My Reflections Facilitating for EA Virtual Programs
TL:DR We need to put more resources, support, and perhaps a restructuring of the fellowships into Virtual Programs if we are to reach CEA’s organizing goals of expanding community diversity (geographically in particular) and increasing virtual programs introductory participant to high-impact EAer rate. I have some thoughts on how we can do this!
Setting the Stage—A Brief Overview of Virtual Programs (VP) and Myself
I have been facilitating Virtual Programs for ∼ 5 months. So far I have facilitated four cohorts (2 introductory, 2 in-depth) and participated in 1 introductory and 1 in-depth program. I’m planning to keep doing 2 groups a round
I have also helped with some EA DC and Twin Cities community-building, ran a fellowship amongst friends, as well as volunteered on some specific cause area projects
I also am starting some specific community-building projects related to community health and making EA a more welcoming, person-first space. There’s not much to share or reflect on since this is so new, but the projects definitely stem from the need for better VP community building that I’ve noticed in my facilitating
Virtual programs (VP) is run by the Center for Effective Altruism and essentially provides EA seminar programs for anyone around the world. I would say its main focus is running introductory, in-depth, and The Precipice fellowships/reading groups. These fellowships are ‘run’ by facilitators—whose volunteer role is to facilitate the fellowship meetings. VP also hosts many other one-off virtual events for the community.
The Problem: My Experience with VP:
I took both fellowships through VP and, to be honest, did not have the most positive experience. It was not related to the material; rather I did not feel any sense of community with my cohort or with the broader EA community.
I should note that my perception of EA (which was a misconception) delayed me from taking this fellowship in the first place (by about two years). Thus, the language we use and how we spread EA to new members and via word of mouth is important to get right.
Since then – due to having friends/family that encouraged and welcomed me into EA outside of the fellowship – I have become highly engaged in EA. I have attended 2 conferences (and plan to attend many more), helped with community building and various cause-area volunteer projects, and even switched my career from public health to biosecurity (a work in progress) based on longtermism’s neglectedness.
I have reason to believe this isn’t an experience unique to me
Out of my intro and in-depth fellowship group, I am aware of only one other person who is still active in the EA community. Coincidence or not, she happens to also have a family member who was already active in the EA community.
From my (limited) observation, the fellowships (intro and in-depth) are the main pathway for those not involved in university/city groups to become highly involved in EA. However, I don’t think the current structure of the fellowships run by VP are optimized to produce highly-engaged EAs. I also would not be surprised if VP’s retention rate (what % of those who take the fellowships stay involved in EA) isn’t as high as in-person university/city-group organized fellowships. I’d be curious to see the data.
To clarify, this is definitely not the organizer’s fault! Community building is hard and getting people to act on EA ideas (not just be interested in them) is extremely hard. I believe doing it virtually is even harder.
This is a secondary issue that I haven’t fully fleshed out yet, but I think we need to do more to support facilitating fellowships for non-English speakers and people not living in the US/Europe/the UK.
In my groups, there’s definitely been communication issues and just language gaps between myself (an American English speaker) and others, particularly those not in English-speaking countries.
I believe that this hurts how we are sharing EA ideas and long-term retention/interest in EA. My main reason for believing this is from experience in my groups with non-English native speakers being less engaged in the fellowship, needing more time to comprehend and discuss some of the readings/key ideas, and not always culturally fitting in.
The fellowship discussions move too fast. If I were a non-native English speaker, I would struggle to keep up
There are also cultural norms and assumptions every facilitator and participant brings to their group. Most of my group ends up being very Western and higher-education focused, which if you don’t fit that description, leads to some exclusion.
For example, I had one participant (from an African country) ask me why we should care about animals. I hadn’t ever been asked that question and probably didn’t do the best job explaining why. Perhaps a facilitator of a similar cultural background could have answered it better and made them feel more included.
One challenge is that we need more diversity of facilitators. I had two participants drop out of the fellowship because it was in the middle of the night/early morning and this was their only option for groups. They were living in Kenya and Nigeria. If we had more facilitators that were non-English natives not based in the US/the UK, perhaps we can be more accommodating to getting new members into EA.
What We Can Do About It?
The good news is that the EA community is generally very good at reflecting and making changes. We try to be transparent, accountable and seek to make improvements where they can be made.
