jessica_mccurdy

University Group Team Lead @ Centre For Effective Altruism
1283 karmaJoined Jan 2019Berkeley, CA, USA

Comments
33

Hi Andreas,

This is a different and unrelated role (you can compare the role descriptions to see more differences)

We are currently doing work trials for candidates for the group support contractor role. 

Hi Isaac, this is a good question! I can elaborate more in the Q&A tomorrow but here are some thoughts:

Ultimatley a lot depends on your personal fit and comparative advantage. I think people should do the things they excel at. While I do think you can have a more scalable impact on the groups team, the groups team would have very little to no impact without the organizers working on the ground! 

I can share some of the reasons that led me to prefer working at CEA over working on the ground:

  • I value having close management to help me think through my goals (both within my work and those related to more long-term professional development). I have had the benefit of working with some very experienced managers who have both taught me a lot and empowered me to grow myself through increasing levels of responsibility. 
  • I really value learning from an established organization with efficient systems in place. It is pretty nice having most operational things handled and to have pre-existing support for things like budgeting, hiring, management, and performance reviews.
  • I really love the people at CEA. Don't get me wrong, I also loved the people at my uni group but /everyone/ at CEA is so caring, competent, and hardworking. It is pretty hard to match that with just students (and especially when so many of the students are just volunteers or participants with lots of competing interests)
  • I personally prefer working with organizers who are already excited about EA and connecting them with the broader community and opportunities. I find it a lot harder to introduce people to EA. 
  • I like to work on building scalable systems, managing people who are full-time, and doing lots of coordination across many geographies and groups of people.
  • Due to my personal circumstances, I prefer to not be tied to one specific location like a single university. Working with CEA gives me a lot more flexibility (and can help me have a more normal work-life balance)

However, there are some good reasons why you might prefer to work on the ground:

  • I think the counterfactual impact story on the ground can be easier to see. Although we are able to make counterfactual connections for organizers, a lot of our impact happens through other people whose impact then also happens through others. Taking someone from not knowing anything about EA to transitioning into a high impact career is really fulfilling.
  • Working on a campus allows you to form deeper relationships with those you are working with and have more face-to-face time. Most of my work is remote and many of my coworkers work around the world let alone the organizers I work with. This works better for some people than others.
  • If you don't want to be a part of a bigger organization and the bureaucratic costs that come with that. I don't personally think these are that bad but we do have to be very careful about various legal and operational considerations. Sometimes things like budget approvals can feel like they are slowing you down.
  • Depending on your university, replaceability might be a larger consideration (ie: the difference in impact between you and the next best person on the groups team might be less than the difference in impact between the groups team and working with one uni if no one would replace you.)
  • Since you are working with so many people and making lots of commitments, it can be harder to rapidly shift directions. 

Hey Camille,

Thanks for writing this and I am sorry you faced so many struggles and felt alone. 

Arguments around students not having time feel surprising to me. Do you feel like your students are significantly busier than say, MIT students? I would defer to you since you have more context, but I have heard the "students don't have time" answer from a lot of universities that eventually ran quite successful clubs. So I think it would be interesting to know what ENS students are doing with their time? Do more students work outside schooling or is there a cultural norm around not participating in clubs? Or is the courseload significantly more intense (I think Cal Tech might be the only example I currently know where this might be true)?  I think sharing more details on what makes ENS students so busy relative to other schools could help other schools when deciding whether they will face similar problems. 

Also, mostly for others who are reading this and thinking about how it applies to their groups, there are some workarounds that schools have tried such as fellowships where people do the reading in the session. Many groups are happy to share their syllabi via the groups slack (though given your cultural concerns many of these may be too English and would have required editing). I think the main thing that makes fellowships the most successful (but far from ideal) innovation in groups is the consistent and recurring meeting nature of it. So would be curious to hear if you think the readings in the session version would work. I like the cozy sessions idea and have seen these be quite successful at other groups too :)

I'm sorry about the communication problems you faced in UGAP and that it didn't feel like it would be useful. However, 80% confidence that a UGAP mentor wouldn’t have been right for you seems super high! I think it is pretty plausible for the reasons you mentioned that the UGAP programming would be less useful for you but mentorship is very unique to the person and flexible. So my guess is it would have still been valuable even if you mostly didn’t talk about organizing and instead talked about EA ideas and your own career. But maybe we could chat more about what made this prediction so high for you :)

Again, appreciate you sharing and admire your perseverance and innovation here :)

(I lead the CEA uni groups team but don’t intend to respond on behalf of CEA as a whole and others may disagree with some of my points)
 

Hi Dave,

I just want to say that I appreciate you writing this. The ideas in this post are ones we have been tracking for a while and you are certainly not alone in feeling them. 

I think there is a lot of fruitful discussion in the comments here about strategy-level considerations within the entire EA ecosystem and I am personally quite compelled by many of the points in Will’s comment. So, I will focus specifically on some of the considerations we have on the uni group level and what we are trying to do about this. (I will also flag that I could say a lot more on each of these but my response was already getting quite long and we wanted to keep it somewhat concise)

Epistemics

  • We are also quite worried about epistemic norms in university groups. We have published some of our advice around this on the forum here (though maybe we should have led with more concrete examples) and I gave a talk at EAG Bay Area on it.
  • We also try to screen that people actually understand the arguments behind the claims they are making & common arguments against those positions. This is a large part of what we think screen for when looking for open-mindedness and truth-seeking. This is, of course, difficult and we do have false positives. 
    • I will note, we sometimes admit people who we think don’t understand some important arguments because we expect students to generally be learning. I expect most clubs for any cause or idea to have a weaker bar though, and we still do screen for people being self-aware about the fact that they don’t understand certain arguments.  We probe for this in interviews, such as by posing multiple counterarguments.
    • Concretely, the ~most common reason we decline to support groups (though do encourage them to reapply later) is that we think the organizers "agree with" ideas, but don't actually understand them or the important arguments around them. So we tell them they should focus on understanding common arguments first (often by reading, for lack of a better option), etc before running a group.
  • Personal anecdote: Part of what drew me to EA was the openness to new ideas and truth-seeking. This was so apparently prominent in my EA group compared to many other communities I interacted with on campus who often refused to engage with certain arguments. I loved being in an intellectually vigorous environment where people did take ideas seriously and I loved that my group was so skeptical about everything. I am sad to see some spaces in the EA community not upholding these values even though I know it is based on good intentions.
     

