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Stanford EA History and Lessons Learned

Written by Alex Richard.

 

1) Getting Official Approval

 

We had significant trouble getting official approval; it wound up taking us over two years. Lessons learned:

 

  • Be very, very careful about implying (or even hinting) that other groups are less than optimally effective. We may (or may not? memory is difficult) have done so at our first meeting, which left university staff very reluctant to approve us.

  • Check whether your school explicitly desires or opposes affiliation with an outside organization. In our case, we were originally rejected partially because of concerns over our close affiliation with THINK; when we eventually were approved, it was as Stanford EA, not as Stanford THINK. On the other hand, at other schools it might be easier to get approved if you are explicitly an affiliate of a broader organization. You should figure this out before applying- just shoot a quick email to whoever’s in charge of registering new groups.

 

2) Expect Very Low Initial Turnout

 

During its first year of existence, Stanford EA both had very low turnout (never exceeding 4) and only irregular meetings. (We now have regular turnout of ~20-25 and meet twice a week.)

 

  • In my [Alex Richard’s] experience, one of the main reasons local organizations close down is that their founders get discouraged by low initial turnout, go for maybe 4 weekly meetings with just them and 1-2 other people, and then give up.

  • Some people will come once, then never come again; ¼-â…• of people will come once and then come very consistently. Once a few consistent members aside from the original founders join, the group is very likely to survive the next few years. (The next trouble spot will likely be when the original members graduate, which hasn’t occurred at SEA yet.)

  • Crucial for groups’ early survival is that the original founders/founder and first members are or become friends outside of the meetings. This will keep people engaged even when it appears that outreach is not going as well as could be hoped. (Once a decent sized group has regular meetings, this is no longer needed; at our summer meetings most of our original members were elsewhere for the summer, but they’ve still been going fine.)

  • I’m not sure how to fix this in general; suggestions include:

    • Lower expectations of initial turnout/clarify that chapter leaders will likely need to wait around 1-2 years until the group is large and self-sustaining-ish

    • Focus more on initial recruitment, to make it more likely that the group gets big and sustainable quickly

      • Not sure if this will work; I feel like our history, the norms we’ve established through trial and error, and our community are important above and beyond the number of individual members. One possibility is to hope that there is shared community at the start, via either LW or people who are already EA’s in an area

 

3) Establish A Regular Meeting That Draws People

 

  • We described ours here; all materials are here

  • Other models: Harvard brings in speakers, Berkeley teaches a class

 

4) Recruitment Methods We’ve Tried

 

  • Relying on personal contacts: Generally low yield, but produced committed people. Was better for us at the start; we eventually basically ran out of easily recruitable and interested people we knew.

  • Posting to EA Forum and LW Meetups list: super effective given the minimal time it takes. We got maybe ¼ of our regular attendees from these posts.

  • Blind emails: Not effective. We ‘recruited’ exactly one person this way.

  • Advertising in-person to interested groups: Effective for us. (e.g. relevant classes, other relevant student groups)

  • General outreach: e.g. sharing our website/mailing list, handing out flyers, etc. Was probably not effective, at least in terms of getting new attendees to our meetings

 

Thanks to Michael Dickens, Caroline Ellison, and Kelsey Piper for providing feedback on this post.

Comments (11)

Comment author: xccf 03 July 2015 11:37:08AM *  5 points [-]

Be very, very careful about implying (or even hinting) that other groups are less than optimally effective. We may (or may not? memory is difficult) have done so at our first meeting, which left university staff very reluctant to approve us.

Yeah, I'm not clear on why EAs have been attacking donations to university endowments (e.g. Rob Wiblin here). That's a good way for the EA movement to make a powerful enemy. I would rather let people figure out that university endowments are a bad donation opportunity themselves instead of us pointing it out explicitly. I would actually advise EAs applying for admission to elite universities to avoid mentioning EA on their applications at all at this point, given rumors that elite universities choose applicants on the basis of projected donations to their endowment. Keep your EA status on the DL, kids.

Comment author: MichaelDello 23 August 2015 07:43:02AM -1 points [-]

I've found that people in Australia with no exposure to EA get upset when I bring up the 'curing blindness in developing countries for $60 a pop compared to training a guide dog for $40,000' example, especially since Guide Dogs Australia is a large and well supported charity here. I agree that being too 'in your face' about putting down some charities/orgs for being less effective is probably not a good way to attract people to the movement. It worked for me, but not for many others.

I'd be careful about keeping EA on the DL. It may be necessary for some people early in certain careers, but if we all did that we'd never build the movement! "The loudest voice is always right", and we have to be loud - but not obnoxiously so!

Comment author: xccf 09 September 2015 10:36:33PM 0 points [-]

I'd be careful about keeping EA on the DL. It may be necessary for some people early in certain careers, but if we all did that we'd never build the movement! "The loudest voice is always right", and we have to be loud - but not obnoxiously so!

Yes, I only recommended it to "kids" (who are applying to college).

Comment author: [deleted] 02 July 2015 07:34:04AM 5 points [-]

Thanks for sharing! We recently started EA Canberra, so it's useful to hear all of this.

You said "advertising in-person to interested groups" is effective. I'm quite interested - can you elaborate on how you go about doing this?

Comment author: AlexRichard 02 July 2015 11:07:57AM *  5 points [-]

Sure!

There are two broad groups we targeted. One was relevant classes; e.g. anything dealing with ethics, Peter Singer, etc. We would approach professors and ask permission to pitch our group to the class at a relevant point in the curriculum.

The other was other student groups. IIRC, we went to a local LW meetup (which only met once) and the Stanford Transhumanist Society, and had a joint Skype call to Rob Mather with Stanford's chapter of Resource Generation. (There are likely others I'm forgetting about.) For the first two, we just showed up at meetings; for Resource Generation, it was a joint event arranged with their leadership.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 02 July 2015 07:33:18PM 3 points [-]

The partnership with Resource Generation hasn't been very fruitful so far--I think only one person from there showed up to Rob Mather's talk.

I would add to this that we got two new regular members from a Slate Star Codex meetup. One recruiting strategy may be to try to get Scott Alexander to come to your school and host a meetup.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 July 2015 01:48:23AM 1 point [-]

Thanks

Comment author: riceissa  (EA Profile) 05 July 2015 03:48:19AM 3 points [-]

Check whether your school explicitly desires or opposes affiliation with an outside organization.

Do you happen to know why Stanford didn't like the affiliation with external organizations?

Comment author: KelseyPiper 05 July 2015 07:07:40PM 2 points [-]

I think they were concerned that the Stanford brand name would be used for publicity and /or fundraising by organizations outside their control.

Comment author: jonathancourtney 03 July 2015 10:44:51AM 2 points [-]

Thanks for this Alex- a really great post for EA chapters who are just starting out!

Comment author: MichaelDello 23 August 2015 07:38:52AM 0 points [-]

Great summary, thanks. I've recently started a TLYCS chapter in Adelaide; I'll report back on how it goes!