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EA community building grant: Lessons learned from working part-time on EA Denmark

Summary

We were two people who got a short-term EA community building grant from CEA to work on EA Denmark part-time (Sebastian Schmidt and Philip Porter). In the following, I (Sebastian) will share the lessons we learned which I hope will be of value to other local group leaders and EA grantees (skip to the conclusion for top-5 points).

Keywords: Local community building, a list of useful resources, heuristics for prioritizing projects, evaluation, project ideas.

 

Table of content

  • Intro to our grant period
  • Reap the fruits of others - valuable resources
  • Project prioritization - useful heuristics
  • List of actual projects
  • Results
  • Conclusion

 

Intro to our grant period

EA Denmark as a group

EA DK was officially founded in September 2017 after being an interest group for several years. We currently have 44 members, but only a minority participate on a regular basis (15-20 people) and the majority of the work is getting carried out by 5-10 people. The majority of our group is students, but we also have professionals. The name “ EA Denmark” is slightly misleading since, currently, the activity takes place in the capital, Copenhagen.

Grant conditions and goals

We were two people who got a short-term EA grant to work on EA Denmark part-time. Specifically, the grant period ran over 3 months and sponsored 25 hours per week (shared between the two of us). The 25 hours was in addition to our existing responsibilities within and outside of the organisation (full-time studying etc.).

The overarching goal of our grant-related activities was to facilitate the development of more dedicated and effective altruists. Since our timeframe for this work was short, we focused mainly on activities that would create a sustainable foundation for EA DK to run well in the future, thereby hopefully increasing the likelihood of EA DK being a valuable pipeline for developing such dedicated, effective members in the coming years. Additionally, on a personal level, the goal of the grant was to free up more time to make EA Denmark more well-run and to test out movement building as a career path.

I think we might differ from other groups/grant recipients in the following ways:

We’re young and relatively small organisation.
We’re more local than national.
We are not a university group.
Our grant period was short and part-time.
Other factors that might be specific to Denmark/Scandinavia (non-anglophone etc.).

 

Reap the fruits of others

Fortunately, the global community has a lot of smart, productive and thoughtful people which means that there are a lot of good resources on community building out there! The tricky part is knowing that they exist and where to look. Something that turned out to be a useful heuristic for us was:

check whether someone has already done something relevant for the project you want to do - before actually doing it.

The following is a list of resources which I’ve found to be particularly helpful as a group organiser:

1. Building and Running a Group

A Concrete Model for Running an EA group
Read for building a proper pipeline, choose between activities and general advice.

Read for specific activities, generally good advice and excellent suggestions for metrics to monitor (builds on the above-mentioned post).

 

2. Communicating EA

The Fidelity Model of Spreading Ideas

Read for reasons to be wary of e.g. mass media outreach and suggestions for analysing the fidelity of a specific way of communicating EA.

 

Building a Pitch

Read for a wide range of different and concrete ways of pitching EA

How Valuable Is Movement Growth

Read for a distinction between different kinds of movement growth and why not all of them are good for EA.

 

3. Generally Valuable Resources

Overview of the different EA FB groups and local groups

A really awesome overview of most, if not all, EA related Facebook groups ranging from Career groups to all Local Groups worldwide

 

Resource Map

Everything from Career Workshop Ideas to Mass FB Invite Hack and logos.

 

For a much more extensive list of resources check out David Nash’s list

 

Project Prioritization

In the following, I’ll mention some heuristics, tools, and frameworks which have been particularly helpful during our grant period. The overarching theme of all of them is being very process-oriented.

 

Prioritize your activities

Though it can be difficult to come up with robust estimates of the value of different activities, one can still approximate an answer. If you’re several people working together it can make sense to come up with an estimate independently and talk over discrepancies before reaching consensus on the estimate. When prioritizing projects we mainly relied on the following:

Expected Value

1. How valuable is this for reaching our overarching grant goal?
2. How valuable is this compared to our most promising project? We used a scale from 1-100 where 100 equals the most promising project. Our most promising project, at least initially, was to find and read resources (mainly blog posts) made by other community builders.

 

Time-consumption

What steps does this project require and how much time will each step take? (see section below for countering planning-fallacy)

 

Expected Value/Hour

This ratio was the main factor in deciding what to pursue.

 

Leverage effect

If we complete this project, will it make one or more of our other projects easier or obsolete?

 

Time-sensitivity

Do we have to complete this before a certain point in time before it becomes irrelevant?

 

See an example of how we evaluate potential projects systematically in our spreadsheet here.

