Thanks to Zack Dugue, Oliver Habryka, Adam Krivka, and the Penn EA team for useful comments.
In September 2021, sydv and I (Thomas Kwa) helped revive the University of Pennsylvania EA group through a residency. We think this went very well, and the ~300 hours invested during the 3 weeks we were there probably sped up the group by 4 months, and possibly made the group significantly better overall . As of November 2021, Penn EA is currently a thriving group with six organizers, ~30 Intro Program participants and ~20 weekly dinner attendees, and potential to grow further into its huge 10,000 undergrad population, whereas I'd guess the counterfactual looks something like slowly building up to this size over the course of ~8 months with significant risk of the group dying again.
What is a residency?
In (our model of) a residency, one or two EA community builders travel to a large university at the start of the school year, and spend at least 1 FTE building a new or existing EA student group. At the end, the group is handed off to students, and there might be a retreat for new organizers. The primary goal is to build organizer capacity to rapidly make the group large and self-sustaining (at least 2 students with 10h/week each); a secondary goal is general community-building.
Penn is strong evidence that this model can work well. It's only one data point, but we think a lot of the success is generalizable. Note there were other residencies this fall that didn't go as well.
- Sydney (a Stanford student) and I (a Caltech student) were able to invest this much time despite being full-time students with our own groups to run because Penn starts 3 weeks earlier than Caltech or Stanford. 
- Our time was mostly spent building the website, tabling (sitting outside in a high-traffic area and advertising the club), having one-on-ones with prospective organizers and others who signed up through the website, organizing and speaking at events like intro sessions and dinners, other advertising (like flyers) and organizing a retreat (see below). Of these actions, we spent the most time tabling. But one-on-ones and the retreat were the most efficient use of time, as they build organizer capacity. The other actions are still roughly as good as standard university organizer time, given the importance of the first few weeks of uni.
- Tabling: At Penn, it's really hard to send emails to the whole school. Emails are necessary to get attendance at events. We used the labor-intensive but very effective strategy of tabling to collect ~900 emails, and averaged ~20 emails and ~1 Intro Program application per hour (more on club fair days). Just as importantly, we met a couple more potential organizers. We highly recommend that group organizers read our Guide to Tabling, because following these practices more than doubled our tabling effectiveness.
- One-on-ones: Sydney did most of these; the goal was to identify potential organizers / active members and what they might contribute to the club, and also just get to know people. I think there were about 20 one-hour 1-1s.
- Retreat: We ran a weekend retreat for Mid-Atlantic region EA group organizers after the residency, with a total of ~30 people including ~8 from Penn. Retreats are out of scope of this post, but we think they're great and pair well with residencies; all the newly excited people you've had 1-1s with can talk to each other and learn more about EA and EA community building.
- We did expensive messaging experiments which were inconclusive (we technically started 3 different clubs, and tabled once as Penn Rationality and a couple times as Penn Impactful Careers). In the end we stuck with neutral EA branding, roughly "we want to help students solve the world's most pressing problems". I think we needed to do messaging experiments, because there are probably a lot of campuses where (say) career-first messaging would do 50% better, and it's hard to read the culture of a campus without trying messaging. But maybe there's a less time-consuming way.
- While at Penn we met with other uni EA groups in the area, went to EA Philadelphia events with potential organizers, and once drove to Overcoming Bias NYC. We think this was really good for networking.
- We think there is room for efficiency improvement: I think I could do this at a similar university in ~25% less time given more advance planning, better prioritization, and lessons learned.
Requirements for a residency
- Connections: We already knew Ashley Lin, now co-president of the club, and some other people at Penn. We met Brandon Sayler, the other co-president, in the first week. We knew that both were fairly excited about community building, and Ashley was on a gap year and had ~20 h/week to spare. This helped with administrative things (establishing the club as an official Penn student group, which requires Penn students) and handing off responsibility at the end of the residency. To get connections, you can search the EA Hub, but not everyone is there, so you can also contact someone who knows hundreds of EAs worldwide, like Sydney or Kuhan.
