Why EA groups should not use “Effective Altruism” in their name.

by KoenSchoen11 min read19th Feb 202129 comments


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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. What  do you like and dislike about this name?
  2. Based on this name alone, what do you think about this organisation? What do you think they do?
  3. 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:

  1. Make you easier to find for people who would love EA, but are as of yet unfamiliar.
  2. Make your group sound more appealing.
  3. Create a much smoother start of the conversation about your group.

Potential pitfalls to look out for are:

  1. A perceived lack of transparency .
  2. 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:

  1. Recognizable for people that are unfamiliar with EA.
  2. Tailored to your specific context
  3. 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!


29 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:20 AM
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Thanks for writing this, I thought it was an interesting post - the point about translation awkwardness was especially new to me and seems pretty credible.

One consideration against I might consider would be that of organisational value drift. If you have invested a lot of effort into building an organisation, it makes sense to want to ensure it stays closely affiliated with the EA movement. If it has 'Effective Altruism' in the title, that is a powerful anchor. In contrast, if you're called the 'Positive Impact Club' or somesuch, I can easily imagine someone  arguing, "Well might not be EA but recycling awareness still has positive impact, so we should still promote it!" In particular, I think a strong name anchor makes it easier to resist social pressure from other activist groups on campus to promote their thing.

have two comments:

To give an anecdote on this concern: We had an Effective Animal Advocacy group at my college which, after the founding organizer left, was renamed to remove the effective and the focus shifted from more EAA related topics to general animal welfare.

I would be curious if you have any thoughts on the handover process and how you would mitigate this risk?

In general, I do like the idea of having a byline "part of the EA network" for a clearly aligned EA project, group or organisation.

It seems plausible that reasonable people might disagree on whether student groups on the whole would benefit from being more or less conforming to the EA consensus on things. One person's "value drift" might be another person's "conceptual innovation / development".

On balance I think I find it more likely that an EA group would be co-opted in the way you describe than an EA group would feel limited from doing  something effective because they were worried it was too "off-brand", but it seems worth mentioning the latter as a possibility.

Great points, I had been thinking along similar lines. I want to second the points about awkward translations, and that a lot of people don't really know what "altruism" means. 

Some additional thoughts:

"Effective Altruism" sounds self-congratulatory and arrogant to some people:

  • Calling yourself an "altruist" is basically claiming moral superiority, and anecdotally, my parents and some of my friends didn't like it for that reason. People tend to dislike it if others are very public with their altruism, perhaps because they perceive them as a threat to their own status (see this article, or do-gooder derogation against vegetarians). Other communities and philosophies, e.g., environmentalism, feminism, consequentialism, atheism, neoliberalism, longtermism don't sound as arrogant in this way to me.
  • Similarly, calling yourself "effective" also has an arrogant vibe, perhaps especially among professionals. E.g., during the Zurich ballot initiative, officials at the city of Zurich unpromptedly asked me why I consider them "ineffective", indicating that the EA label basically implied to them that they were doing a bad job. I've also heard other professionals in different contexts react similarly. Sometimes I also get sarcastic "aaaah, you're the effective ones, you figured it all out, I see" reactions.

"Effective altruism" sounds like a strong identity:

  • Many people want to keep their identity small, but EA sounds like a particularly strong identity: It's usually perceived as both a moral commitment, a set of ideas, and a community. By contrast, terms like "longtermism" are somewhat weaker and more about the ideas per se.
  • Perhaps partly because of this, at the Leaders Forum 2019, around half of the participants (including key figures in EA) said that they don’t self-identify as "effective altruists", despite self-identifying, e.g., as feminists, utilitarians, or atheists. I don't think the terminology was the primary concern for everyone, but it may play a role for several individuals.
  • In general, it feels weirdly difficult to separate agreement with EA ideas from the EA identity. The way we use the term, being an EA or not is often framed as a binary choice, and it's often unclear whether one identifies as part of the community or agrees with its ideas.

