Hide table of contents

Thank you to Michel Justen and Casey Vetter for feedback and to Eeshaan Pirani, Kenneth Diao, Ryan Blum, Ben Hayum, Harmon Bhasin, and many other EA UW organizers for making the approach discussed below possible. 

Over the 2022-2023 school year EA UW incubated four additional student organizations:

  1. Animal Advocacy (AA), 
  2. Wisconsin Biosecurity Initiative (BIO), 
  3. Wisconsin AI Safety Initiative (AI), 
  4. Good Futures (GF). 

This post aims to provide more context on that incubation, and analyze how impactful we think it was overall.   

Summary

  • Over a single semester, incubating cause-area specific groups led to ~9 additional students counterfactually considering high-impact careers.
  • The primary benefit that led to this was access to additional outreach opportunities from the university. We were hindered by a fragmented group identity and social scene. Long term, we also remain worried about organizational value drift.
  • EA UW-Madison may have been particularly well positioned to do this because of its organizational capacity and the diverse interests of its most engaged organizers.

Context

Each sister group is officially registered with the university as an independent university entity. EA UW has no formal control over any of the groups, but lead organizers of every group are all former EA UW Fellows, considered EA UW organizers (they come to leadership meetings etc.), and have ensured that future leaders of their groups will also be committed to EA principles. Members of our sister groups are invited to all EA UW events and can use our office freely. 

EA UW organizers provide substantial operational assistance to each group. Most notably, EA UW has a centralized outreach team which handles outreach for each of its sister organizations. Sister group organizers to focus exclusively on programming and group strategy.

Benefits of our approach

  • Being an independent student group gives each group a table at the student org fair and a mass email to send to every UW student.
    • Historically, access to a mass email and org fair table accounts for half of fellowship applications. This is a massive opportunity to reach more students. 
  • Cause-area specific programming selects for students with the skills and career interests to address pressing problem areas.
    • We think that getting a virology major in our biosecurity group to focus on X-risks is easier than getting an EA Fellow to change their major and career path to focus on a pressing problem area. 
      • Some weak evidence points in this direction. Last year 5 out of 57 (8%) of EA UW Fellowship applicants created clear high impact career plans, compared to 9 out of 61 (14%) of our new sister org applicants. 
  • Scaling outreach across multiple campaigns was more efficient than pouring additional labor into one campaign.
    • It took a lot less effort to get 55 fellows across multiple sister orgs, than it would to get 55 additional EA UW fellows.
      • It was easy for EA UW to replicate its outreach practices for different organizations i.e. do everything again with different logos and copy text. 

Costs of our approach

  • Our approach resulted in a fragmented group identity
    • Many sister org members were confused or unaware of their groups relation to EA UW. 
    • There was very little discussion of the principles of EA in sister groups.
    • We made little effort to foster this united group identity however, so this cost might not be inherent in our approach.
  • Hardly any friendships were made across sister organizations, many members were unaware of other sister groups altogether.
    • It's worth noting that EA UW's social scene was not damaged by other groups, it just did not expand to encompass them.
  • Organizational value drift
    • This was not an issue for us this semester, but it is a long term concern. 

Would this approach work elsewhere?

This approach worked well for EA UW, I think we reached far more people than we would’ve had we focused all of our organizing on EA UW alone. 

I think our approach could work well for a lot of different Uni groups, but it’s worth mentioning a couple things which might have had an outsized impact on our success. 

  • First we have a broad base of capable organizers, 14 to be exact, five of which commit well over 10 hrs a week to the group. 
    • This allowed our sister groups to be a lot more ambitious in their programming, as they could rely on EA UW organizers to help out with outreach, attend events, and do backend work. 
  • More importantly though, we benefited from several highly committed sister group leaders who were bought into EA and were actively pursuing high-impact careers in their areas.
    •  We were able to trust our sister group leaders to design programming, follow up with members, and delegate to other organizers. 
    • We don’t think it would’ve been possible for me alone to handle these crucial high skill tasks, even with a glut of operational assistance from EA UW. 

Synopsis of each group

AI Safety cause-specific group

  • Members: This group had three very committed organizers from EA UW - a junior and two graduate students. 
  • Programming: The group ran weekly discussions, occasional speaker events, hackathons, and an AGISF course in which 21 people applied and ~14 completed. 
    • Of these ~14 people, 5 are joining the organizing team next semester. 
    • The group is creating a governance branch next year, and appears well positioned to continue growing. 
  • Outcomes: No one besides our organizers made any tangible contributions to AIS research, or broke into high-impact AIS jobs, though I would estimate 4 fellows made clear plans to do so. 

Biosecurity cause-specific group

  • Members: This group was organized by two former EA UW fellows with clear plans to pursue careers in Biosecurity.
  • Programming: The group ran a couple professional development events (connecting members with EAs in Bio, our organizer helping people apply for jobs and reviewing resumes) and ran the BlueDot GCBR course
    • 17 people applied for the course and ~7 completed it.
    • Of these seven, four will join the organizing team next semester. Notably, this includes a PhD student and talented undergrad with ample Biosecurity experience. 
  • Outcomes: We counterfactually reached four people with relevant skills who appear interested in devoting their careers to X-risk focused biosecurity. 
    • Only the PhD students have clear career plans to pursue X-risk focused biosecurity.
      • Existing organizers are confident the other three members, who are becoming organizers, could be nudged to do the same.

