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This is a Draft Amnesty Day draft. That means it’s not polished, it’s not up to my standards & the ideas have been thought out but probably don't make senes. I was explicitly encouraged to post something unfinished! 

I wrote this a long time ago, so I don't necessarily endorse everything that's written. It was drafted pre-FTX.

Commenting and feedback guidelines: I’m going with the default — please be nice. But constructive feedback is appreciated; please let me know what you think is wrong. Feedback on the structure of the argument is also appreciated. 

This was originally part of a longer series of posts, but is legible as a standalone piece, and is helpful background for future work. 

Key Takeaways

  • I've previously made the case that effective altruism is a social movement, defined as a group of agents trying to achieve movement-wide goals through collective action.
  • Since a social movement requires collective action to achieve its goals, by exploring different kinds of internal models[1] and thus looking at the inter-relations between members, we could understand the structure of EA today, and what we want it to be in the future, and current coordination challenges. 
  • I outline an internal model of the structure of social movements - the leader- and member-organised (LO and MO) model. 
  • I then briefly describe how  EA has (and needs) both LO & MO aspects. 

Theory

I draw from Michael Schwartz’s (1988) theory of Leadership- and Membership-Organized movements.[2]

Within any social movement, there are two main roles an individual can assume: the role of a leader or member

A leader as someone who wields some kind of "power". They can resources (e.g. key decsion-makers) and/or wield influence (e.g. thought leaders) over others' beliefs and actions. 

A member is someone who is a part of the movement and (broadly) agrees with the movment-wide goals, strategy & actions, and has some chance of participating in collective action.  Depending on the dominant structure (whether leader- or member-) the distribution of responsibilities to achieve goals will be different. This has implications for how (and whether) they are able to achieve their goals. 

Responsibilities include: 

  1. Strategy setting & communication: Developing & communicating movement-wide values, goals, strategy and actions
  2. Resource Acquisition & Allocation: Acquiring resources (talent, funding and sociopolitical capital) and allocating or coordinating them
  3. "Inspire": Inspiring others to take action, potentially by embodying the movement’s values
  4. Collective Action: Participating in collective action efforts

Leader- and member-organised structures are two ideal types but are unlikely to be found in real life.  

Leader-organised movements

In leader-organized movements, leaders may take on most responsibilities, while members may mostly act on recommendations. Leaders may be able to fully dedicate themselves to this work. <example missing>

Leaders may require influence to inspiring collective action. Influence is a function of trust, respect, reputation, past successes, and the credentials of the agents making claims. Building influence can often be easier than being fully transparent publicly - not all decision-relevant information can or should be made public.

Leaders-organized movements will likely have the following characteristics:

  • being able to grow rapidly
  • have simpler collective actions for members to take 
  • have simpler or more clear goals
  • be able to ask less from each person

Most movements that reach a certain size will usually some sort of division of labour.

Member-organised movements

Member-organised movements (e.g. grassroots movements) have a flatter, more democratic & decentralised organisational structure. There may be little or no differentiation between leaders’ and members’ roles. Extinction Rebellion is a good example of a decentralised member-organised movement. Each local chapter operates independently and decideds on their own strategy and collective action. There are few requirements to be considered an "official" chapter of Extinction Rebellion. 

Member-organized movements will likely have the following characteristics:

  • grow slower (possibly not have growth-related goals) 
  • pursue more diverse or complex goals
  • (possibly) not always have clearly defined actions for members
  • inspire more, or more high-commitment, actions from members

Application to EA

It seems like the EA movement requires a strong, professional leadership and an engaged and active membership to achieve its goals. Below I outline some reasons for both. I do not try to evaluate whether one is more important, or whether EA should lean a specific way. 

I also don't necessarily endorse the case as I've laid it out here anymore, as this post was last edited a few months ago, and the initial draft was written in late 2019.

