Call for action for German university groups!
Are you part of the German community? Read it and leave your feedback!
Are you a community builder? I would love to hear your thoughts.
And for everyone, I’d welcome every feedback on my first forum post.
There are no big local student groups (30+ active members) in Germany. I want them to grow, because student groups and friends are among the most important factors for the growth of the EA community. Reasons why no large local student groups have appeared might include cultural differences to the US and UK, as well as the status quo of the German EA community. That’s why,
I call for coordination and a spirit of optimism.
Here is a short plan for the coming semester:
First Week of the semester: Advertisement
Second Week: Intro talk + social
Third Week on the Weekend: Impact workshop
Fifth Week: German-wide fellowship starts as well as a career planning fellowship
Throughout the semester: Socials as well as lunch breaks in the uni café
Halfway through the fellowships and the semester: ((f)un)conferences
After the semester: another ((f)un)conference
Plus EAGx Berlin in autumn ^^
What’s the problem?
State of EA groups in Germany
There are currently 22 German local groups listed on effektiveraltruismus.de and 25 groups on eahub. More than half of the local groups are student groups. And even though the German community is the third-largest EA community, the typical German local group is in a tough spot. The core of a typical group is at best a strong group of friends of max. 4-5 people. The average to me looks more like 2.5 organizers per student group. Dying student groups are not uncommon.
In addition to the local chapters, NEAD (Netzwerk für Effektiven Altruismus Deutschland) exists as the Germany-wide head organization and runs their own fellowship (now for the third time in a row), writes a newsletter and provides some group support.
Just recently, the German community hired it’s second paid community builder (part-time), welcome, Christiane Ranke. Until then, it was just Manuel Allgaier, who also was responsible mostly for EA Berlin.
Furthermore, there has been less funding requested for German groups than for their counterparts in the US, UK, and probably France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Last but not least there are very few senior EAs working from and/or in Germany.
State of EA groups outside Germany
Student groups outside Germany are hitting membership numbers far beyond everything that we are dreaming of.
I am remembering thousands of newsletter subscriptions in Yale, whereas NEADs newsletter has ~270 subscriptions, and the board alone of EA Oxfords student group consists of 18 people according to their website. PISE in Rotterdam has an executive board of six and six additional committees. Look how they celebrated their giving pledges. Some local groups even have an (un)official EA house, office hours, or one of the craziest things I’ve heard was an EA (dance) ball. Another big step would be to hire campus specialists for German universities, or to be present with workshops and/or a booth at job fairs.
Non-EA groups in Germany
Outside the EA realm, large student groups and initiatives do exist. Student parliament and university political organizations attract a lot of new students (often close to political parties RCDS, JULIS, JUSOS, SDS, Campusgrün). Similarly, Antifa (loose network of very different types of smaller and bigger groups), Green peace (100 groups, ~50 people per group (unsure)), Amnesty (650 groups) and Enactus (1700 students in 35 German cities, average of 48 students per group) are among the biggest student networks/initiatives I can think of from the top of my head. Some of these networks have adopted grassroots democracies (Basisdemokratie) on a wide range. This is a tendency towards designing political processes that shift as much decision-making authority to the organization’s lowest level of organization.
I wonder: why we haven’t seen a single German university group see the growth and engagement that other EA student groups have seen?
Why should we care?
Last year’s EA survey showed that most EAs heard about EA while being a student and from personal contacts (16.3%) or from local groups (7.7%). Further, 35.4% said that their personal contacts and or local groups (29.2%) were a crucial factor in their engagement. These makes local groups, personal contacts and the community among the top five factors for EA recruitment.
My best explanation of the status quo
My best explanation is a collection of semi-confident claims about how EA groups in Germany compare to both successful EA groups outside Germany and non-EA groups at German universities.
What are possible reasons why EA groups in Germany are smaller than EA groups in the US/UK?
First claim (social engagement US vs. Germany):
Especially in the US, social engagement through universities seems more frequent than in Germany. Observations in favour of that claim are: students compete in university-affiliated sports, most students live in university dormitories, Alumni networks, donation to your university at a later stage in life. These universities seem to spend a lot more money on facilitating social engagement via student life offices than in Germany.
A further consequence is that your peers are rather the people you are studying with in Germany than the friends of a student group, sports club or a dorm, how I imagine it in the US and the UK. When you enter university and make your first acquaintances, and don’t get to know many more people that are in the same situation, you just stick with those you met in the first lecture.
Also keep in mind, fraternities did play a very significant role in the history of German universities and had some features that were very attractive (protests, projects, parties). However, they are not popular any more and no new student groups/sports filled in their space. These fraternities obviously have alumni networks, head organizations, elected boards, and parties that made them interesting.
A second, less confident claim (way of commitment):
A key difference in the commitment and engagement in student groups in Germany vs. UK, US, Netherlands is the way a student commits. When elected to a board, they expect to get some career capital, which also increases their commitment (You’re also more likely to mention your engagement on your CV when elected). Those official roles are less frequent in grassroot democracies, which are popular among student networks. Differently, in a grassroot democracy, anyone can participate in the decision-making without committing to put the decision into action. But they would also not get any credits even when committing a lot.
What are possible reasons why EA groups in Germany are smaller than non-EA groups in Germany?
