Conferences provide a high-impact opportunity to promote effective giving. This is the broad take-away from an experiment in promoting effective giving at two conferences in recent months: the Unitarian Universalist (UU) General Assembly and the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) National Convention. This was an experiment run by Intentional Insights (InIn), an EA meta-charity devoted to promoting effective giving and rational thinking to a broad audience, with financial sponsorship from The Life You Can Save.
The outcomes, as detailed below, suggest that conferences can offer cost-effective opportunities to communicate effective giving messages to important stakeholders. An especially promising way to do so is to use Speed Giving Games (SGG) as a low-threshold strategy since recent findings show GGs are an excellent means of promoting effective giving. This encourages participants to self-organize full-length Giving Games (GG) when they return back to their homes.
This article aims both to describe our experiences at UU and SSA and to serve as a guide to others who want to adopt these approaches to promote effective giving via conferences. The article is thus divided into several parts:
Evaluating the demographic group you want to target;
Evaluating the potential impact and cost of the conference;
Steps to prepare for the conference;
Outcomes of the conference;
Assessment of the experiment and conclusions;
Picking the Right Conference: Consider Demographics
Before deciding on a conference, make sure you target the right demographic. We at InIn, in agreement with The Life You Can Save, picked the two conferences mentioned above for a couple of reasons.
First, the UU and SSA both unite people who we thought were well-suited for promoting effective giving. Members of these organizations already put a considerable value both on improving the world, and on using reason and evidence to inform their actions in doing so.
Our work at SSA is part of our broader effort, in collaboration with The Life You Can Save and the Local Effective Altruist Network, to promote effective giving to secular, humanist, and skeptic groups. We do so by holding GGs targeted to their needs: appearing on podcasts, writing articles in secular venues about effective giving, and collaborating with a number of national and international common-interest organizations. Besides the SSA, this includes the Foundation Beyond Belief, United Coalition of Reason, American Humanist Association, International Humanist Ethical Union, and others.
The UU religious denomination is a more experimental focus group. It builds upon the success of the above-mentioned project, and expands to promote effective giving to people who are still somewhat reason-oriented, even if reason is less central for them. Yet UU members are strongly committed to action to improve the world, and generally show more active efforts on the social justice and civic engagement front than members of the secular, humanist, and skeptic movement. Thus, we at InIn and The Life You Can Save decided to target them as well.
Second, picking the right demographic also means having at least some people who are familiar with the language, needs, desires, and passions of the niche group you are targeting, and have some connections within it. Knowing the interests and language of the demographics is really valuable for understanding how to frame the concept of effective giving to those demographics. Having people with pre-existing connections and networks within that demographic allows you to approach them as an insider, giving you instant credibility and much more leverage when introducing the audience to an unfamiliar concept.
For the SSA, we had it easy, due to our extensive connections in the secular/skeptic/humanist movement. The SSA Executive Director is on the Intentional Insights Advisory Board, our members regularly appear on podcasts and write for venues within that movement, and many of our members attend local humanist/secular/skeptic groups.
We had fewer connections in UU, but the ones that we did have were sufficient. Our two co-founders and some of our members attend UU churches. Intentional insights creates curriculum content for the UU movement, appears on relevant podcasts and writes for major venues. This proved to be more than enough familiarity from the perspective of knowing the language and interests.
Picking the Right Conference: Consider Impact and Costs
After choosing the right demographic, consider and balance the potential impact and effectiveness of each conference.
Number and influence of attendees:
Both the UU and the secular/skeptic/humanist movements hold a number of conferences. Fortunately, a single annual conference unites the whole UU movement, with over 3,500 UU leaders from around the world coming. Moreover, the people who come to the UU General Assembly constitute the most active members of the movement – Ministers, Religious Education Directors, church staff, lay leaders and prominent writers – in other words, those stakeholders most capable of spreading effective giving ideas into the UU community.
The SSA event had far fewer people, with just over 200 attendees. However, many movers and shakers from the secular/skeptic/humanist movement attend the conference. This makes it attractive from the perspective of spreading effective giving ideas in the movement.
