This document was recently published on the CEA website. If you are interested in EA local groups, I strongly recommend reading Tobias Pulver's model of an EA group as well, which has been published on the EAF website.
A Model of an EA Group
EA groups are well suited to find and foster the development of people who are highly dedicated to, have a sophisticated understanding of, and possess skills relevant to working on the world's most pressing problems. Furthermore, EA groups are well positioned to integrate these people with the broader EA community. This document builds on the Local EA Community Building Guide to provide a model of how an EA group might increase the motivation of group members to take high impact actions — namely high impact careers — and ensure group members are thinking very carefully about what the highest impact actions are for them.
It’s important to note that this is just one model of an EA group, and because of the writer’s experience one that is particularly suited to student groups, though the approach to viewing a group in terms of its inputs, processes, outputs and measures is likely to be generally useful.
You can view the operation of a group as a funnel: people enter the funnel when they are first introduced to effective altruism, and exit either through leakage at any stage, or out of the bottom as deeply engaged individuals leading high-impact careers. Leakage should always be avoided, but prioritisation within and between stages is very important: in the same time it takes to convince someone that EA might be reasonable, you might be able to structure a detailed career plan for an already committed member, or use a more efficient approach to convince 2 people to consider EA ideas for the first time. We never want to lose people through leakage, but it is an inevitable consequence of prioritization. Trying to get a few people all the way through the funnel is more important than getting every person to the next stage.
Below we list some potential stages of the funnel, which we then explore in detail. These stages are somewhat arbitrary, and there are likely funnels with different numbers and types of stages that work equally well. Not all the sub-stages will be necessary for every person, but they seem to work well for the average individual.
Raising awareness, following up.
Developing motivation and knowledge
Absorbing key ideas, making personal connections with EAs, group activities.
Integration with the wider community, career planning, Effective Altruism Global.
Taking high-impact careers. Joining/setting up another EA group.
Getting people to join an EA group will often involve introducing people to effective altruism for the first time. Freshers’ Fair is the largest opportunity to find people in student groups, and good introductory events following this include introductory presentations and discussion groups. Common methods of advertising events include making an event on Facebook and having members invite their friends, having the event promoted through the university, and reaching out to other groups with shared interests (e.g. ethics, animal welfare, rationality, careers etc.).
Ensuring that ideas are presented accurately is very important for ensuring that people who will gain the most value from the effective altruism community are inclined to become more involved. This means choosing speakers who can represent effective altruism particularly well, and referring to EA materials in presenting information oneself.
There can be a tradeoff in the number of people you reach and the fidelity and nuance of your message. The value is roughly multiplicative between these two factors, and low fidelity approaches done poorly can often have negative effects. An example is talking to the media about earning to give (ETG). At its core ETG is complex and nuanced, and it’s likely that a single article with large reach will end up spreading ideas that are related to, but importantly different from the ideas we want to spread[^fn-1]. Therefore when deciding how to increase awareness it’s important to keep in mind the fidelity of your approach, and the most effective path to the later stages.
It’s important to note the difference between a low-fidelity (by definition) advertising approach that leads to a high-fidelity event, and a low-fidelity event. The former is a somewhat necessary form of outreach, the latter may not be desirable.
Following up with people individually is a particularly good method of transition from finding people who are particularly interested in becoming more involved. One-on-one interaction like a coffee meetup is a very high fidelity method of conveying EA ideas, and should be a main focus of the group for this reason.
The key idea here is not that you are going to be able to adequately explain all of the crucial EA concepts in a 30-60 minute meeting. What you can do is provide a link and a friendly face to the EA community, give them an overview of your group, provoke their interest and then point them towards material. Giving a copy of Doing Good Better (DGB) (for which you can get funding) is very common, as well as sending links to articles that are specific to their interests (e.g. from 80,000 Hours). It’s worth mentioning that DGB is partially outdated, but is probably still a good starting point to learn core EA ideas. Finally, try and introduce EA as sophisticated and complex from the very beginning; making EA sound simpler than they are has historically had bad long run consequences (i.e. EA is all about efficient charity).
Some common methods of contacting people include:
- Adding and messaging on Facebook if you had a conversation with someone at an event. This has the advantage of being direct and hard to avoid
- Using feedback forms at events with check boxes for coffee meetings, email addresses, resources etc.. this doesn’t require that you know them personally
- Collecting email addresses at the start of an event
Groups shouldn’t have to rely on the memory of the group organizers alone, and keeping a list of interested people can help to avoid losses in informal knowledge that occur when current group leaders leave.
Developing motivation and knowledge
The majority of the value of your group will come from the members who are most motivated and knowledgeable, because they are aware of the best opportunities and are willing to take them. We have split this development broadly into three sections: absorbing key ideas, making personal connections with EAs, and group activities. It’s important to note that these sections have a lot of overlap, and that development may begin at any of these stages.