First – we need better data. I don’t want to embark on a reform of VP, or even just slight changes to the fellowship structure or added community events, without ensuring this isn’t just a sampling issue related to me and my groups. I would love to see VP’s retention rate in terms of how many people go from intro to in-depth, how many become ‘high-impact EAs’, and what the exit survey data is.
One confounding factor is that VP likely brings in different types of people compared to in-person groups. VP might be more random in participant demographics. This could affect retention rate and group cohesion. I believe VP groups are harder to run well compared to in-person.
Second – we need more facilitators. I’m pretty sure (but not entirely sure) that VP generally has more applicants to their fellowships than facilitators available to run them. It doesn’t take much time commitment (2-3 hours a week for 1 group and not much more for a second group of the same type) and is immensely helpful and high-impact. It is also personally nice to meet new people and help them navigate their thoughts about EA and involvement in it.
When I met two of my in-depth participants at EAGxBoston this year it was so heartwarming. I also got a photo of a different two participants meeting at EAG London!
Third – maybe I shouldn’t be publicly saying this, but I’ve been doing some pilot testing of a more community-oriented, person-first facilitation and my super rough, informal data is that it’s very positive.
I really have been trying to make my fellowship groups more social and community-focused than just about knowledge building. We still do and discuss the readings!
Take more than 5 minutes to check in at the beginning of each meeting. The fellowship structure currently has about 5-10 minutes allotted to icebreakers for each session. That isn’t enough time to become friends and really get to know each person by the end of the 8 weeks. We typically (especially in my in-depth) go around, learn about each other’s weeks, learn about what we’ve been focusing on, how conferences/retreats/meetings with other EA people went, and how everyone is doing. I feel – and I know my participants feel since I’ve heard this from them – much more connected and like friends.
Supplementary evidence is that my first in-depth group is still meeting, multiple people have attended EA conferences, multiple people have either switched jobs to an EA organization or are actively applying for EA jobs
Really focusing on EA connections and conversations. I’ve talked to everyone in my in-depth groups trying to see how they see what they envision their involvement in EA being post-fellowship and offering to connect them to various people in relevant cause areas and job opportunities.
This is especially relevant for VP because most people live in a place where there isn’t anyone else in their community involved in EA. It’s really hard to send a cold email to someone working at an EA-org and if you are in VP, chances are relatively high that you know no one in EA other than those in your VP fellowship group. I’m not even sure in most fellowship groups, people feel comfortable enough to ask for a favour – I certainly didn’t in my intro. and in-depth group. Hence, focusing on community building and being that point of connection is super important for VP in particular.
One reflection is this seems to work much better for the In-Depth groups. I think it’s a) more valuable (for my time and effort) to focus on career aptitudes and post-fellowship involvement in EA for the in-depth group since they are just more committed already, and b) better for participants because they have a better understanding of EA and a higher-level of engagement. It still makes community a focus on Intro groups, but it really is first making sure they understand EA principles and want to be in EA before ‘investing’ the time and energy to helping them get active in the EA community
This is definitely just my thoughts but in my conversations with other community builders – at various university and city groups – it seems like making EA more welcoming and community health is a larger topic of importance that we need people focusing on
VP seems to be relatively neglected, especially when a big focus of the EA community is on increasing EA community diversity (ex. It’s #30 on FTX’s Future Fund ideas, this post from CEA) and the demographics of people that only have VP as an option to get involved in EA is mainly those in non-Western countries that don’t have in-person groups. Hence, focusing on VP is very in line with EA’s goals
There are various steps we can take that I believe have a relatively good chance of increasing long-term involvement in EA and welcomingness. One might even say this problem is tractable
This ranges from small things (ex. A form where someone can request to be connected to someone in a cause area or at a specific organization) to larger actions (such as creating a third short fellowship focusing on getting people involved in EA. This would be for people that know they want to get involved or are potentially interested in making some career changes, but don’t know how).
This translates well across groups. It’s not just VP that has issues with EA culture and welcomingness. In my conversations with other group organizers, I believe there’s a need to make EA more welcoming and person-forward and it will translate into more involved, ‘highly-engaged’ EAs
Even facilitator training sessions on being welcoming would be valuable because while most people are nice, it’s super important to make sure someone’s first impression of EA is relatively positive (and correct).
There’s at least one person (me) willing to work on this. This is a larger issue many people have brought up, but not necessarily specifically about VP. See here, here, here, and here to cite a few sources.
Big shout out to Anjay Friedman for helping me with this post and all the Virtual Program organizers for their organizing.