Reflections on community building in the Netherlands
Authors: Remmelt Ellen and Sjir Hoeijmakers
Here, we share our key lessons since launching the community-building organisation Effective Altruism Netherlands this year, as well as our plans for 2018. We want your feedback: both in the comments below and if you see us at EAG London.
Below, we have split up our activities for this year into rough phases:
January: starting an organisation
We registered Effective Altruism Netherlands (EAN) as a charity in early January with the support of Robert and Kellie from Effective Giving. We formed an executive board and an advisory board, and proceeded to set up a bank account, applied for tax-deductibility, set up internal software tools, etc.
February: managing projects
Inspired by the decentralised, self-organising structures of Rethink Charity and EA NTNU, we decided to focus EAN on supporting projects, based on either promising ideas that we recruited volunteers for or initiatives that emerged from the community. For each project, we intended to write out a framework beforehand to set clear expectations on the scope of the problem to work on, the means of communication and criteria for reviewing project results at the end.
EAN was already hosting monthly strategy meetings with local group organisers; to these we added project-organiser meetings (at a co-working hub we started collaborating with). We also continued our website development and one-on-one community outreach as projects with our volunteer team.
We started two outreach projects — a crowd-acting campaign and a page listing in an info booklet for freshers’ fairs — and found enterprising people to lead those. There, we ran into problems: we were acting on short-term opportunities, so it was difficult to find volunteers deeply involved with EA who had the prerequisite marketing skills, and therefore for us to avoid micromanaging their execution.
At this point, EAN was mostly working with groups of students. Although several group organisers decided to organise monthly pub socials, we noticed that most of them lacked the time and/or motivation to use learned outcomes from meetings to develop their groups further.
This highlighted the need to collaborate more with people who actively shared our goals and had more professional experience. Sjir came into contact with two experienced workshop facilitators and gave them the idea to start giving career workshops at universities based on the research of 80,000 Hours, starting with trials at student organisations in April.
To officially launch EAN, we organised an event on 28 May introduced by Peter Singer (in the same period, we arranged for him to attend a dinner discussion for large philanthropists for Effective Giving and oversaw the media publicity around a new translated version of The Most Good You Can Do). The event had 139 participants registered – either through online applications or through personal invitations by us because of their position in a certain sector and potential for EA-alignedness. We combined Peter Singer’s talk with parallel sessions catering to people working in different sectors and cause areas. This resulted in fruitful discussions and an excited atmosphere (with an average feedback score of 6.5/8 on Has this made you more or less enthusiastic about EA?). We oversaw a brainstorm session on EA projects, but we saw few concrete results come out of that, probably because of the loose session structure as well as participants diverging in their aims. In another session, we invited participants interested in AI safety. One of them shared a recent idea to create an online course about AI safety (now called RAISE: Road to AI-Safety Excellence) and was able to involve capable volunteers to start working on that.
The productive interactions we noticed with the forming of cause-area/talent-area subgroups at the event, as well as the lack of ‘spontaneously-generated’ volunteer projects led us to conclude that we needed to approach building our community more as facilitating specialised networks of people.
→ See our review of our project phase.
July: Building networks
We decided to test a novel strategy that involved supporting organisers in creating specialised networks of EAs to work on the most pressing problems. We would arrange one-on-one problem-solving sessions with the organisers, help connect suitable people with their networks and deeply engage their members by facilitating interactions between them and the wider EA community.
We had the hypothesis that we would be able to collaborate with five networks by October, with each having clear goals and metrics, but this didn’t happen for several reasons:
In addition to collaborating with the career workshops facilitators, Effective Giving and RAISE, we explored a number of potential collaborations with individuals: a professional-services network, a corporate-entrepreneurs network, a policy network, the LessWrong Amsterdam community, an effective animal advocacy network and several local groups.
Although we helped a number of these initiatives grow, this did not result in any significant collaborations. We experienced difficulty finding capable and aligned organisers who had the time to form networks, as well as communicating a clear value proposal to existing organisers.
Our execution of this strategy was further hampered by Sjir and Remmelt taking leave during this time and generally spending too much time on reaching consensus in decisions. Finally, both Sjir and Remmelt were still working on a voluntary basis, making it difficult for them to perform deep, undistracted work.
EAN applied for funding from EA Grants at the end of June. The staff at the Centre for Effective Altruism decided to connect us to Open Philanthropy Project at the end of August, who then deferred their decision back to CEA, who in the end decided not to fund us.
