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Why Groups Should Consider Direct Work

 

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It has been argued that it is strategically optimal for EA groups to focus on community building rather than direct work [1]. The rationale behind this approach is very sensible, drawing attention to the comparative advantage that groups (university groups especially) ostensibly have to specialise in community building. Meanwhile, it is thought that many groups don’t have the time, expertise or funding to deliver high-quality direct work or to take on the most pressing interventions. Furthermore, EA organisations typically have a need for funding and full time dedicated staff, rather than dispersed, part-time volunteers.

 

However, there are a number of exceptions and limitations to this premise, as well as considerations that it overlooks. In recent months, the LEAN team has been approached by groups struggling to engage and retain members. As direct work may have the potential to attract and engage members, it seems valuable to revisit this policy and open it up for discussion.

 

In the first part of this article, I lay out considerations that may have been overlooked or wrongly dismissed, in order to illustrate the potential value to some groups of incorporating direct work into their strategy under certain conditions. I discuss the importance of tangible actions for drawing a certain subset of high-potential individuals into rewarding and ongoing engagement with EA. From there, I move on to assess the most relevant counterfactuals to emphasise, in order to discern the best course of action with respect to this topic. A forthcoming article will focus on heuristics for enabling groups to identify their comparative advantage and a practical pathway for those considering the possibility of engaging in direct work.

The challenge of member retention

It is possible to argue that, for the sake of the EA movement, direct work should be ‘left to the professionals’, and that a significant concentration of resources and skill is needed to guarantee the quality and success of worthwhile interventions. I believe, however, that this perspective, when promoted as a general principle, tends to overlook two critical factors:

 

The first involves the mechanism through which groups retain and incubate talent for the EA movement. We know from the 2017 LEAN Impact Assessment [2] that many groups struggle to retain members. This was remarked upon by several of the organisers interviewed:

 

“I think around the world this is a common problem, that after people get involved in EA, there’s not many things to do or to keep them interested.”

 

“We got a lot of young professionals and students, and some young professionals really liked the ideas. But because we don’t have anything concrete for them to engage in this, it’s a really big gap for them to engage in the community.”


“All we can offer people who want to join the club is that we have a space to meet interesting people and have good conversation. But it’s not directly beneficial to your life, in that way. So even people who want to be effective altruists and want to be more involved often find that they have other commitments.”

 

The assessment [3] suggested that EA groups act to amplify the impact of individuals. In particular it found that 617 active commitments came about as a result of group participation (for example, lifestyle changes, consumption changes and similar), while 227 counterfactual GWWC pledges were influenced and 517 career choices were impacted. Moreover, groups in 2017 produced over $50,000 USD for effective charities through collective fundraising, and they estimated a shifting of over $700,000 USD in private donations to effective charities.

 

Further to this, individuals and organisers perceived groups as offering positive effects upon value alignment and EA retention. For example, 217 respondents of the 2017 EA Survey attributed groups as counterfactually significant in leading them to become involved in EA [4]. The majority of 2017 Local Group Survey respondents deemed involvement in their groups to form a large or very large factor of their involvement in EA. Meanwhile, over 70% of respondents believed that they would have greater social impact in the future as a result of changes in beliefs or perspectives brought about through group participation.

 

Despite these facts, many organisers reported that some EAs were disinclined to be involved with groups because they wanted more active options than those on offer. See, for instance, the following examples from our interviews [5]:

 

“People will say “well great, this sounds like a good idea but what is there to actually do?” It’s just a small community of people that are interested. And I think what’s tricky is that people don’t really see what they get from joining. It’s like “ok great, I like this idea - I’ll read the materials, but why do I need to come?” kind of thing…”

 

“We’ve been getting messages from people wanting to be involved in the club and actually do stuff. But the stuff we do is more, you know, host meetings, talk about stuff, get speakers, or talk about donations…”

 

“We look for ways of generating appeal, and I think the prioritization project and influence over a budget was helpful for that. But since we’re largely focused around meeting weekly and discussing philosophical issues it’s not always as prestigious as joining something else with more to offer.”

