TLDR: Here are some key ideas we tell new uni group organizers during UGAP kickoff:
- Prioritize truth-seeking by being honest, open, humble, and making learning a priority.
- Build a deep community that seriously engages with EA ideas by focusing on the most engaged group members, making sure they have the resources they need to take their engagement as far as they want to go, and fostering strong social bonds through genuine fun.
- Be serious but approachable by not being too salesy. Not everyone is going to agree with EA ideas, and that is okay.
- Your work matters, you aren’t alone, and we are excited to see what comes!
The use of “I” in this refers to me (Jessica McCurdy). This post was reviewed by other members of the CEA groups team (Jesse Rothman, Rob Gledhill, and Jake McKinnon) but the mistakes are my own. This does not represent CEA’s opinions as a whole and wasn’t reviewed by people on other teams at CEA. Thank you to Matt Burtell for also giving feedback on an earlier draft of this post. I am incredibly grateful for Justis Mills who created the first draft of this based on our kickoff presentation.
Over the past quarter, the CEA uni groups team has been focusing on scaling up support for university EA groups. In particular, we publicly launched our University Group Accelerator Program (UGAP) which aims to help new groups get started and grow. One important function of UGAP is that it gives us an opportunity to make sure new university groups are aligned on current best practices and our best guesses at how we should be framing university community building. We hope that this increases the quality, epistemics, and impact of new university groups.
In the UGAP kickoff session, we share some key framings and advice for organizing EA groups. We did not come up with this advice ourselves, rather we have pulled from various resources and highlighted the things that aligned with what we have seen from mentoring groups. In particular, a lot of the specific wording and framing comes from a presentation given by the Global Challenges Project, though some of what is written here may diverge from what they think.
We also do not think this advice is exhaustive and we hope that it will grow and evolve along with exploration in community building. These are our current best guesses. This post won’t be able to go into full detail on why we think each of these things but we hope to produce more content like that in the future.
I should also note that these suggestions are a bit more centered on “how to prevent your group from going poorly than how to make your group really great”. I think the latter is super important and I think that Kuhan’s reflections on running Stanford EA and SERI do a good job of this (and we have all the UGAP groups read this post too!). The advice in this post applies to many groups, but UGAP groups are typically very new which is why we first start with these key ideas.
What we say in UGAP kickoff
Stay Humble and Be Really Honest
When you’re in a position of authority, such as a group leader, it can be tempting to project an aura of (over)-confidence. EA ideas are really complicated, and virtually nobody knows everything going on at the forefront. Beyond virtue and norm considerations, it is really difficult to reliably represent yourself to very smart people (or anyone, for that matter) as understanding something you really don’t.
Furthermore, the most promising potential EAs are likely to think of questions that nobody has adequately posed or addressed yet; telling them you just don’t know the answer will likely signal that you are trustworthy and increase the chances that valuable lines of inquiry survive. We think being very honest has a positive selection effect and will attract better people. You are not a teacher. You are a fellow explorer.
However, if you don’t seem like you know anything you are also likely to put off these people. After all, what do they get out of spending time with your group if you don’t know what you are talking about? That is one of the reasons why we think it is incredibly important to…
Making progress on solving major problems in the world is hard. Really hard. There are so many uncertainties, complicated ideas, and unsolved problems. By continuously learning more about EA ideas (by things like reading the EA forum, listening to the 80k podcast, and taking classes in related subject matter) you are able to give honest, faithful descriptions of your beliefs and what is happening in the movement, you are able to be humble and honest while also having actual insights to contribute. You will also likely make better-informed decisions about your career and increase the impact of your contributions to EA and the world!
We think uni group organizers should be spending a significant amount of their time learning more about the pressing problems in the world, how people in EA have engaged with them so far, what the biggest current uncertainties are, how to reason about them better, and ways to make progress on them.
Build Deep Community that Seriously Engages with EA Ideas
Focus on highly engaged members
We think it's good to do broad recruiting at the beginning of the semester, as with any club or activity. But beyond this big push of raising awareness, we think it’s most often better to pay more attention to people who seem very interested in - and willing to take significant action based on - EA ideas.
Lots of people may find the ideas passingly interesting and enjoy discussing them, and we think it is probably good to include some of those people in your group. However, from an impact perspective, someone who dedicates their career via carefully considered cause prioritization is likely to have orders of magnitude more impact than someone who makes slight changes to their decision-making such as just shifting some of their current donations.
Since your time and efforts as a group are limited, we recommend focusing attention on those people who want to reason deeply with and enact significant EA principles in their life. We think it is useful to have lots of 1-1s with these people and have activities specifically for them, like sessions where the most committed participants apply to 80k advising. We recommend trying to distribute your time proportionately to impact.
Make it fun and build genuine friendships
We think some key elements that make a group a place where people can be highly engaged are opportunities to have fun, feel comfortable, and have intimate conversations. EA can sometimes feel intimidating and demanding. Choosing your career is a huge decision and talking about your deepest values can be really hard. These things are a lot easier with friends.
If you aren’t having fun and are not eagerly awaiting the next event with your group, probably other people aren’t either. Just spending time playing board games or hanging out on the beach can be valuable experiences. We think it’s good for social groups to spend time making friends and talking about life in an unstructured way. This is further elaborated on in Kuhan’s post here.
But remember why you are there
Community building is useful precisely because it leads to people supporting efforts other than community building in the longer run. It can be tempting to focus on just creating a self-sustaining group. While we think community building is super impactful, we think it’s important that a sizable portion of your community is working directly on these big problems and not just keeping alive a fun place to hang out.
