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Evan_Gaensbauer comments on Review of CZEA "Intense EA Weekend" retreat - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 11 April 2018 03:31:01AM 4 points [-]

Are you skeptical of the impact of these retreat-style events, or large congregations of effective altruists in general? Conferences like EAG faced similar skepticism of their impact early on. While there is a sense of hype at EAG events, especially if they're primarily attended by fresher community members, the expected value of EAG events is high. The value per person is high-variance, and the median impact per attendee may be low, but the mean impact of EAG per attendee is high. This is because for those high-impact individuals who weren't connected to EA before attending an EAG conference who then got highly involved, they transform the movement. For example, I know several EAs who within a few months of attending EAG, and hardly having heard of EA before then, became key staffers at EA organizations. I expect several EA organizations could attest the same. Given surveys of EA organizations place the value of identifying and hiring the best candidate for a new position as equivalent to >$100k USD; each EAG event likely results in multiple such outcomes; and EAG events don't themselves cost that much, at the least I expect every EAG conference breaks even in expected value. That's not an impressive outcome, but the networking and coordination value EAGs add to the EA movement are a crucial institution. We haven't found an alternative process which satisfies the same goals as well. We can't predict very well in advance exactly which individuals will generate the greatest value by attending EAG events, but that from the pool of people who attend EAG tons of value is undeniably generated justifies the costs of organizing and hosting these events.

Of course EAG events are professional conferences the Centre for Effective Altruism and others optimize for maximizing impact as a result of networking between EAs. Local/regional EA retreats are a different kind of event: more casual, and less goal-oriented. I don't think local EA groups without the assistance of professional EA organizations often have the capacity to organize an event as big and impactful as an EAG conference.

So that leaves the question of the expected value of retreats, i.e., whether its worth local EA communities trying to host them. The direct financial costs (assuming the 75 Euro/person/weekend price is typical, that isn't high) aren't high, as the time spent organizing these events probably primarily comes from volunteers. I figure the primary cost of organizing EA retreats would be the opportunity cost. That is, could the time spent organizing a local EA retreat by all EAs involved be better spent on something else?

While I think local EA groups could identify better uses of their time, that's not the same as saying they will identify better uses of their time. If that's free time that'd otherwise go unused, I expect organizing retreats is worthwhile.

I hope these thoughts help frame thinking about evaluating the EV of EA retreats.

My guess is that events organized for an effective knowledge-building in the given domain (including concrete skills required for a very concrete tasks in the given community, some of which were a part of your event) would be those that would make more of a difference. Say, an EA community realizes they lack the knowledge of gathering empirical data or the knowledge of spreading their ideas and attracting new members. In that case, one could invite experts on these issues to provide concrete intensive crash-courses, equipping the given community so that it can afterwards put these skills to action. This means a hard-working event, without much extra-entertainment activities, but with a high knowledge gain. I think networking and getting to know others is nice, but not as essential as the know-how and the willingness to apply it (which may then spontaneously result in a well networked community).

As an aside, I've wanted to do more things like this with EAs in Canada, but there hasn't been a good opportunity to do so. A highly focused, goal-oriented retreat is something I hadn't thought of trying, but might be a great idea. Thanks for the inspiration.

Comment author: Dunja 14 April 2018 11:44:56AM *  0 points [-]

Thanks for this, Evan, I was primarily referring to smaller events which aren't primarily targeted at attracting new people. Though now that you mention it, I find the bigger events even worse haha! I was at one bigger EA event and while I perfectly understand it can introduce many people into the topic, and make people passionate about the cause, I haven't experienced the same mainly because I haven't learned much really. But this probably depends on personality traits, expectations etc. :) In general, your argument makes very much sense: if sufficiently many people are around, for some of them this will work (and the above post by Richenda shows there is even some empirical evidence for that). For me, forums like this are e.g. way more interesting ;) At the end of the day, it's probably the best if there is a variety of venues/platforms for different kind of people and interests.