We've learned a lot after writing this post and not all that is written here reflect our current views. Also, a few other groups has tried to implement some of these practices, but with limited success. We are considering how to learn from this and find out why it works so well for EA NTNU and not for others. We have some hypotheses and are interested in talking to groups that have, or are thinking of trying out the ideas outlined here. Please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
In this post we try to share our experience in reorganizing our EA student group. We think that our analysis of pitfalls and bottlenecks in a student organization and how we are trying to circumvent them could be valuable to read by EAs involved with other student groups.
EA student groups are very important outreach organizations in our movement, and students often want to do much, fast, without really knowing how to. We think it is really important to build sustainable and adaptable structures that ensures organizers do not get worn out and that engaged students do not lose their motivation and the opportunity to learn from and contribute to EA.
Background on EA NTNU
Effektiv Altruisme NTNU was founded in March 2014 by five industrial engineering students at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Norway's largest University with 39,000 students. Our group is now counting 30 regular members and 11 ambassadors (Our ambassador program is a topic for another day). According to LEAN’s Group Organizer Survey we are one of the most active EA student groups. Our regular working meetings are Wednesdays 6-9pm and the last Sunday of the month 2-7pm. We usually meet in a large classroom on campus which we are able to book for free.
How new members enter the group
We accept new members early in September, at the start of our fall semester. Students apply for a membership via an online form before interesting candidates are interviewed the following week. The board decides who to accept soon after. We make it clear that the position will be time consuming, around 5 hours a week, and by accepting the membership we expect them to prioritize EA NTNU. Signaling that it will be time consuming is more important than the number of hours being accurate in itself. Applicants knows there are more applicants than positions, so by accepting they get a position someone else could have been offered. This creates a powerful effect that both filters out not-so-motivated applicants and achers people who do accept.
We look for candidates that show genuine interest in EA and signal that they are willing to consistently and reliably prioritize time in the organization. Prior knowledge about EA or our cause areas is a plus, but not necessary. Every new member goes through our introductory course during the first three weeks. We find that it is easier to teach new enthusiastic members about EA than to make people already familiar with EA take initiative and find a persistent drive to work on projects.
The most important takeaway here is that we have well defined members that are expected to, and in large part do, show up at our meetings.
The old organizational structure
Initially we were organized in three larger working groups, each with their main responsibility:
Events and campaigns
Lobbying of influential people, political parties and other organizations
These groups met at different times during the week, plus some rare common social activities and events. Our model mainly consisted of weekly or biweekly two-three hour meetings where we discussed the current projects and assigned tasks on what we would like to have done the following week(s). Often these meetings started with a recap of what we were supposed to have done since last meeting, but did not manage to do because of time constraints or different priorities. An important benefit of the themed working groups was that the specific experience on organizing events, lobbying or research is contained and built upon more easily when it is the same people working on these types of projects.
The main challenges with this organizational structure we think were:
Each group required a designated leader with the responsibility of coordinating projects, delegating tasks, preparing meetings, representing the group at the board and having the main responsibility to initiate and bring projects to fruition. In addition to these three group leaders we had two co-presidents and an ambassador program coordinator, totaling six heavy, time consuming positions in the board. Even though the number of people and projects ongoing in the working groups may be scalable with the available resources, this structure still had a significant “overhead" of work that would not scale easily. This forced us to recruit at least six highly motivated people, experienced with EA thinking, and interested in a leadership position each year.
Members only got to work with one kind of projects dependent on which working group they belonged to.
Members socialized very little between working groups, making building an overall culture and sense of belonging very difficult.
The median effectiveness in the sense of valuable activities done per member per week was pretty low due to the problems above and general confusion and low morale.
Having themed working groups made the organisation ill-equipped to work with projects not well defined within the themes covered.
Members of a group was more or less obligated to follow the workflow of the group, working less in down-times and intensely around an event or a campaign etc. This leads to problems when the group workflow mismatches with workflow of the members around mid-semester tests, hand-ins, term papers etc.
Leading up to our general assembly in April this year the sitting board asked around to find members willing to run for board positions, and even though there were many competent and experienced potential candidates, very few actually wanted to run. This came as a surprise to the board and a serious discussion followed on whether we should reorganize completely, size down or even convert to just being a discussion group. Our current model was born from these discussions where we tried to identify the problems listed above and find a way to organize ourselves such that we could circumvent these bottlenecks.
The new organizational structure
We are now organized in smaller one-project, self-organizing, agile teams which all meet at the same time, in the same room and work in pomodoro sessions with shared breaks in between.
Every team has got their own physical Kanban board where they put actions written on post-its. We prefer a low-tech solution here because it engages everyone on the team and makes it really easy to glance up to get an overview on the project to know what to do next without involving any coordinators. The teams also do weekly stand ups, at the start of each meeting, a technique from Scrum, where the action post-its, stored in a folder between the meetings. are placed back on the Kanban board and new ones are written. This works great as a fast introduction to where the project stands and what seems to be the most important next actions. By making everyone on the team literally stand up during this activity we ensure that they are not wasting time, but that they do the rounds to be able to sit down and get to work.
Group and team communication is done through Slack. The structure of channels are perfect with our projects. It is free for non-profit organizations and very versatile with valuable plugins, such as the automatic reminder of google calendar events. Our main challenge with Slack is to ensure that people are configuring their notifications settings such that they do not get overwhelmed by irrelevant notifications and consequently stops looking at any messages.