 

“There are people that want to talk about weird stuff and ethical paradoxes and then there are people saying ‘lets do something tangible as a group’, and so I’ve been struggling to figure out how to make everyone happy.”

 

Optimistically, some of the individuals that groups fail to retain are engaging with EA independently and privately, e.g. via donations or changes in career path. However, we should assume that many other talented individuals are exposed to EA ideas through a group, but do not necessarily go on to donate or alter their careers in the long run, even if they initially intend to do so.

 

In addition to the reports of organisers shared above, there also seem to be several straightforward reasons why direct work could be expected to secure higher retention by EA groups, and for the EA movement by extension.

 

Considering the example of university groups, we know that talented undergraduates are at a point in life where they are relatively cash poor, but often relatively flexible in terms of time availability. Undergraduates are also at a stage in life where they are especially receptive to new ideas, and are embedded in a social and institutional context which actively encourages them to be so. Furthermore, competitive undergraduates have a mind towards their future and are on the lookout for opportunities to improve their career capital. So what happens to an undergraduate who encounters EA at university? For most of these, opportunities to actively apply EA are fairly limited. They might donate their birthdays to fundraise for an EA charity, join the committees of their University group, assist in event organisation and outreach, or make one-off major adjustments. For example, they might take the GWWC pledge, reorient their career trajectory or transition to veganism. However, for many, this won’t be enough to engage their interest and inspire them to commit free time to participating in a group. As even the most sincere and well intentioned individuals are susceptible to value drift, as illustrated recently by Joey Savoie [6], this is a serious concern. It therefore seems prudent to adopt a psychological model of EAs that better reflects reality.

 

It would be challenging to survey individuals who stopped participating in EA groups after a few events, but we were able to gather some helpful feedback from existing group members during the Local Group Survey in 2017 [7]. When asked “In what way could the group provide more value to you?”, a few of the submissions expressed the following wishes:

 

“Do something to increase the utility of the world, besides ourselves”

“More social events and more direct impact (rather than indirect, like spreading awareness and getting pledges).”

“More engagement with various cause areas and people working on them. People are concerned with things like animal welfare, eliminating diseases and existential risk. But aside from directing donations to them and changing personal consumption habits, the focus feels ‘mostly academic’.”

“More effective work and projects”

“More activism and campaign oriented work”

 

As previously mentioned, there is also no guarantee that once members (or would-be members) graduate and move on from this initial engagement that they will adhere to their pledges and donation goals, even if they were inspired to make a change of this kind at that time. Many morally-minded intelligent people are attracted by immediate opportunities to use their skills to create tangible change. If people such as this are given engaging opportunities at this critical stage, then chances are significantly higher that they will remain plugged into the community, and value-aligned.

 

This holds true for non-student local groups also. Even if a group made up of professionals succeeds in securing donations and inspiring people to earn to give, it is also likely to have some members that are more attracted by tangible opportunities. (While specific actions will be addressed in a later post, for the sake of clarity, tangible opportunities that come to mind include volunteering, adcocacy, fundraising and undertaking research.) Indeed, this preference might be even more pronounced amongst professional EAs who typically have less disposable time than students, and are more likely to be embedded in family commitments and full time work. Individuals in this category might prefer to invest time only in activities with concrete material outcomes, in contrast to purely discussion based and social activities. One notable finding from the EA Survey 2017 data  was that EA students were almost twice as likely to be in groups as non-student EAs were. For many professional EAs, it may not make any sense in their trajectory to switch careers, but they still might need the inspiration and fulfilment that direct action offers, in order to remain motivated to give. In such cases opportunities for direct action are may promote continued value alignment.

 

It is worth noting, at this juncture, that 57 of the Local Group Survey respondents in 2017 were from local groups, where 37 hailed from university groups. This makes it vitally important to consider the retention and preferences of professionals in addition to students, when forming movement level group strategy.

 

Overall then, if we discourage groups from engaging in direct work, we choose to accept the loss or distancing of many highly talented persons with significant potential.

Which counterfactual is the best fit?