Third claim (EA is boring):
EA is not attractive to engage in, compared to other student organizations. As mentioned above, students have a preference for active engagement (protests, projects, parties). From the beginning, you can contribute to organizing a protest or make a decision. There is a lot more activism involved compared to the classical EA intro talk, fellowships and longterm thinking. Whereas, engaging in EA often means managing your way through the jungle of information and learning, learning, learning, after you have just studied for your exams. Not very appealing, right?
Obviously, once you have a large student group, it’s much easier and more attractive to pull off bigger and non-community-building projects (e.g., convince your city council to donate 1% effectively each year, run EA books, or found a new effective charity with a charity incubator).
So, a simple question:
How to transition from the current status quo to bigger student groups?
What makes EA attractive to students?
Two simple answers that pop into my mind:
Career planning (high quality information and support to make good career decisions)
The community (values, epistemic humility, communication norms, rationality, scientifically minded)
EA student groups have the potential to be a large local society that you identify with and love to hang out with, that is focused on having impact (career planning and support) and on its individuals (socials, party, mental health, etc.). In addition to that, the German community seems ideal to find and make friends with other EAs (possibly find people for your tribe). There are EAs in many cities that are not too far away and easy to find. NEAD runs conferences to aid building your network (on national and regional level, retreats, unconferences, (f)unconferendes, EAGx Berlin).
I think that we can reduce the workload for all the local group organizers and at the same time increase our chance of success by collaboration. The more groups join and collaborate, the greater the chance of success, since additional groups would not have to organize that much more, and we could sell the workshop and the fellowship even better the more groups and students participate. And last but not least, because one more group joining means one more potentially large student group in the future.
I call for coordination and a spirit of optimism.
My model for the summer semester 2022 and possibly the semester afterwards:
In a nutshell, the semester start could look like the following:
First Week of the semester: Advertisement(4.4. or 11.4. for most of the universities)
Second Week: Intro talk (+ social afterwards) + social (in the week after)
Third Week on the Weekend: Impact workshop (22.4. and/or 29.4.)
Fifth Week: At the beginning of May, Germany-wide fellowship starts as well as a career planning fellowship
Throughout the semester: Socials (at least every second week) as well as lunch breaks in the mensa (uni café) and other regular talks, workshops, etc. that you’d like to organize
Halfway through the fellowships and the semester: At least one ((f)un)conferences depending on the amount of participants
After the semester: another ((f)un)conference
Plus EAGx Berlin in autumn ^^
What NEAD would do
This impact workshop will be a key ingredient, and shall combine the two selling points mentioned above. Locally, new students as well as advanced EAs sit together at the same place (local events > online events) and all the other local groups do the same at the same time. Then we can advertise this really as a big event and sell it much better (NEAD, 80k, all the local groups). The syllabus of the workshop doesn’t exist yet, but would probably build up on the work of the Global Challenges Project. It would start with a motivation, inspiration, and moderation from a professional career advisor, either Manuel Allgaier and/or 80k.
The rest of the workshop for advanced EAs is to work on their existing career plans and welcome and help the new students. For the new students, the first goal is to spark interest in the EA ideas by asking big questions as well as giving them tools to answer those (e.g., 80k’s three factor framework). The second goal is to welcome them into the EA community, which commits itself to these five core principles. The group organizers and advanced EAs would only have to answer questions. The content would be completely provided by NEAD.
Maybe equally important as the workshop might be the following 1-1s (link). For organizers, that means to identify the most promising new students, with whom you want to have a 1-1 in case of limited resources. Otherwise, try to have a 1-1 with everyone.
Evander Hammer already organizes an intro fellowship (currently for the third time) and already mentioned he will probably do it again. In addition to that, a career fellowship is often requested, but a lot of effort to organize for local groups. Therefore, NEAD should jump in.
Large conferences are often reported to be highly effective in improving the connection to the broader EA community. Again, they are difficult to organize by individual groups, therefore NEAD should take care of it.
What local groups would have to do
The small local student groups should not focus on the organization of non-social events. Leave the organization of fellowship, career building to NEAD and the paid community builders. At the beginning of the semester in April, make advertisement and outreach for the first Germany-wide impact workshop the priority. Make it as appealing as possible. NEAD would provide funding and resources for you. Then you should mostly focus on socials and 1-1s!
The cost for local group organizers would be reduced to advertisement, intro talk (potentially not even this depending on whether we can find enough speakers), 1-1s, socials, and find a place for the impact workshop. In case there are more than 3 students who sign up for the fellowship, local group organizers could moderate the weekly sessions locally, but use the organization and resources from NEAD.
If you want to do community building in Germany, Switzerland, or Austria and like the ideas of mine, please get in touch with me (arne.tillmann.vellmar[at]gmail.com). I am just about to start and set the plan into action.
None of this is fixed. The ideas are open for discussion and improvement.
Many thanks to Evander Hammer, Matt Esche, and Manuel Allgaier for their very helpful and detailed feedback on this draft. Furthermore, I’d like to thank Birte Spekker, Toni Hoffmann, Nadia Mir-Montazeri, and many more who helped me to clarify my thoughts. Last but not least, I want to thank my local group and friends and tribe, in particular, Katja, Tilman, Rasmus and Julian.