a high-impact job board with an extensive list of jobs addressing the aforementioned issues: https://80000hours.org/job-board/. If even one person reading this post decided to pivot their career towards addressing the most pressing problems, that would be the best birthday present I could ask for. If you’d like to talk to me more about how to use your career to increase your impact, I would love to chat.

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7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:05 PM
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First off, I love this idea. I've been thinking about doing a "birthday fundraiser" for my birthday (which is in January) and I will definitely consult this before I post.

A few thoughts/pieces of feedback:

  1. I'd love to hear more about your decision to go with a career-focused post rather than a donation-focused post. I see how someone changing their career could have an immense impact (especially if they are able to find something impactful that they're also very good at). However, I'm skeptical about the proportion of people who would seriously consider changing their career paths as a result of this. Maybe my forecast is off, though-- I wouldn't have expected 5 messages/calls! Would love to hear more about how those go.
  2. I wonder if a post that had info about careers and donations would be effective. Maybe readers would be left feeling confused and it's better to focus on one thing. But maybe adding a paragraph about GiveWell and including a quick blurb would be enough for some people, without distracting too much from the focus on 80k hours. What do you think?
  3. At first glance, I think it would've been net positive to explicitly mention EA. Personally, I think people would have seen this as a "birthday post" (especially because of your great/clear hook) rather than "just another EA post."
  4. I think your description of existential risk is great-- one of the most accessible/engaging that I've seen. I wonder if mentioning existential risk might turn people off, though (then again, it seems like you would've had to mention it since you're working at the Existential Risks Initiative).
  5. I wonder if you could've added a sentence or two to say more about what 80k hours is. Right now, it's just described as "a cool new site called 80000hours.org." I wonder if some readers would've wanted to have a bit more context about what it is, who runs it, how it comes up with its career advice, or why they should trust it. 
  6. I agree that it's pretty long. Not exactly sure what I would shorten/cut though (do I get the "least helpful advice" prize now)? Mayyybe you could've shortened the third paragraph (about cracking the code and tech companies) and your description of existential risk.
  7. I wonder if you could conclude by re-emphasizing that this is something you want the reader to do *for your birthday*. I've been thinking about adding something like, "If you were thinking about getting me something for my birthday, or calling me, or even just wishing me 'happy birthday!', please don't. Instead, I'd rather you spend a few minutes [reading 80k hours/donating to a GiveWell-approved charity].

Overall, this is fabulous and inspiring. I'm definitely going to consult this as I draft my own birthday post, and I might even post on the forum a few weeks before my birthday for feedback :) 

Hey Akash! Thanks for your comment, and apologies for my late response!

Let me respond to  your individual thoughts:

1- I'd love to hear more about your decision to go with a career-focused post rather than a donation-focused post. I see how someone changing their career could have an immense impact (especially if they are able to find something impactful that they're also very good at). However, I'm skeptical about the proportion of people who would seriously consider changing their career paths as a result of this. Maybe my forecast is off, though-- I wouldn't have expected 5 messages/calls! Would love to hear more about how those go.

I think that students, especially young students (like 1st/2nd/3rd year undergrads) are often open to many different career paths, or don't know what they want to do yet. I've noticed that with advertising for Stanford EA's fellowship, career-focused mentorship and readings are the part of the fellowship students are most excited about, since many students want to go into high-impact careers, but don't know what options are out there. This is corroborated by post-talk survey data after an intro to longtermism/EA talk with Will MacAskill last year, where many more people said they were interested in learning more about how to enter high-impact career paths (~90%) than finding out the most cost-effective donation opportunities (~60%).

2. I wonder if a post that had info about careers and donations would be effective. Maybe readers would be left feeling confused and it's better to focus on one thing. But maybe adding a paragraph about GiveWell and including a quick blurb would be enough for some people, without distracting too much from the focus on 80k hours. What do you think?

I wanted to focus on career choice exclusively rather than give people multiple options to increase the likelihood of them checking out 80K, and also to counter the misconception that EA is primarily about donations as mentioned in the post. 

3. At first glance, I think it would've been net positive to explicitly mention EA. Personally, I think people would have seen this as a "birthday post" (especially because of your great/clear hook) rather than "just another EA post."

