The German Effective Altruism Network—recap 2020

The German Effective Altruism Network (NEAD) is an association of members of the EA community working to support a lively and sustainable EA landscape in Germany. This post reflects the board’s perspective (Markus Katharina Brechtel, Birte Spekker, Florian Zeidler and Ekaterina Ilin), and includes valuable feedback from Florian Jehn, Manuel Allgaier, and Peter Ruschhaupt.

As explained in this article, NEAD should not be considered the central community building organization in Germany but rather seen as part of the EA community building landscape.

Contents

Since its re-launch in June 2020, the German Effective Altruism Network (NEAD) has worked out a strategy, set goals, and is currently working towards becoming an established local group support organization in the German EA community. Here we report on

  • the events and decisions we made that led to the re-launch,

  • our current position within the German EA community building landscape,

  • what we have achieved so far,

  • our work in progress,

  • our plans for 2021.

Questions and comments are very much appreciated.

We hope that this post will be useful to German local groups, other nation-wide community building organizations, and those interested in community building strategies in EA in general.

Summary

NEAD was founded in 2019 as a start-up like organization but in early 2020 we realized that a volunteer based association with a democractic structure serves our purpose better. Today, we mainly focus on supporting local groups. We consider ourselves a part of the EA community building (CB) landscape in Germany. Our strategy could be described as a mixture of individual and collective empowerment, and our projects include providing resources, information, and self-hosted IT for local groups, maintaining community directories, and offering strategic advice. We believe that we could significantly accelerate the pace at which we produce output if we hired a full-time employee. Our strategy is consistent with the recruitment, retention and risk reduction approach of the Centre for Effective Altruism, but we target a broader demographic and emphasize the idea of empowerment.

German Effective Altruism Network: A timeline

NEAD has existed as an idea since late 2018, when the former Effective Altruism Foundation retreated from their role as a community coordinator in Germany.

NEAD was founded in the fall of 2019, but could not take off immediately because it was originally designed to work in start-up like structure with few, but highly engaged individuals. However, our application for a CEA CB Grant was rejected in January 2020. This was demoralizing to many of the founders and our progress stagnated, especially as the reason for the rejection were not entirely made clear. In early 2020, we decided not to give up despite the initial rejection, launched a newsletter for the community, and conducted a series of interviews with all 25 local groups in March-April 2020 to assess their needs, and to get in touch.

Based on the evaluation of the interviews the core team decided to help grow a German EA community that is self-governed and decentralized. We re-launched NEAD as an association with a new board and new by-laws in June 2020. Our new structure much more resembles what Germans know as a “Verein” (registered association).

What led us to forgo the original start-up approach?

There is a number of considerations that went into the decision, some of the most important I list here:

  • Germany is a federal country with 16 states that have great autonomy in many areas of governance. Also, not all nation-wide and supra-national institutions are located in Berlin (Supreme Court in Karlsruhe, European Central Bank in Frankfurt).

  • Germany is decentralized with respect to economy, science, and technology. Many high impact job opportunities are located in German towns few people outside Germany know about. For example, BioNTech, the company that developed one of the first vaccines for COVID-19, has its headquarters in Mainz, 80000h lists several job offers in Tübingen and Magdeburg. Max Planck Research Centers are fairly spread out, too.

Figure 1: Academics per capita in Germany. Source: MLP Studentenwohnreport, Bundesagentur für Arbeit, SOEP, Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft

  • German local groups emerged across the country in the past years, with an average size of about 10 people per group. Berlin and München are the largest groups, still they only host about 30% of the community members. Interestingly, relative to the number of enrolled students in the universities in each city, local groups in smaller cities tend to be more efficient in recruiting new members.

Based on the conversations with community members NEAD has had in the past, we learned that there are multiple reasons for people not to move to Berlin or München or even abroad for the best opportunities:

  • Job opportunities for their specialization exist across the country, more senior members partially already are in their best-fit occupations, and have no reason to move.

  • München has the highest costs of living across Germany, moving to urban areas has become more difficult in most big cities over the past years.

  • Partners, families, and friends. Also cultural bonds, which are hard to pinpoint, yet powerful.

  • Working remotely is becoming more widespread, a trend that is expected to continue.

  • Tendency to value German social security and health insurance highly.

  • For occupations outside of the EU visa regulations can be an obstacle.

These observations led us to think that we can best grow and support a sustainable community if

  • NEAD’s structure reflects the situation in Germany, and if

  • NEAD’s strategy adapts to the needs and constraints of community members.

Note: All of the above does not imply that there is no room for start-up like growth for individual projects. Many of the individual projects that we launched applied best practices from the area (fast feedback loops, shipping minimum viable products , value-focused prioritization, etc.).

Who is NEAD working with today?

  • So far, we on-boarded several highly motivated individuals to support our most important projects totaling about 13 volunteers including the board of four.

  • Manuel Allgaier (CEA Community building grantee for EA Berlin) decided to join NEAD in supporting the broader German community, resulting in close collaboration with NEAD.

  • Sebastian Schwiecker who maintains and develops the effective giving platform for Germany (effektiv-spenden.org) as well as the main landing page for EA in Germany.

