National EA groups shouldn’t focus on city groups
National EA groups have a variety of strategies available to them, but many seem to focus on supporting local city groups as the main activity with less consideration of other interventions. I think this leads to neglecting more impactful activities for national groups. Potentially this is because they are following more established groups/resources where city groups are given as a default example.
Most people interested in EA are not joining local EA groups, and most people who could get more involved in EA don’t necessarily want to do that via joining a local group first
From EA London attendance data for 2016-18, out of ~1300 people roughly 75% attended just 1 event, and only 10% attended 4 or more which suggests that most weren’t aiming to become regular members
There is an unseen majority of people who know about EA and want to have more impact who are neglected by a city-first strategy
EA should attract more people than those also looking for community
Community is still important, but should be seen as additional rather than a main focus
Community can mean a lot of different things but I’m defining community in this post as a more densely connected subset of a network based around a location
In practice this means a community is more likely to involve social gatherings, daily/weekly in person touchpoints
A network will involve conferences, mentorship, newsletters/social media, monthly/yearly touchpoints
There is probably value to having some city organisers if there is a critical mass of people interested in EA and the city has strong comparative advantages
Alternative strategies could include cause specific field building, career advising, supporting professional networks nationally, organisation incubation, translation
The Unseen Majority
When most people hear about EA for the first time, it’s usually via an online resource (80,000 Hours, GWWC, podcast) or word of mouth. The message they receive is that EA cares about having more impact and that EA as a movement is trying to help people have more impact.
This can contrast to the experience of going along to a local group (which is regularly suggested as a good way to get more involved with EA), and experiencing the main message as ‘join our community’, with less focus on helping that person have impact. This could lead to people who are focused on generating a lot of impact bouncing away from EA. Anecdotally I have heard people say that they don’t find that much value from attending local group events but are still interested in EA and focus on having an impact in their career.
For the subset of people who are looking for community, local groups can be great. But for a lot of people who do not have that preference/have other life circumstances, this isn’t what they are looking for. People already have communities they are a part of (family, friends, professional, hobbies) and often don’t have time for many more. Anecdotally from conversations with other organisers the people most likely to join are those looking for a community—students, recent graduates or people who are new to the city.
This can be self reinforcing as the people who are likely to keep on attending meetups are the ones with spare time and lacking community. We often use neglectedness when choosing cause areas, leading to support of unseen majorities—people in poorer parts of the world, animals and future beings. But when it comes to movement building there is less thought paid to those who aren’t visible. A lot of strategies I have seen are about increasing attendance or engagement at events rather than providing value to people who may not be as interested in attending lots of events each year but still want to consider career changes.
This can also affect user surveys, where the people most likely to respond are those more interested in the community, leading to group organisers doubling down on benefits to current attendees.
There will also be a lot of people who don’t happen to live in the biggest cities, or live quite far from the city centre where most activities happen. Focusing on a few cities can lead to allocating fewer resources to these people.
Community is valuable but can be separate
If people do want a community with similar values in their local area, it may be better to optimise this separately from their impact. Trying to build a local group that is impactful as well as being fun seems harder than having impact with careers/donations/networking and then building friendships with other people interested in EA in your city outside of the context of an EA group. National groups could still have contacts in each city who are happy to chat to people about EA or specific causes/career paths.
There is a lot of value to having a sense of community in a workplace and for there to be stronger links between various subsets of the wider EA network, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be focused on location. Also community can often be self organising whereas national networks and projects are harder to get off the ground without dedicated time and employees.
What Else Could You Do?
An emphasis on getting people to run local groups might lead to them neglecting better opportunities such as gaining better career capital, volunteering with more impactful organisations, helping with the national group or cause specific field building work outside of local groups.
This will vary with comparative advantages and context but here are some ideas on other possible activities for national groups to focus more on.
Supporting field building for specific causes
National network/directory/point of contact/connecting key individuals with each other
If you have thoughts on any of the above add a comment, or send me a message and we can dive into any disagreements or think about alternative interventions.
This may only be relevant for national/city group organisers or people thinking about EA/cause area movement building strategies. This is anecdotal and based mainly on conversations with other organisers and people involved in EA but not that active with city groups
From the 2020 EA Survey with 1856 responses − 50% say that they are a local group member
Compared to GWWC members − 9000+ and subscribers to 80,000 Hours − 160,000+, it looks like out of the potential population that is inclined towards EA ideas, few of them are regularly active in local groups
Although maybe this would be better seen as people organising around a specific group—like Oxford university or the UK civil service
Thanks to LT, EH and MC for feedback