 

This brings me to the second of the two factors that are unduly overlooked. That is the issue of choosing the right counterfactual. The maxim that EA groups should abstain from direct work in favour of community building is a conclusion that appears to take for granted that groups and their members are equally willing and able to do one or the other. If group members were likely to redirect each hour of time they would have offered to direct work to community building, this suggestion might well be appropriate. However, people who are motivated to offer their spare time to direct work might be turned cold by community building activities. In this case, the hours of labour and skill on offer might very well be lost entirely, if direct action was not on the cards.

 

This is an alarming consideration, especially if we factor in the numerous professional EAs who might want to volunteer a few hours of their week to direct work, but who should not switch from their careers to working full time for an existing organisation. In cases such as these, the skill and experience of these group members may very well be wasted on simple outreach or community building pursuits. In other words, it seems very likely that for a number of individuals the choice is not between community building and direct work, but rather between direct work and nothing, or direct EA work and some other competing opportunity such as involvement in a different charitable community or society.

 

An infrequent but still important counterfactual that must be addressed is that of groups who would be significantly restricted, or lose out on impactful opportunities unless they engaged in direct action. A few such cases emerged during LEAN's group leader interviews in 2017 [8]. For these groups, ‘bread and butter’ EA group actions are either not feasible or unlikely to be effective because of the specificity of their cultural and regional context. The same may be true of a focus on donations, particularly for a group operating in a third world country. Some groups encounter regulatory censorship, and certain cultures and communities have an even stronger insistence upon domestic charity. Groups such as these are often inspired to reinvent the wheel and engage in sophisticated strategy that may involve actions such as diplomacy, advocacy and context tailored interventions. Recent examples include local groups like EA Delhi, hoping to work on regionally specific donation recommendations in light of the unique philanthropic market in the country, and a different group [9] which has the opportunity to redirect significant donations institutionalised within a particular religious network as long as it can reframe and prioritise strategic angles of EA thought.

 

Of course it is also important to consider counterfactuals less favourable to my argument. In theory, engaging in direct action could result in a loss of time that an EA might have better spent on career building efforts, as illustrated in Thomas Sittler's retrospective [9] on the Oxford Prioritisation Project. While diversion of this kind does not strike me as unlikely, it does strike me as less damaging in overall effect when compared to the risk of talented EAs drifting away from EA entirely. An already engaged EA will likely still have learned from any misguided or inefficient activities. If the activity in question is not highly successful, those executing the activity will still be building lasting experiences of value in areas such as leadership and project management. Meanwhile, failed retention of would-be EAs is more permanent, enduring and expansive with respect to the costs that are incurred by the movement.

What if the direct work is low-value?

Realigning our counterfactuals alters how we view the utility of direct work engaged in by groups. Instead of looking at how valuable direct work in this context will be in itself, we should also ask what value it will offer to the meta-level goals of attracting, retaining and incubating talent to the movement. Returning again to the Local Group Survey data of 2017, we asked members to share their plans for impact and to tell us how they believed the EA community could best support them in their goals.

 

“It would be helpful if EA orgs were willing to give our group consulting tasks that we could use as a learning opportunity”

“More resources about effective project work”

“Helping NGOs in my country measure their impact and make it bigger”

“Help me find impactful volunteer opportunities”

“EA Global should consider empowering individual EAs working in government and government-adjacent institutions, with specific tools and networking opportunities to facilitate policy advocacy”

 

Replies of this kind made it clear that there is a significant need in the movement for an intermediary space between formalised roles such as internships or jobs that empower talented and ambitious altruists to upskill and make strides towards the impact they are best suited to deliver in the long term. Clearly then, the value of direct work in this context is broader than that of the action itself.

 

It is also worth a reminder, at this junction, that direct work organised at the group level can be highly impactful, as evinced by the aforementioned amount of funds collectively raised for effective charities by a small number of groups last year.

 

Nevertheless one might reasonably question this value calculus if one has concerns that direct action on the part of groups might be not merely ineffectual but actively harmful. The risk of this outcome seems very low to me for a number of reasons.

