Coordination within EA: community & ecosystems

Overview

Coordination problems in EA seem somewhat pressing, but we are lacking a structured way to think through different kinds of coordination challenges and bottlenecks.

In this post we

  • Introduce a way to categorize and understand coordination services within the EA community: ecosystem & community member services

  • Present different potential services in these categories

  • Present a way to categorize coordination bottlenecks into three functional areas: knowledge, infrastructure and support

Our intention with this post is mainly to open up a discussion about this topic so that everyone can contribute to it and understand it better.

Introduction

The importance of coordination & coordination challenges has been periodically discussed for several years in the EA movement. In recent years, it seems that these challenges are becoming more acute—in November 2020 Benjamin Todd mentioned that currently, “the main bottlenecks might be organizational capacity, infrastructure, and management to help train people up, as well as specialist skills that people can put to work now”. (80,000 Hours episode). Under the assumption that these are the current bottlenecks of the community, coordination should help alleviate the effects of these bottlenecks.

The EA community is fairly highly collaborative and seems to focus on coordination more than other social movements. As such it does not appear that a lack of coordination related to building capacity and infrastructure has been the cause of negative outcomes (there are risks associated with info hazards or the unilateralist’s curse where a lack of coordination can be negative). Nevertheless, it seems that improving coordination would allow our community to do even more good. We think that there is significant room for improvement to build systems, or infrastructure, that could enable better coordination within the next 3-5 years and we would expect them (given the current trajectory of the community) to pay off for > 5 years after they’ve been refined.

In this post, we aim to map the meta landscape of internal coordination bottlenecks within the community. We hope this is useful for those thinking of or currently working in this space.

While we believe there are also significant opportunities to improve or develop coordination between EA and the communities adjacent to EA (“the outside world”), this post will focus more on internal coordination issues.

Note: “Organizations” refer to those which actively engage with the EA community, regardless of identification as EA-aligned or not.

Why internal coordination services?

  • We want the EA community to do not just some good but the most good possible. If we think that pursuing EA goals is very impactful, then even small marginal gains should be very impactful. The case for coordination in general has been previously made by Owen Cotton Barratt & Benjamin Todd; we have little to add to that.

  • Internal coordination services include those that help organizations & community members work together efficiently by sharing knowledge, or reducing resources required for undertaking specific actions. We think most of these are quite tractable.

  • We think internal coordination is particularly tractable (given adequate resources) because 1) Resources are fairly fungible within the EA community, 2) EA is a high trust community, 3) There is general consensus that (most) EA goals are worth pursuing. (See: The almighty Hive will for more)

  • However, there are forces that lead to suboptimal coordination including conflicting priorities for individual agents to invest time in coordination, principal-agent problems, lack of appeal of coordination work (e.g. coordination is “not sexy”), and lack of knowledge on how promising or tractable coordination bottlenecks are. This doesn’t mean that coordination bottlenecks aren’t proposed and/​or that there isn’t interest in it, but that the people who are unusually (and sometimes uniquely) positioned to work on these problems aren’t able to for the reasons listed above.

  • There also seems to be a large “graveyard” of untried proposals or projects that could’ve improved coordination but never got uptake within the EA community. We’d be interested in learning to what extent this is true and understanding the reasons behind this.

Two kinds of coordination services

We have identified two kinds of cross-cutting coordination services that existing and potential future services can be categorized into.

1. Ecosystem Services

Services which eliminate avoidable, non-programmatic* (not unique to an organisation’s specific mission or area of focus) barriers for organisations & projects, to encourage experimentation and innovation and to free up people to spend more of their time on problems that they have a comparative advantage to solve.

There are at least ~70 EA-aligned or adjacent organisations (including national/​local/​university groups) and probably hundreds of individuals pursuing EA projects. This number is growing. They can face a number of coordination inefficiencies.

Nonprofit Management & Organizational Growth

Based on initial research, there seems to be great room for improvement around knowledge generation and knowledge sharing for nonprofit management among EA organisations. Particularly operations management and nonprofit operations research within EA could potentially be greatly improved through solutions such as operations consultancies, agencies or think tanks that work closely with EA organisations. Other promising areas include: nonprofit strategy, country selection, legal services, practical decision-making under uncertainty, i.a* (This research is currently being undertaken by Cristina for early stage nonprofits with the guidance of Charity Entrepreneurship.)