Yea, I spent some time debating what was best and wasn't sure of my decision in the end. I maybe mistakenly assumed everyone who read this would know this was indirectly about EA given how much I talk/post about it, but I think that was an incorrect assumption. That being said, the comments have lots of mentions of EA so hopefully that compensates somewhat. I also imagine most of the value of this post comes from people checking out 80K, in which case they're likely to find out about EA anyway. 
 

4. I think your description of existential risk is great-- one of the most accessible/engaging that I've seen. I wonder if mentioning existential risk might turn people off, though (then again, it seems like you would've had to mention it since you're working at the Existential Risks Initiative).

I think terms like "existential risks/threats/etc." are fairly commonplace (e.g. they were brought up in a U.S. presidential  debate earlier this year in reference to climate change), so I didn't worry too much about it throwing people off, but did also try to describe their scope/scale in a way that would make people take the issue seriously without being too sensational.

Thanks for all the feedback and for your kind words! :) I'd be happy to edit a draft of your birthday post if you'd like!

Haven't thought about this enough to leave a helpful note but funnily enough, my birthday is this week & I will definitely be imitating you! What a great idea; I really need to start using social media more as a platform for EA.

If anyone else makes a birthday post along these lines, I think it would be valuable if you could share it here as well.

I ended up making a post based on Kuhan's. It's somewhat shorter and has less of a focus on careers. I ended up getting 14 reactions (for reference, I have a bit over 600 friends on Facebook). I wonder if accompanying the post with a new profile picture would have been a good way to get more engagement haha.

My birthday is today! For the past two years, I did birthday fundraisers, but this year, instead of gifts or donations, I’m asking for just five minutes of your attention.

In eighth grade, I discovered a social impact–oriented career site called 80000hours.org and learned about a new social movement called effective altruism.

Previously, I knew about various issues like environmental degradation or extreme global poverty, but never really knew what to really do about it. I had learned a bit from UNICEF posters around school about how cheap it was to provide essential goods and medicine in parts of the developing world, but never saw any examples of ordinary people taking that opportunity seriously.

I had learned about income inequality of the United States, but not the much more extreme inequality on a global scale. It turns out that someone making $70,000 per year is in the top 1% of the global income distribution, while 700 million people live on less than $2 per day (~$700 per year, and this is adjusted for lower cost of living in poorer countries). Millions of people—often children—die each year of easily preventable ailments such as malaria and vitamin A deficiency.

Similarly, all I knew of animal farming was idyllic illustrations on milk cartons and meat packaging, and never learned about the horrific conditions in which farmed animals are raised in truly are, and the terrifying scale of the cruelty. Over 40 billion land animals and 40 billion fish from factory farms were killed for food in 2019, but the issue gets little attention compared to other well-known causes.

And then there’s the issue of safeguarding our future. Existential risks to civilization are estimated by philosopher Toby Ord and others to be more than 10% likely in the coming century, partly due to potential misuse of emerging technologies such as synthetic biology or advanced artificial intelligence. But if all goes well, human history is just beginning. Humanity could survive for incalculable years, reaching heights of flourishing unimaginable today.

So in tenth grade, I decided to take the Giving What We Can pledge to donate 10% of my income in my future career* (1% of my 红包🧧 money while a student lol) to high-impact charities. As I struggled with depression through high school due to chronic sleep deprivation and academic stress, the commitment to trying to make the biggest positive impact on the world that I could was something that kept me going.

*Dear siblings: yes, I will make sure to build up months of savings and pay off student debt first, etc.

If these ideas sound interesting to you, I’d appreciate it if you could read https://80000hours.org/key-ideas/ to learn more about the most effective problems to work on and how you might use your career to address them, directly or indirectly. If you prefer to read it in batches, you can subscribe to the newsletter at https://80000hours.org/community/. And if you’re interested in checking out high-impact, vetted charities, check out the charity evaluation research at https://www.givewell.org/charities/top-charities and https://founderspledge.com/research.

Ooh I like the changing profile picture idea, can I add that to the post? (I'll give you credit of course)