An additional aspect which turned out to be valuable for us was to inform our prioritization by making a survey of our members to get their views on key bottlenecks and promising projects. An example of this was that in an open question around 80% of the respondents emphasised “the community” and “interacting with other members” as being the best thing about being part of EA DK. This confirmed our hypothesis of the importance of in-person social events.

 

Make batches of projects

It is difficult to plan ahead and thus it can be beneficial to make batches of a few projects which you’re certain about doing and do these before you do other projects. In this way, you can ensure that you focus on the important things first and you can calibrate your time-estimates and ensure a reasonable allocation of time. As an example, during our first batch of projects we tracked the time we spent on each project in Toggl and towards the end, we could compare the actual time spent with predicted time spent. In our case, we learned that we had to multiply our predicted times with a factor of 2.2.

 

Two is good but "expensive"

Doing check-ins, discussing strategies etc. is valuable, but it’s very expensive in terms of time - you have to multiply everything with a factor of 2 (or how many you happen to work together with). I’m not claiming that the overall time spent on a project doubles if two people are working on it. Rather, I want to emphasise the obvious fact that e.g. a meeting of 1 hour with two people “costs” 2 hours of work. Sure, working together can be ideal since you'll get an outside view on your thinking which might make you realize that you're diverging from the overall goal. However, we realized that we started out by doing it too much. Thus, it was important for us to be mindful of delegating and specializing as much as possible. However, co-working, where you do pomodoros and take breaks together, is also something which ended up being very valuable for us. We’d work from the same location, do pomodoros sessions of 50 minutes and briefly talk about potential barriers during our 10 minutes breaks. If we didn’t work from the same place we’d try to call each other during breaks. (See this Complice co-working room for a simple description of the concept).

 

Seek feedback from others

Getting an outside view on your prioritization is very important. It can be especially valuable to get feedback from other local group leaders/facilitators and people who just have good judgement in general. Specifically, this led to us not doing a project which we would have otherwise spent the majority of our time on. 

 

Actual projects

During our grant we ended up doing the following things:

1. Conducted a survey of our members using open questions, which revealed valuable areas to work on for the organisation.

2. Identified several valuable movement building resources which informed the strategy of the grant and EA DK.

3. Gave a series of interactive workshops on Productivity and Effective Learning, which attendees rated 4.0 out of 5 in terms of usefulness for their career.

4. Generated a prioritized list of projects with a high expected value/effort-ratio to enable current and future members of EA DK to have a larger impact.

5. Developed practices for introducing new members and communicating well at meetings.

6. Provided one-on-one career coaching for 5 members

7. Sparked new workgroups including
i) a member involvement group focused on making members more dedicated and engaged (organising socials, setting up Buddy Programs etc.)
ii) a
n outreach group focused on finding ways of doing high-fidelity outreach.

Results

Since our timeframe for this work was short, we focused mainly on activities that would create a sustainable foundation for EA DK to run well in the future, thereby hopefully making EA DK a valuable pipeline for developing dedicated, effective members in the coming years. Whether we succeeded at that isn’t obvious at this point in time. As one might expect, it’s difficult to measure changes after a couple of months. However, we did attempt to measure things such as impact-adjusted significant plan changes and whether our members had become more satisfied with being part of our organisation. Heavily inspired by EA Geneva, EA Sweden and 80,000 hours we made this questionnaire which we sent out to people whom we thought we had impacted the most.

The most significant result was that we caused one person to “completely change” plans, and the person now intends to pursue a career focused on mitigating the risk posed by emerging technologies. Another mentionable result was that we made a person in a high-impact career “more motivated, productive and effective within my existing career path”. Obviously, this isn’t a perfect way of measuring impact but it captured some of the changes which we caused - probably.

Conclusion

Although our grant probably has been fairly idiosyncratic (e.g. short period and relatively young group) I hope that others can extract some value from the lessons described. As a simplified conclusion, I encourage you to

 

1. Check whether someone has already done something which is relevant for the project you want to do - before actually doing it.

2. Prioritize your projects based on the expected value per hour (among other things).

3. Seek extensive feedback from others on your prioritization.

4. Make batches of your projects and track your time so you can calibrate your time-estimates and ensure reasonable time-allocation.

5. Co-work together with your colleague (if you have any), but delegate as much as possible to save time.

 

If anyone wants to chat about this privately, feel free to reach out on sebastians.s.s@live.dk

I'd like to thank Philip Porter for being an awesome colleague. Furthermore, I'd like to thank Markus Anderljung, Jørgen Ljønes and Remmelt Ellen for providing valuable feedback on this post.