Leadership

I refer to the group of people we could consider leaders in EA as the core.[3] Within the group of decision-makers, influencers and stakeholders within EA. These actors have an outsized influence on the trajectory of the movement via funding and communicating their priorities to the community. 

The EA movement's values, goals and actions are complex; a coordinated leadership can help to research and specify them for the movement. In EA, those priorities have been set by early cause prioritisation work done by philosophers (e.g. at GPI and FHI), funders (Open Philanthropy), and organisations like 80,000 Hours.  

The more dynamic the goals and actions, the more leaders would need to increase transparency and information sharing in order to maintain influence (i.e. willingness to defer). This has high time costs, but is necessary for members to feel understand the movement's priorities. 

(this was written prior to the FTX collapse) People feel ownership of the EA community and movement. It’s natural for community members to be concerned or following changes to the movement, such as the announcement of the FTX Future Fund and their intention to spend up to $1bn in their first year. This is good. It's natural for people to question when major decisions that will change the trajectory and shape of the community are announced. 

The FTX Future Fund team acknowledged the lack of communication in May. Compare this to GiveWell, who wrote ~thousands of words on funding Fortify Health $8mn. (I'm *not* saying this is optimal/desirable, but just that GiveWell's decision was legible). It's reasonable for people to speculate and critique decisions when leaders are inaccessible - there are strong norms against wasting leader's time - and a lack of public information. 

A more recent example of this is the Wytham Abbey purchase, and the ensuing discourse. 

  • Certain goals are risky and require leaders with domain expertise (e.g. biosecurity)
  • When members aren't willing to coordinate, leaders' ability to influence members can be reduced because the more complex and potentially valuable actions are ones where members work together.  

Membership 

EA requires elements of a membership-organised structure. Member-organised structures can be better for ensuring that deep, meaningful, important peer-to-peer connections are formed that are more intense than member-leader connections.

EA requires members to stay engaged over time because

  • some people take longer to subscribe to EA beliefs than others
  • some people take longer to find the best actions
  • beliefs (in the community) about effectiveness change over time, and if members lose contact they may not know of these changes
  • doing good can take a long time and people get more impactful as they gain knowledge, experience and seniority 

EA requires members to have agency and peer-to-peer connections because: 

  • Recommended actions are complex, and leadership is unable to or not structured to provide individual guidance for the average member
  • Members need to test their own capabilities and personal fit for different paths

An in-between role: community builders

One thing that isn't captured in this model is the role that community builders. Most community builders occupy a role where they can have a decent amount of influence - they can form people's views on ideas, the community, the leadership. For example, in one city peopel getting burnt out and not getting funding, shaped those peopels perceptions of the funding landscape, which I don't think were justified.

The influence of community builders (at least internally amongst meta organisations) has shaped decisions around what activities they should pursue. Prior to 2020, there was a lot of hesitation (and there still is today) about whether and how community builders should provide career advice to their members. Stakeholders were worried that community builderse would influence career paths too much and that those people have less impact / make worse decisions if the advice was bad. Feels like this level of discourse around leading institution's influence is not clear (e.g. 80K). 

Thank you to the countless people who I've discussed these ideas over the years with, most recently Hamza who reminded me to revisit this post, and Amber for reviewing. 

  1. ^

    Internal models describe the structure, interactions and relationships within the movement, while external models describe the same features, but between the movement and the outside world.

  2. ^

    This comes from the resource mobilisation literature. Resource mobilisation theory is a subset of social movement theory that focuses on how a social movement’s mobilisation of resources can affect its ability to achieve its goals. This theory requires understanding the structure of a social movement, including all relevant actors (leaders, members, organisations, funders and more) and how these actors interact with each other. It also takes into account the availability of resources, and how the presence or absence of resources affects interactions between actors.

  3. ^

    What is the  core?

    Diagram of the core of the EA movement.


    Key Decision-makers:  Grantmakers and leaders of key EA organizations who allocate resources (money) towards different projects and initiatives. This is a very small group. 