CEA staff expressed doubts about two areas: strategy synchronisation and our ability to execute strategy. Here, strategy synchronisation was about the risks in expanding the number of large organisations for them to coordinate with, given how easy it is to make mistakes in promoting effective altruism (e.g. dilution of ideas and, relatedly, the Unilateralist’s Curse). Given that our strategy was rather vague, it was difficult for them to gauge these risks. Also, we were exploring uncharted territory by trying an approach that relied on trusting other individuals to build networks without diluting the complexity inherent in striving to do effective altruism. In terms of execution, CEA staff were unsure whether Sjir and Remmelt were at least as capable as a recruit they would hire to work for them.
In the meantime, we helped RAISE record their first lecture videos as well as narrow their target audience to those that seemed most committed to and capable of becoming AI-safety researchers.
For the career workshop facilitators, we contacted and found several university colleges to do paid workshops at.
→ See our review of our network-building phase.
October: a shift to outreach & events
Our biggest lesson in testing our network-building strategy has been that the Dutch EA community still lacks highly-engaged and skilled individuals – those who could potentially join the specialised networks we had in mind. At the same time, we see a lot of unrealised potential in those analytical, altruistic Dutch people who have yet to encounter or engaged deeply with EA.
We have therefore shifted to working on a more tried-and-tested approach with clear role divisions:
Sjir will focus on doing targeted outreach to capable people that share our goals, including by
• giving lectures on EA (as well as supporting career workshops)
• writing magazine articles
• representing EA(N) to the Dutch media
Sjir has some experience in these areas (via his work on basic income experiments).
→ See Sjir’s very rough impact estimates.
Remmelt will focus on coordinating events to build up the capacities of these people, including
• monthly EAN Community Events, starting on 12 November
an active Sunday afternoon where participants can select and solve practical EA problems for 4 hours
• bi-annual weekend retreats
focused on allowing people we already collaborate with to immerse themselves deeply in EA and how to strategically lead initiatives, possibly including a European EA Organisers Retreat in February.
• an annual EAGx Netherlands, around May/June
focused on enabling new people to reach the frontiers of EA
Remmelt has experience in managing events (incl. meetups, 2 speaker tours, and a Humanist conference & weekend). He aims to make each of EAN’s events in 2018 fund itself through ticket fees.
Our current strategy appears to put us closer to that of EA London as well as the beginning years of Effective Altruism Foundation in Switzerland (the size of the region we’re effectively operating in also seems similar).
→ See our one-pager on our new approach.
2018: what we’re planning for
On supporting initiatives:
We still see ‘building specialised EA networks’ as a powerful concept for putting people’s skills to use on the problems where, after due reflection, they currently expect to make the biggest collective impact. However, we now think that we should make the pipeline to these more gradual – by targeting and getting to know potential collaborators, and designing a social environment that repeatedly exposes them to the nuanced ideas of EA. In other words, we’ll be more of an ‘incubator’ than a ‘connector’ of initiatives.
Other meta-organisations have shown success in incubating projects in the past, notable examples being the Centre for Effective Altruism (with 80,000 Hours & Giving What We Can), and Effective Altruism Foundation (with Sentience Politics & Raising for Effective Giving). We will therefore continue to have one-on-one conversations with organisers we trust, including from Effective Giving, the career workshops facilitators, RAISE and EA Groningen, and support them in solving any bottlenecks to building out their networks.
Sjir has experience in Dutch public policy and Remmelt is making forays into machine learning right now. In 2018, one or both of them may therefore decide to lead a focus project of his own.
We see EAN as a long-term endeavour and – assuming that we will gain sufficient traction – plan to dedicate the next years on working on this. We want to avoid our personal incomes being dependent on external funding. In our experience, it has been highly distracting to engage potential donors on a complicated meta-charity to extend our shrinking financial runways. We want to prevent being forced to prematurely reduce the time we can spend on community building based on this alone (though we will actively seek out feedback from informed donors on our potential relative to other community-builders).
Sjir and Remmelt can cover their basic living costs until the end of January 2018. We plan to transition to other income sources before that deadline:
• Sjir will receive a one-time compensation from EAN to cover his living costs from November to January. He plans to earn his living after that as a consultant, speaker and writer on doing good effectively/having a positive impact more generally. In this way, his work can naturally extend into his activities for EAN, and he can build a reputation and network that adds value to EAN as well. Since some of his work will be personalised to client needs, it is difficult to pin down how much of his time will go directly to EAN’s activities, but he expects to be able to dedicate a minimum of 10 hours/week to this in 2018.
• Remmelt is completing a graduation project on multi-agent systems for his degree right now and, as such, can live off study loans until February. Remmelt is used to living frugally. For any work that he will take on in 2018, he has a strong preference for it to accelerate the rate at which he can build specialised skills in the areas of AI safety research and EA community-building. He’s looking for part-time work to earn at least €800/month in the meantime (please email any suggestions to email@example.com). This may include taking on remote research jobs or receiving supplementary ticket income from organising EA events. In the worst-case scenario, he may live off social security for several months. He intends to work a minimum of 20 hours/week on EAN in 2018.
