Starting a conversation about the name “Effective Altruism” for local and university groups.
Abstract: most EA groups’ names follow the recipe “Effective Altruism + [location/university]”. In 2020 we founded a university EA group who’s name does not include the words “Effective Altruism”. We have grown rapidly, and it now seems more and more likely that our organization will stick around in years to come. We think our name played a non-negligible part in that. In fact, we believe that choosing an alternative name is one of the most cost-effective things you can do to make your group grow. In this article we argue that more (potential) groups should consider an alternative name. We propose a method for coming up with that name. Lastly, we propose that “part of the EA network” could serve as a common subtitle to unite all EA groups despite their various names. Scroll down to ‘summary’ for a quick overview of our arguments.
One of my teachers, a social entrepreneur, once told me: “when you are doing any kind of project, first make sure to give it a good name.” These words ran through my mind when I, together with five others, started a new EA student association at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
At our second collective meeting we decided against the name “Effective Altruism Erasmus” and opted for “Positive Impact Society Erasmus” (PISE) instead. Now, 6 months in, we still believe this was a great decision. Our association is doing well, and we believe that our name has had some part in that.
As we speak, more Dutch EA groups are considering changing their name. Maastricht University’s chapter is already called “LEAP” (Local Effective Altruism Project) and the group at Wageningen University is also considering a name change.
We think we should have a movement wide conversation about “Effective Altruism” as the name for local and university groups. Below we have written down our thoughts on two questions: firstly, should local and university groups have a name other than “Effective Altruism X”? Secondly, if so, what should that name be? Lastly, we propose a common subtitle for all EA groups with an alternative name. Our thoughts are far from complete and we are uncertain on many accounts. We invite anyone to add to the discussion!
Before we start: how important is a name anyways?
How important is the name of your group? On the one hand a name is just a name. If you are delaying founding an EA chapter because you are fervently debating your groups name, you need to reconsider your priorities. However, you only get one chance at a first impression and sometimes your first impression makes a difference.
How much of a difference does it make? In the last 6 month our group grew from 6 active members to 24, all of which are now spending time every week on organizing events and workshops, working on projects etc. Many of them had never heard of EA before this year but have now taken a fellowship, or read an EA book. If we had to make a conservative guess we would say about 2-3 people would not have found us if we would have had the traditional name (later we will give some examples of this).
In total, coming up with the name took us about 3,5 hours (which was about an hour longer than it should have cost). 2,5 hours of work for growing your organization by 2-3 extra active members (every 6 months) is a return on investment we haven’t often seen elsewhere. Therefore we think more local and university groups should consider an alternative name.
Should local and university groups have a name other than “Effective Altruism + [location/university]”?
The name “Effective Altruism” was never meant to take off as a popular term. The marketing implications of the name were only considered in relation to the Centre of Effective Altruism, not for local or university groups. Reconsidering the name with the marketing implications for local and university groups in mind is likely to bring up different considerations. We have put some thought into this issue and summarized our conclusions below.
Advantages of an alternative name
We think picking a different name for your EA chapter could have some great advantages:
1. Choosing something recognizable makes your organization easier to find for people who don’t know EA but who would love it if they did come to know it.
We have some anecdotal evidence of people currently involved with PISE who found us by googling terms related to “making the world a better place”, while others found us after clicking on our name at an online freshers fair event. As altruism is less commonly used and known, we would probably have missed out on these much valued group members if we had gone for the traditional naming.
2. Choosing something more recognizable with a “better ring to it” could help your group come across as more appealing to both collaborators and potential members.
The name “Effective Altruism” could be unappealing for a few reasons:
- 1) The -ism suffix is associated with religion and political ideology. We think a big part of the appeal of EA lies in it’s undogmatic character. By sounding like an ideology you might be scaring off exactly those people to whom EA would appeal.
- 2) Since the -ism suffix signals that it is a difficult word, this could give your organization an air of elitism.
- 3) “Altruism” (as well as it’s Dutch equivalent “altruïsme”) are not commonly used words, many people will not know it. This is especially true for non-native speakers, but I have also run into quite a few native speakers who didn't know the term. This means that based on your name, many people will have no clue what you are involved in. To those people, It might as well be a made up word. This forces them to go off on the associations described above.
Thought experiment: how would an organization called “Effective Marnaism” come across to you, if you had no prior knowledge of it? (Marna is a made up word) It sounds a bit like a religious group or political ideology. The 'effective' part could convey that it is the more radical arm of that ideology. Well, that’s exactly what Effective Altruism could sound like to someone who doesn’t know the term altruism.
- 4) The direct translations of Effective Altruism can sound a bit forced. The dutch “Effectief Altruïsme” is a case in point. This can make you seem a bit “out of touch”. We checked with German and Spanish EA’s and they confirm that the direct translations sound rather awkward in their native tongue (a Polish EA we talked to have said that the name actually sounds really positive in Polish, so this point may not be relevant in all languages).
An alternative name, if chosen right, could reverse these effects and be appealing on account of sounding recognizable, relatable, conjuring up positive associations and sounding befitting of the context. As described later, we have spontaneously been approached for collaborations a number of times, we believe this would have been less likely to have happened with the traditional naming.
