The beginning of the year is the most important time of the year for EA groups. This is because the beginning of the year is when students and organizers are most free and open to doing new things with their free time, and because path dependency is strong. Most highly involved Stanford EA members initially got involved early fall quarter of their first or second year. As a result, organizers should put a lot of effort into optimizing outreach efforts early in the year. Some of the best ideas I’ve found for generating interest in and commitment to the group include:
- Tabling - setting up a table in a high-traffic area and advertising your group, usually with big posters, and free food/books/swag - what you do at club fairs without it being a club fair. This seems particularly good, but also high effort and potentially expensive.
- Mass outreach that reaches a large audience - e.g. all students (sample email sent to most students at a university below)
- Outreach and programming aimed at incoming first-year students over the summer
- 1:1s and small-group discussions (especially long ones)
- Club Fairs
- High-quality intro events
- Early deadline/commitment ways to get involved (e.g. early fellowship deadlines)
The biggest bottlenecks to doing the above tend to be not knowing how, a lack of funding, and a lack of committed members. I've included some helpful resources for doing the above in the post, the EAIF offers quick turnaround (1-day) grant applications to groups/Catherine Low can answer questions about group funding, and I recommend sharing this post with other organizers if they're not sure additional organizing effort early in the year is worth their time.
Why the first few weeks of the year are so important
The period right before and during the beginning of the academic year are crucially important for university community building. I’d argue that the two-month period around the start-of-term is more important than the rest of the year combined from an outreach perspective. This is for a few reasons.
- Students have more time since classes/other commitments have not yet gotten time-consuming, so it’s important for groups/programs to make themselves known to people who might be interested, before they’re too busy to add on other time-commitments.
- (Potential) organizers are also most free for the same reasons, so this period is unique for programming that requires a lot of organizer capacity (like tabling and running retreats).
- Deadlines for multi-week programs like fellowships/reading groups are early on in the term, so sufficiently advertising them in this brief period is crucial.
- Students are often making summer/career plans early in the year, so getting them to consider/be aware of impactful opportunities is time-sensitive (e.g. they might apply to/accept other offers if you wait too long to introduce an opportunity to them. Sunk cost fallacy might mean they’re more inclined to accept offers they spent a lot of time preparing for even if they’d be more excited about more impactful alternatives).
- Students, especially first-years, are looking for and exploring activities. friends/social groups, and more broadly interesting ways to spend their time. What they choose often persists long-term. The beginning of the academic year during a student's first year at university is often the only period in which this is the case. Path dependency is strong (elaborated on below).
As an illustrative anecdote, a cappella groups at Stanford do all their advertising and recruiting during new student orientation (before non-first-years have even arrived on campus) and have their auditions on the first week of campus, ending with an intense social (waking them up early in the morning on Friday and then spending the full day with them/often going on a weekend retreat). They do their recruitment this way to somehow convince nearly 100 students across all a cappella groups each year (and far more who audition) to spend 6+ hours/week singing and helping the group, before these students even have the chance to consider other clubs. This is despite the fact that singing/a cappella group organizing will not be relevant to the vast majority of students’ careers/future plans. (I was one of the students who was somehow convinced). I mention this anecdote to demonstrate the power of making a positive impression before others, and how path-dependent the beginning of the year is.
Some other examples of how early-year activities can be especially impactful on students’ decisions:
- Anecdotally, many university students’ friends seem to be friends from their 1st year dorm
- Anecdotally, the clubs students are highly involved with seem to very often be clubs they got involved with in their first year
- (And it doesn’t seem to all be selection effect; first-year students who haven’t heard of EA seem to tend to be much more receptive to getting involved than students who are later in their academic careers)
- Most Stanford EA members who are highly involved now initially got involved in Fall term of their first or second year.
- Top finance firms start their recruiting seasons ridiculously early (over a year before accepted students will intern at their firms) to pressure students to apply to and accept their offers (because turning down early internship offers is hard).
I think EA groups should learn from highly successful recruiters like top finance firms and a cappella groups. I also think we have a much more attractive product to offer - a great community of dedicated/altruistic/talented people who want to maximize their impact, concrete career advice, and exposure to really interesting and important ideas.
