EA London Community Building Lessons Learnt - 2018

by DavidNash5 min read20th Mar 20196 comments

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Building effective altruismEffective altruism groupsCommunity
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Here is a list of some ideas that I came across in the last year that may be useful for other EA community builders

  • Be aware of different cultures, it may not make sense to just copy and paste ideas from other groups (between countries or even within the same city)
  • Keep on experimenting with different activities, events, ideas
  • Keep on asking members for feedback, especially on what they think the best/worst thing about your community is, and what they would change about it
  • Attempt low cost ways to see if there is interest before spending a long time on activities. Some examples of things I tried without creating detailed forum posts outlining what I was going to do
    • Asking questions when people join a FB group
    • Creating a public community directory for others to reach out to one another
    • Reaching out to people on LinkedIn who have some indicator of interest in EA
  • Realising that attendance and events are just part of a community, and potentially not the most important part
    • When you are events focused, you are competing with many things - family, friends, hobbies, Netflix, cinema, etc. If your focus is more on helping people doing good, it’s no longer about having people turn up to an event, it’s about keeping people up to date with relevant info that is helpful for them. When there is a relevant opportunity for them to do something in person, they might be more inclined to do so
    • People who are likely to have the most impact, or be able to help other members the most are very likely to be busy with their jobs and so optimising for attendance may miss out these people
    • How to provide value to people that don’t turn up to events
      • Newsletter - updates on jobs and research, sense of wider community
      • Online sub groups - allowing for connections, advice and self organising
      • Mentorship connections - advancing careers, a low cost way for people to feel like they are helping others, and for newer members to see what value they can get from a group
      • Reaching out to organise 1-1s with members
    • Main point of events might be connections rather than education, upskilling or achieving projects
    • When you do decide that an event is useful, think about the purpose of events and how to optimise for that - (art of gathering notes)
    • Pixabay, unsplash are both good for free photos for FB events
  • Being connected to other communities is useful - reduces group think, allows more learning from other groups and potentially meeting others who might be interested
  • Be proactive in reaching out to individuals that have indicated some interest. Messaging individuals in related EA Facebook groups, LinkedIn etc
  • Spreading cultural norms
    • As a community organiser people might look to you when trying to work out what is expected as a group member and so it makes sense to have an in depth understanding of community guiding principles and to try to embody these as best as possible
    • I think this excerpt from the Kelsey Piper podcast is a good example - “Maybe pretty early on, it just became obvious that there wasn’t a lot of value in preaching to people on a topic that they weren’t necessarily there for, and that I had a lot of thoughts on the conversations people were already having. One thing you can do to share any reasoning system is just to apply it consistently, in a principled way, to problems that people care about. Then, they’ll see whether your tools look like useful tools. If they do, then they’ll be interested in learning more about that. I think my ideal EA movement has insightful nuanced, productive, takes on lots and lots of other things so that people could be like, “Oh, I see how effective altruists have tools for answering questions. “I want the people who have tools for answering questions to teach me about those tools. I want to know what they think the most important questions are. I want to sort of learn about their approach””
  • Boundaries are important - this is something I’m still thinking about but having transparent criteria for joining groups and events makes it easier for groups to achieve their goals and for valuable conversations to occur rather than everything being open to everyone and conversations not being focused
  • Start with who - it’s important to think about what type of people you want in your community, sometimes taking lower hanging fruit early on can limit future growth/impact. For example having a local group mainly consist of students may put off professionals from getting involved
  • Communities are built on people having multiple 1-1 connections with each other rather than a one to many connection with the organiser. Think about ways to increase the chances to form these 1-1 connections. This may be repeated opportunities to talk to the same person about a shared interest
  • First impressions are important, people can often judge a community by their first interaction with it, whether that’s in person or online. It may be worth removing chances for people to have an average first impression and focus on making sure all the ways people can hear about your community are seen as high value. For example EA London removed Meetup.com as one of the ways people heard about EA because it often gave a worse impression of effective altruism. With FB we are able to message people when they join and the website can be modified to provide value to people

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I think this excerpt from the Kelsey Piper podcast is a good example

Could you link me to this podcast?

When you are events focused, you are competing with many things - family, friends, hobbies, Netflix, cinema, etc. If your focus is more on helping people doing good, it’s no longer about having people turn up to an event, it’s about keeping people up to date with relevant info that is helpful for them. When there is a relevant opportunity for them to do something in person, they might be more inclined to do so.

I really like this point, and the related Kelsey Piper quote. EA, like any social movement, is likely to grow and succeed largely based on how helpful it is for its members. Having a "what can I do for you?" mindset has been really useful to me in my time running a couple of different EA groups (and working at CEA).

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When you say that Meetup.com "gave a worse impression of effective altruism", do you mean that it actually seemed to have negative value, or just that it was worse than Facebook because it didn't give you an easy way to contact people soon after they'd joined? If the former, can you talk about any specific negative effects you noticed? (One of the groups I'm affiliated with is still using Meetup, so I'm quite curious about this.)

For Meetup, it seemed to have negative value in the way it is used by default.

I think people mainly join meetup because they are looking for new hobbies and/or friends rather than deciding they want to do good or have impact in their careers. This can be useful for increasing attendance but I think it's using the wrong digital tool for the goals most groups have.

Potentially with a closed meetup group with questions that have to be answered before joining it could work well, similar to Facebook. Although Meetup still has the issue of their users being a subset of Facebook that don't necessarily have a good overlap with the kind of people that EA can help the most.

Realising that attendance and events are just part of a community, and potentially not the most important part

Agreed. Research and study groups, for example, seem to be a lot more useful than events. First and foremost, participants commit to longer term attendance in advance so you don't need to try to persuade them to participate every time. I dislike having to personally invite people to come to events. I assume that they don't care about EA enough if they don't come at a mere FB invitation.

Regarding attendance, we just recently organized a public AI safety event which was attended by roughly 80 people. When an ex community-builder heard that, he congratulated us on that as it sounded big success to him. Of course, it was nice to have that many people come to the event but compared to some more in-depth projects we had going on I didn't feel as accomplished.

That said, how do you get feedback from your community with respect to online-based content? Your newsletter, for example, could easily be much more valuable than events and even other in-person activities, but as far as I'm aware very few people actually communicate how much value they receive to authors and content creators. For instance, you probably didn't know this but I find useful content for EA Estonia's newsletter every month from EA London's newsletter.

Online content is generally the amount of people that open or click on an email (but baring in mind that long term, getting more clicks relies on your community trusting you to have content they want to click on rather than clickbait).

Occasionally people also send replies saying they value newsletters and when I ask people in person what they value, that sometimes gets mentioned.