  • We regularly check-in with CEA about our strategy, and their plans to further support our and Manuel’s work.

  • We are, of course, engaging with local group leaders an various occasions, as detailed below.

How the different groups and individuals contribute to community building in Germany: Using the funnel model descriptively

In the figure below I use the funnel model of engagement to illustrate the current community building landscape. As explained in the next section, we use the model descriptively to illustrate the situation in Germany, and not in a normative way. The picture is certainly not complete with respect to the various cause-specific sub-groups, international groups with members in Germany etc. But it shows all groups and individuals who, to my knowledge, identify as contributing to community building in Germany. The individual contributors are:

  • At the lowest level of engagement, Sebastian Schwiecker is working to make effective giving (effektiv-spenden.org), and EA ideas more accessible to interested individuals (effektiveraltruismus.de, in collaboration with Manuel Allgaier and NEAD).

  • Local groups play the key role in the on-boarding of new members to the community, deepening the knowledge about EA within the movement, and supporting members to take EA-inspired action. Typically, new members start their personal EA networks in local groups, and then expand further to the broader community (German and global). Some established local groups launch outreach projects like lecture series at their universities, seminars like the EA Fellowship (Yale design), or host events that reach community members beyond their own group.

  • NEAD dedicates the majority of its resources to support

    • local groups and their goals

    • individuals who do not have immediate access to any local group, for instance, because they live in a place without an active EA community

    • professionals who do not find mostly student-focused groups attractive (some local groups in Germany actually consist of mostly professionals, but the majority are university-based groups)

  • Manuel Allgaier currently focusses on career coaching and group support for the most engaged individuals as well as for cause, career & local groups (within his limited capacity). He is also currently updating his strategy, exploring career research & targeted outreach and re-applying for the CEA community building grant (his current CEA grant ends in March). He plans to finalize his strategy together with CEA & NEAD by March and will share an update then.

  • CEA continues to provide the services to local groups as detailed in their strategy for 2021, as well as community health support, and support for EA events like EAGx.

In the figure below, the height and opacity of the background coloring of each contributor shows what parts of the community (audience, followers, etc. in the funnel model on the left) the groups and individuals consider their main target audience:

Beyond the funnel model: individual and collective empowerment

For NEAD, the funnel model is useful as a descriptive tool. It defines levels of engagement in a manner that is often referred to in community building EA. The model also very roughly reflects the relative sizes of each level. However, it does not illustrate NEAD’s strategy. As argued in Vaidehi Agarwalla’s post, the funnel model supposes a linear pathway for every EA with the ultimate goal of becoming part of the “core”. This is not our goal as an organization, even though it may be for some individuals whom we support. Instead we aim at populating each level of the funnel in our focus area with as many people as possible, and maximize the positive impact they can have regardless of their current level. Vaidehi advocates for an individual-focused non-linear approach to community building, which we, in many aspects, also identified as a promising strategy. However, NEAD’s approach goes beyond supporting individuals. As the N in NEAD stands for network, we also seek to empower the collective—to strengthen the bonds between groups, create opportunities for mutual support, and foster a sense of community.

NEAD’s projects and plans

Most projects we do can be grouped into one or more of three categories:

  • supporting local groups

  • exploring effective outreach pathways

  • connecting individuals (students and professionals) within the German EA community

Our emphasis is on local group support, as they host the majority of community members, and also do the most outreach. We therefore measure our success mostly via regular surveys combined with in-depth interviews with local group leaders. We ask questions like:

  • How many people do they regularly engage in their activities?

  • Do they improve their understanding of EA subjects?

  • How are they acquiring competence in questions of community health?

  • How many EAs outside their group are they connected to?

  • How do they go about spreading EA ideas, and are they reaching their set goals?

  • Are the group members cultivating a growth mindset?

For each of these and other questions we evaluate the effect of our support, and gather feedback. All this being said, we are still working out what specific questions to ask, and what the best metrics are.

Below we list our most important projects, both launched and in preparation, as well as planned projects for 2021.

Launched or maintained

  • local group check-ins (30-60 min long interview with local group leaders about the history, status, and needs of their groups)

  • 1-1 matching (led by Manuel Allgaier)

  • resource library for local groups

  • newsletter (every 4-6 weeks)

  • video conferencing service (Jitsi)

  • community building calls (1x in fall, next in January) (led by Manuel Allgaier)

  • directory for regular virtual local group events

  • community builder directory (led by Manuel Allgaier)

  • cloud service (Nextcloud)

  • forum (Zulip)

  • bi-weekly strategy meetings between NEAD, Manuel and Basti Schwiecker

Edit: We are currently offering self-hosted alternatives to Slack, Google, and Zoom, one reason for this being our concern with risks from data privacy neglect.

In progress

  • running 2nd round of local group check-ins with a focus on strategy

  • creating opportunities for exchange with other organizations like Rotary Club, Studienstiftung, Weitblick e.V.