Some thoughts on potential implications:

  • These concerns don't just affect EA groups. The longer-term goal is for the EA community to attract highly skilled students, academics, professionals, policy-makers, etc., and the EA brand might plausibly be unattractive for some of these people. If that's true, the EA brand might act as a cap on EA's long-term growth potential, so we should perhaps aim to de-emphasize it. Or at least do some marketing research on whether this is indeed an issue.
  • EA organizations that have "effective altruism" in their name or make it a key part of their messaging might want to consider de-emphasizing the EA brand, and instead emphasize the specific ideas and causes more. I personally feel interested in rebranding "EA Funds" (which I run) to some other name partly for these reasons.
  • I personally would feel excited about rebranding "effective altruism" to a less ideological and more ideas-oriented brand (e.g., "global priorities community", or simply "priorities community"), but I realize that others probably wouldn't agree with me on this, it would be a costly change, and it may not even be feasible anymore to make the change at this point. OTOH, given that the community might grow much bigger than it currently is, it's perhaps worth making the change now? I'd love to be proven wrong, of course.

Thanks to Stefan Torges and Tobias Pulver for prompting some of the above thoughts and helping me think about them in more detail.

EA organizations that have "effective altruism" in their name or make it a key part of their messaging might want to consider de-emphasizing the EA brand.

I agree with this. I write about lots of EA-related work (e.g. for the EA Newsletter), and it often feels difficult not to use the term "effective altruism" so often that it feels way too self-promotional or something. I'd be happy to see a wider range of charity names, project names, subcommunity names, etc.

In general, it feels weirdly difficult to separate agreement with EA ideas from the EA identity. The way we use the term, being an EA or not is often framed as a binary choice, and it's often unclear whether one identifies as part of the community or agrees with its ideas.

This feels like a common difficulty for many social movements (though many of those movements embrace the phenomenon, since they want wholehearted "believers" in a way we aren't as concerned with).

My personal solution is to say "I try to practice effective altruism" or "I try to follow the principles of effective altruism" — using "try" as a way to indicate that I don't think I'm doing a perfect job. The second of these is probably better (albeit longer), since "the principles of effective altruism" are a different thing than EA as a whole.

I also avoid using the phrase "effective altruist" whenever possible, especially when doing public communication (I think it should just about only be used when people will know it as shorthand for "people in this community"). I'd be really happy if other people used the phrase less.

Some further, less important points:

  • We actually care about cost-effectiveness or efficiency (i.e., impact per unit of resource input), not just about effectiveness (i.e., whether impact is non-zero). This sometimes leads to confusion among people who first hear about the term.
  • Taking action on EA issues doesn't really require altruism. While I think it’s important that key decisions in EA are made by people with a strong moral motivation, involvement in EA should be open to a lot of people, even if they don’t strongly self-identify as altruists. Some may be mostly interested in contributing to the intellectual aspects without making large personal sacrifices.
  • There was a careful process where the name of CEA was determined. However, the adoption of the EA label for the entire community happened organically and wasn’t really a deliberate decision.
  • "Effective altruism" sounds more like a social movement and less like a research/policy project. The community has changed a lot over the past decade, from "a few nerds discussing philosophy on the internet" with a focus on individual action to larger and respected institutions focusing on large-scale policy change, but the name still feels reminiscent of the former.

There is a lot of guesswork involved here. How much would it cost for someone, like the CEA, to run a survey to find out how popular perception differs depending on these kinds of names? It would be useful to many of us who are considering branding for EA projects. 

I'd guess people's perception depends a lot on the culture, so it might make sense to do surveys just for your university, your city or your country, but not globally.

Such surveys are easy to do via polls in Facebook groups. Just select a group that resembles your target audience (e.g. scholarship networks etc) and do a quick poll on "We're thinking of starting a new organisation. What do you associate with these names?"

But the answers to a survey like that wouldn't be easy interpret. We should give the same message under organization names to group A and group B and see which group is then more likely to endorse the EA movement or commit to taking a concrete altruistic action.

Yes, that might lead to better data, but it also requires more time to set up and a larger sample size. I'd leave it up to whoever does this to decide how much time they want to invest and which method to choose. 

This makes sense - seems like a good thing to think about.

One other point you didn't mention is that by picking another name, it reduces brand risks for EA, and that means you can act a bit more independently. (E.g. once a local group ran an event that got picked up by national newspapers.)