 

First of all, there are exceedingly few groups in the network engaging in direct work. This suggests that, for the time being at least, we are highly unlikely to witness an uncontrolled explosion of altruistic interventions by groups, for good or for bad.

 

Furthermore, we tend to see those groups who do pioneer and initiate charitable projects reaching out to the EA community for informational and material support. This is because groups are not typically independently blessed with the funds, connections and expertise to launch interventions prior to networking. The impetus to network means that groups spontaneously integrate with the global EA community. This connection, and the support that the central community brings with it an element of influence and accountability, which safeguards against misguided ventures.

Conclusion

Altogether it seems very likely that a blanket policy discouraging groups from engaging in direct work will cost the movement a significant amount of hours in terms of the labour and skill that EAs around the world are inspired to offer. Not only is this negative for straightforward reasons, but this ‘waste’ brings with it a substantial risk to retention. This warrants an investigation into whether or not it is worthwhile to encourage groups to take on opportunities for action where applicable. Available group actions may fall short of embodying the very highest impact intervention that humans could take, but might instead still constitute the highest impact intervention that the group in question could deliver. Even if the gains from such projects might be small, they would be multiplied by the long-term returns in members retained, hours of good performed, and in the fostering of skill. A talented group member who cuts their teeth on a small scale, modest project may be much more likely and able to transition to higher impact responsibilities in the future.

 

In a future article, I will suggest ways that organisers can identify the comparative advantage particular to their group, and share examples of successful direct actions taken by present and past groups.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] https://app.effectivealtruism.org/groups/resources/effective-altruism-community-building

[2] http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1l7/2017_lean_impact_assessment_evaluation_strategic/

[3] http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1ic

[4] https://rtcharity.org/ea-survey-2017-part-8/

[5] http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1jb/2017_lean_impact_assessment_qualitative_findings/

[6] http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1ne/empirical_data_on_value_drift/

[7] http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1ic. Please note that we summarised most of the survey results in this article. However, the data mentioned here has never been published or summarised, as it comes from a minority of open, qualitative questions in the survey, which were not amenable to quantitative analysis. This summary is still useful for methodological information regarding the sample.

[8] http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1jb/2017_lean_impact_assessment_qualitative_findings/

[9] The group in question prefers anonymity.

[10] https://thomas-sittler.github.io/oxprioreview/

 

Acknowledgements

 

Thanks to David Moss, Tee Barnett and David Vatousios for editorial feedback.

 

 

 

Comments (18)

Comment author: Davis_Kingsley 28 May 2018 05:13:41PM 16 points [-]

One thing I've noticed is that direct work tends to put you much more in contact with reality (for lack of a better term) than community-building; it's much easier to see what you're accomplishing and what is and isn't working. This can be especially important for people trying to build and/or demonstrate skills.

Comment author: aarongertler  (EA Profile) 01 July 2018 05:26:54AM 1 point [-]

I strongly second this. This doesn't even have to mean direct EA work -- I think you learn a lot even by volunteering for non-EA causes (a few hours knocking on doors for a political candidate, an evening at a soup kitchen, etc.). It's good to see how nonprofits of all stripes organize their events and volunteers, and also good to be able to discuss the different nonprofit experiences you've had. (It's easy to come across as "do-nothing philosopher idly speculating" when you talk about EA with someone who spends every weekend volunteering, and that's not a good look.)

Comment author: CharlieRS 28 May 2018 09:59:59AM *  10 points [-]

Hi Richenda. Thanks for posting this; a discussion on the value of direct work is long overdue!

Two main things come to mind. One is a consideration for retaining people, and the other on the choice of comparison class.

Retaining people - I agree with you that losing people is bad. A key consideration is which people you want to retain most. In A Model of an EA Group, I claim that:

Trying to get a few people all the way through the funnel is more important than getting every person to the next stage.

Since groups are time-constrained, they can do only put on a certain number of activities. All else equal, it seems we should favour retaining those that engage with the key ideas of Effective Altruism most. By prioritising direct work, we run the risk of losing people who would benefit greatly from, say, career planning sessions or 1-1 meetings. This is because even with the best people, being active in moving them through the funnel is super essential, and if you engage in a tradeoff with retaining people earlier in the funnel, it's very plausible that they will stagnate. Supporting those who are willing to do indirect and high-impact work is in fact supporting those who are willing to do the most good, and people we should most want in our community.

