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Testing an EA network-building strategy in the Netherlands

Last January, Effective Altruism Netherlands (EAN) became a registered charity in the Netherlands. The organisation consists of a three-person board and two full-time employees, Sjir Hoeijmakers and yours truly (Remmelt Ellen). Note: as of writing, we are still fundraising to cover our salaries.

On 28 May, we publicly launched with a large event. Since then, we have pivoted from supporting EA projects to collaborating with EA networks in the Netherlands.

This post outlines our new strategy. We would appreciate your feedback in the comments, to enable us to improve it further.

 


Terminal Goal

Have as much positive impact as possible on the lives of others.


Instrumental goal

Engage impactful and potentially impactful individuals in the Netherlands with effective altruism and stimulate and facilitate them to bring effective altruism into practice.

Strategy

  1. Work with selected ‘network builders’ to build networks of self-identified effective altruists by

    1. helping define targets of the network

    2. helping set up the network infrastructure

    3. providing resources that differentiate effective altruism and the effective altruism community.

  2. Do targeted EA outreach to fill these networks with qualified individuals

  3. Provide a national infrastructure for these networks to connect with each other to share motivation, knowledge, skills and other resources

  4. Be the point of contact for anything EA-related in the Netherlands to protect the correct use of the concept ‘effective altruism’

 

Before the pivot, we had a tendency to jump on an appealing opportunity, construct a concrete project framework and then look around for people who could carry it out.  It was difficult to find people with a good personal fit and the project’s impact was limited by its duration.
We now focus on selecting people first – those who we deem both EA-aligned and highly-capable of building EA networks within promising cause and talent areas, based on their track record and our experience in working with them. Note that with ‘self-identified effective altruists’ we mean network members who identify with and strive after CEA’s Guiding Principles.

 

Assumptions

  1. We can have more impact by making others more effective than by doing direct work ourselves.

The main argument for this is the multiplier effect.

 

  1. We can have more impact by getting people fully aligned with effective altruism than by spreading parts of the effective altruism idea (e.g. cause-specific optimisation).

Here are two arguments for this:

  1. Impact being created by the multiplication of parameters.
    e.g. open-mindedness without scientific rigour leads to failure.

  2. There being a log/power law distribution of impact across cause areas, just like there is across interventions within a particular cause area.

 

  1. We can have more impact by focusing on individuals directly and on organisations indirectly rather than on organisations directly.

The underlying idea is that rather than focusing our efforts on a representative who has more say in the organisation’s direction but is less likely to be particularly aligned with EA values, we should instead focus on people within the organisation who are.

 

  1. We can have more impact by focusing on (potentially) impactful individuals than on the general public.

With ‘impactful’, we mean people who we deem capable of having an outsized positive impact. The argument here is to spend most of our resources on identifying and targeting those people instead of undirected broad outreach in the hope that a tiny portion of people who hear from us work their way up the ladder of engagement to become EA-aligned.

 

  1. We can have more impact by focusing on the Netherlands than on other geographic areas.

In the Netherlands, only a tiny minority know of the term ‘effective altruism’, meaning that there are still many low-hanging fruits to pick. We also have a geographic advantage because we speak Dutch and are able to connect in-person in this densely populated country. More tentatively, Dutch culture seems suitable for effective altruism, as the Dutch are seen to be pragmatic, cosmopolitan/ outward-looking, and consistently rank high at philanthropic giving.

 

Metrics

These are key metrics selected to track EAN’s underlying impact (i.e. wellbeing-adjusted life years) as best as we can to compare with the opportunity costs of the money spent by donors and the time spent by EAN. To test and adapt our strategy, we are also setting falsifiable hypotheses for each link in the chain of processes needed to build impact.

  1. Inputs:

    1. Time committed by EAN

    2. Money spent by EAN

  2. Outputs

    1. Behavioural change: impact-adjusted significant plan changes (IASPC) attributable to EAN/ €1,000

As an ambitious benchmark for how well we’re doing, we intend to use 80,000 Hours’ trajectory after it officially started in Nov 2011. Their current output is around 4 IASPC/€1,000 spent (probably an overestimate). If we assume that this figure stood at 1 IASPC/€1,000 in its first year, that’s what we should be aiming for now for the networks we’re helping build (a more rigorous approach would also include estimated salary opportunity costs).

    1. Belief change: increase in the number of self-identified effective altruists

This is about tracking whether people within the EA Networks have an applied understanding of CEA’s Guiding Principles, possibly through periodic surveys. This is to ensure that the behavioural change we see is not fragile. i.e. that people within the Dutch EA community are able to update with new evidence over the next decades.