Our board have a running conversation on a private Slack channel ensuring that everyone is up to speed. In addition, the board meets for 1-1.5h every Monday to discuss and make decisions on strategic and organizational issues. During the working meetings the board is not part of any teams, but work as project owners, running around asking and answering questions, putting out fires and ensuring that the teams have got what they need in order to work efficiently. This is completely opposite to the old model where the board and a core group around them stood for 90 percent of the valuable work hours.
This new structure has many benefits:
Even though we have only worked under the new structure for 2-3 months we register very positive results in member motivation, initiative and effectiveness. The board is down from 6 to 4, member count have increased from 20 to 30 regular members, but we have managed to produce a lot more valuable work hours (my guess is north of 300% increase) compared to last semester. We believe reduction of uncertainty and communication inertia are two main contributing factors of this increase in productivity.
By transitioning from coordinating meetings to working meetings we ensure constant progress. We think students in general find it easier to set aside some hours one night a week than predicting how much time they would have available the next week, accept tasks that would fill this much time and actually find time during a hectic study week to do the tasks before the next meeting.
By making the teams small and focused on one project at the time, it is possible to do away with the coordinator role. We are in practice distributing responsibility, empowering people and at the same time strengthen self-motivation since they themselves are deciding what needs to get done. Adopting agile tools helps us involve everyone in the coordination of tasks and responsibilities.
It is very scalable. In practice it could support a small group of members, only enough for one or two projects at the time, or we could easily run 10 parallel projects (~40 people). A student group fluctuates in size over time, both because of graduation and varying work-load during each semester, and therefore it is important that the structure can adapt to the situation and still be useful.
The project structure is easy to customize for nearly every kind of project. Larger projects should be parted into several teams with an agreed upon communication structure between them.
Since everyone is meeting the same place at the same time, and share breaks, we build a common culture much more easily. This is also helped by the members working on different teams and with different people throughout the semester.
Members can work on different kinds of projects, and are not limited to the theme of their group. This is an important change from last semester that many called for.
Project based delegation, where the board works out the framework and goals of a project before a new team is created to work on it ensures that we follow the overarching goals and strategy set by the general assembly without the need to micromanage.
Better learning opportunities for the members as they have to take more responsibility and are working on many different projects with different people. Especially we think it is important to train them in woking well in interdisciplinary teams, an essential skill for doing knowledge work.
But also several challenges and disadvantages:
Finding a good way of letting members choose which projects they want to be a part of, but there is a trade off when too many want to work on the same projects or the board has special reasons for prioritizing a not-so-popular project.
The road from idea to active project is too long. We have got idea channels on Slack to gather every new idea, and plan to do some creative workshops for creating ideas for new projects. The board then has to prioritize and prepare the project framework before enough members must be available for taking on new projects and they must choose this particular project. Only then the idea has become an active project.
Knowledge and experience from agile techniques and team dynamics is important, but not essential, to administer this kind of structure.
We find having coffee, tea, fruit and snacks available during our working meetings help reduce the barriers (thirst and low blood sugar) to work efficiently. Also, we have invested in some office supplies, such as the Kanban boards, markers, post-its, notebooks and so on. This require some funds, but I’m very confident that it is worth it.
Experience from this semester
The dominating project we have done this semester is our largest event to date where the Crown Princess of Norway and Tore Godal, co-founder of GAVI, visited us and had an open conversation on global health in a lecture hall at the university. The promotional value was huge, but the part I'm most proud of is how we managed to get the teams to work and collaborate in the planning and the execution of the event. For this event we organized six teams with responsibility for: Media, Design, Economy, HR, Practical tasks and a Coordinator team. Each team had 3-5 members. We have done several events earlier, but then the real workload was much less evenly distributed and they were all smaller in size. We believe the organizational change is the main contributor to this.
Uncertainties and reservations
At the end we want to highlight the uncertainties and challenges with these initial results. We have only used this structure for 2-3 months, and the period has been dominated by one large event, and may therefore not be generating typical results. We have not measured any quantifiable valuable hours of work produced before or after the change. Other long-term metrics such as more membership applications, increased web activity/interest or internal ones such as new GWWC-members or significant career changes will take longer to gather. For me, the factor I'm feeling most positive about is the higher motivation and engagement I'm observing. This can not be quantified easily, so we may very well be wrong on this. It is important to add here that our group is not that different to many other groups at our university. We do not know if there are some essential qualities about the way we operate that are made possible by the way our culture in Norway or at NTNU, and thus are hard to copy for others.
The goal of this post is to summarize our experiences in identifying challenges in an EA student group and how to organize in order to best adapt to these challenges, as well as reporting our initial experience in implementing a new structure for doing just that. If others have experience from similar areas it may be very helpful to see if we came to the same conclusions and if we could learn from each other. We especially want to learn how to ask the right questions in order to monitor the important factors moving forward.
At the current stage we do not know enough to recommend any specific structure or element to other student groups, except that we highly recommend other groups to think of how they may evolve the next 3-5 years and try to predict what are the most limiting resources and skills for your group. Consider whether you should reorganize to widen these bottlenecks for the future.
Co-founder and Co-president
Effektiv Altruisme NTNU
With a lot of help from others in our group!
Effektiv Altruisme NTNU
During a working session