3. Choosing a different name could clear up confusion around the two “projects” of effective altruism and starts your conversations more smoothly.
We view this as quite an important consideration, so it is worth the extra explanation it requires.
In perhaps the most popular definition (for example here and here) of effective altruism, EA is described as consisting of two projects. Firstly, there is the intellectual project: this is effective altruism as a research field. It consists of everyone who is researching “how to maximize the good” (or as we refer to it: positive impact) and it takes place in academia, within charitable organizations, by independent researchers etc. Secondly, there is the practical project: this is effective altruism as a social movement. It is the group of people who use the findings from that research to try to improve the world. This consists of local and student groups, and all other people who are applying the research in their lives and careers.
What we see here is that two very different things, a research field and a social movement, are both being referred to with the same name. So why is this an issue? It leads to a very rough start of a conversation. I’ll explain:
Since starting PISE we have had to constantly explain and pitch our association to people; prospective members, other organizations, people from the university etc. Usually such a conversation will start like this: someone hears you are involved in some kind of student group and they will ask something like “Ow cool, so what is [name of your organization] exactly?”. What we noticed when our draft name still was “Effective Altruism Erasmus” is that in the case of a traditional EA group name that question will be abbreviated to “what is Effective Altruism?”
What people then expect to hear is “Effective Altruism is X” where X is a general category of things in which to place your group such as ‘an organization’, ‘a student association’ etc. However, because they abbreviated their question to remove your location, you now feel obliged to explain what effective altruism is in general. Because of its two projects it is hard to express EA in this “this is X” format. This means that you have to come up with a longer explanation.
When you answer this very basic “what is”-question with something which sounds like the start of a lecture (such as “Well, effective altruism is two things actually. On the one hand…”) in my experience people dislike that very much. If instead of providing a basic answer to a basic question you provide something complicated and fuzzy you are in danger of communicating that 1) you have no clear idea of what your group actually is and does 2) you are the sort of person who overshares and dominates a conversation. In either case, people are quick to lose interest.
With an alternative name, the conversation starts much more smoothly and welcoming. Now when people ask us the straightforward question “what is Positive Impact Society?”, we can give a straightforward answer: “we are the association here at Erasmus for students who are ambitious about making the world a better place”. This is by no means a complete description of what we are, but that doesn’t matter: you have given them something to latch on to (the X they were looking for) which is a better ground for continuing the conversation. Later on in the conversation ( or in a more high fidelity setting) when you have a better view of how interested they are in talking to you, then you can go into the nitty gritty of effective altruism and how your group relates to it. You get the same information across but with a much better impression. You also avoid the risk of spreading a misconception about effective altruism, something which is likely to happen when your conversation partner only really listens to you for 30 second before losing interest.
Nowadays, in our explanations and pitches, for clarity we refer to our group as PISE, later on in the conversation and at our events we refer to the social movement as effective altruism, and the research field as global priorities research (usually with the asterisk "sometimes also referred to as effective altruism"). When we can go more in depth (such as later in the conversation or during a fellowship) we explain the nuances of how those terms are used and how they relate.
Disadvantages of an alternative name
We think having an alternative name could also have potential downsides. However, most of those have simple remedies:
1. Choosing a different name could come across as intransparent.
Someone “discovering” your organization is part of the EA movement after having interacted with your organization for a while could feel as if this connection should have been made explicit.
Remedies: we mention EA in almost all of our events, we use the EA lightbulb in our logo, we make sure to explain EA at every collaboration meeting we have, etc. Basically, it is impossible for someone to interact with us without running into the term “effective altruism” somewhere. You could even include a subtitle explaining your affiliation below your name if this is a worry (more about this later). Hence, transparency is not an issue if aside from your name EA remains to have a prominent role in the rest of your (more high fidelity) communication.
2. Choosing a different name could create a lack of searchability:
one could worry that people who are actively looking to join an effective altruism chapter could have trouble finding you if you have a different name.
Remedies: we use the EA lightbulb in our logo, we are mentioned in the national EA newsletter every month, we are found on the EA Hub, we are very well connected with the rest of the movement, we are currently improving our SEO so that googling Effective Altruism Rotterdam/Erasmus is more likely to lead to us. People who are actively trying to find us will.
Other considerations: We can not rule out that we have missed out on some potential members who already know and love EA (we know of one case of an EA finding us a few months later than he would have if we were called EA Erasmus, which could suggest others are still having trouble finding us).This would be a shame. However, as mentioned above, this is mostly preventable and we think that this should be weighed against the first advantage of an alternative name: while an alternative name makes you less easy to find for people who already know and love EA, it makes you easier to find for people who don’t know EA, but who would love it if they did come to know it. Given the low notoriety of EA in the Netherlands , in this context, this consideration strongly favors an alternative name.
If an alternative name is a good idea, what should that name be?