Comments (4)

Comment author: casebash 28 September 2018 11:39:39AM 1 point [-]

Did the group grow at all during this period?

Comment author: philip_porter 28 September 2018 05:23:50PM 2 points [-]

The group grew organically by maybe a handful of members, but growth wasn't a priority for us in the work we did. Instead, we focused on boosting retention and enabling our current members. EA Denmark now has a new growth-focused workgroup. Hopefully, the results of that group's work will play nicely together with the work Sebastian and I did during our grant period.

Comment author: frankieaw 28 September 2018 12:14:59PM 5 points [-]

Hey Sebastian & Philip, thanks for this really helpful post. I'm currently helping to run Yale EA through a CEA Community Grant and there were some great tips here. There are a couple of thing's I'd be very interested to hear more about:

  • Would it be possible to see a copy of the survey which sought your members' "views on key bottlenecks and promising projects"?
  • If you'd be willing to share, what was the project you didn't end up doing after getting external advice on your prioritisation? Was it "to find and read resources (mainly blog posts) made by other community builders"? And, if so, what was the reasoning behind de-prioritising?
  • I think an example entry for the project prio spreadsheet would be really useful for me to get a clearer sense (and as a side note - do you think your fully filled-out prio spreadsheet would be applicable to other groups, or do you think it's too Denmark-specific to be useful and thus seeing it might confuse / bias other group organisers' prios? I imagine at least some of the columns would be somewhat constant between groups.)
  • Are there slides / instructions of some kind to potentially replicate the "interactive workshops on Productivity and Effective Learning"? Do have some sense of why your members found these so useful / positive aspects of these that other groups running workshops could replicate?
  • I'm still not entirely sure I understand what you mean by "Make batches of your projects", and how this model differs from assessing each individual project, and ordering them in terms of the factors you described, then going down the list in order.

Cheers!

Comment author: philip_porter 28 September 2018 05:17:43PM *  4 points [-]

Hi Frankie! Happy to hear that Sebastian's post was of use to you. Great questions also!

  • Here is a draft of the member survey. There were a few minor changes when it went into survey form, but nothing major.
  • The project that was de-prioritised was a sort of Nordic add-on to 80,000 Hours' career advice. The idea was to identify career paths that seemed comparatively strong or weak in Nordic countries for those who aren't willing or able to relocate to the traditional EA hubs. We also wanted to give location-specific actionable advice on how to follow high-impact career paths in the Nordics. I still think this is a valuable project, but was convinced that focusing on making EA Denmark a more engaging and sustainable community was much more pressing, and so it seemed more valuable to work on first.
  • Our prioritisation sheet is probably not suitable for sharing in its current form. It's a mess not designed for other people to understand. As you mention, it's also very context specific. I've pasted an example project into another tab in the sheet Sebastian linked to, though.
  • Sure, here are slides for workshop 1, slides for workshop 2, and a collection of useful resources on the topics. Regarding whether it's possible to replicate: We did these workshops because they were reasonably low-hanging fruits for us. We're both very interested in the topics and have spent hundreds of hours of our personal time learning about them (Sebastian is even co-author of a book on effective learning and personal productivity). However, succesful workshops can probably be carried out with much less effort than that. In those cases, I think the most important things to focus on are, a) encouraging a "hypothesis -> test -> revise hypothesis" approach from the participants to how they want to improve, b) providing at least some inspiration/ideas for forming such hypotheses, and c) making the workshops interactive in the sense that participants form their hypotheses on site and commit to testing them during some time period following the workshop.
  • Regarding batches: Many of our projects were running simultaneously since we couldn't just do the most important project, finish it, and move on down the list. Often we had to wait for answers to surveys or feedback from others, so we had to do the 2nd or 3rd most important project during the downtime. Say you can commit to 1000 hours of work on Yale EA stuff. What we're advocating here is that you don't start 1000 expected hours worth of projects all at once, but instead start with a batch of, say, 2-300 expected hours worth of projects. The two main reasons for this are to combat planning fallacy and to give yourself a chance to update your priorities after the first batch.

Hope that helped. Feel free to ask anything else!

Comment author: Ronja_Lutz 08 October 2018 12:18:08PM 0 points [-]

Thanks for this helpful post! I'm currently running EA Berlin on a part-time grant and was wondering about your thoughts on work groups, since we do a bunch of project-based work that might fit with that. Was "sparking workgroups" something of a side-effect or did you actively encourage that? Do members run them independently, or do you support them, and how?