Why Groups Should Consider Direct Work


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It has been argued that it is strategically optimal for EA groups to focus on community building rather than direct work [1]. The rationale behind this approach is very sensible, drawing attention to the comparative advantage that groups (university groups especially) ostensibly have to specialise in community building. Meanwhile, it is thought that many groups don’t have the time, expertise or funding to deliver high-quality direct work or to take on the most pressing interventions. Furthermore, EA organisations typically have a need for funding and full time dedicated staff, rather than dispersed, part-time volunteers.

 

However, there are a number of exceptions and limitations to this premise, as well as considerations that it overlooks. In recent months, the LEAN team has been approached by groups struggling to engage and retain members. As direct work may have the potential to attract and engage members, it seems valuable to revisit this policy and open it up for discussion.

 

In the first part of this article, I lay out considerations that may have been overlooked or wrongly dismissed, in order to illustrate the potential value to some groups of incorporating direct work into their strategy under certain conditions. I discuss the importance of tangible actions for drawing a certain subset of high-potential individuals into rewarding and ongoing engagement with EA. From there, I move on to assess the most relevant counterfactuals to emphasise, in order to discern the best course of action with respect to this topic. A forthcoming article will focus on heuristics for enabling groups to identify their comparative advantage and a practical pathway for those considering the possibility of engaging in direct work.

The challenge of member retention

It is possible to argue that, for the sake of the EA movement, direct work should be ‘left to the professionals’, and that a significant concentration of resources and skill is needed to guarantee the quality and success of worthwhile interventions. I believe, however, that this perspective, when promoted as a general principle, tends to overlook two critical factors:

 

The first involves the mechanism through which groups retain and incubate talent for the EA movement. We know from the 2017 LEAN Impact Assessment [2] that many groups struggle to retain members. This was remarked upon by several of the organisers interviewed:

 

“I think around the world this is a common problem, that after people get involved in EA, there’s not many things to do or to keep them interested.”

 

“We got a lot of young professionals and students, and some young professionals really liked the ideas. But because we don’t have anything concrete for them to engage in this, it’s a really big gap for them to engage in the community.”


“All we can offer people who want to join the club is that we have a space to meet interesting people and have good conversation. But it’s not directly beneficial to your life, in that way. So even people who want to be effective altruists and want to be more involved often find that they have other commitments.”

 

The assessment [3] suggested that EA groups act to amplify the impact of individuals. In particular it found that 617 active commitments came about as a result of group participation (for example, lifestyle changes, consumption changes and similar), while 227 counterfactual GWWC pledges were influenced and 517 career choices were impacted. Moreover, groups in 2017 produced over $50,000 USD for effective charities through collective fundraising, and they estimated a shifting of over $700,000 USD in private donations to effective charities.

 

Further to this, individuals and organisers perceived groups as offering positive effects upon value alignment and EA retention. For example, 217 respondents of the 2017 EA Survey attributed groups as counterfactually significant in leading them to become involved in EA [4]. The majority of 2017 Local Group Survey respondents deemed involvement in their groups to form a large or very large factor of their involvement in EA. Meanwhile, over 70% of respondents believed that they would have greater social impact in the future as a result of changes in beliefs or perspectives brought about through group participation.

 

Despite these facts, many organisers reported that some EAs were disinclined to be involved with groups because they wanted more active options than those on offer. See, for instance, the following examples from our interviews [5]:

 

“People will say “well great, this sounds like a good idea but what is there to actually do?” It’s just a small community of people that are interested. And I think what’s tricky is that people don’t really see what they get from joining. It’s like “ok great, I like this idea - I’ll read the materials, but why do I need to come?” kind of thing…”

 

“We’ve been getting messages from people wanting to be involved in the club and actually do stuff. But the stuff we do is more, you know, host meetings, talk about stuff, get speakers, or talk about donations…”

 

“We look for ways of generating appeal, and I think the prioritization project and influence over a budget was helpful for that. But since we’re largely focused around meeting weekly and discussing philosophical issues it’s not always as prestigious as joining something else with more to offer.”

 

“There are people that want to talk about weird stuff and ethical paradoxes and then there are people saying ‘lets do something tangible as a group’, and so I’ve been struggling to figure out how to make everyone happy.”

 

Optimistically, some of the individuals that groups fail to retain are engaging with EA independently and privately, e.g. via donations or changes in career path. However, we should assume that many other talented individuals are exposed to EA ideas through a group, but do not necessarily go on to donate or alter their careers in the long run, even if they initially intend to do so.

 

In addition to the reports of organisers shared above, there also seem to be several straightforward reasons why direct work could be expected to secure higher retention by EA groups, and for the EA movement by extension.