You can also make your group name about something more specific. Another problem of effective altruism is that it's broad and abstract which makes it hard to explain.

For instance, if you want your group to be practical and aimed at students, picking something about careers / finding a job can be very appealing. (Though this wouldn't be a good choice if you wanted to be more niche and intellectual.) This was one of the reasons why we picked GWWC and 80k as names in the early days, rather than leading with effective altruism.

  1. 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).

Agree! I write a bit more about this topic here, and talk about how the first Chinese translation wasn't ideal.

This was one of the reasons why we picked GWWC and 80k as names in the early days, rather than leading with effective altruism.

I was curious about what you meant by this? I recall the term 'Effective Altruism' not being determined until 2011 or 2012, long after the names 'GWWC' and '80k' were chosen.

That's true, but we considered switching at several points later on (and the local groups did in fact switch).

Thanks for sharing your groups' experience Koen. I'm sympathetic to the idea that "Effective Altruism" wasn't the best choice of name, and I agree it is very important for any translations of the name to be done thoughtfully  as the most obvious translation isn't always going to work well.

My own belief (I'm not speaking for CEA) is that there is a big advantage of having a consistent brand and worldwide recognisable network,  so even if "effective altruism" wasn't the best choice initially, since it is the name we use now there is a cost to deviating from it that we shouldn't ignore.  The ideal in my mind would be if in each language had a carefully selected agreed upon name that EA groups operating in that language use. My guess is that it is probably better to have a not-perfect name that everyone uses, than a whole variety of different names. (I don't think "effective altruism" is bad enough for us to want to change the English speaking groups' names, but evidence could well change my mind on that). 

You mentioned one possible cost to not having this consistent brand (folks interested in EA not finding you). Another is if people google "PISE" or "Positive Impact Society" after seeing or hearing something about your group, they won't find the ideas and network that the group is based on, making the group appear less substantial and valuable than it actually is. The subtitle idea would help a bit if "effective altruism" was written in full and was obvious enough that folks would notice it and google that too. Another cost is that there are people who hear "effective altruism" several times in several places before  deciding to learn more/ get involved, so each exposure of that name (as long as it is positive!) helps. 

Some years back we did have several different names for EA groups: "effective altruism", "80,000 Hours", "Giving What We Can" (and "The Life You Can Save" however they were just global poverty focused). These groups did very similar things to each other, but had different names it felt messy and confusing, so I was pleased when these became more consistent. 

I'm not sure how much my preferences here are because of the usefulness of a consistent brand, a personal aesthetic preference, or due to the fact that I explain the EA ecosystem to a lot of newcomers and the more names there are the more complex this explanation becomes! 

My experience in business matches two of the points that Catherine makes above:

My guess is that it is probably better to have a not-perfect name that everyone uses, than a whole variety of different names.


Another cost is that there are people who hear "effective altruism" several times in several places before  deciding to learn more/ get involved, so each exposure of that name (as long as it is positive!) helps.

My current view is that:

  1. Consistent usage can be much more relevent for a brand's success than its intrinsic characteristics.  I can imagine the team at early-days Google discussing whether they should rebrand to something easier to write for X-language-speakers and more understandable for the average user.
  2. It is easy to overestimate the potential of an imaginary, shiny new brand and underestimate the value of your current imperfect brand. This may be one of those things that you only notice when it is no longer there (e.g. people leave a company believing that it was "just and empty shell"and that they were what made it valuable... only to find out that it is much harder to get clients when that well-known logo is no longer on your slides).

If anything, I would say that one of the weaknesses of Effective Altruism (purely from a branding perspective) is that its brand landscape is already super-diverse (e.g. there is GiveWell, ACE, Open Phil, Founders Pledge, GWWC, 80,000 Hours, etc., etc. each pushing their own brand). This does make sense since each of the organizations I mention is applying effective altruism to a particular space or situation. However, when it comes to local groups, I tend to think that the EA movement as a whole has much more to gain from consistency.

Ben mentions in his comment how independent brands can reduce brand risk for EA, which is true. However, I think they can also reduce brand potential for EA (this is more of a side note, but I think that  whenever we consider minimizing reputational risks we should also consider the opportunity costs of not doing something or doing it in the cautious-but-probably-less-impactful version).