Programming and Advertising Ideas
Given the importance of the beginning of the year, I wanted to share programming/advertising ideas that seem really effective from my experience running beginning of the year programming at MIT and Stanford, and from talking to others (many other Stanford students have been helping out with beginning of year programming at other schools, which we’ll write more about shortly). Getting more dedicated, talented people to work on the world’s most pressing problems seems to be much more of a bottleneck than funding for longtermist and meta work, so I encourage group organizers to think creatively about how money can effectively create highly engaged EAs. I also want to add a disclaimer that the effectiveness of these interventions will vary by university, and that many of my proposed programming ideas/interventions are better suited for larger groups (e.g. groups with >= 0.5 FTE community builders), but others can be done by anyone - I’ll asterisk the things I think anyone can do.
- Tabling* - setting up a table in a high-traffic area and advertising your group, usually with big posters, and free food/books/swag - what you do at club fairs without it being a club fair.
- Two days of tabling outside the club fair have gotten EA MIT around 40 email sign ups per hour, and led to ~5 students expressing interest in getting involved with EA MIT organizing, and led to one CBG application. Organizers at U Penn have not experienced diminishing returns after ~40 hours of tabling. Guide to tabling here. Free books and food and swag (shirts, stickers) are very good for recruiting. I think it’s plausible that tabling every day until the deadline of your fellowship is one of the highest impact ways to spend time. That being said, tabling with lots of free stuff is expensive - I’d apply to the EA Infrastructure Fund for time-sensitive funding requests, and reach out to Catherine Low about group funding for the ideas in this post and other ways for your group to spend funding.
- Cold-emailing* every student you can at your university.
- About 80K (sample email here, made by Stanford/Harvard/MIT organizers)
- Asking for 1:1s (very few sign-ups empirically, so I wouldn’t worry about capacity)
- This was the first step for getting a student to eventually apply for CBG, specifically a 1:1 got them to attend a retreat, which led to them applying for a community building grant to run their EA group (CBG) - I also decided to apply for a CBG after attending an EA retreat).
- About easy ways to get involved with the group (like joining your mailing list, and/or signing up for a fellowship)
- 1:1s (especially long ones)* - Have a strong track record. See above for potential impact.
- When I lived in a university EA group’s house, a few long (e.g. 4-6 hour) post-dinner conversations with a group member played a significant role in them taking the implied actions of EA ideas, and university community building much more seriously (and they’re now applying for a CBG).
- Club Fair* - The best opportunity (per hour) to get new interested members - groups are often able to get 100s of sign-ups per hour. I generally recommend optimizing for getting as many people on your mailing list/contact info so you can follow-up as possible, and only have long conversations if you have slack/doing so doesn’t mean other students don’t get to hear your pitch. MIT’s advice (along with Cambridge’s and others’) can be found here. Check out this Canva group for helpful poster and flyer templates.
- Programming for incoming first year students* - Running a retreat, fellowship, email/outreach campaign, and other ideas can reap huge dividends. Harvard EA has already seen large benefits from running summer programming in their early-year outreach (e.g. excited students from summer programming inviting their friends to early-year events, and helping out with advertising). If you don't have capacity for time-intensive programming, pubbing EA Virtual Programs, and advertising existing content to incoming students (e.g. sending them an email about 80K/Cold Takes/the new EA handbook) can obtain some of the aforementioned benefits.
- Multiple high-quality intro-friendly events + socials* - Leaving students with a strong first impression of your group seems pretty important - events and socials also offer a good opportunity to see who seems particularly excited/promising, and spend a lot of time with them. I think my intro to EA talk is pretty good, slides here (with script in the notes). See the above for Canva flyer templates, which can be useful for social media/email advertising.
- Early exciting commitments/deadlines/ways to get involved* - Get students to commit to things before they have the chance to pile on other commitments. Have fellowship/reading group applications and sign-ups early. Again, this is what a cappella groups do to get students (like me) to commit to 6 hours a week of singing, which is pretty wild/not useful for their career or anything, but it still happens. Learn more about fellowships here
- Retreats - can be pretty low effort to plan (in advance - just book an Airbnb and make sure to invite everyone you’d want to come, and get COVID tests if needed), and decent but not crazy amount of work during - make sure food is handled, logistics (travel, sleeping), buying misc things people might want (people really liked fuzzy blankets), the schedule can be made pretty last minute if there are experienced people to run sessions, and pre and post survey.