 

Considering the example of university groups, we know that talented undergraduates are at a point in life where they are relatively cash poor, but often relatively flexible in terms of time availability. Undergraduates are also at a stage in life where they are especially receptive to new ideas, and are embedded in a social and institutional context which actively encourages them to be so. Furthermore, competitive undergraduates have a mind towards their future and are on the lookout for opportunities to improve their career capital. So what happens to an undergraduate who encounters EA at university? For most of these, opportunities to actively apply EA are fairly limited. They might donate their birthdays to fundraise for an EA charity, join the committees of their University group, assist in event organisation and outreach, or make one-off major adjustments. For example, they might take the GWWC pledge, reorient their career trajectory or transition to veganism. However, for many, this won’t be enough to engage their interest and inspire them to commit free time to participating in a group. As even the most sincere and well intentioned individuals are susceptible to value drift, as illustrated recently by Joey Savoie [6], this is a serious concern. It therefore seems prudent to adopt a psychological model of EAs that better reflects reality.

 

It would be challenging to survey individuals who stopped participating in EA groups after a few events, but we were able to gather some helpful feedback from existing group members during the Local Group Survey in 2017 [7]. When asked “In what way could the group provide more value to you?”, a few of the submissions expressed the following wishes:

 

“Do something to increase the utility of the world, besides ourselves”

“More social events and more direct impact (rather than indirect, like spreading awareness and getting pledges).”

“More engagement with various cause areas and people working on them. People are concerned with things like animal welfare, eliminating diseases and existential risk. But aside from directing donations to them and changing personal consumption habits, the focus feels ‘mostly academic’.”

“More effective work and projects”

“More activism and campaign oriented work”

 

As previously mentioned, there is also no guarantee that once members (or would-be members) graduate and move on from this initial engagement that they will adhere to their pledges and donation goals, even if they were inspired to make a change of this kind at that time. Many morally-minded intelligent people are attracted by immediate opportunities to use their skills to create tangible change. If people such as this are given engaging opportunities at this critical stage, then chances are significantly higher that they will remain plugged into the community, and value-aligned.

 

This holds true for non-student local groups also. Even if a group made up of professionals succeeds in securing donations and inspiring people to earn to give, it is also likely to have some members that are more attracted by tangible opportunities. (While specific actions will be addressed in a later post, for the sake of clarity, tangible opportunities that come to mind include volunteering, adcocacy, fundraising and undertaking research.) Indeed, this preference might be even more pronounced amongst professional EAs who typically have less disposable time than students, and are more likely to be embedded in family commitments and full time work. Individuals in this category might prefer to invest time only in activities with concrete material outcomes, in contrast to purely discussion based and social activities. One notable finding from the EA Survey 2017 data  was that EA students were almost twice as likely to be in groups as non-student EAs were. For many professional EAs, it may not make any sense in their trajectory to switch careers, but they still might need the inspiration and fulfilment that direct action offers, in order to remain motivated to give. In such cases opportunities for direct action are may promote continued value alignment.

 

It is worth noting, at this juncture, that 57 of the Local Group Survey respondents in 2017 were from local groups, where 37 hailed from university groups. This makes it vitally important to consider the retention and preferences of professionals in addition to students, when forming movement level group strategy.

 

Overall then, if we discourage groups from engaging in direct work, we choose to accept the loss or distancing of many highly talented persons with significant potential.

Which counterfactual is the best fit?

 

This brings me to the second of the two factors that are unduly overlooked. That is the issue of choosing the right counterfactual. The maxim that EA groups should abstain from direct work in favour of community building is a conclusion that appears to take for granted that groups and their members are equally willing and able to do one or the other. If group members were likely to redirect each hour of time they would have offered to direct work to community building, this suggestion might well be appropriate. However, people who are motivated to offer their spare time to direct work might be turned cold by community building activities. In this case, the hours of labour and skill on offer might very well be lost entirely, if direct action was not on the cards.

 

This is an alarming consideration, especially if we factor in the numerous professional EAs who might want to volunteer a few hours of their week to direct work, but who should not switch from their careers to working full time for an existing organisation. In cases such as these, the skill and experience of these group members may very well be wasted on simple outreach or community building pursuits. In other words, it seems very likely that for a number of individuals the choice is not between community building and direct work, but rather between direct work and nothing, or direct EA work and some other competing opportunity such as involvement in a different charitable community or society.

 

An infrequent but still important counterfactual that must be addressed is that of groups who would be significantly restricted, or lose out on impactful opportunities unless they engaged in direct action. A few such cases emerged during LEAN's group leader interviews in 2017 [8]. For these groups, ‘bread and butter’ EA group actions are either not feasible or unlikely to be effective because of the specificity of their cultural and regional context. The same may be true of a focus on donations, particularly for a group operating in a third world country. Some groups encounter regulatory censorship, and certain cultures and communities have an even stronger insistence upon domestic charity. Groups such as these are often inspired to reinvent the wheel and engage in sophisticated strategy that may involve actions such as diplomacy, advocacy and context tailored interventions. Recent examples include local groups like EA Delhi, hoping to work on regionally specific donation recommendations in light of the unique philanthropic market in the country, and a different group [9] which has the opportunity to redirect significant donations institutionalised within a particular religious network as long as it can reframe and prioritise strategic angles of EA thought.