Allocation of talent within the ecosystem

Recruitment & Headhunting

Many ecosystem bottlenecks appear to be related to the allocation of talent. Although we think in general that too much emphasis is sometimes placed on jobs at EA-aligned organisations, we think that there is also room for improvement that could create a better environment for job-seekers and recruiters. Specific issues for some EA organisations include:

  • No systematic way to share promising candidates (currently it’s done ad-hoc and by word of mouth)

  • Spending a significant amount of staff time vetting candidates (primarily evaluating work tests)

  • Spending time ensuring all relevant candidates know about openings and are going to apply (e.g. by active outreach)

  • In regions with lower EA presence, it is challenging to find candidates who are value aligned, or have the necessary skills, or both.

There are also challenges for candidates such as:

  • Investing between dozens and hundreds of hours on applications to EA positions for extremely competitive positions (sometimes with a <5% acceptance)

  • Negative emotional effects of dealing with rejection from a community that can be a strong part of one’s identity

  • A lack of proper coordination to create a comprehensive EA jobs board which has opportunities from all EA causes, and different geographies which could send personalized updates to candidates based on their interests

Some targeted solutions for these challenges, which avoids unintended consequences could be:

  • EA Common Application to save community time on applications and increase the pool of potential candidates (*A potential risk of this service is locking-in of standardizing application systems (and their biases) vs. experimentation with different ways of hiring that could lead to better outcomes)

  • Database of EA contractors with specialized in-demand skills or EA consultancies

  • (Targeted) headhunting or recruiting

  • Region-specific (targeted) outreach programs

Effectively utilizing existing talent

Expanding existing opportunities and growing the professional EA community. This could include ramping up successful programs or organisations or skilling up potential managers so that we can effectively absorb new talent.

Infrastructure Services

White-label community infrastructure services for sub- and adjacent communities (e.g. profession and cause groups). These can benefit from economies of scale and will save individual groups a lot of resources. These can include things like high-quality directories and forums.

2. Community Member Services

Services which ensure that EA is a sustainable and healthy community where anyone who wants to and is able to contribute has access to relevant information, networks & opportunities without facing significant non-essential barriers (which could result in them sacrificing a significant amount of time, mental health and wellbeing, or other resources) in pursuit of those goals.

The EA community appears to be steadily growing during the last years and it makes sense to centralize some services to provide them at a low-cost to the entire EA ecosystem.

Allocation of talent outside the movement

It is plausible that many people trying to switch to more impactful career paths are not pursuing their optimal opportunities, and there are ways to improve this allocation of talent so that they and the community can benefit from the career capital (connections, experience, credentials & skills) that they will gain.

There are 3 main benefits to this:

  1. Have more impact

  2. Help members evaluate personal fit for the best roles

  3. Keep members engaged with the community

This will achieve two things: 1) increase the number of people pursuing careers outside the movement, and 2) increase the likelihood they will succeed in those careers.

Career advice research

  • Identifying existing promising opportunities

    • Primarily, this would result from doing local priorities research, which would be outside of 80,000 hours scope.

    • Alongside an improved “geographical coordination”, this is meta-research which will help develop the EA ecosystem beyond EA organisations.

Network Building

Having people working to improve allocation of talent outside of the EA community including professional communities /​ networks & developing more robust cause area subcommunities could help increase the number of well-defined impactful roles (through sharing information on promising opportunities), as well as the pathways to enter them (through inside information, referrals & networking).

For more on this, see Focusing on Career & Cause Movement Building and Ecosystems vs Projects in EA Movement Building.

Job Hunting & Career Advancement Support

  • Peer support groups: These could help create a more collaborative and positive culture around EA job applications, which can be quite stressful. This service could be particularly helpful for non-english speakers and people that don’t have access to other people with experience with the type of application they are doing.

  • EA Career Coaches for the EA movement could help people with:

    • Providing practical advice on the application process (resume-writing, interviews), but also have domain knowledge of the EA job-hunting ecosystem. This would be focused on people trying to start or enter a high impact path (e.g. get their first direct work job).

    • Helping people by understanding their skills /​ capabilities and calibrating them correctly on possible options.

    • Providing periodic support to clients throughout their careers to ensure they are making the post of each stage of their career journey (e.g. developing strategies, goals etc.)

Improve knowledge exchange

Educational programming /​ outreach

  • Community members and builders with strong foundational EA knowledge, (core) EA organisations could work on establishing this. Basic efforts to compile existing knowledge (wiki) are underway, and through EA Virtual programs first curriculums have been created that are being maintained actively.

  • Further product research (user interviews, surveys etc.) could be done to map the “customer journey” through EA—find systematic weaknesses in message delivery, miscommunications, and common gaps in knowledge. CEA is currently hiring for a Product Manager for effectivealtruism.org who could do this.