I think that if we want to make the EA brand better (more meaningful, attractive, easily recognizable, etc.), simply using it consistently will go a long way.

I think this post doesn't explicitly recognize a (to me) important upside of doing this, which applies to doing all things that other people aren't doing: potential information value.

This post exists because people tried something different and were thoughtful about the results, and now potentially many other people in similar situations can benefit from the knowledge of how it went. On the other hand, if you try it and it's bad, you can write a post about what difficulties you encountered so that other people can anticipate and avoid them better.

By contrast, naming your group Effective Altruism Erasmus wouldn't have led to any new insights about group naming.

Thank you for writing this up! (This is me going meta btw). 

I really enjoyed reading your post because:

  • You thought outside the box and made me think (Honestly, I hadn't thought about this topic much just about now!)
  • I really liked the structure. It was easy to follow and engaging
  • You explained the potential risks and how to minimize these
  • Explained practical steps to choose a name

I can totally see a lot of situations where the formula “Effective Altruism + [location/university]"  isn't the best choice. In the context of German local groups (I live in Germany) it seems like this formula has worked pretty well so far (also given the kinds of activities most groups here focus on), particularly surrounded by the work of effektiv-spenden.org, which has spread the idea of "effective giving/donations" in Germany and indirectly of effective altruism. 

As a last anecdotal point (my personal experience when first came across the name "Effective Altruism/Effektiver Altruismus": I though the name sounded very interesting (especially the effective part :P), made me very curious and thought I'd like to talk to these folks at least once.

I am not ready to agree with that.

One of the arguments goes along the lines that the EA name being too complex, having "-ism" (which is associated with ideologies) in it, etc. However "altruism" is a very well-known word on its own, certainly among the people who donate.

Mainly though, the "Effective Altruism" become more and more known around the world. Thanks to the efforts of the founders (who also have become way more recognized) and their countless podcasts, TED talks, etc. It is and will become every more of a (positive) brand name. People will be looking more and more for "Effective Altriusm" even when they look for a local community dedicated to it.

And a personal anecdote: As recently as yesterday, I found and joined the EA community on Telegram exactly because it is named so. I would not have found it otherwise. And I don't even have to think what it is, I *know for sure* it's the right society, exactly the one I'm looking for. It would have been different if it was called "positive impact society" or something else. I might have thought twice before joining.

Thought-provoking post, thanks for writing it up!

While you've sold me on the idea that new EA groups starting out should seriously consider a non-traditional group name, I'm skeptical that it would be a good idea for a bunch of existing EA groups to suddenly change their group names. My intuition is thay they should probably be reluctant to change their name and only do so if it seems pretty clear that doing so is worth it.

That said, it might be worth it for a small number of existing groups (that think a name change would be especially helpful for them) to change their name as an experiment for us all to learn from.

Good points, but I'm a little tiny bit skeptical. So those people who join the group under the name of PISE but would not have joined the group when it was called Effective Altruism Erasmus, I wonder if that is due to the reasons that were mentioned (that the -ism suffix reminds of something religious, makes the name too unfamiliar, too difficult, associated with elitism...). If that would be the case, I would be surprised if those people are potentially high impact effective altruists. To put it overly simplistic: suppose someone would not join because of the word altruism in the name. The person does not like that word or does not even know what it means (like I don't know what "Marnaism" means). How can such a person (who has such a cognitive bias towards words, is so hypersenstitive to the use of a single word, thinks that an -ism word is too difficult, makes strange associations with religion, or does not even know what altruism means) expected to become a rational, intelligent, self-critical, scientifically literate high impact effective altruist? In the PISE group there are members who should come to the conclusion that if the name were different, they would not have joined? Do the group members realize that? 

Though I like thinking about words with a skeptical lens, I am not convinced this is a large concern. The name of a new thing will produce both predictable and random reactions from humans. 

 My expectation is that rational, intelligent, self-critical, scientifically literate humans are humans, which comes with a certain degree of randomness to their behaviors. There will be variations in what they feel like doing on a given day, and a low-stakes decision like "Do I want to go to this presentation by a group I haven't heard of?" is not much evidence either way of someone's thinking skills.  If the ideas the group is presenting attract those individuals in their particular context, and they hit upon a name that helps rather than distracts from that goal, that seems solid. 

