University EA Groups Should Form Regional Groups
I think university EA groups should form regional groups because it will make
applying for funding,
disseminating and preserving knowledge,
running local events,
and starting new groups
easier and more effective.
In this post, I first try to describe what I see as the problem (most visible in the US/UK region, which I’m most aware of). Then, I describe a solution using a regional model, discuss its aspects and benefits, and offer one real-world example (though there are many). Finally, I try to respond to some possible objections and considerations and come up with some action points.
Regional coordination in EA is already happening in many regions, and many people have been recently thinking or even writing about similar points as in this post. Here, my goal is to explore and expose the infrastructure, so that group organizers and other community builders can have it in mind when making decisions.
uni group = university EA group,
CEA = Center for Effective Altruism,
EAIF = EA Infrastructure Fund.
Currently, the uni group world looks something like this:
When groups want to get advice or mentorship from CEA, or apply for a grant or funding from EAIF, the situation looks something like this:
I think this is problematic in many ways:
It imposes a limit on how many groups can be supported. EAIF is willing to expand its capacities in the short term (as far as I know), but the CEA Groups team has, in my opinion, already reached the limit, as evidenced by their recent strategy to focus on top universities, and give only basic support to the rest (i.e. triage on uni groups).
It’s daunting to interact with CEA/EAIF directly, especially if you’re a new small uni group. What makes it daunting? Just the fact that CEA and EAIF are big and super important organizations — it’s weird to ask CEA, the same org that runs huge global EA conferences, for help with an intro presentation, or to ask EAIF, the same fund that gives grants to other mega orgs like 80k or Founders Pledge, for a refund for your 1-on-1 coffee chats. I think this problem is inherent and there’s not much CEA/EAIF themselves can do to solve it. I run a uni group and feel this quite strongly.
Knowledge preservation is hard to do. When a uni group organizer graduates, they can (a) continue running the group on a CBG, (b) ascend to CEA’s Groups team, (c) do something else. Uni group organizers have the most knowledge about the local context of running an EA group, and they should aim to preserve and spread it. Yet, in case (a), knowledge stays mostly within one uni group, in case (b), it meets with other experiences from all over the world, ultimately losing the local context, and in case (c), it gets lost altogether.
It’s unclear who’s responsible for what. If a uni group dies, who’s responsible for saving it? If a university doesn’t have a uni group and should have, who’s responsible for seeding it? Surely CEA can’t keep track of all uni groups, including non-existing ones… Another example might be: Running in-person retreats for organizers is robustly good, but who’s responsible for running them, all across the world?
I suggest uni groups in similar geographical locations form regional groups (alternative names could be geo-groups, meta-groups, uni group clusters, or regional clusters). The situation might then look like this:
This is an example of a hierarchical networked structure, which was discussed in this forum post (What to do with people?) as early as 2019.
In my post, I try to apply this exclusively to university EA groups (not my initial motivation though), despite the fact that hierarchical networked structures can be very useful in other areas of EA as well. I think implementing a hierarchical networked structure in uni groups is quite actionable and a good place to start.
I’ll now go through several aspects of how exactly regional groups might serve to aid certain processes or work toward some goals. The following sections are in no particular order (i.e. you might find the last one more compelling/important than the first one).
Applying for Funding
Let’s assume that every uni group would like to receive some funding upfront for the coming school year/term. Here’s how the situation might look like for one regional group:
The process goes from top to bottom (can go the other way too though): the regional group first applies for a grant from the EA Infrastructure Fund with an estimate of how much its groups will spend in the upcoming school year/term. The regional group then distributes the money to the individual uni groups, which at the end of the year/term report their actual expenses and balance out (return some money or get more). Finally, the regional group reports the aggregate realized expenses to EAIF and balances out as well.