Absorbing key ideas
A member can learn a lot from attending group events, but it’s unlikely that they’ll get a nuanced picture of EA solely through these. At some point it becomes necessary to engage with all of the key ideas of Effective Altruism, which will help to develop both motivation and knowledge. Absorbing key ideas might currently look like:
- Reading Doing Good Better after a one-on-one meeting or intro event
- Reading the 80,000 Hours Career Guide
- Reading some introductory material
- Reading these resources
- Listening to the 80,000 Hours podcast
Making personal connections with EAs
Socials are particularly successful events for forming connections and promoting a sense of community belonging. People have the opportunity to get to know one-another in an informal space, friendships can form, and motivation compounds as members become more accountable to each other. Regularity of socials (i.e. the same day of the week, every week) seems important for driving regular attendance, and free pizza — for which you can get funding — is an incredible predictor of event attendance. Retreats can have similar community building effects to socials, but are more intense and commonly have a stronger education component. It’s always possible in a social interaction that you are the first EA to establish a connection with an individual, and as a representative of EA it’s very important to be friendly, welcoming and considerate.
One tried and tested method of member development in student groups is discussion groups, where group members read an article related to effective altruism and have a structured discussion during the event (see here for articles). Another promising activity is beginner career workshops, where attendees are introduced to 80,000 Hours concepts, cause areas, and career paths. They can then work to discuss and develop their prospective career plans.
In running a group you will likely have to cater to different levels of understanding between members. This can be tricky — if the content of the activities is pitched too high, it can be alienating to new members who don’t have the relevant background understanding. If the content is pitched too low, this can cause previously engaged members to become bored and leave the group, as a result of not learning anything new. Segmenting the group can help to deal with this. This could be by having different activities and events targeted at different levels of understanding, or by having newer members arrive early to group activities and introducing the relevant background concepts to them. Examples of events for advanced members in student groups might include advanced discussion groups and career planning sessions. The latter can be easily adapted from the second careers workshop. Networking with others in a specific area is common for non-student groups.
Integrating with the wider community
The effective altruism community’s understanding of how to do the most good is developing quickly, and so in order to build a local community with the best understanding of this it’s particularly important to ensure your group is in contact with new developments. This is especially important because historically there has been lag time between the latest developments and groups acting on them, which can be harmful for the movement (e.g. by promoting only earning to give). It’s good to ensure that you and your group are aware of:
The Effective Altruism Forum - for the latest advances in Effective Altruism
Another important reason for ensuring your group is integrated with the community is so your group members can learn about further opportunities to do good. In 5 years a lot of the advice given here might be inaccurate, and keeping up to date with the most recent developments should limit this effect somewhat.
The one-on-one coffee meetups mentioned earlier are ‘introductory’ in nature, however this in-person interaction is very effective for helping already committed members further their career plans; as an advanced coffee meetup. If they are already interested in a priority area then you can encourage them to make a concrete ABZ plan. It might also be a good idea to give them books specific to this cause area (e.g. Superintelligence), for which you can get funding. If they are not interested in taking a priority path (or equivalent) but have potential to take a priority path (or equivalent), then encouraging them to read problem profiles and make explicit cause prioritization decisions (e.g. “What do you think the most important thing to work on is?”) might be a good idea, because it provides the opportunity for you to explain the arguments for priority cause areas and the steps one can take to reduce uncertainty. Career planning sessions are an alternative to advanced coffee meetups, in which a group of people (perhaps with similar interests) help to further each other’s plans.
Effective Altruism Global (EAG)
EA Global is the annual conference of the effective altruism community, where speakers and participants discuss new thinking, share new research, and coordinate on global projects. EAG is aimed towards people who are seeking the opportunity to master more complex problems in Effective Altruism, learn new skills, or get help from the community. As well as a strong knowledge component, the social aspect of EAGs is not to be underestimated: gathering a group of people with shared values who want to help each other do good is very powerful, and inevitably results in great conversations, new friendships, and a strong sense of community. You can apply for upcoming EAGs here.
Taking high-impact careers
The single largest way an individual can contribute in the long-term is by leading a high impact career. For this reason, having group members lead high impact careers should be a principal goal of your group, and this is the key reason why the previous stages in the funnel are valuable.
Joining/setting up another EA group
Both students and non-students commonly leave groups for one reason or another. While this can happen at any stage of the funnel, maintaining membership of an EA group independent of location is a long-term commitment, and hence a route to value. A new group can help get a member all the way through the funnel or provide the infrastructure to allow the member to push others through, depending on their position in the funnel. Setting up a new EA group is a great opportunity for deeply engaged individuals with a good fit for movement building, because setting up a group may be low hanging fruit that leads to large future impact. It’s unlikely that an individual will be able to set up a very successful group in a short amount of time, but they can lay the foundations of such a group and focus on sustaining it.
Sustaining the group
The value or organising an effective altruism group also includes the value of establishing or maintaining a successful institution for future organisers. It’s plausible that the majority of the value that your group generates will happen when you’re gone, so the maintenance of your group is of vital importance.