 

Of course it is also important to consider counterfactuals less favourable to my argument. In theory, engaging in direct action could result in a loss of time that an EA might have better spent on career building efforts, as illustrated in Thomas Sittler's retrospective [9] on the Oxford Prioritisation Project. While diversion of this kind does not strike me as unlikely, it does strike me as less damaging in overall effect when compared to the risk of talented EAs drifting away from EA entirely. An already engaged EA will likely still have learned from any misguided or inefficient activities. If the activity in question is not highly successful, those executing the activity will still be building lasting experiences of value in areas such as leadership and project management. Meanwhile, failed retention of would-be EAs is more permanent, enduring and expansive with respect to the costs that are incurred by the movement.

What if the direct work is low-value?

Realigning our counterfactuals alters how we view the utility of direct work engaged in by groups. Instead of looking at how valuable direct work in this context will be in itself, we should also ask what value it will offer to the meta-level goals of attracting, retaining and incubating talent to the movement. Returning again to the Local Group Survey data of 2017, we asked members to share their plans for impact and to tell us how they believed the EA community could best support them in their goals.

 

“It would be helpful if EA orgs were willing to give our group consulting tasks that we could use as a learning opportunity”

“More resources about effective project work”

“Helping NGOs in my country measure their impact and make it bigger”

“Help me find impactful volunteer opportunities”

“EA Global should consider empowering individual EAs working in government and government-adjacent institutions, with specific tools and networking opportunities to facilitate policy advocacy”

 

Replies of this kind made it clear that there is a significant need in the movement for an intermediary space between formalised roles such as internships or jobs that empower talented and ambitious altruists to upskill and make strides towards the impact they are best suited to deliver in the long term. Clearly then, the value of direct work in this context is broader than that of the action itself.

 

It is also worth a reminder, at this junction, that direct work organised at the group level can be highly impactful, as evinced by the aforementioned amount of funds collectively raised for effective charities by a small number of groups last year.

 

Nevertheless one might reasonably question this value calculus if one has concerns that direct action on the part of groups might be not merely ineffectual but actively harmful. The risk of this outcome seems very low to me for a number of reasons.

 

First of all, there are exceedingly few groups in the network engaging in direct work. This suggests that, for the time being at least, we are highly unlikely to witness an uncontrolled explosion of altruistic interventions by groups, for good or for bad.

 

Furthermore, we tend to see those groups who do pioneer and initiate charitable projects reaching out to the EA community for informational and material support. This is because groups are not typically independently blessed with the funds, connections and expertise to launch interventions prior to networking. The impetus to network means that groups spontaneously integrate with the global EA community. This connection, and the support that the central community brings with it an element of influence and accountability, which safeguards against misguided ventures.

Conclusion

Altogether it seems very likely that a blanket policy discouraging groups from engaging in direct work will cost the movement a significant amount of hours in terms of the labour and skill that EAs around the world are inspired to offer. Not only is this negative for straightforward reasons, but this ‘waste’ brings with it a substantial risk to retention. This warrants an investigation into whether or not it is worthwhile to encourage groups to take on opportunities for action where applicable. Available group actions may fall short of embodying the very highest impact intervention that humans could take, but might instead still constitute the highest impact intervention that the group in question could deliver. Even if the gains from such projects might be small, they would be multiplied by the long-term returns in members retained, hours of good performed, and in the fostering of skill. A talented group member who cuts their teeth on a small scale, modest project may be much more likely and able to transition to higher impact responsibilities in the future.

 

In a future article, I will suggest ways that organisers can identify the comparative advantage particular to their group, and share examples of successful direct actions taken by present and past groups.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] https://app.effectivealtruism.org/groups/resources/effective-altruism-community-building

[2] http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1l7/2017_lean_impact_assessment_evaluation_strategic/

[3] http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1ic

[4] https://rtcharity.org/ea-survey-2017-part-8/

[5] http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1jb/2017_lean_impact_assessment_qualitative_findings/

[6] http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1ne/empirical_data_on_value_drift/

[7] http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1ic. Please note that we summarised most of the survey results in this article. However, the data mentioned here has never been published or summarised, as it comes from a minority of open, qualitative questions in the survey, which were not amenable to quantitative analysis. This summary is still useful for methodological information regarding the sample.

[8] http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1jb/2017_lean_impact_assessment_qualitative_findings/

[9] The group in question prefers anonymity.

[10] https://thomas-sittler.github.io/oxprioreview/

 

Acknowledgements

 

Thanks to David Moss, Tee Barnett and David Vatousios for editorial feedback.