It seems like a lot of EA groups don’t spend time together outside of EA meetings. I think this should change. I will argue that community builders should support their members to develop genuine friendships with each other. Genuine friendships are incredibly good for the health of the community and the people in it, and can lead to more people pursuing high-impact careers, more people making decisions that align with EA principles, and people feeling warmer towards the EA community generally.
I am a community builder in New Zealand, and I currently live in Wellington. EA Wellington is the biggest EA community in New Zealand and is very tight knit. Since being founded in 2018, 5 people have gone on to do work within an EA cause area, and another 6 people are on a committed path towards doing work in an EA cause area (eg. have applied for a new job or are completing a degree related to a cause area). This represents about half of the people who are or have been ‘fairly involved’ in the group (loosely defined as attending meetings regularly and being recognised as part of the group by others).
There’s nothing unique about Wellington in terms of capacity for EA community-building. The city is small (population of just over 200,000) and it doesn’t boast any elite universities or EA organisations. Instead, much of EA Wellington’s success has come from people forming genuine and deep friendships with each other that extend outside of EA meetings, and I encourage other groups to take an approach that aims to try to get people to spend more time together outside of meetings.
- Friendships have many positive benefits
- People who are less intrinsically motivated may benefit significantly from forming friendships
- It can take a long time for people to switch to a high-impact path, and friendships provide support for people to do this
- A community built around friendships may last longer than a community that isn’t
- How to support friendships
Friendships have many positive benefits
Alongside all the benefits that friendships can create for EA as a whole (as I highlighted at the beginning of this post), friendships also have significant psychological benefits for EAs. Study after study tells us that friendships are linked to psychological benefits, longevity, and well-being. Friendships can also lead to higher adherence to goals. One study found that people who wrote down their goals, shared this information with a friend, and sent weekly updates to that friend were on average 33% more successful in accomplishing their stated goals than those who merely formulated goals. Friendships also have a positive impact on group task performance.
If we care about EAs doing good things in the world, then we should also care about the well-being of EAs. One way to support this can be through friendships.
People who are less intrinsically motivated by EA may benefit significantly from forming friendships
This post is not aimed at every single person in EA. Some EAs are intrinsically motivated by the impact they could have on the world and will pursue EA ideas and careers even if they have no one else to do this with. I applaud these people, but I also think there is a large subset of EAs who have less intrinsic motivation, and are more motivated by external factors, such as success, praise from others, money, etc. I will not claim that any type of motivation is better than any other type of motivation. My philosophical leaning on this is towards consequentialism – ie. how someone feels motivated doesn’t really matter as long as they are having a positive and effective impact on the world. Thus, for people who are motivated by extrinsic factors related to other people, friendships will be a way for them to gain support, exchange ideas, and feel good about the impact they are having.
It can take a long time for people to switch to a high-impact path, and friendships provide support for people to do this
Changing careers (and, to a smaller extent, donation habits) is a big deal for most people. Even though the average EA is young, fairly motivated, and there are specified career paths and resources within EA, almost every EA I know has taken years to make the decision to change their career path. For some people, this means going back to school, sacrificing the security and social brownie points that come from more conventional careers, and taking on more uncertainty. These are difficult decisions that shouldn’t be treated lightly, and friendships can support people with these decisions.
I’ve heard from some people in the EA community that when other EAs try to prompt them to think about high-impact careers, it can make them (ie. the person being persuaded) feel like they are a resource, and that the other person holds the goal of trying to convince them to change careers. I think this type of feeling emerges in many situations when someone who is not friends with another person tries to convince that person to do something. It can feel like that person has an ulterior motive and doesn’t really care about the person they’re trying to convince. And this could lead to the person on the receiving end of this actually ending up feeling less motivated to pursue an EA career.
Yes, one of the goals of community-building is, ultimately, to try to get more people into high-impact careers. And people are a resource in a sense, even if that feels a bit insensitive. That being said, good friendships can hold all of these different things at once. Friends can support their friends to think about their impact, while also understanding that their friends might have good reasons for not jumping fully on the EA bandwagon. Friends can nudge their friends to donate money, to include animals within their moral circle, and to switch careers. Friends can help with practical things like providing feedback on grant applications, talking someone through how to quit their job, or giving advice on what degrees to look at. Community builders can support their members to not just be EAs together, but friends who trust each other in having such conversations.
A community built around friendships may last longer than a community that isn’t
Having people who regularly attend group meetings is great, but there are also a lot of things that can get in the way. People might stop attending meetings for a multitude of reasons, like getting a new, more demanding job, having children, or just losing interest.