Retreats

  • I want to apologize since I know you attended one of our summits and if you want to reach out with any additional feedback or suggestions, we would be keen to hear from you (either on the groups slack or via unigroups@centreforeffectivealtruism.org).
  • Retreats are definitely high-variance interventions. I do think there is more we can do to make them intellectually humble and welcoming spaces. I care a lot about psychological safety and think it is important for progress. We are always looking for feedback and ideas on how to improve this at future events and people can reach us at unigroups@centreforeffectivealtruism.org. 
  • I do think there are big value-adds to retreats. 
    • People normally go through their lives day-to-day not being able to set aside time to think about big ideas and how they might want to change their behaviors off of them. Retreats provide a space for this which I think is valuable. 
    • They also make applying these ideas to your life a real possibility by showing examples of people who have done so. For many people, these are an opportunity to see “woah, you can actually work on these things!”. 
  • While I push back on the “retreats mainly act by disabling epistemic immune systems” frame, I will say I am a huge proponent of people having other communities to go back to and safe exit strategies. I think there are some good considerations around this in this post on going to an EA hub.
  • Personal anecdote: The first few retreats/workshops/summits I went to were really intense and I often felt like I didn’t belong, and I think that was bad (although afaict somewhat common for retreats in other clubs with new, unfamiliar people) but I didn’t regret going to them.  Reflecting back on them, I think they were hugely valuable for me as a person and for me thinking through my impact. Though, I did appreciate having a community I could return back to who could push against ideas and personally encourage people to have this.
     

Paying Organizers

  • The Open Philanthropy Organizer Fellowship is the main source of funding for organizers’ time (and they manage that fellowship themselves, without CEA’s involvement) but CEA does offer some stipends. I do think that for some (but not all) people this can have a large effect on how much time they can spend on their group and on upskilling. 
  • I am pretty sympathetic to need-based considerations but these are pretty hard to track. We have moved to our stipends being opt-in rather than default to help with this.
  • We also follow a method of not giving out our entire stipend amounts until the end of the semester so we can verify that organizers did complete the requirements we asked of them. 
  • I do think organizers shouldn’t expect to be paid for this type of work by default and we are considering not offering stipends in the future (though we are still collecting data on their helpfulness).
  • Personal anecdote: I worked a few part-time jobs in college and being paid to run my group enabled me to spend my time on what I thought was most impactful and I really appreciated that. However, in my last semester, I didn’t need the funding and opted out of it.

Hi! Just responding on the groups team side :)

This is a good observation. As we mentioned in this retrospective from last Fall, we decided to restrict UGAP to only new university groups to keep the program focused. In the past, we had more leeway and admitted some university groups that had been around longer. I think we have hit a ~ plateau on the number of new groups we expect to pop up each semester (around 20-40) so I don't expect this program to keep growing.

We piloted a new program for organizers from existing groups in the winter alongside the most recent round of UGAP. However, since this was a fairly scrappy pilot we didn't include it on the dashboard. We are now running the full version of the program and have accepted >60 organizers to participate. This may scale even more in the future but we are more focused on improving quality than quantity at this time. It is plausible that we combine this program and UGAP into a single program with separate tracks but we are still exploring.

We are also experimenting with some higher-touch support for top groups which is less scalable (such as our organizer summit). This type of support also lends itself less well to dashboards but we are hoping to produce some shareable data in the future.
 

I want to chip in that several years ago it was very normal for retreat participants to chip in on the cost of the retreats. I think this is pretty normal in comparison settings (ie: student group retreats for clubs in the US) and would be excited about more groups doing a bit more of this (not necessarily all of them but I think this isn't in the option space of some group organizers right now and should be). I think this gives participants a bit more stake in the retreat going well but that is not super evidence-based. 

It is also, always possible to offer subsidies/financial assistance for anyone who might find the cost prohibitive. Although, it seems important to make it very easy and nonawkward for them to flag if they need assistance (ie: in the signup form explicitly say that people are in very different financial situations and you expect some people to need this.)

I also want to express some appreciation for what you are doing. I am really glad to see this series being posted and I think it is generating a lot of useful conversation. <3

Published: Who gives? Characteristics of those who have taken the Giving What We Can pledge

The paper I worked on with Matti Wilks for my thesis was published! Lizka successfully did her job and convinced me to share it on the forum. 

I'm sharing this here, but I probably won't engage with it (or comments about it) too seriously as a heads up --- this was a project I worked on a few years ago and it's not super relevant to me anymore.

Hi Robert,

Thanks for the questions! 

I am just adding a quick response now because I think Max’s response does a good job of covering most of your questions. I would be happy to expand if you like, though.

We are more optimistic now because, as mentioned, the landscape is quite different and we are testing out focusing on different types of support than before. For example, we are not currently planning on restarting the campus specialist program but are investigating things like group organizer retreats for top universities (which was a more well-received aspect of the campus specialist program).

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