I think this is better because:
It’s much less daunting to apply for funding from a regional group. Uni groups don’t even need to know about EAIF, and thus can’t be scared away by it. They only need to interact with their regional coordinator/organizer (I’d like to avoid the phrasing of a “supervisor”), who’s also likely willing to help groups out how to spend the money the best. They can meet in person, they can be friends, etc.
EAIF has an easier job. Instead of interacting with 80+ uni groups, they interact only with 6-8 regional groups. They don’t need to be experts in all the world’s local context and currencies, they only need to establish trust with the regional groups. This is more of a nice-to-have than a super important consequence. EAIF is quite capable as it is, though I think there might be some unexpected ways in which this is very impactful, e.g. that it allows EAIF to spend much more money from their overhead funding much more quickly...
I understand that I might be wrong in this aspect and that actual grant-makers are better positioned to make the judgment of whether this would make the funding infrastructure better. Maybe the amount of trust between EAIF and regional groups will be unattainable, or maybe the difference in the quality of grant applications will be a problem.
Fortunately, I think this aspect of my proposal is fairly independent of the others, and funding is probably not the biggest bottleneck for having more uni groups right now anyway.
A similar graph as in the previous section could be drawn for distributing mentorship; at the top, there’d be CEA’s Groups team or some similar team, the rest would be the analogical… Here, let me try to portrait a possible dialog between CEA, a regional group, and some uni groups, a community building fiction of sorts:
CEA: Hey regional group, how is it going?
Regional group: Pretty good. Uni group A is large and has extra leadership capacity, so we’ve allocated some of uni group A’s organizers to the smaller groups, uni groups D, E, and F, and it seems to be going well. The mentors are mostly trying to teach whatever’s working in uni group A, let us know if you have any guidelines that mentors should follow. We also have a few new high school EA groups in our area, but none of us are up to mentoring them, do you guys maybe have someone who’s focused on high school groups that would be willing to supervise these groups remotely?
Also, a uni group B organizer has created some cool materials for fellowship facilitators, so we’ve asked them to share and trial them in all our other groups. But we’re pretty short on marketing materials, and it seems like something our groups are generally struggling with, do you guys maybe have someone who could help us out? We can help organize a workshop session or something.
CEA: Very cool, that’s great! We can definitely connect you with someone focused on high school EA groups! In terms of uni group A, do you think they still have some extra capacity even with helping your own region’s groups? Another regional group is very short on mentors, and we thought we’d reach out to you if you’d be able to help (probably online).
Facilitator materials are great! Let us know after you’ve tried them for at least one round, and afterward we can consider making your materials more widely available. And yes, we’re happy to send over a marketing specialist to do a workshop, but over time it might be a good idea to train your own specialist so that you can make better use of your local specific context.
Regional group: Thank you so much! We’ll ask uni group A and also think of other ways we can help the other region out. We’ll also start thinking about finding a local marketing specialist, it’s definitely a very good idea!
Disseminating and Preserving Knowledge
Recently, some groups have started running community building fellowships. I think it’s a great concept, and I think the regional group model supports it very well.
Each regional group would run its own community building fellowship. It’d be a hybrid program, with some online sessions, readings and exercises, but also with a vibrant in-person retreat (or more of them). Cohort size could vary, from small (5-10 people) to large-but-not-too-large (20-40 people).
There could also be a worldwide meta community building fellowship (for the lack of a better name) for community building fellowship instructors. Participants would share insights from their regions. It could be less structured, and more of a conference or a general assembly of uni group community builders. It could also be a space for CEA or someone else to establish an idea or concept top-down, e.g. if CEA wants uni groups to start using a unified visual style in their graphics, they can first teach the CB fellowship instructors how to use it, which can then run a class on it in their CB fellowships.
Aside from CB fellowships, regional groups could keep a central directory of
program syllabi, advertising materials, event ideas, …,
venues for in-person events, services for printing advertising materials (T-shirts, banners, etc.), …,
explicitly EA-aligned professors or other interesting people physically person in the area,
..., …, … really lots of things.