- Funding: We spent a few thousand dollars on various supplies, including a lot on food for events and smaller amounts on advertising materials. We obtained funding by verbally confirming with CEA about the expected scope and cost of the project beforehand, and submitting a reimbursement request afterwards. It would also have been possible to get funding from the EA Infrastructure fund. Once organizers are found, CBGs are a great way to increase available organizer time.
- Lots of time: I think there were increasing returns to the first 100-150 hours of the residency. This is because the first week was mostly spent getting situated, and the basic infrastructure of the club (website, finding organizers) also took a lot of time, and Penn is a large school. I don't know if a residency could succeed with less than 1 FTE (full-time equivalent, 40h/week). That might be more of an advisory / campus specialist role.
- The right school and situation: Penn students are on average pretty receptive to (our framing of) EA. I'm not sure exactly why this is, maybe they have an entrepreneurial mindset, haven't committed to career plans, or aren't too excited by the popular options of consulting and tech jobs. Penn EA used to be pretty big in ~2017 before going dormant due to lack of organizer time, so we knew a group could succeed. We also think a residency at a school with an extant group might be more challenging than restarting a group or building one from scratch.
- Prioritization and taking initiative: There's never enough time to do all the advertising / organizing you want to. But sometimes the best thing to do is >2x as good as the others and requires a lot of agency.
- Infrastructure: We knew how to use Wix, Canva, Mailchimp, and Airtable. Also, we picked up best practices for starting EA groups from talking to other organizers from Stanford, many other uni groups, and uni group support people like Emma Abele during a previous retreat. We continued to share residency-specific best practices during the residency with other big groups like MIT, and we expect that had there been even more support and dialogue, the residency could have gone even better.
Why do you think Penn EA was sped up by ~4 months?
There are a bunch of caveats; see . Sydney thinks it might be more than this, especially if we permanently added value to the club rather than just providing a speedup. Ashley should probably answer this more.
Could you have done this alone? Could Sydney have done this alone? Should I do a residency?
Thomas thinks he would have produced ~20-40% the value had he tried this alone, due to lacking various skills that Sydney, Ashley, Brandon and others had, and generally not having much community-building experience. Thomas thinks Sydney would have produced maybe 40-65% the value; but not more due to dumb problems like "tabling is great, but the gear for tabling takes 2 people to carry and Ashley and Brandon are both busy in the mornings when it's optimal to start".
If you want to do a residency, at least one of the residents should meet the requirements in the "Requirements" section and have university community building experience. Also strongly consider meeting with Sydney or me.
If you were to re-do the residency, what would you do differently?
- Generally optimize more for the club fair. Start tabling a couple of days before club fair to test pitches. Plan a big intro event to advertise at club fair.
- Spend a bit less effort on the website, or copy someone else's website. The main purpose of the website is a button for people to join the email list. A secondary purpose is information about programs.
- Learn how to do 1-1s myself, and take some of them so Sydney would be less overworked.
If you only had, say, 100 hours, what would you do differently?
With 100 hours (say 1 resident for 2 weeks), the startup costs (getting oriented) and handoff costs are a larger proportion of the residency. To reduce these, I'd video call my connections at the school and make sure there are 2 organizers to ensure a smooth handoff. I'd also ask them about the culture of the school, and schedule an in-person meeting for the first day so everyone is on the same page regarding logistics, messaging, and other important things.
During the residency itself, I'd spend as much time as possible on one-on-ones and some on tabling, and skip lower-value activities like hanging flyers and expensive messaging experiments. If emails are easy to get, I put a lot of effort into intro events, which could be well-attended despite limited tabling. If time is really short, I'd invite organizers to a regional retreat planned by someone else rather than planning it myself, or find some other solution to fill the role of a retreat.
What do you see as the most impactful parts of a residency?
I think the first goal of a residency should be to build organizer capacity and enthusiasm to maximize the self-sustaining size of the future group. For us, this meant one-on-ones and a structured retreat. Maybe in other situations the structured retreat should be replaced with board meetings, on-campus organizer training, an unstructured camping trip, or something else.
What are the biggest challenges with residencies & how might they fail?