- As I mentioned above, in an earlier retreat I helped organize, an interested student came in not planning on doing a CBG, and left deciding to apply for one to run their EA group for 10 hours/week - I also decided to apply for a CBG after attending an EA retreat, and know of several students whose career plans and priorities have shifted after attending recent last-minute-organized retreats.
- Smaller groups might not have enough people for a retreat to be worth the cost.
Biggest bottlenecks to making the above happen
- Not knowing how to do the above quickly/well
- I’ve tried adding some helpful resources for each bullet point where applicable - you can find lots of great write-ups and resources at the EA Hub’s resource page.
- Not knowing how to access funding
- You can apply to the EA Infrastructure Fund for time-sensitive (1-day turnaround) funding - I’d also recommend reaching out to Catherine Low (firstname.lastname@example.org) for less-time sensitive group funding requests.
- Not having enough people to do all the good things and not knowing what to prioritize
- I’ve recommended things roughly in order of how important I think they are, but use your discretion. Also always feel free to ask for help - the EA Groups Slack is a great resource. You can also always reach out to me on Messenger, or at email@example.com.
- Maybe sharing this post will convince group members that the aforementioned programming is worth their time ;)
Other Ideas + Feedback
Let me know if you have other suggestions for how to make the beginning of the year go really well, and/or if any of the things in this post seem incorrect.
This is great! I'm tentatively interested in groups trying outreach slightly before the start of term. It seems like there's a discontinuous increase in people's opportunity cost when they arrive at university - suddenly there are loads more cool clubs and people vying for their attention. Currently, EA groups are mixed in with this crowd of stuff.
One way this could look is running a 1-2 week residential course for offer holders the summer before they start at university (a bit like SPARC or Uncommon Sense).
To see if this is something a few groups should be doing, it might be good for one group to try this and then see how many core members of the group come out of the project, compared to other things like running intro fellowships. You could roughly track how much time each project took to get a rough sense of the time-effectiveness.
This might have some of the benefits you list for outreach at the start of term, but the additional benefit of having less competition. This kind of thing also has some of the benefits of high school outreach talked about here, but avoids some of the downsides - attendees won't be minors, and we already know their university destination. There might be a couple of extra obstacles, like advertising the course to all the offer-holders, and some kind of framing issue to make sure it didn't feel weird, but I think these are surmountable.
I'm not sure whether 'EA' would necessarily be the best framing here - there are four camps that I know of (SPARC, ESPR, Uncommon Sense, and Building a Better Future) and none of them use a direct EA framing, but all seem to be intended to create really impactful people long-term. (But maybe that means it's time to try an EA camp!)
Pretty unsure about all of this though - and I'm really keen to hear things I might be missing!
Do you envision these activities before the start of the term as being virtual or in-person? I don't know how many people would be on-campus two weeks before the start of the semester.
I think I would like to start email blasts slightly before the start of the semester though.
How early should the fellowship deadline be? We're thinking of having ours be three weeks after the first day of school.
Upvoted, I'm very uncertain about the optimal timing for fellowship deadlines. Shorter deadlines encourage people to apply earlier before they have lots of commitments, but longer deadlines give people more time to apply.
I'm surprised that retreats are low-effort to plan! What sorts of sessions do you run? What draws people in to attend?
Relevant posts for planning a retreat:
Thanks for the great post, lots of concrete and useful advice in there!
What's tabling? From context, my best guess is just setting up a table somewhere and advertising the society? But that feels super weird/isn't something I've ever seen a society doing at Cambridge - is this a US thing?
I've seen it in highly trafficked central areas in Trinity College in Dublin, though usually there's some upcoming catalyst for it like an event in the near future.
Edited for clarity - it might be a US thing, but I'd encourage others to try it out and see how it goes unless there are strong reasons not to.
It happens in Australian universities. Probably anywhere there's a large centralised campus. Wouldn't work as well in Oxbridge, though, because the teaching areas, and even the libraries, are spread all across the city.