Starting New Groups
Most students go through university without ever even hearing about effective altruism (someone told me a specific number recently, I don’t remember it exactly, it was maybe like 99%?). It seems to me that there’s a lot of untapped potential; most of the famous, highly engaged EAs or researchers didn’t go to a top uni (not totally sure, but seems right)! So I think starting loads of new groups can be quite impactful, perhaps much more than making current uni groups marginally better...
Regional groups are well positioned to seed new groups:
They could send a team to do an intro presentation on campus (or just ask someone from a nearby university to do it), and/or run an intro program, to find an initial organizing team. This was already kind of done by Yale EA, seeding Georgetown EA.
When the school year of one university starts later than another’s, organizers from the first university could go live at the second university for a few days or weeks, to help the second group with preparations. This was already kind of done by Stanford EA, having sent their organizers to many unis all across the US for the first few weeks of September 2021.
Regional groups could keep a small budget to angel invest in small groups or people (related to “Applying for Funding), i.e. give out money no questions asked.
Running Local Events
Regional groups could organize in-person retreats for uni group organizers (or other EAs too) in their regions. They could also organize bigger events: conferences for aligned professors in the area, cause area conferences, rationality workshops, EA Global Xs, or even EA Globals.
Regional groups could create and nourish a strong team with more executive power. If successful, such a regional group could grow into a bigger national/state/city group with more professional organizers.
I’m not sure what the ideal size of a regional group is (my best guess is 3-7 uni groups), but I’m sure that if there’s a point at which it’s hard for the group to coordinate itself, it’s best it splits.
I’m fairly confident that anyone reading this post can come up with a few real-world examples of a similar hierarchical/regional model (companies, organizations, networks, …).
Czech Scout Organisation
One specific example I’m particularly familiar with is the Czech Scout Organisation, where I’ve spent my childhood growing up and the past 4-5 years organizing/leading. Czech Scout is the largest educational organization in the nation (Czechia’s population is about 11 million) — it has more than 60,000 engaged members organized in roughly 2,000 troops. It uses a similar regional model...
I asked my troop leader what the most important reason for why the system works so well is, and he said: “The fact that as the smallest unit, the troop, you don’t need to do almost any administration. You just report everything to your local regiment, and they take care of the rest.” (He had in mind things like finances, member subscriptions, club-room improvements, places for summer camps, …)
The head of the organization has only 7 paid employees, each regiment has only 3-5 coordinators, and troops vary in size from 2 to 15 leadership members. Let me restate this another way: an organization serving 60,000 engaged members is run by 7 paid employees and the rest are volunteers.
There are many other possible similarities between Scout and EA I could draw (e.g. community building fellowships, know-how preservation, conferences and general assemblies, values and maxims, …), but I’m not going to into them here.
These case studies are super interesting and if you also have one, please share it in the comments (e.g. one big example would be Teach for America, which some people have already explored here on the forum a little bit).
What could also be interesting is looking for real-world examples of the current model/situation in university EA groups. I personally can’t come up with any, but I’m probably be biased/blindfolded… If you have some examples, or arguments why EA shouldn’t follow any established models, please share too.
Possible Objections and Other Considerations
Why Cluster by Geography?
A common reaction to regional models is something along the lines “Geography is arbitrary, X is not.”, where X could be size, focus, age, …
I can definitely see the appeal of not relying on geography too much. Having a global network in which you can connect nodes across the world, and allowing people to switch places easily, is definitely great.
But frankly, I see geography as the least problematic way of clustering uni groups, and I think the abundance of regional models in other similar human structures shows for it.
Fortunately, I think it’s possible to have overlapping infrastructures. For sure it’d be great for the very largest groups (currently Stanford, Oxford/Cambridge, PISE, …) to be connected and exchange experiences about running larger projects… But this can totally happen on top of a regional model! I think a large uni group should be quite capable of being actively involved in their regional group, as well as interact with other entities such as other large uni groups.