Current collaborations

Here are three networks that we’re starting collaborations with (network builders in brackets):

    1. Effective Giving (Kellie Liket & Robert Boogaard)

Quote: “Effective Giving is a community of foundations and large philanthropists learning together how to apply our unique resources to make the maximum contribution to a better world.”  
In our view, this is an example of a well-functioning network with which we have had fruitful collaborations (Kellie and Robert have also supported the development of EAN from the start).

    1. Career Workshops (Alje van den Bosch & Yaël Duindam)

This is a network that develops and gives career workshops in the Netherlands and would help connect potentially impactful people to other Dutch EA networks. The biggest bottleneck right now to Alje and Yaël working on this at least part-time is building a sustainable revenue model.

 

    1. Road to AI Safety Excellence [RAISE] (Toon Alfrink)

Quote: “RAISE... is an initiative to improve the pipeline for AI safety researchers. The road to research-level understanding is hard and uncertain. We want it to be easy and clear. To this end, we are creating a MOOC.”
This network has just started recording its first lecture and is still looking for volunteers.

Here are potential network collaborations that we’re exploring right now:

    • Local/student groups
      These would clearly define their target groups and offer newcomers a path to learn about EA principles and build up their capacity to do good (established groups like EA London and EA Berkeley are inspirations to us here).

    • Animal Welfare Research network
      This network would compile and produce rigorous animal welfare intervention research that can be applied by Dutch and international charities.

    • Rationality hub
      This network would enable (potentially) impactful individuals in the Netherlands to improve their epistemic and instrumental rationality.

    • Startup Founders network
      This network would support the creation of effective for-profit and nonprofit startups.

    • Corporate Intrapreneurs network
      Similar to the work of EA Workplace Activism, these would be entrepreneurial employees who spread EA thinking within companies through EA projects, charity drives, changes in pension funds investments and the like.

    • Policy network
      This network would search for the most high-impact lobby opportunities for improving Dutch government or EU-wide policy and start projects to implement them.

Examples of actions

Concretely, here are examples of actions that EAN would and would not take based on this strategy:

Would do:

  • Sit down with a high-potential and highly committed person working in a corporation to set specific targets (e.g. moving money of corporations' foundations) and plan out when and how their Corporate EA network would communicate (e.g. arrange meeting spot, online platform) to reach these targets.

  • Suggest to a Startup Founders network to organise a cause prioritisation training and connect them with an experienced trainer or online self-learning material for this.

  • Connect an AI Safety Research network with a Policy network through a shared event where the former informs the latter about promising policies to pursue.

 

Would not do (although someone in a network could):

  • Run a campaign to promote GiveWell-recommended charities.

  • Do research into the most effective ways to lobby the Dutch government or the European Union.

  • Incubate an effective NGO startup.

  • Work with existing organisations or networks to improve their impact

 

 


To avoid becoming long-winded in this post, we left out tactical details.
Feel free though to write out your questions and feedback below to improve this strategy.

Comments (9)

Comment author: casebash 03 July 2017 04:56:26PM 2 points [-]

Interesting strategy, focusing on building networks rather than direct activities. Will be very curious to see if this works!

Comment author: DardanBastiaan 03 July 2017 06:06:02PM *  3 points [-]

First off: sign me up. There's a bunch of (potentially) relevant networks I'm connected into in Leiden, e.g. Amnesty, ISN (International student network), LDU (Leiden Debating Union), EUSA (European Student Association), but in which I have yet not been able to get through the change I should have pushed harder for. For example, I once had the idea to set up a debating tournament as to not only raise awareness, but do so amongst those who would be most open to its message and most able to then do something about it, namely debaters. This particular idea might not be as feasible as I once thought it was, but there's always other opportunities to be thought of.

Here are potential network collaborations that we’re exploring right now: Local/student groups These would clearly define their target groups and offer newcomers a path to learn about EA principles and build up their capacity to do good (established groups like EA London and EA Berkeley are inspirations to us here).

Based on having been in a book club with a community of about ~300 individuals, it's really difficult to get a large group of individuals to be consistently involved. It follows that this strategy has a high risk of failing, demotivating those involved in the failure from staying involved in EA. If you want to go ahead with this, it needs to be thought out well.

Comment author: remmelt  (EA Profile) 03 July 2017 10:49:24PM 2 points [-]

Thanks for the points!

First off, you might be interested in helping continue the EA Leiden group (the current organiser has just finished her Masters and is going back to Germany): https://www.facebook.com/?_rdr#~!/profile.php?id=100015874785676 Please let me know if you want me to connect you with her.

Comment author: DardanBastiaan 03 July 2017 11:17:00PM 3 points [-]

Ah, I totally missed about a chapter having opened this april. But yes: I'd be very much interested in helping continue the EA Leiden group, so feel free to connect me with the current organiser.