  • Examples

    • EA Virtual Programs

    • Open Phil funding application

Assess common communication failures and the accessibility of information to community members

  • Develop or make accessible resources which lay out the social landscape of EA (e.g. how to navigate the different overlapping communities, networks and organisations and (nonobvious) community norms).

  • Preservation of movement memory (both cause-area specific knowledge and meta-level history of the movement and community building knowledge) e.g. an EA history wiki

Preventing missed opportunities

  • It’s plausible that there are many potential or current EAs who are missing the connections or opportunities that could set them on a path to more impact. From the 2020 EA Survey the 2nd (35%) and 4th (29%) most cited reasons for getting involved in EA are personal contacts & local universities and groups respectively. While local group membership has been increasing in recent years, it’s plausible that there is much more value from supporting efforts to expand this.

  • For example, prior to the introduction of virtual EA conferences, hundreds of highly promising EAs were rejected from EA Global conferences or were unable to attend due to geographic barriers. Now, these candidates get the opportunity to attend a virtual conference, but it’s likely that proactively introducing those people to mentors, guides and ambassadors could generate a lot more value.

  • By creating more opportunities for meaningful high-fidelity engagement (e.g. in-person, or 1-1 connections), we can increase the chances that people find the right ideas, people & opportunities, at periods of their lives where it is more likely they can take advantage of those things.

Research on other potential areas of work

  • Currently, we don’t have a very clear picture on the best services to offer community members. Some work will be done by Training for Good and High Impact Professionals which have been incubated by Charity Entrepreneurship, and Open Philanthropy recently published a narrow survey on potentially promising longtermists.

  • Research could involve interviewing relevant members on the accuracy of existing filters (how many promising people are filtered out?), the side-effects of these filters, what are the risks and benefits of creating new filters?

  • We had previously written on some potential areas that might be useful to explore, such as easier or more legible access to funds (e.g. professionalizing EA Funds), mentorship and reducing the barrier to exploration of different paths. There have been recent improvements in this space e.g. OP’s scholarships for undergraduate students and WANBAM.

Areas we are excited about but seem less promising (currently)

Develop more ways to test personal fit

  • Making it easier for community members to engage with EA opportunities of any kind (educational programs, volunteer opportunities, internships, jobs)

  • Improve the availability of meaningful localised engagement options for community members

  • Optimize volunteer projects—Develop resources to help volunteers and volunteer coordinators design good projects that are optimized for either testing personal fit or having impact.

Gathering longitudinal data from the community

This work is currently done by Rethink Priorities (e.g. the EA Survey). This could be supplemented by longitudinal surveys, although we find this area less tractable as gathering community data has been challenging in the past. Our current understanding is that the research itself may be time-intensive, but finding subjects to interview is possible.

With more data we can:

  • Try to understand why people leave or reduce engagement with EA. Social scientists & community builders can work on this. Some ideas include:

    • Interview non-core members who have reduced engagement with the movement and ask them: reasons for leaving, what major psychological, social and economic challenges they faced, their perception of EA and their knowledge of the opportunity structure

  • Get data on people who are turned off by EA who would otherwise be good candidates. Explicitly ask for people who don’t identify with the movement. Do active outreach through word of mouth. If we really want to know what people think, we need to collect data on it. Good sources would be people who’ve only attended 1 event, or who stopped coming to events (i.e. inactive facebook users who’ve liked local groups or EA relevant pages).

    • Collect meaningful data on core EA gatekeepers like 80K.

    • Get statistics from the effectivealtruism.org website.

  • How good are current filtering mechanisms, and where have they failed?

  • Gathering data on views of subcommunities: How are different identities of EAs affecting how they coordinate with each other? How can we identify risks of long-term fragmentation of the community?: e.g. longtermists vs. neartermists. There is initial evidence that this is worth exploring more deeply.

Functional Areas

There are three main functional areas that we’ve identified related to coordination bottlenecks—for which services can be offered. We think it’s useful to identify these to understand the goals each may serve. In practice, we expect that many bottlenecks and relevant interventions will cover multiple functional areas.

The following table summarizes some aspects & a few examples of different functional areas.

Coordination Bottlenecks: Functional Areas

If you know of other services that have helped improve the coordination of the community, please let us know in the comments. We’ll keep updating this post accordingly.

Open Questions

Are there other types of improvements we haven’t considered with this post that you’d like to highlight? We’d be excited to learn about them.