The Problem Is in Getting People
This is by far the most common response I got on drafts of this post. The claim is that we first “need the people to run the regional groups” or perhaps even before that “more people doing full-time community building” (direct quotes of some comments).
Firstly, I think finding people is not that hard. There is a semi-regular supply of graduating uni group organizers, all of which are a great fit for the role of a regional coordinator. I don’t think there are big downsides due to founder’s effects, there’s a quick feedback loop on how well the coordinator is doing, and anyone can step up at any time to take up some of the responsibilities.
Secondly, and much more importantly, I think most of the benefit comes from having the basic infrastructure in place (!!!). This is the place where I expect people to most disagree with me...
I think it’s totally possible to run a regional group without any main coordinator. A regional group is (at least initially) more about its member uni groups and less about itself. If each uni group has a regional group representative who spends like 20% of their community building time running the regional group (coordinating regular calls, talking to new groups, organizing in-person events, …), I think the regional group can totally sustain itself. As an example of a minimal model which can still be impactful, the West Coast and UK organizers have started group chats (these are just the ones I know of, there are certainly more) — no one is running the group chats, yet they’re already helpful (to varying degrees, to be fair).
Top-down vs. Bottom-up
Should this be a bottom-up grassroots effort or a top-down executive decision?
I’d say it should be bottom-up, but I’m open to arguments the other way. My main argument is that a top-down solution would take a long to come through, and the folks on the ground are much better positioned to create regional groups that actually support them in organizing.
That being said, I think it’d still probably be a net positive if there was a top-down solution running simultaneously. I’d be very happy if someone from CEA reads this post, evaluates it critically against CEA’s current plans (that in my opinion do not effectively avoid the issues I outlined in the section “The Problem”), and makes a push for a change of CEA’s uni group strategy.
Interfacing With City/National Groups
It’s natural to ask what should be the role of regional groups in relation to city/national groups, or if perhaps they should be the same thing?
I definitely think they shouldn’t be the same thing, at least not initially. Perhaps a better name than “regional group” is uni group cluster or regional cluster (RC?).
City/national groups are often run by adult, professional people, who don’t know enough about what it means to run a uni group. The activities of city/national groups and regional/uni groups can definitely overlap (e.g. running conferences or retreats), but I think it’s beneficial to separate the student and work worlds...
But again, it’d still probably be a net positive if city/national groups decide to more actively support uni groups in their area.
What Should Be Done
The aspects and goals I outlined in the section “The Solution” are not equal in importance and tractability, and it’d probably be very hard to implement all of them at once. Fortunately, I think they’re fairly plug-and-play, and, as mentioned, most of the benefit comes from just having the basic infrastructure in place.
To that end, I think the most important action point right now is for uni groups in similar locations to seriously discuss the possibility of forming a regional group. Further action points: if you’re a graduating uni group organizer, consider the role of regional coordinator; if you’re CEA, evaluate this model critically against the current one.
In terms of what should be the first thing that regional groups do, I think starting group chats or a Slack server, and scheduling regular (bi)weekly calls is a great first step. As long as people are compelled by the regional model, I think everything else will follow from there.
Technical Side Note
I sometimes like to jump several steps ahead and imagine what sort of digital manifestation would a regional group have. I think having something like a simple public Notion page with announcements, regular call times, resources, contacts, etc. would be great. Later on, regional groups could agree on certain data collection schemas and automate their processes and member tracking using something like Airtable. More thoughts on this appreciated.
Also, this was my first EA Forum post! Please, don’t be too harsh on me, but I’d also welcome feedback on language, structure, tone, etc. :-)
I’d like to thank Jack Ryan, Jessica McCurdy, Miriam Huerta, Emma Abele, James Aung, Dewi Erwan, Bella Foristal, and Mark Xu for comments on initial drafts of this, Danny Navratil (my scout leader) for our discussion, and Jan Kulveit for another discussion on infrastructure constraints in EA.