Be Serious but Approachable
Don’t market too aggressively: it’s an opportunity, not a recruitment drive
As mentioned before, we do think a big push at the start of the semester is important for your group. We also value top-of-the-funnel community building. However, it is easy to spend your time trying to optimize for getting as many people attending events as possible - that’s highly vulnerable to Goodharting; just have free snacks and you’ll get higher attendance. From our experience, the most successful groups have aimed to maximize the ultimate downstream impact of their most engaged members rather than the number of people on mailing lists or attending talks.
We think the role of EA community builders is to empower and enable talent, not to evangelize or persuade. These impulses can easily lead people to be less truth-seeking and overly-salesy and that will likely have bad effects for everyone involved. Doing these things is a common mistake for newer EAs who are really fired up by the ideas and can’t understand or believe why so many other people are being so seemingly ineffective. Resist the impulse! We think it is good to frame your group as sharing an opportunity to make the world better, not a guilt trip.
Accept some attrition (from people who don’t buy EA ideas)
Similarly, sometimes people will decide the core principles of EA just don’t make sense to them. That’s normal and fine. Really aggressive marketing/“sales funnel” tactics to keep people engaged when they’re drifting away often come across as pushy and alienate people further, and should be avoided. If someone stops showing up and you’ve reached out a few times, it’s possibly best to accept that EA may no longer be an interest or priority for them. However, sometimes people are just particularly busy for a while but then get involved again in the future.
Similarly, it may be tempting to try and change what EA is in order to retain people who disagree with core principles of EA such as impartiality and cause-neutrality. However, these ideas are central to what makes EA so impactful and are what leads to potential orders of magnitude more good being done. So, we think it is really important for groups to preserve this fidelity.
But make sure the attrition is for the right reasons (and not from being unwelcoming to different groups)
While some attrition is fine, it is important to carefully notice what types of people are dropping off. Does it seem like gender, ethnic, or socioeconomic minorities are dropping off disproportionately? If that is the case, then there might be other elements of your group that are turning people away beside the core ideas of EA. It seems like a shame if people who could really do a lot of good are turned off for these reasons. We think this is important especially for newer groups because of founder effects where members of a group often resemble the original founders. There are some good resources for making your group more welcoming here.
Bonus: Be cautious with the media
If someone approaches you to run a story about your activities, be very careful. There’s a lot of opportunity, but also a lot of risk, and it’s hard to know in advance what angle a journalist may be seeking. If you’re approached by the media to speak about EA issues, contact the community health team here.
Your Work Matters and You are Not Alone
We think university community building is really important
We want to make the world radically better and can’t do that without people who think carefully about the world’s biggest problems and have the skills and ability to go out and actually tackle them. Many of the people at the forefront of these problems said that their university groups were a large part of why they are doing what they are doing.
We think organizing university groups is a super high-leverage way to make an impact. It’s often the first time people think seriously about their priorities in life, and what kind of change they want to make in the world. It is when they develop a peer group, and for many, lifetime friends. Additionally, students have significantly more flexibility to change their path than people at other stages. We hope groups generate trustworthy, in-person communities which introduce people to EA and nurture EA development.
There are lots of resources available
Through UGAP, the groups resource centre, the groups newsletter, groups slack, and your fellow community builders there is a wealth of resources to help you get started. You can also reach the CEA uni groups team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You are not alone and we are excited to help :)
As mentioned above, these are a work in progress. We hope that new university groups will follow these key principles and that will help the movement grow in a high-fidelity way. We end this section of the kick-off with the following:
- We think this could be extremely valuable for the world
- Be authentic
- Depth over breadth
- Use available resources
Starting or maintaining an EA group is one of the best ways to grow the movement, and more people engaging with EA ideas means more people actively working to make the world a better place in the most effective ways we’ve found to date. Be careful of these pitfalls in your endeavors, but also take pride in what you’re doing! The future of EA depends on it.
You can learn more about UGAP here and reach the uni groups team at email@example.com
We just closed applications for UGAP and had 97 universities apply! We are working through admissions and are not sure how many we will be able to accept yet but this is an exciting signal of demand.
Some other posts that were particularly influential or helped spark us to post this (though I am missing a lot): Bad Omens in Current Community Building, Community Builders Spend Too Much Time Community Building (and its top comment), EA risks falling into a "meta trap". But we can avoid it. (though things have changed a lot in 7 years), Update from Open Philanthropy’s Longtermist EA Movement-Building team, Tradeoffs in Community Building)
I do want to note that these are formed specifically as advice to uni groups and are not necessarily our opinions on community building more generally (ie: I think uni groups are in a worse position for broad outreach than other community building groups/orgs/entities)
Probably just saying “I don’t know” will be unsatisfying. However, saying something like, “That is a really interesting question, and to be honest, I am not sure of the answer. However, I think it is possible that this has been discussed on the EA forum or in other EA content so let’s look there”.
Note that I specifically am saying your beliefs rather than “EA canon”. While sometimes it is useful to defer to experts, what helps you truly understand things and progresses the EA movement is forming personal detailed views.
>20% is a rough heuristic that changes depending on the point of the semester. Ie: at the start of the semester, it makes sense to do a lot of recruiting and spend time marketing and doing on-the-ground CB (possibly >90% of your CB time for ~2 weeks). However, before the semester and after the initial recruiting push we think you should probably spend a lot more time learning (over breaks this might be >60% learning).
I think this is particularly important for newer groups and that larger groups might be able to have more time and space for some broader outreach.
I think different framings work for different people. I personally got into EA through Peter Singer’s TED talk which was very guilt trippy. However, as a general heuristic I think guilt tripping is a suboptimal outreach tactic.
This is not to say that people need to be entirely impartial. We are still human, and there are parts of our lives where most of us are not impartial. However, for the parts of our lives that we are “using EA”, impartiality seems core.