Impact of your role at conference:
First, most conferences have tabling opportunities for exhibitors, and as an exhibitor, you can hold SGGs at your table. We did that both at the SSA and UU, and I doubt we would have gone to either without that opportunity, since we found it to be very effective at promoting effective giving.
Caption: Intentional Insights table at the Secular Student Alliance conference (courtesy of InIn)
Second, if you have an opportunity to be a speaker and can promote effective giving at your talk, this raises the impact you can make at a conference. That said, unless you can focus your talk on effective giving or at least give out relevant materials and sign-up sheets, simply mentioning effective giving may not be that impactful. It all depends on how you go about it, and whether the concept is relevant to your talk and memorable to the audience. I was a speaker at the SSA, and worked effective giving into my talk without focusing on it, as well as distributed relevant materials about effective giving.
Third, consider whether you have specific networking opportunities at a conference that are helpful for promoting effective giving. For instance, this might involve having small-group or one-on-one meetings with influencers where you can safely promote effective giving without seeming pushy. At both the SSA and UU, we had both pre-scheduled and spontaneous meetings with notable people, which allowed us to promote effective giving concepts.
Costs: One of the fundamental aspects of effective giving is cost-effectiveness, and it is important to apply this metric to marketing effective giving, as well.
For the experiment with promoting effective giving at conferences, we at InIn decided to collaborate with The Life You Can Save on the most low-cost opportunities. Thus, one of the reasons we chose the UU and SSA conventions is that they both happened in Columbus, where InIn is based. InIn provided the people who ran the table and did the networking, and The Life You Can Save covered fees for conference registration, tabling, and other miscellaneous fees.
The UUA conference registration is around $450 per participant, and $800 for a table. Fortunately, as InIn is a member of a UU organization through which we promote Giving Games and other InIn materials, we were able to use a table at a discount, for $200. Miscellaneous fees included parking and food, for around $20 per participant per day. We had 2 people at the conference each day, so for the 5-day conference, that was $200. We also had about $175 in marketing costs to design and print flyers. We registered only one person, as we got one free participant with a table, so the total cost came down to $1025.
The SSA conference registration fee is around $135 per participant, and $150 for a table. As a speaker, I got a free registration, and another free registration accompanied the table. Parking and food cost $140 for the 3-day conference, and marketing costs came out to $150, for a total of $440.
To prepare for the conferences, we at InIn brainstormed about the appropriate ways to present effective giving at both conferences. We then prepared talking points relevant to each audience, and coordinated with all people who would table at both conferences to ensure they knew how to present effective giving to the two audiences well.
As an example, you can see the GGs packet adapted to the language and interests of the SSA here and UU here. The main modifications are in the “Activity Overview” section, and these changes represent the broad difference in the kind of language we used.
Besides the language, we put a lot of effort into designing attractive marketing materials for our table. We created a large sign, visible from a long distance, with “Free Money” in red. People are attracted both to the color red and to the phrase “Free Money,” and it is highly important to draw attention in the context of a busy conference.
Caption: SGG activity overview for both UU and SSA conferences (courtesy of InIn)
We hired a professional designer to compose an attractive layout for the SGG activity at our table. SGGs involve having people make a decision between two charities. In SGGs, participants who come to the table are given a 1-minute introduction to the concept of effective giving and the two charities involved in the SGG, and are then invited to make a decision about which of the two charities to support. Their vote results in a dollar each going to either charity, sponsored by an outside party, usually The Life You Can Save. It was important to create a nice layout that people could engage with quickly and easily, again due to distractions in the conference setting. We chose GiveDirectly as the effective charity, and the Mid-Ohio Food Bank as a local and not so effective charity.
For those who participated in SGGs, then aimed at getting them to sign up for the InIn newsletter and The Life You Can Save newsletter, and engaging with them in conversations about effective giving. We also printed out shorter versions of the UU and SSA Giving Games packets. These had brief descriptions of the full Giving Games, with links to the longer versions they could host back in their SSA student clubs or UU congregations.
