Retention in EA—Part I: Survey Data
I spoke with approximately 20 people who were recommended on the basis of their knowledge about EA retention. These were mostly non-University group organizers. There was moderate agreement about the reasons people leave and stay in EA.
The major reasons why people leave EA are: inability to contribute, lack of cultural fit or interpersonal conflict, major life events (moving, having a child), burnout/mental health.
The major reasons why people continue to get value from EA are: social (friends/community), career benefits, wanting to be impactful, having responsibilities or recognition for their work, learning important or interesting things.
I propose some project areas that will both emphasize the positive aspects of engagement and mitigate the reasons people leave.
With wide error bars, my best guess is that EA is not substantially worse, and probably slightly better than large American religious high school programs and the US civil rights movement at retaining members, and possibly slightly worse than vegetarianism.
This consists of a sequence of three posts: in the first, I summarize the results of the interviews. In the second, I suggest things the EA community could do to increase retention. The third is an appendix containing my investigation into retention in other movements.
Retention is one of CEA’s three major goals. More precisely, we attempt to retain what I will refer to in this sequence as “Engaged EAs” (EEAs). These are people who meet a relatively high bar of engagement: they have, for example, taken the GWWC pledge or have a career largely motivated by EA principles, and are actively engaged in applying EA thinking to those actions. It roughly corresponds to somewhere between “considerable engagement” and “high engagement” on the EA Survey’s self-reported engagement level.
We believe that there are 1,500 − 2,500 people in the world who meet this definition.
The “I” in this post is me (Ben West), and my views don’t necessarily represent the views of CEA. I would view this sequence as a major input into CEA’s thinking on retention over the next few months, but it’s not dispositive, and I wouldn’t be surprised if our thinking six months from now is substantially different.
Summary of interviews
I had 30-60 minute calls with each of ~20 people. In a few cases, they had published Forum articles about retention already, which I also used as a basis for this document (see Prior Work section).
People were selected by asking my coworkers at CEA for recommendations about the people who would be best to speak to about retention, and then asking some of those people who they thought would be best to speak to. I time boxed this to having a proposal (which you’re reading now) publishable by the end of January.
This “Summary of interviews” section is intended to be an unbiased summary of my interviewees’ responses, and the next “Possible Projects” post is where I have a more opinionated synthesis of the results. That being said, interviewees don’t necessarily agree with any of this document.
Why do people leave EA?
|Reason||Number of people who listed that reason (without prompting)|
|They can’t find a way to contribute||11|
|Cultural fit/cause area disagreement/interpersonal conflict||9|
|Some big life event occurred which made them temporarily step back and then never rejoin||7|
Several interviewees clarified that it’s rarely one single thing which causes disengagement, and one suggested that some sort of interpersonal conflict is almost always at least a partial driver of why heavily-engaged people disengage.
Why do people stay in EA?
|Reason||Number of people who listed that reason (without prompting)|
|Moral motivation/wanting impact||6|
|Having responsibilities/recognition for work||6|
|Learning important/interesting things||4|
These are interventions that interviewees either found useful in the past or thought would be useful in the future. They are roughly organized by reasons people leave/stay, but there’s a lot of overlap in these categories and I didn’t try that hard to make this a perfect ontology. Note that this section is trying to faithfully represent what interviewees suggested, and these are not necessarily endorsed by me or CEA.
Regular group calls/meetings
Share wins, make EA feel exciting
Lightning talks (helps the presenter feel involved/appreciated)
Focus on stability in group organizers (e.g. prioritize older organizers who won’t move cities)
Make EA easier for women with children
Encourage HR best practices amongst EA orgs, in particular relating to hiring/firing (so that negative work experiences don’t cause people to leave the community)
Reduce “trust culture” within EA (e.g. some EA organizations have a preference for hiring individuals who are already known to them, or who have been vetted by a trusted third party. This makes it hard for community members who don’t know hiring managers in those EA organizations to work there.)
Group organizer staying in contact with community members
Group organizer celebrating and praising members
Projects focused on helping individuals gain career capital (e.g. East Bay Biosecurity – ⅖ core organizers now work in biosecurity)
Helps more as a commitment contract than actual income
Sending people to conferences is unusually impactful
Mentorship (E.g. WANBAM)
Interest-specific slack, Facebook groups, subforums
Recruiting within EA
EA LinkedIn/directory (E.g. EA London directory)
Help group organizers build more connections so they can connect their group members to people who can help them
Facilitate peer-to-peer connections
Promote non-priority paths
Encourage more “here’s what we aren’t doing” posts (e.g. OpenPhil posting what they don’t fund)
Book discussions (a couple career changes resulted from DC’s Precipice discussion)
Ways to contribute
Create volunteer opportunities
Promote earning to give
Promote doing advocacy at a non-EA employer
Ask for advice/feedback
Publish stories of burnout
Publish stories of what EA is actually like, not just success stories
Have a “contact person” for burnout, similar to Julia’s role as a contact person for other issues
EA’s share more stories about the non-EA portion of their lives
Publish stories of “normal” EAs (not working full-time on EA projects but still making good contributions)
Talks/workshops about mental health
REI work (Representation, Equity, and Inclusion)
Keep people in virtual aspects of the group even if they move
These are some pieces of prior research that informed my work. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list.
A Qualitative Analysis of Value Drift in EA, Marisa Jurczyk
Concrete Ways to Reduce Risks of Value Drift and Lifestyle Drift, Darius Meißner
Empirical data on value drift, Joey Savoie
More empirical data on ‘value drift’, Ben Todd
EA Survey 2018 Series: How Long Do EAs Stay in EA? Peter Hurford
Identifying And Mitigating Burnout In Animal Advocacy, Krista Hiddema
Burnout: What is it and how to Treat it. Elizabeth Van Nostrand
EA Survey 2019 Series: Community Information. David Moss
Not related to EA
These are some publications which informed my research, but were not about EA. I’m including key quotes from each paper for easy reference.
To eat or not to eat. A comparison of current and former animal product limiters. “Current limiters were more likely to have made a gradual rather than abrupt transition to animal product limitation and were more likely to have joined a vegetarian or vegan group than former limiters. Furthermore, current limiters indicated that their eating pattern was a part of their self identity.”
A sociological look at ex-vegetarians. “During the course of my 14 interviews I ascertained 6 main themes or factors that acted as barriers to vegetarian maintenance. They are: family relationships, identity, guidelines and cleansing, gender roles, peer influence and social networks, and trend participation.”
Recruitment to High-Risk Activism: The Case of Freedom Summer. “Participants were distinguished from withdrawals primarily on the basis of their (a) greater number of organizational affiliations, (b) higher levels of prior civil rights activity, and (c) stronger and more extensive ties to other participants.”
Social Predictors of Retention in and Switching from the Religious Faith of Family of Origin: Another Look Using Religious Tradition Self-Identification. “many life course transitions involving social disruptions — marriage, divorce, geographical relocation, etc. — significantly increase the chances of religious switching and dropping out [of religion]”.
One person mentioned cause area disagreements, 4 mentioned interpersonal conflict, and 5 mentioned cultural fit.