I think this is a particularly important consideration because all your conclusions from retaining people can be 'flipped' (in a quasi-crucial way (lol)) if you agree that retaining people far down the funnel is more important.

Choice of comparison class - Throughout the post, a comparison between direct work and some other activities is made. I'm not sure the other activities belong to the right comparison class. Some properties of these activities:

(Activities that are)

not directly beneficial to your life

mostly academic

(Groups that are)

largely focused around meeting weekly and discussing philosophical issues

(Groups where)

opportunities to actively apply EA are fairly limited.

I think I'm pretty much in agreement that if a group is doing these things, then direct work is probably an improvement. However I don't think that groups should be doing these things. The relevant comparison should be made between the best known community building activities that groups are able to do. Career planning sessions combat the above, and can (as an example) successfully act a first line of defence against people who want to be more active.

Last thing - You mention opportunities that seek to

empower talented and ambitious altruists to upskill and make strides towards the impact they are best suited to deliver in the long term

I really like this, and I'm fully on board with this type of direct work. A small concern is that opportunities like this might 'lock people into' careers that are disproportionately available to people in (maybe just student) groups. As an example, fundraising seems to be particularly easy to do, whereas getting experience in AI Safety as an undergrad is a fair bit harder, and maybe not even desirable.

Thanks again for the post!

Comment author: Richenda  (EA Profile) 14 June 2018 07:19:48PM 2 points [-]

Hi Charlie. Thanks for your reply.

By prioritising direct work, we run the risk of losing people who would benefit greatly from, say, career planning sessions or 1-1 meetings. This is because even with the best people, being active in moving them through the funnel is super essential, and if you engage in a tradeoff with retaining people earlier in the funnel, it's very plausible that they will stagnate.

To be clear, I don’t suggest universally prioritising direct work over other activities, only that direct work (given its benefits) should be considered in some circumstances. Typically, I would expect this to involve EA groups running a portfolio of activities which includes direct work opportunities alongside other activities. In many cases, EA groups won’t be so strictly bottlenecked by sheer number of hours available to run activities, but rather by interest of attendees (and event organisers) or ideas for events, and so on. For example, there is likely a limit to the number of times that career workshops or 1-1 meetings can be repeated (especially in the case of medium-smaller groups), which may be met before organisers run of our time or energy to run any more events. This is particularly so if different kinds of events would engage different organisers to run them and attendees to attend them and engage them in different ways. I would also anticipate diminishing returns on core activities, such that even if, for example, career workshops or 1-1s are the highest impact activities (on average), on the margin additional different activities may be more impactful (as well as complementary to these other activities).

That said, I'm happy to discuss the hypotheticals presented here.

First, responding to your point that 'we should try to get a few people through the funnel'. On the one hand, it is precisely my point that there are high-potential, high talent individuals who won't go all the way through the funnel (or who will leave/regress/value drift, despite having passed through the funnel) precisely because there aren't sufficiently engaging opportunities for them to get their teeth into.

On the other hand, while I agree that it is plausible that in some or even the majority of cases, a small number of high impact individuals will deliver more value than a large group of lower impact individuals, I am very wary of concluding too far in advance where this balance lies. There are some cases where a dispersed group of individuals can collectively have a major impact (EA NTNU), there are cases where a group does not have any individuals that are likely to fit into CEA's model of either becoming major donors or moving into high impact careers, and finally there are cases where groups are able to push a few high talent individuals through the funnel while also more deeply engaging less high impact individuals (CZEA). Finally, as clarified above, I think there are some high impact individuals who won't go all the way through the funnel unless you provide them with tangible practical options. In this instance pushing folks through the funnel is directly aligned with increasing opportunities for direct action.

Supporting those who are willing to do indirect and high-impact work is in fact supporting those who are willing to do the most good, and people we should most want in our community.