When finding people willing and able to run your group after the current organizers leave, it’s essential that they know what’s required of them. A common method for student groups is to have prospective committee members meet with the current organizers to discuss expectations and personal fit. Having efficient, well documented processes and a handover period for new group organizers can facilitate the new organizers being able to take over the group successfully. A short handover period is probably not sufficient for the core group leaders, and so starting to mentor people to succeed you over a much longer period is a good idea. This way you can be sure that there are in fact people to succeed you, and that they have the right models ingrained in them.
Metrics are measures of a goal. Groups may find using metrics useful because they make the goal’s success conditions explicit, and so easier to aim for, and also because they provide feedback on how well a group is performing relative to its goals. Two types of metrics are lag and lead metrics: Lag metrics are quantitative measures of a goal, and lead metrics are quantitative measures of processes directed at achieving a goal.[^fn-2]
A potential core lag metric for deep engagement within a group is the number of people who are intending on taking/currently leading high impact careers in priority paths. This is because by having a career in a priority path we select for both people that are dedicated to improving the world and for people that have a sophisticated understanding of how to improve the world, and this is strongly related to EA groups’ route to producing value. Also the metric is simple to use, and operationalizes depth of engagement in an observable way.
There will be many sources of value that are not reflected in this metric: importantly, for example, groups can also provide a lot of value for people who have already decided their careers. However, if a group has many members who are intending to take/currently leading high impact careers, it seems likely that the group is doing well, which makes it useful as a target.
Here are some suggestions for lead metrics to use at each stage of the funnel:
- Raising awareness - number of people who express interest in learning more about effective altruism via an event feedback form. Number of people at intro events
- Following up - number of people met with 1-1 to discuss becoming more involved in the group
Developing motivation and knowledge
- Absorbing key ideas - copies of Doing Good Better or other core EA books distributed, copies of the 80k careers guide distributed
- Making personal connections with EAs - number of new people coming to socials, how welcomed new people feel on a 1-10 scale
- Group activities - number of attendees of workshops or other EA content focused events
- Integration with the wider community - number of members who regularly read the Effective Altruism Forum
- Career planning - number of people with an ABZ career plan
- EAG - number of attendees from your group
- Giving What We Can pledge - number of members who have taken the pledge
- Taking high-impact careers - number of people with detailed career plans for priority paths (or equivalent). Although 80,000 Hours Coaching applications are temporarily closed, their criteria[^fn-3] remain a useful benchmark
- Number of people who join/set up another group when they leave
Sustaining the group
- Number of engaged group members who want to run the group for the following year
It’s important to note that the above are possible measures of success rather than success itself, and that optimizing for these measures can make them less correlated with success. For example, distributing lots of books to people who don’t actually want them may do well on the metrics, but be of little value, or even harmful.
A Short Note on Funding
Funding for group activities is available through CEA, and groups shouldn’t need to fundraise themselves. It’s likely not the best use of their time, for reasons outlined in the Local EA Community Building Guide. You can apply for funding here.
As members of the effective altruism community, you’re probably very familiar with prioritization. Like the real world, groups are also resource constrained — primarily by time — and so it’s important at each stage of the funnel to prioritize the most effective actions to ensure maximum flow-through to the next stage, i.e. within-stage prioritization. This might include deciding which events to run for developing knowledge and motivation: is a careers workshop more valuable than a speaker event? What is the relative value in each of these? How do they create movement into the next stage? How long do they take to organize/run? Are there any negative effects?
Equally important is between-stage prioritization. Should you invest time in intro coffee meetings or do advanced coffee meetings with the top 5% of committed people (finding people vs deep engagement)? It’s clear that we need both of these activities, and unlike the previous prioritization we can’t afford to stop either activity. You can however shift the weight of your efforts based on similar questions to above, and relevant factors of your group e.g. size.
By prioritizing the best inputs (activities) for your desired outputs (flow-through to the end of the funnel), it’s feasible that you can double your group’s impact without any increase in resources. In addition to prioritization, growing your organizing capacity will help you spread your limited resources effectively. This is a large topic however, which we don’t attempt to address here.
Limitations of the model
The ideal model for a group will depend on its size, age and type
Particularly important here is between-stage prioritization: for large groups it seems reasonable to prioritize actions that will further people already a fair way through the funnel, whereas the converse might be true of groups just starting out
Some people who exit the funnel will have much larger impact than others
I don’t think we sufficiently account for negative effects. Some countermeasures might include:
High-fidelity outreach activities
Avoiding campaigning on controversial issues
Take actions which are seen as good by societal standards as well as for the movement
We don’t touch on the organisation of a group; including structure and management
The model points towards pushing people with the highest potential impact all the way through the funnel, which to some extent goes against forming an inclusive and diverse community. This is a large limitation, which should be addressed in full elsewhere.