Comment author: remmelt  (EA Profile) 03 July 2017 11:19:34PM *  3 points [-]

Second, I lean towards focusing on enabling a handful of small number of highly-committed and capable people in a network instead of trying to shift hundreds of people towards EA.

Besides the outsized impact that these few individuals can have, the time cost of coordinating a large group of slightly motivated people (as you alluded to) and the difficulty of fostering a rigorous EA culture and network effects within such a group for those who the concept 'clicks', mean that I personally have a strong preference for quality over quantity (similar to Kevin Kelly's 1000 true fans concept or Y Combinator's advice of focusing on making initial customers love the product).

To some extent, EAN's strategy leans this way because we focus on building EA Networks instead of influencing existing networks.

The broad reasoning done by Sjir and I (based in part on useful advice given by others in the community) are build on layers of unproven assumptions. I can imagine counterexamples for local groups such as having low cost, low bar ways of getting people acquainted with EA like pub socials, to help build up a core circle of people.

In general, I want to be wary though of aiming for short-term effects by collecting many people instead of building up our collective capacity to solve big problems.

Comment author: DardanBastiaan 04 July 2017 11:33:15AM *  1 point [-]

Looking at the list of friends to the Leiden chapter, I am impressed with both the amount of people on it as well as with the amount of talent I know some of these folk to possess. On the other hand, the activities thus far planned out and put out there these past few months, based on for example the 2 people that attended the last event, seem to have been largely unsuccessful.

There is a middle road, I think, combining the best of both our views. Rather than having a core group hosting activities which very few would attend, I envision having a core group that first raises awareness throughout Leiden and otherwise working pragmatically, which could include hosting events, to further the EA agenda. If some of these people are anything I know them to be, i.e. highly talented, motivated individuals, then we'd be able to stick together based on our shared passion and desire for a stimulating environment alone. The risk of such a group falling apart would in that sense be far smaller than what I had estimated it to be in my previous post.

Anyway, again, I very much look forward to working more closely with you and those already active in Leiden.

Comment author: remmelt  (EA Profile) 04 July 2017 02:03:03PM *  0 points [-]

Yes, I think connecting with potentially interested people on existing platforms makes sense for local groups, as an example. The subtle difference for me is that you wouldn't try to 'convert' the entire existing network but instead have targeted conversations with participants (e.g. talking with altruistic, analytical people at an Amnesty event or inviting people to schedule a cup of coffee at the end of your own event).

I'll connect you with the current organiser. Looking forward to exploring this idea further with you!

Comment author: Vincent-Soderberg 14 July 2017 04:14:20PM 1 point [-]

suggestion for possible low hanging fruit: getting DGB, The life you can save, and 80k into all the libraries in netherlands. Im constantly surprised how few libraries have the books in sweden, and the benefit of it is that once you get it in, at least a few people will read it, and it gets easier for a potental EA to get into EA if there is good reading material in their vicinity. thats my idea at least

other then that, i'll be going to Fest i Nord (a mormon convent), and i'll likely meet someone from netherlands. I'll be sure to mention the EAN to them!

Comment author: remmelt  (EA Profile) 11 August 2017 01:18:04PM *  0 points [-]

I had missed your comment, Vincent, so here's a late reply. :-)

I like your idea of distributing introductory books to EA through libraries (especially university colleges, where students seem more multidisciplinary and idealistic). Last May, we actually collaborated with a publisher to get a new translated book of Peter Singer out.

Here's the deal. From my perspective, it will probably take too much time and attention away from EAN to directly work on distributing the books. Our current strategy for representing EA publicly in the Netherlands is to do it in limited, low marginal cost ways – through our online channels and invitations from media or lecture platforms (this falls under strategy point 4: EA-related in the Netherlands).

I think we should aim to become extremely competent by specialising in these approaches, which also means not getting distracted by other outreach opportunities (unless focusing on one of those instead will contribute more to building a thriving EA community).

To explore this concept more deeply:

People tend to naturally specialise in economic markets. This seems more difficult in the EA community because in a transaction, a product (information, skills, and other forms of capital) is often not offered in return for currency units (a medium of exchange) but instead in the expectation of reciprocity (that the other party is 1. aligned enough with your consequentialist preferences and 2. capable of fulfilling these moral preferences sufficiently using what you give them). It's not even barter (the exchange of products as would be done in moral trade, i.e. where moral preferences diverge) but the formation of trust-based partnerships towards shared long-term goals.

My hope (and what we're testing) is that collaborating on building a fractal social network structure – with EAs clustering around different adaptable network targets with corresponding specialised expertise at each layer – would result in a more optimal division of labour.

So should a competent organiser in the Netherlands reach out to us wanting to build an 'EA Literature network', we'd be open to exploring this!