It's not entirely clear to me why you think that this is the case. Many individuals likely to make enormous sacrifices to do the most good , are also likely be turned off by a group that is insufficiently practical. I know from our qualitative interviews with EA Organisers in 2017 that many organisers with a proven record of impact also experience the need for regular and tangible experiences to retain their motivation, optimism and enthusiasm. This is why I argue that it "seems prudent to adopt a psychological model of EAs that better reflects reality" in this article.

I think I'm pretty much in agreement that if a group is doing these things, then direct work is probably an improvement. However I don't think that groups should be doing these things. The relevant comparison should be made between the best known community building activities that groups are able to do. Career planning sessions combat the above, and can (as an example) successfully act a first line of defence against people who want to be more active.

Your suggestion that most EA Groups aren't made up of regular discussion groups is interesting. The impact assessment results, many of which were shared in this article, do illustrate that a significant number of groups are in fact busying themselves mostly with discussion meetups. I would not wish to speak a word against this, because in some cases that is the right strategy for the group in question. The role of many groups is to keep existing EAs motivated and supported while they individually deliver impact through earning to give or career progression. However, many groups reach a certain stage where they've saturated their networks with career workshops, they've attracted all the high impact individuals that they are likely to in the near future, and they begin to run out of options, and report struggling to retain interest and group motivation. I think, too, that the data shared in this article shows that some individuals don't feel that outreach activities are very satisfying. e.g. this quote from a member who completed the Local Group Survey, regarding ways the community could support members better: "More social events and more direct impact (rather than indirect, like spreading awareness and getting pledges).”" It is telling that the single most recurring request LEAN receives from organisers is for ideas and suggestions for further activities and volunteering opportunities.

Comment author: Richenda  (EA Profile) 28 May 2018 06:09:08PM 1 point [-]

Thanks Charlie. Just posting to say I've seen this and will respond more fully soon!

Comment author: Michal_Trzesimiech 28 May 2018 12:22:27PM 6 points [-]

At the local presence I run, there happen to appear projects I anticipate strongly to fail when posted, but encourage to try nevertheless for a couple of reasons not mentioned in your post, Richenda:

• The chances for flow-through effects, that "a substantial part of the good that one does may be indirect" and "helping to address any problem is a possible path to addressing many other problems" (https://blog.givewell.org/2013/05/15/flow-through-effects/).

• There's value in building the culture of doing. I believe the old motto of ours is "figure out how to do the most good, and then do it". It's not uncommon for me to hear that we're failing at the latter. To what extent that's true or not, is a valid concern.

• As is analysis paralysis, mentioned in this old post: https://80000hours.org/articles/stop-worrying-so-much-about-the-long-term/.

• There's value in being seen as both thinkers and doers. I find it attracts the kinds of people ready to take the risks of getting through trial and error to gather new insight otherwise more expensive to acquire. It also attracts sympathy from bystanders and potential donors. Especially those who aren't deeply analytical by default.

• Growth of this sort, as well as the thrill of getting feedback from acting as group is good for building morale.

• Mentioning this, I keep my arbitrary belief that failure is more informative than success.

• There's vast uncertainty to any of our actions. We should be disciplined about how we build and use our models, but I wouldn't dismiss the importance of spontaneous activity. I dislike the idea of holding it back, even when it's obviously a missed hit.

Disclaimer: my comment is a bit spontaneous itself because of time constraint I'm facing. I'll revise it later as the discussion unfolds. Thanks!

Comment author: Richenda  (EA Profile) 28 May 2018 05:19:19PM 3 points [-]

Thanks Michal! I wish I had already read your post about fetishising the long term (which I'll do now!) as I definitely would have referenced it here! These are great additional points that I wish I'd written ;)

I agree totally that there are a lot of risks to conservatism and over-caution when it comes to taking action. Another metaphor I came across years ago was that 'you can't steer a car if it's not moving'. CZEA is a really inspirational example of striking this reflexive balance of doing, but doing in an experimental and analytical fashion.