Animal Advocacy

  • Members: This group was organized by several former EA UW fellows and organizers. Many of whom had clear plans to pursue careers in Animal Advocacy.
  • Programming: This group runs an Animal Ethics Fellowship, weekly socials, and speaker events. It’s the only animal welfare / vegan focused group on campus, so we strive to be a social hub for vegans and basically push them to pursue animal advocacy careers / be more scale-sensitive.
    • Over 2 semesters 16 people have completed the fellowship.
  • Outcomes: Resulted in three people counterfactually considering high-impact careers
    • This includes one notable organizer who found the group because he wanted an animal welfare focused uni group, and is now committed to EA.

Good Futures group

  • Members: I solely organized and ran this group.
  • Programming: Good Futures was an experimental project in which participants engage in a 3 week Fellowship-style “Exploration Phase” where they read and discuss specific X-risks and their implications. Then fellows choose a specific shovel-ready research project to work on in teams over the six following weeks, with an organizer’s guidance
    • 13 people applied for the program, 8 completed the Exploration Phase and only one finished the Research Phase
  • Outcomes: Resulted in 0 additional people considering high-impact careers. We are discontinuing next semester.

Fostering Community Across Sister Orgs

One of our concerns with this approach was that people would feel deceived when they sign up for an Animal Advocacy group and find out it’s actually part of EA UW. I asked a lot of members about this issue throughout the year, and no one seemed bothered about this. While no one felt deceived by our approach, a lot of members were confused or simply unaware of their group’s relation to EA UW as a whole. I think this points to both a failure on our part (which we have clear plans to remedy next year) and a downside inherent in our approach. 

Naturally, fragmenting our group resulted in a weakened group identity and social community. Many members of our sister organization had little idea what EA was, and had no idea that other groups existed under the EA UW umbrella. This might not be detrimental in itself, but most of our sister orgs, apart from AI, didn’t make much of an effort / have capacity to foster an internal group culture by running socials and similar events. I think this worsened the experience of members in our sister orgs significantly. 

It’s difficult to determine to what extent our inability to foster a broader shared EA UW identity and social community is inherent in our approach or a failure on our part which we can address. Last year we did not have an organized approach to inform sister org members of their organization’s relation to EA UW. We occasionally included relevant EA events in sister org newsletters or posted in their slacks, and we ran a single EA UW community end of year dinner event, but this did little to generate a shared sense of community. Overall, I don’t think our approach precludes us from a strong shared identity and social community. I think it just requires a more explicit effort to generate this community, which we failed to do. Remedying this will be a priority for us next year. 

Organizational Value Drift

The greatest concern with our approach is the long-term value drift of sister orgs as committed EA driven leaders graduate. I can easily envision a scenario where our bio group, for example, becomes a basic biosecurity professional group and loses its laser focus on X-risks. We haven’t had any turnover of EA driven sister org leaders, so I don’t have too much to say on this issue. I just want to flag it, as I think it is by far the most legitimate concern about our approach.

Our current plan to address value drift has two facets, first, ensuring future primary leaders are EA driven and, second, continuing an operational reliance on EA UW.

We think it’s crucial that decision-makers for sister orgs are HEAs. Sister org leaders have agreed to fast track certain promising EA fellows to organizer positions in sister orgs matching their career interests. We are comfortable adding people who haven’t been exposed to EA as organizers to sister groups, but it seems critical that the leaders of each group are driven by EA principles. We also will require sister org leaders to be official EA UW organizers, and come to leadership meetings. 

If possible, we’d like sister orgs to be somewhat reliant on EA UW for operations. EA UW organizers still solely manage outreach for each sister org. Any sister org organizers who would like to contribute to outreach for their respective sister org will be officially added to our centralized outreach committee. We also allow sister orgs to rely on our office for event space. 

Frankly, if a sister org leader went rogue and took their group in a drastically non-EA direction there’s not much we could do about it. But we don’t think this is particularly likely, at least for us, at the moment. Right now, organizers consider their sister group as a wing of EA UW. We think the best we can do to prevent organizational value drift is to ensure this perception continues as the years go by. 

Conclusion

All in all, incubating cause-specific groups was a success for EA UW-Madison. Our core EA UW group remains intact and our sister orgs appear well positioned to grow with or without operational support from EA UW. 

We think other mid stage EA groups should consider incubating cause-specific uni groups, especially if the group

  • has an existing organizer who is knowledgeable about a given cause area and is excited to organize a group.
  • has systems to replicate from the core EA group to simplify the creation and operations of other groups. 
  • would gain access to meaningful outreach opportunities, like an additional org fair table, from the creation of a separate university group.

I’d also be more than happy to meet with anyone, especially uni group leaders considering this approach, to discuss further or share any of our resources.

This was a hastily written piece so please message me if you want clarification or detail on any of the points above. 

 - Max (:

32

0
0

Reactions

0
0

More posts like this

Comments
No comments on this post yet.
Be the first to respond.