→ See Remmelt’s considerations.
This is our base funding scenario for EAN. For this, we are still looking for funding of €5,900 for 2018 (after subtracting a recent donation of €1,000). This is based on an approximate total in overhead costs of €575/month:
• €300/month: tax-exempt volunteer reimbursements for Sjir & Remmelt
• € 95/month: venue hire for board & collaborative meetings
• € 80/month: other overhead costs
• €100/month: to cover unforeseen costs
If you are considering making a donation to EAN or conducting research into community building, we welcome you to email any questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. We would appreciate if you respond to our answers with honest feedback, especially your personal analysis of EAN’s potential to contribute to building the EA community and any key areas of improvement you see for us.
We have also very tentatively set out a growth funding scenario for a maximum additional amount of €43,480 for 2018. This consists of the following roughly estimated costs:
• €5,000 for a one-time liquidity buffer
to both safeguard EAN’s longevity as an organisation and to be able to respond quickly to high-potential opportunities (option value).
• € 500/month max. for an intern, for which we’ve opened applications
• €2,000/month max. for a (part-time) event manager starting from March at the earliest
This might be Remmelt, depending on his performance in terms of attendance and depth of engagement but we’re open to recruiting a professional.
• €2,000/month max. for an experienced (part-time) project manager starting from July at the earliest
Our focus in both the advisors/coaches we’re now surrounding ourselves with and the volunteers/hires we’d consider is on strengthening our ‘inner circle’ with committed EAs who are more action-oriented than us, have had more professional work experience, and have different life perspectives than we have. Whether and when it would be worth paying for recruits depends on our traction in 2018, which we cover further below.
→ See our cash flow outlook for 2018 for more details.
(Italic numbers denote the future income streams that we feel we can rely on realising and costs that we expect to make given enough funding.)
On evaluating performance:
Certainly, one of our biggest areas of improvement is in measuring our impact. Compared with EA London, we have been inconsistent in tracking metrics and individual behavioural changes resulting from events and campaigns. The lack of stability caused by us trying out and shifting between different speculative strategies and the funding uncertainties did make it more difficult to set up systems. But now this is a major focus point.
In striving to accurately assess our impact in engaging individuals, we emphasise the following:
Multiple perspectives seem to point to the conclusion that the capacities of individuals to do good lie roughly on a power-law distribution. These concern the core ethical and epistemological considerations that a person makes, the cause areas and interventions (s)he chooses to work on, the success of their work as a combined result of their skills and inclinations, and each of these effects being amplified by the spread of information and (dis)trust throughout the social networks within which the person is connected. Having said this, any attempt to estimate the future impact of a supposed ‘top 1%’ on such a distribution will likely be overconfident because of the dimensions missed (and risks reinforcing accepted wisdom on what traits make for an impactful EA).
Although the process of estimating an individual’s capacity to do good is extremely complex and laden with assumptions, 80,000 Hours seems to have acquired the most expertise in doing this amongst the organisations we’re aware of.
To evaluate our own performance in engaging people to do good, we therefore plan to count those we refer to 80,000 Hours whom are subsequently selected for one-on-one coaching (and, preferably, the resulting IASPCs) for our key metric. By setting 80,000 coaching referrals as our ‘North Star’, we incentivise ourselves to selectively target and support the development of the most promising individuals instead of pursuing raw ‘member’ growth, while allowing ourselves to build trust with the international community in our ability to execute.
A straightforward solution to tracking this is a referral link to their coaching webpage, but we’re concerned that this method would miss many of the people we advise to apply to 80,000 Hours. We will consult with them and CEA Groups on what processes we can adopt here.
Next to this, we’re tracking the number of people we are in touch with who are dedicating at least 10% of their time/money to EA (‘Practising EAs’). Our aim is to better help the most promising amongst these individuals achieve shared altruistic goals. For this, we’ve created an internal database of people in our community (currently: 234 people) in which we keep track of the skills, time and connections that they are willing to contribute. Finally, to evaluate our individual performance, Sjir and Remmelt will each build in metrics and feedback mechanisms for the targeted outreach, capacity-building events and one-on-one conversations with organisers that they will be taking on.
We also seek to more closely collaborate with CEA’s Community and Research Teams as well as the management of Effective Altruism Foundation. We take any advice by them on reducing the long-term risks that come with promoting EA seriously. At the same time, a system that relies on a few small circles of individuals determining the international agenda for EA community building would be fragile. In our view, EAN can add to the body of knowledge and the level of discussion on this subject.
→ See more of our views on this.
Next: share your feedback
• We welcome your comments and questions below, especially of the critical, insightful kind.
• If you’re going to EAG London, feel free to approach Sjir or Remmelt for a chat.