Friendships, on the other hand, will probably continue long past someone’s regular attendance to group meetings. Supporting people in your group to become friends means if the group loses momentum, the people in your group will still see each other, exchange ideas, and support each other to think about their impact. I am still long-standing friends with many of the EAs from my group, despite them not having attended for months or years.
How to support friendships
If you’re convinced by everything I’ve said so far, then you might be asking, “okay, that’s great and all, but how do I support people to be friends with each other?”
Studies show that friendships take time. For example, one study showed that casual friendships emerge around 30 hours spent together, friendships around 50 hours, good friendships around 140 hours, and best friendships around 300 hours. Most groups that I’ve known have weekly meetings, usually lasting somewhere between 1-2 hours. This means, over the course of a year, if two people show up to every single meeting, and a group has meetings every single week, those people will have spent 52-104 hours together by the end of the year. So if you are only holding weekly meetings and not encouraging people to spend time together outside of meetings, at best after 1 year of multiple people having perfect attendance you can only expect those people to have a low level of friendship.
That being said, friendships can form organically – people who get along well will start to spend time with each other regardless of what you do as an organiser. But what if you were to do things as an organiser to increase that time spent together? Depending on the makeup of your group, I think spending time on friendship-building activities can often be a better use of your time as an organiser than putting together EA-related talks/lectures/discussions.
Examples of this could look like:
- Organising weekend trips with people from your group – Weekend trips are a great way to get everyone spending a lot of time together. I have had success with this option by asking the group if they’d be keen for a weekend away, booking a place nearby to our city that can host everyone who says yes, and asking people to bring board games, guitars, snacks, etc. I haven't tried to make these weekend trips structured or related to EA specifically, but instead I’ve just invited people from EA to come and let them do the rest. There is a bit of admin involved to plan carpooling and meals, but in my experience it’s not particularly arduous, and you can also ask if others would be willing to help with the organisation, or shoulder tap people for specific tasks. If the people in your group generally get along and your group isn’t huge then this is very doable.
- Organising board game nights, dinners, escape rooms, etc. – There are also lots of activities that can be done that don’t involve an entire weekend away. More casual settings are a great way for people to get to know each other. These things can be done during meeting times, but I also think it’s valuable to hold them outside of meeting times so people don’t feel like they’re showing up to an ‘EA meeting where we also play board games’, but rather to a ‘board game night with others who happen to be interested in EA.’
- Hosting themed events – Our group had an event where a bunch of people prepared PechaKucha talks on a topic of their choice. (PechaKucha is a storytelling format where a presenter shows 20 slides for 20 seconds of commentary each.) We had a lot of fun with this! You could also try this with forecasting or red teaming.
- Setting up a sports team, hiking group, climbing group, book club, etc. – I haven’t had a ton of success with these personally, but I’ve heard that some other groups do things like this.
- Facilitating people to travel together when going to EA events – If people in your group are keen to attend EAG/EAGx, encourage people to make travel plans together. Create a group chat with all the people attending and ask if they have booked their accommodation yet, or if they have any plans for touristy activities in the city.
- Encouraging people to work together on a project – You can use meeting times to suggest ideas for projects that people can work on together outside of meetings and to get people brainstorming on what this could look like. This could range from things like writing a forum post to coming up with ideas for a start-up.
- Mixing groups – Hosting events with some EAs and some non-EAs can also be a good way of creating friendships, and helps create a community that is less insular.
- Making an effort to attend when other people host things – You don’t need to do everything yourself. Making an effort to attend when other people host things and giving the host positive feedback can encourage others in your group to organise more events.
If you don’t have a great venue to host people, that’s okay! There are often free or low-cost options depending on where you live and what activity you’re doing, and people in your group may also be willing to pitch in for costs or offer their own place up. For example, you could try going to a board game cafe, looking at low-cost spaces in community centres, or booking a room at your nearest university. In summer, you can do picnics, walks, or just find a park to hang out in. Cafes, bars, and restaurants are also easy though you’ll be more limited in what you can do.
The point here is to facilitate people spending more time together and building genuine friendships. To achieve this, it also needs to be sustainable for you as an organiser. Thus, in my view, you probably shouldn’t spend a ton of time preparing content, doing admin, or organising people – aim for activities where you can encourage people to spend a lot of time together with minimal effort, where you actually want to do these things, not just for EA reasons.
By supporting the people in your group to develop genuine friends with each other, and creating spaces where that can happen more easily, we will likely see far more benefits than if we were to just focus on EA content.