Comment author: Jan_Kulveit 28 May 2018 06:49:45PM 5 points [-]

I. My impression on this is there are large differences between "groups" on the "direct work" dimension. And it may be somewhat harmful if everybody tries to follow the same advice (there is also some value of exploration, so certainly not everybody should follow closely the "best practices").

Some important considerations putting different groups at different places on that dimension may be * The "impermanence" of student groups. If the average time a member spends in the group is something like 1.5 years, it is probably unwise to start large, long-term projects, as there is a large risk of failure when the project leaders move * In contrast, the permanence of national level chapters with some legal person form. These should be long-term stable, in part professional organizations, able to plan and execute medium and long-term projects. (Still the best opportunities may be in narrow community building)

  • Avallability of opportunities, and associated costs. If you happen to be a student in e.g. Oxford, and you want to do direct work in research, or advocacy, or policy, or... trying to do this on the platform of a student group makes much less sense than trying to work with CEA,FHI,GPI, etc. In contrast, if you happen to be a young professional in IT in let's say Brno, such opportunities are far away from you.

II. I completely agree with a point of Michal Trzesimiech that there's value in culture of actually doing things.

III. Everybody should keep somewhere back in their mind that the point from which scientific revolution actually took of was when people started interacting with reality by doing experiments :) (And I say this as a theorist to the bone.)

Comment author: Richenda  (EA Profile) 14 June 2018 07:29:00PM *  2 points [-]

My impression on this is there are large differences between "groups" on the "direct work" dimension. And it may be somewhat harmful if everybody tries to follow the same advice (there is also some value of exploration, so certainly not everybody should follow closely the "best practices").

Yes, I am very strongly of this opinion towards all advice for EA groups.

Comment author: Gregory_Lewis 28 May 2018 07:41:42PM 8 points [-]

I'd be hesitant to recommend direct efforts for the purpose of membership retention, and I don't think considerations on these lines should play a role in whether a group should 'do' direct work projects. My understanding is many charities use unskilled volunteering opportunities principally as a means to secure subsequent donations, rather than the object level value of the work being done. If so, this strikes me as unpleasantly disingenuous.

I think similar sentiments would apply if groups offered 'direct work opportunities' to their membership in the knowledge they are ineffective but for their impact on recruitment and retention (or at least, if they are going to do so, they should be transparent about the motivation). If (say) it just is the case the prototypical EA undergraduate is better served reallocating their time from (e.g.) birthday fundraisers to 'inward looking' efforts to improve their human capital, we should be candid about this. I don't think we should regret cases where able and morally laudable people are 'put off' EA because they resiliently disagree with things we think are actually true - if anything, this seems better for both parties.

Whether the 'standard view' expressed in the introduction is true (i.e. "undergrads generally are cash- and expertise- poor compared to professionals, and so their main focus should be on self-development rather than direct work") is open to question. There are definitely exceptions for individuals: I can think of a few undergraduates in my 'field' who are making extremely helpful contributions.

Yet this depends on a particular background or skill set which would not be in common among a local group. Perhaps the forthcoming post will persuade me otherwise, but it seems to me that the 'bar' for making useful direct contributions is almost always higher than the 'bar' for joining an EA student group, and thus opportunities for corporate direct work which are better than standard view 'indirect' (e.g. recruitment) and 'bide your time' (e.g. train up in particular skills important to your comparative advantage) will be necessarily rare.

Directly: if a group like EA Oxford could fund-raise together to produce $100 000 for effective charities (double the donations reported across all groups in the LEAN survey), or they could work independently on their own development such that one of their members becomes a research analyst at a place at Open Phil in the future, I'd emphatically prefer they take the latter approach.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 29 May 2018 01:15:51AM 9 points [-]

the 'bar' for making useful direct contributions is almost always higher than the 'bar' for joining an EA student group

I agree with this in principle, but to me it excludes something important. I'd suggest that a good path to making useful direct contributions is to start off by trying to make useful direct contributions and failing. I'd think a good amount of undergrads would be suited for this and would learn something important from the process (even if they learn that they're not suited for it). I'd love to see local groups encourage this more.