  • testing Rocketchat/​Mattermost as self-hosted slack-like forums for the German community to supersede Zulip

  • planning an interactive lightning talk session in collaboration with WANBAM

Plans for 2021

  • Continue to maintain and improve what we have launched. To this end, we will regularly on-board, train, and advise motivated volunteers.

  • Invite all local group leaders to become formal members of NEAD to be eligible to elect the new board in summer/​fall 2021. This is important to consolidate the system of checks and balances that legitimizes our existence. NEAD members have multiple options to hold the board accountable, from raising their concerns to the board down to forcing a re-election. As the main beneficiaries of our work local group leaders are most important to be given a voice. However, we are open for other individuals to join, especially people from underrepresented demographics and career stages, as well as representatives of cause-specific groups.

  • Create a first set of career guides based on the recommendations from the Local Career Advice Network. This will be done in collaboration with CEA, and 80000 hours.

  • Raise funds to hire an employee who will help us maintain the services and coordinate across the network.

Fundraising plans

NEAD’s structure is designed as a volunteer based organization, as is fairly common in Germany, and is therefore relatively resilient to a lack of financial resources. However, we estimate that we could fill 1-2 full time positions that could double the speed at which we are currently producing output.

From a structural perspective, we require someone to fill a coordinating role who is available on short notice, which is nearly impossible to achieve as a volunteer.

Another reason to hire a full-time employee early on is to use the flexibility of a young organization to adapt to the structural change that comes with the transition from a fully to partly volunteer-based organization. While we aim to stay flexible, we are optimizing our work flow to suit the volunteers’ needs, which may lead to greater difficulties integrating an employee later on.

As we will be raising funds within the German community, the main uncertainty is with CEA and their evaluation of Manuel’s grant. As Manuel is a major contributor to NEAD’s projects, NEAD will be prioritizing securing his position first, before we raise funds for an employee. A decision by CEA is expected in March. Also, while NEAD can perform well as a volunteer based organization, if Manuel received no funding, his position would be vacant.

Comparison: NEAD’s vs. CEA’s strategy

NEAD broadly agrees with CEA’s overall strategy of recruitment, retention and risk reduction. However, as the figure above shows, we define our target audience more broadly.

As a consequence, we aim to meet people where they are, help them become the best EA they can be, and feel welcome in the community regardless of the current size of their contribution.

While CEA mostly focuses on promising future leaders and thinkers at top universities, we think that, if adopted as the only strategy by all community builders, such a narrow focus carries major risks to the success and growth of the EA community in Germany in the long run. The relative lack of alternative approaches is already severely detrimental to community health today. We report cases of people who strongly support core EA values but do not feel welcome in the community because they

  • self-evaluate as not meeting the performance thresholds of “the very best people for the top causes” (an example in this post by Fabienne),

  • feel that they support the “wrong” causes,

  • are not willing to sacrifice family, friends and partners for their careers,

  • feel uncomfortable with the elite circle mindset.

A similar argument applies to members who consider inviting their friends to join, which is one of the most common recruitment pathways. They reason: If these friends are not top performers, or support the wrong causes, or are not hyper-mobile my invitation may be harmful to the community. So people shy away from the risk of binding resources in that way.

We believe that this reasoning harms community health and growth in at least two ways:

  • It is often difficult to see who will make the biggest contribution in the future. Some people take years from hearing about EA for the first time to taking significant action—which may even be a good thing, because we may want to grant people the time to figure out if they want to stick to EA before they make big steps.

  • EAs working in top positions will prospectively be hiring many people in supporting roles or experts outside the EA community. Hence, we will likely need more well-trained niche experts in the near future who are yet to be introduced to EA ideas. If EA is well established in German society, and the community is broad enough to include many kinds of training, such people will be easier to find. This idea is consistent with a topic discussed in the recent 80000 h interview with Ben Todd where he observes “talent constraint” in EA to less and less mean “generalist talent”, and instead to shift to people with talents in specific areas that are suited to advance the most important causes.

While EA has put lots of work in finding effective causes, this search is far from finished. Having a too homogeneous community risks overlooking promising causes outside of typical EA topics and increases the risk of group-think.

We believe that in the long run, the EA movement in Germany will be more resilient if it is firmly established in society. The basic idea here is: Even if someone in the community messes up, this will be less harmful to the reputation of the movement if many people know about and support EA ideas in general. If everyone has a friend, or a friend of a friend, who supports EA, it is harder to reject the whole movement based on a single bad event.

Final remarks

Despite the ongoing pandemic, we are looking forward to continuing to build a sustainable and thriving EA community in Germany in 2021 together with Sebastian, Manuel, CEA, all current an yet to be established local groups, and others who may join the CB landscape in the future. We are grateful to everyone who volunteered in projects, advised us and our strategy, or donated to NEAD throughout the past year. We also very much appreciate the patience of all the German local groups who have persisted and sometime even grown in 2020 while NEAD was still figuring out stuff.

Acknowledgements

Not yet named in this article are our active volunteers Jan Wittenbecher, Devon Fritz, Silvana Hultsch, Nils Oelfke, Luise Wolf and Lennart Schelter who made many of the projects mentioned in this article happen. Thank you all!