To be clear, this also means I don't think everyone should look at PISE and think "we should definitely change our name too!" I think we don't have enough information from this one example to make a claim that strong. 

I thought this was a thoughtfully-shared example and am glad Koen wrote it up so people could share their thinking.

Great post, full of good points!

FWIW, I also love your chosen name of Positive Impact Society Erasmus and find it much more relatable and less problematic than if you had gone with Effective Altruism Erasmus. It also sounds like you have good synergy with that name and the mission of the university.

I also agree that even 'altruism' can be an unfamiliar word (and/or a technical concept) and therefore worth avoiding in some popular contexts. I liked your example of the made-up group 'Effective Marnaism' and how it can sound weird or ideological.

I would support your suggestion of using “part of the EA network”  as a way to communicate the wider context of local groups with locally working names. I'll add that — re: avoiding the unnecessary use of -ism, and re: EA sometimes having an air of elitism — I am decidedly not a part of the informal Goodreads group called Effective Altruists because of the problems I have with its name.

  • Especially in English, it is tempting to use the shorthand (and/or signaling of ingroup membership) of speaking of "EAs" and "Non-EAs", which sounds to me idealistic and exclusive in a negative way.
  • I  don't want to carry a visible badge of identifying as an effective altruist, because to me it sounds like an elitist claim of already being effective, which I see as an empirical and debatable claim. (Many people feel the need to specify their self-identity in the form of "aspiring X" instead of "X".)
  • I would join a group called 'EA network', which sounds entirely unproblematic to me!

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).

Finnish definitely shares this problem. The two predominant ways to translate 'effective' into Finnish are:

  1. tehokas (efficient)
  2. vaikuttava (impressive or impactful)

Efficient is problematic because it's not the same as impactful. Many people have emotional or ideological problems with the ideals of efficiency, productivity, and optimization, and would have a gut-feeling of resistance against, e.g., this definition (from Google Translate) applied to human behavior:

  • efficient: (especially of a system or machine) achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense. 

Impressive is even more problematic because an EA group would be wise to actively avoid the air of elitism which you mention. So "vaikuttava altruismi"  is basically equally close to "impressive altruism" as it is to "impactful altruism" — and there is not really a word in Finnish to separately capture the intended meaning of impactful.

The direct translation, efektiivinen, is very forced, and seems to have only rare and technical use in other contexts.

For these reasons (and other points mentioned in the post), I would encourage Finnish groups to consider alternative names!

Thank you for writing the post Koen!

As one of the organizers of the EA Rotterdam (non-university)  group, this hits close to home.

Kidding aside, I really liked how you went through the arguments and provided a framework for thinking this true.

I give it a non-negligible chance that we will update our name based on this article!


With regards to the 'part of the EA network', could that possibly be rephrased to 'part of the Effective Altruism network'? I think it would be good to do mention the full words instead of the abbreviation (as that wouldn't mean anything to new people) 

I love the specificity of your 'How to pick a name' section. I imagine that will be really useful in helping people follow through finding a good name.

Thanks for this post! I agree with Cristina's comments on the way you've written the post.

Regarding the EA Hub (I'm the Product Manager) what changes would you suggest?

Currently you can register your group with any name and people can filter and find your group. You can add a group type (uni, national/regional etc) and a description so it's clear that your group is an EA group and people know what to expect.

I'm not sure what other changes you are envisioning, but I'd be curious to hear more :)

I really like this! Haven't read such a thought-provoking EA forum post in a while. Some initial thoughts I have: In case of local groups, could it be best to avoid the name of the city/region? Ex. 'Positive Impact Brussels' sounds like you're trying to make a positive impact in Brussels, not on the world. On the other hand, perhaps many local groups will then end up with the same names and they will become indistinguishable. Maybe that can be solved by saying something like 'Brussels for the World'... (I don't think this sounds good, but it might spark better ideas).

Anecdote: This came up in my EA Intro Fellowship group discussion last week. Someone had heard of EA way back but thought the "Effective" part made us sound like wankers & didn't explore further (until recently).