Comment author: MatejVrzala 28 May 2018 11:09:50AM 3 points [-]

I agree with this article and I do not see the conflict between more direct activities/projects and theoretical activities/projects. If people leave EA, just because others are trying to do something more tangible even though it might not have the biggest potential by current ea theory, they might not be so dedicated to the cause after all.

I understand, "more abstract" activities are prefered, but trashing all direct possibilities doesn't seem right. Especially if some of those direct activities would not happen otherwise and it keeps people closer to those "abstract ideas" which are very important.

In the end, everything is direct action. Changing a career is a direct action, but not everyone is able to do it all the time. It is important for groups to have the ability to engage people in tangible or more abstract way.

I think this could diversify ea ideas, members, and avoid it to be a group of mathematicians and philosophers talking together, about their favourite subjects.

Comment author: Richenda  (EA Profile) 28 May 2018 05:07:38PM *  2 points [-]

Thanks Matej. Yes I agree entirely!

Changing a career is a direct action, but not everyone is able to do it all the time. It is important for groups to have the ability to engage people in tangible or more abstract way. I think this could diversify ea ideas, members, and avoid it to be a group of mathematicians and philosophers talking together, about their favourite subjects.

This is especially a really important point that I've also been thinking a lot. Our philosophers, mathematicians etc. are great, but there are many other personality and thinking types that are underrepresented in our movement. Anything we can do to attract and integrate more people with different cognitive approaches seems very valuable!

Also, as you suggest... I think there are a lot of EAs who are not necessarily high earning, and not everyone has the material means or opportunities to donate much or switch to the most frequently recommended careers. It's important to demonstrate to people that you can make a real difference, and that your involvement is valued, regardless of your position in life.

Comment author: lukefreeman  (EA Profile) 18 June 2018 08:14:10PM 2 points [-]

I'm really interested in what concrete suggestions there are for things that could be direct, effective and engaging for members.

Comment author: rohinmshah  (EA Profile) 29 May 2018 08:24:05PM 1 point [-]

What are some examples of direct work student groups can do? My understanding was that most groups wanted to do direct work for many of the reasons you mention (certainly I wanted that) but there weren't any opportunities to do so.

I focused on field building mainly because it was the only plausible option that would have real impact. (Like Greg, I'm averse to doing direct work that will knowably be low direct impact.)

Comment author: Tee 31 May 2018 03:38:27AM 5 points [-]

An example is that EA Yale will likely be helping Rethink with reporting on the EA survey. Also see a lot of what EA NTNU has been up to. Richenda will have to forgive me because my memory is fuzzy on this, but I remember hearing of a university group that pressured a college make their annual donations to effective charities. All of these seem high-value to me and are not mutually exclusive with pledges, career changes etc.

Comment author: Richenda  (EA Profile) 14 June 2018 08:04:09PM 2 points [-]

You're right that often there aren't good opportunities for groups to do anything direct, and so I've spent a lot of time thinking about whether LEAN can help in this regard. I think that a lot of the reason that groups struggle is to do with coordination. For instance, I received an email with a long list of voluntary activities from an EA org after I published this post. So definitely part of the issue is providing better conduits between organisations and groups. The reason this is difficult is because groups are often so transient. But if more projects were to be listed on places like http://www.eawork.club/ that might result in a pipeline emerging. The main thing, though, is finding ways to help organisers seek out opportunities specific to their areas. As we've all been agreeing in these comments, it isn't always going to be the right thing for a group to do. But I frequently speak to groups that have good opportunities literally fall into their laps based on specificities of their location and context. And there are also really good examples of organisers who were able to find aligned groups, organisations etc. in their community to collaborate with. So some of what we can do involves writing up good examples of how people went about this to help organisers who are casting about for additional opportunities. And yes of course, if a group has an alternative that is higher impact, then this wouldn't be needful. It varies from group to group, who their audience is and what the most effective course is.

Comment author: RayTaylor 05 July 2018 05:41:45PM 1 point [-]

ALLFED.info has high value direct work - do contact us!

(poverty prevention / recovery from GCR catastrophe)