Comment author: markus_over 11 September 2018 02:27:49PM 2 points [-]

Coworking sessions sound interesting. The fact that few groups utilize them, but those that do do it apparently very frequently, seems to suggest that it may be underrated. Could people from groups that do this on a regular basis elaborate on the format? Is it about organizing the group itself, i.e. preparing events etc.? Actively working on research topics? Or just generally people from the group meeting to work on things they personally need to get done? Would you say this specific setup increases productivity substantially?

Comment author: Richenda  (EA Profile) 02 October 2018 08:47:20PM 0 points [-]

My cautious guess would be that a bottleneck is groups actually identifying something to work on. Once they've set their course and found a good opportunity, from then it flows much more easily.

Comment author: stan 10 September 2018 11:13:55AM *  1 point [-]

This was an interesting read, thank you.

I have one methodological question: are the 98 group organisers that responded to the survey all from different groups? Or are a few of them from the same group, and if so, what does the data look like after correcting for this? (I fear the data may over-represent bigger groups, as they'd have more members responding to the survey.)

EDIT: found it, from the 2017 survey report: "Where groups had more than one organiser, they were asked to nominate one organiser to complete the questions designated for organisers." So never mind, then!

Comment author: Richenda  (EA Profile) 02 October 2018 08:46:18PM 0 points [-]

Yes, as you saw.. we separated out data from organisers and data from members. For groups with more than one organiser, we asked for them to nominate just one respondent to answer as 'organiser' and the others to fill out the survey as normal 'members'.

Comment author: rohinmshah  (EA Profile) 29 May 2018 08:24:05PM 2 points [-]

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: Richenda  (EA Profile) 14 June 2018 08:04:09PM 3 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: Jan_Kulveit 28 May 2018 06:49:45PM 6 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 *  3 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: 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 3 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: 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) 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: 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.

23

Why Groups Should Consider Direct Work

  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.... Read More
Comment author: Richenda  (EA Profile) 16 April 2018 05:40:47AM 0 points [-]

Also, communities in Brno and Bratislava have become more active after their members attended the retreat. This is fantastic!

I think I know what my next birthday party is:

Play cooperative board games about saving the world (e.g. Mansions of Madness) An AI Safety themed LARP

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