So what name would we propose? Should every EA group now be called “Positive Impact Society X”? Definitely not. We certainly do not believe that “Positive Impact Society Erasmus” is the perfect name. It is lengthy, no one knows how to pronounce the acronym PISE (to rhyme with mice, if you’re interested) and without the ‘Erasmus’ part the acronym spells PIS… yep.
We do, however, think that the name makes a lot of sense in our specific context. To name one reason: our university has the goal of developing its identity as the impact oriented university of the Netherlands. We believe that an ‘impact university’ cannot be complete without a lively student community excited about making the most positive societal impact they can (put differently: an EA group). The University’s newly introduced slogan reads: “Creating Positive Societal Impact, the Erasmian Way”. Our name communicates that we completely support the new mission. We have made some connections with university staff members who were rooting for us after coming across our LinkedIn. We believe this would not have happened to the same extent if we chose the name “Effective Altruism Erasmus”. Even though we think we are very aligned with the university’s mission, this would not have been clear through our branding.
We think our example shows that certain names and branding can have different advantages in different contexts.
How to pick a name
Our current advice for new groups coming up with their name would be this:
1. Come up with a list of 3-4 names which are:
- Recognizable to people in your audience who don’t know EA but who would love it if they did. This is context dependent. If you are starting an EA group in a tech company where people are obsessed with the newest productivity hacks, something like “Optimizing for Good” could be a good fit, whereas this would not be very appealing at an Art School.
- Befitting of your cultural context. Make sure that your name is in the language of the people you most want to reach and conjures up positive associations. In short, if most of your potential audience has Spanish as their first language, pick something that sounds nice in Spanish.
We think this took us about an hour.
2. “Focus group” your names: this just means that you check the assumptions you made in picking your names with other people. This does not have to be time consuming: just send out the potential names to a bunch of friends who are similar to your potential audience and ask them:
- What do you like and dislike about this name?
- Based on this name alone, what do you think about this organisation? What do you think they do?
- What adjectives do you associate with this name?
(this step took us a total of 30 minutes of work, 15 min sending messages, 1,5 hours of waiting for replies while we did other stuff and then 15 minutes of going through the replies)
Ideally, each of the people you send a message/have a call with should hear only one potential name, but depending on the amount of people you know from your potential audience, you might want to consider sending everyone the full list. If you send a full list, ask the question “, Which name do you like best and why?”
3. Decide on your name based on the feedback you have received. We think we spend way too much time on this step (an EA naming classic), probably two hours. Force yourself to make the decision after one hour.
4. If you worry about transparency and lack of perceived unity of different groups, add a subtitle indicating your connection to the wider EA network.
A common subtitle
We would love it if there was a common subtitle to be used by all EA groups with alternative names. we would propose “part of the EA student network” for student groups and “part of the EA network” for local and company groups. We think this would beneficial for two reasons.
1) in many contexts being part of a global network will come across very positively (For example: at introductions to our association we often include a slide which shows various logos of EA groups used around the world. This always appears to be received with excitement). To make use of this positive association it is important to have your subtitle say ‘EA’ instead of ‘Effective Altruism’ since the full name would have the same downsides as described above, and might negate the excitement. Furthermore we would opt for ‘part of the EA network’ instead of something like “an EA group” as it conveys that you are part of something which contains many other associations.
2) If there were any issues of transparency, you wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore. In order for this to work, you have to make sure your subtitle is clickable on your website or create a section titled “the EA (student) network” on your about page. At the moment, the best place to link to would be the EA hub group directory.
Currently when you google “EA network”, this unfortunately doesn’t lead you to the EA hub. “EA group” does, but having ‘EA group’, instead of ‘ EA network’ be part of your subtitle doesn’t have the benefit of communicating that you are part of something big and connected.
If more EA groups start adopting an alternative name. We would love it if 1) ‘the EA network’ became the title of the EA hub directory page 2) the directory would be split between student and local groups 3) Information on these pages would be written for people unfamiliar to EA and tailored to their respective audiences. 3) some search engine optimization was applied to these pages.
That way anyone looking to find out more about the larger network of which your group is a part can easily find good information tailored to them.
Based on our experience choosing an alternative name could be one of the most cost-effective things you can do to help your group grow (for us: approximately 1 hour of work, for each new committed group member in the first 6 months). The traditional EA group name has several downsides, whereas an alternative name could:
- Make you easier to find for people who would love EA, but are as of yet unfamiliar.
- Make your group sound more appealing.
- Create a much smoother start of the conversation about your group.
Potential pitfalls to look out for are:
- A perceived lack of transparency .
- People already familiar with EA being unable to find you.
Luckily these pitfalls seem easily avoidable.
We have proposed a method of coming up with a name that fits your group. We think a good alternative name should be:
- Recognizable for people that are unfamiliar with EA.
- Tailored to your specific context
- Tested with members from your audience.
Lastly , we have proposed “part of the EA network” and “part of the EA student network” as common subtitles to be used by all EA groups with an alternative name. If more EA groups do in fact adopt an alternative name, it would be beneficial to make some changes to the EA hub.
We invite everyone to add to these considerations in the comments. If based on this post you decide on an alternative name, we would love to know about it and hear your experiences!