Pretty uncertain about this, but the handoff seems like the biggest class of problems. Succession is already a huge problem for EA groups, and succession in 2-3 weeks adds an additional challenge. Possible failure modes:
- No qualified club leadership: Sometimes, despite networking, residents can't find two people who are aligned, enthusiastic, have the right skills, and willing to put in 10h/week each. Needless to say, this is really bad.
- Club leadership resistant to residents taking over: There is an existing club, and the leadership doesn't like the residents taking over the club for several weeks. This could be because the residents and club leadership aren't aligned, or just have conflicting visions. We didn't have to deal with this because we were restarting a dormant club, but we heard this was a significant problem at other residencies.
- conflicting visions: If the resident is a student from a successful uni group like Stanford/Cambridge/wherever, the local club leadership can probably learn something about the group model. But maybe the resident is importing problems with their own group, or the Stanford/Cambridge model is inappropriate for the school. This is tricky and I see no easy solution.
- Club leadership doesn't know club logistics: Someone in the club leadership should know how to use Airtable, plan meetings, interface with faculty, etc.
- Club leadership has no social cohesion / hard to form an organizing team: I think there's a world where we forgot to have the organizers meet each other or decide on responsibilities, so the leadership struggles to act as a team in the absence of outside guidance.
It's also important to think carefully about messaging. If we had been lazy and copied old marketing material that overemphasizes earning-to-give, students would get an inaccurate idea of EA. Also, every school has a different culture, and framings of EA ideas that are common at some schools can be controversial at other schools. I think it's good to understand progressive viewpoints when at progressive schools. Residents should probably also talk about messaging with the club leadership, and with organizers at schools similar to the target school. That said, one can go too far and waste time dithering rather than tabling, and tabling is a great way to gather data on messaging.
Next target school?
Stanford EA organizers went to the Ivy League schools and MIT because they started late. But with enough capacity, especially among community builders who are not bound to the schedule of university students (recent alums, or students on a leave of absence), I think the residency model could also reach many large, highly-ranked public schools.
: I almost didn't do this residency. Sydney and I were at an EA organizers retreat in Boston in August, and I heard Stanford EA organizers talking about planned residencies to various schools immediately afterwards. Sydney had decided to go to Penn, and I made the last-minute decision to join, canceling my vacation plans. We flew out to Philadelphia the next day. Sydney and I get along well (we managed to not go insane living and working together for 3 weeks), and we think this was important to the success.
: I thought about the estimate for a couple of hours and am pretty uncertain about the exact number but am pretty sure the residency was good. The valuable things we did include
- lowering activation energy for the Penn EA team (they have to run a club, not start one)
- getting Intro Program applications and emails by tabling
- transmitting best practices to organizers
- being motivational/inspiring, which transmits enthusiasm to organizers
- connecting organizers to each other and other EAs in the region
These are hard to quantify, but they all seem pretty necessary for a uni group to generate value. So the question is, how fast could Penn organizers have gotten there without us? Imagine instead of doing the residency, we flew back to California and just kept remotely pestering Ashley/Brandon to find more organizers, then flew back three weeks later for the retreat and tried to transmit as much best practices and enthusiasm as we could, with only ~25 hours of investment. I think in these worlds the Intro Program is smaller due to disorganization and lack of tabling, events have ~half the attendance, and many of the organizers don't come to the retreat and so don't get involved due to lack of one-on-ones. Eventually capacity gets built up, which takes maybe a year and a few retreats (possibly run by us). But this is already better than doing nothing.
The next marginal 25 hours are one-on-ones, which are just as good per hour because they increase the value of the retreat. The next best ~100 hours are tabling, which club leadership would do anyway if they had large blocks of time, and the next 150 hours include startup costs but also doing things like the website that the club needs eventually anyway and probably can't do in less than 150 hours. At 30 hours/week of club organizer time, it takes 10 weeks to do 300 hours of stuff, which is 3 months; we think we were more efficient too. Combining my vague vision of the counterfactual with this tracking of hours makes me think that 4 months is reasonable. But I should note that "sped up by 4 months" has a kind of optimistic expectation that the group will keep growing in the future. So maybe a more accurate wording is "caused a semester's worth of Intro Program applications, lots of momentum, and various positive intangibles".
Also, it's only been 1.5 months since we left. So the group could still die this year, which would make this post look very silly.