    Central EAs can be involved in strategy-setting or thought leaders. They do not necessarily work at key EA organizations. Central EAs also influence members through articles, writing and talks. 

    When these two roles don't overlap, central EAs set or strongly influence goal setting, and key decision-makers allocate resources to achieve those goals. In practice, roles often overlap - a grantmaker at the Open Philanthropy allocates funds, but also directly influences career decisions by identifying talent bottlenecks

    The rest of the Core are some of the people working at EA organizations or funded by EA grantmakers. Although we might not call them "leaders", they can serve as gatekeepers (via recruitment), and influence beliefs and actions (as (in)formal mentors). They are closer to the Key Decision-makers and Central EAs, and may have opportunities to influence them

    Thanks to Jah Ying Chung for introducing this way of thinking about the composition of the movement to me. 

Comments2
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:05 AM

Hi Vaidehi,

Some thoughts, as someone who has founded a climate protest movement (a Singapore branch of Fridays For Future), and also read a lot of research on social movements to inform my decision making, and also somewhat acquainted with community organising in EA:

  1. The first difference I’ve seen between EA organising and climate organising is the initial barrier to new member participation. You’ve cited Extinction Rebellion as an example of member-led participation. From beginning to end, the main thing a Rebel needs to do as an active, contributing member is to show up to civil disobedience actions. While this requires personal risk and planning, it’s significantly more straightforward and well-defined than what Core EA members would usually go through. Even “beginner” EAs have to read incredibly lengthy introductions to EA. Of course, one could correctly point out that EA has significantly higher standards for epistemic rigour and sustained long-term contribution. As you note in your earlier posts in the sequence, more steps requiring more guidance/support/ feedback/expertise, drifts towards more centralisation.
  2. The second difference is different demands for core members. One thing that fascinates me ever since I “transitioned” from climate movement to EA movement is how, justice sensitivity and expansive altruism aside, the two select for completely different traits. EA essentially wants highly-engaged members to do one of two things: contribute by working in EA long-term (research, operations etc.), or donating, which also skews long-term. These behaviours generally fit into a “normal” leadership hierarchy. Climate/social cause movements, meanwhile, are generally dealing with well-defined and contentious issues, where the theory of change relies on public shows of mass support. The most highly engaged members may take on high risk of social/legal/physical repercussions, and participation correlates with risk tolerance and disagreeableness. While participation does rely on strong ties,[1] the selection pressure is practically polar opposite. Rebels are more inclined follow those willing to face prison for the cause,[2] while EAs select for “potential for impact”, which correlates with proxies that are high-status and suitable for hierarchies (degree qualification, technical skill, references from other EAs).[3]

Anyway, I just discovered your sequence and theories of change. I agree and have had similar thoughts for quite a while. As someone who researched member-organised movement and tried to build one as a contingency for the co-founders’ imprisonment, I’d say a member-organised structure is difficult for EA to adopt.

That said, I’m a very vocal supporter of EAs learning best practices from others. The climate movement that turned climate risk from a niche x-risk into the largest mobilisation of people, capital and resources in human history, and I regularly apply its lessons to planning EA meta/longtermism projects. Would love to talk more on this![4]

  1. ^
  2. ^

    This also applies to some branches of FridaysForFuture where organiser status carries significant legal risks (i.e. most places outside the US and EU).

  3. ^

    As a side note, I find that in EA, virtue signalling in the technical sense is far less prominent (see: opinions towards protests, intersectionality and veganism), and others have suggested that EA has a Deference Culture. There’s also the elephant in the room where “Core EA” is 70% male while climate activists are 60-70% female, a comparison that is very noticeable and very baffling.

  4. ^

    Now that I’m doing the “EA networking” thing I should be more structured with introductions+engaging people across multiple topics/project ideas I have. If anyone has recommendations please let me know.

Thanks for this awesome comment - when I have a little more time im going to address it properly!

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