Another thing we did is schedule meetings in advance with some influencers to discuss effective giving opportunities. We also made sure to schedule meetings spontaneously during the conference with notables who seemed interested in effective giving. For those who expressed an interest but did not have time to meet, we made sure to exchange contact information and follow up afterwards.
Finally, we applied to be speakers at both conferences. We succeeded with the SSA, but not with UU. Still, we decided to attend the UU conference, because the costs were low enough since we did not have to travel and The Life You Can Save judged the potential impact worthwhile.
At the UU conference, we had around 75 people play the SGG, so around 2% of attendees. Of those, about 65% (just under 50 people) signed up for the newsletter. We had 50 packets with GG descriptions printed, and we ran out by the end of the conference. Additionally, about 70% of the people who played there voted for GiveDirectly.
We also had meetings with some notable parties interested in effective giving. Especially promising was a meeting with the Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association (UUHA), who expressed a strong interest in bringing GGs to her constituents. There are hundreds of UU Humanist groups within congregations around the world. We are currently working on testing a GG at a local UU Humanist group, and we will then write up the results for the UUHA blog. We had some other promising meetings as well, but no one was as interested as the UUHA.
At the SSA conference, we had 15 people play the SGG, so around 7.5% of attendees. Of those, 80% signed up for the newsletter, so about 12 people. The same proportion, 80%, voted for GiveDirectly.
We gave away around 35 GG packets with descriptions, as some people did not want to play the SGG, but were interested in having their clubs host it. Distributing packets was especially helped by the fact that I was a speaker at the SSA, and promoted and handed out packets at my presentation.
The meetings with notable parties proved more promising at the SSA. We met with staff from two national secular organizations, the American Ethical Union and the Center for Inquiry, who expressed an interest in promoting GGs to their members. A number of influencers expressed enthusiasm over the concept of effective giving, and wanted to promote it broadly in the secular/skeptic/humanist movement.
Assessment and Conclusion
We would have been satisfied at both conferences to have at least half of the people who played the SGG vote for GiveDirectly and have half the people sign up. We ended up with 70% voting for GiveDirectly at UU and 80% at SSA, and 65% signing up for the newsletter at UU and 80% at the SSA. So, these conferences strongly exceeded our baseline expectations. We did not have specific expectations for giving away packets or meetings with notables. Yet looking back, we certainly did not expect the level of interest we got for conference participants holding Giving Games back home - we would have printed more packets for the UU had we thought they might run out.
The evidence from GGs shows they are a great method to promote effective giving. Getting influencers from target demographics engaged with GGs not only gets the activists to give more effectively, but also encourages the activists to hold GGs back at their groups.
After all, holding GGs is a win-win for secular/skeptic/humanist groups and UU congregations alike. They get to engage in an activity that embodies their values of using reason and evidence. At the same time, they get to improve the world and build a sense of community without spending a penny.
For those of us promoting effective giving, it presents these ideas to a new audience, and enables the audience to continue engaging if they wish. The newsletter sign-ups are especially indicative of people’s interests. So are the numbers of people who took packets to host GGs back at their groups. We at InIn already heard from several people who are arranging Giving Games after being exposed to the adapted GG packets, including a UU church that is arranging to have a GG for all 500 members of the church. Based on these outcomes, we at InIn and The Life You Can Save decided it would be even worthwhile to invest into traveling to distant conferences given the right conditions - having a table, speaking role, potential influencers, etc.
So, consider promoting effective giving at conferences to audiences not directly related to existing effective altruism communities. Hopefully, the steps I outlined above will help you decide on the best opportunities to do so. I would be glad to chat with you about specifics and share more details; email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Acknowledgments: For feedback on earlier stages of this draft, my gratitude to Jon Behar, Laura Gamse, Ryan Carey, Malcolm Ocean, Matthijs Maas, Yaacov Tarko, Dony Christie, Jake Krycia, Remmelt Ellen, Alexander Semenychev, Ian Pritchford, Ed Chen, Lune Nekesa, Jo Duyvestyn, and others who wished to remain anonymous.