Making Community Building a more attractive career path

Summary

The Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) wants to explore how to make Community Building a more attractive career path to pursue long term, especially with regards to the role of CEA community building grantee (CBG). I’m interested in this question, and have done some initial analysis on it. So far I have looked at previous work on this topic, conducted exit interviews with former community builders, done a survey with current community builders and written a short report. (Note that my analysis mainly builds on input from organizers in city and national groups, not university groups.)

In this post I highlight some of the key findings, hoping to induce discussion and get input for further work on the topic.

There is good reason to believe that community building can be impactful, that differences in impact between community builders are large and that one becomes a better community builder with time. Therefore it’s a problem that few think of working as a community builder as an attractive long-term career, which is indicated by how little time many have stayed in the program to date (>90% leave in <3 years) and the forecasts of current community builders for how long they plan to stay in in the program (~75% don’t know and ~15% plan to stay three years or more).

Most of those who we conducted exit interviews with left because they thought they were better suited to do something else allowing them to have even more impact, not because they thought the community builder role/​program was bad. Many seemed to have thought of the role as transitory from the beginning, using it to learn more about EA and explore other careers. The triggering factor for many was a more interesting job opportunity arising. And no one seems to think more support from CEA, including higher pay, would have made them stay, at least not for long. This suggests that simply considering how well suited and motivated someone is to do CB long term run could help retention.

Both previous and current community builders express lack of opportunities for training and development, not building provable career capital (especially for careers outside the EA movement) and funding/​hiring conditions as the most important factors for not being attracted to community building as a long-term career. The most asked for additions to current training and development are:

  1. Systematic and professional training and development for tasks that are common to community builders, e.g. impact assessments, management and leadership skills and various ops things, etc.

  2. Mentorship or coaching.

Though I think it would be preferred, I do not think such activities have to be carried out by CEA or another EA org. Alternatives would be to help community builders receive said support from other actors, e.g. by providing a list of recommended courses/​workshops and an incentive to engage in them and/​or forming collaborations with some organization doing (executive) coaching/​mentoring. Any attempts to provide training and development should aim at building provable career capital.

With regards to funding/​hiring conditions, some express that they think their current pay and benefits are unfair (though it should be noted that CEA is in the process of raising salaries). But low pay does not seem to be the decisive problem. Rather, most express concerns with insecure employment and not seeing a pay growth trajectory. Also, many mention not being able to hire co-workers. Thus, the most important considerations for those financing community builders seem to be:

  1. Considering a “policy” for increasing wages for community builders over time and/​or dependent on age and previous experience (by the end of April 2022, there will be a new CEA policy of increasing the grant with experience). Many community builders express concerns that they don’t see how the current system could help them sustain a nice living standard with (increasing) costs of e.g. buying an apartment or forming a family.

  2. Less uncertainty through longer grant periods and/​or longer exit grants. (CEA recently issued the first two-year grant – however, survey respondents did know about the possibility of two-year grants and still responded the way they did, so perhaps this is insufficient.)

  3. Striving to award grants to teams.

Other things expressed as important to make community building, particularly within CEAs programs, more attractive were:

  1. Improved onboarding/​introduction for new community builders.

  2. (More) check-ins with CEA.

  3. Better systematization of “best practices” and data, especially regarding evaluation.

Further, my impression is that making community building higher status in general would be highly beneficial. This could be done by putting forward good work from community builders; i.e., doing (more) talks about and including community builders on EAG(x)/​podcast, including more opportunities for building high prestige career capital, rewarding higher pay (on par with other positions in the core EA community) and giving (continued) appraisal in the community.

Introduction

I am currently a Community Building Grantee (CBG) in the CBG-program at the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA). CEA wants to explore how to make Community Building a more attractive career path to pursue long term, especially with regards to the role of CBG recipients. Since I’m interested in this question myself, I have helped by doing some initial analysis.

So far I have:

  • Looked at previous similar surveys/​investigations

  • Conducted exit interviews with former community builders

    • No particular focus/​selection criteria but most where city or national group organizers

    • 10 respondents, from 12 people asked

  • Conducted a survey with current community builders

    • Sent to all current participants in CEAs CBG-program (note that this does not include university groups)

    • 12 respondents, from ~30 people who were sent the survey

  • Written a short report, including my findings and some recommendations

This post will highlight some key takeaways from my analysis (note that my analysis mainly builds on input from organizers in city and national groups, not university groups). Everything said is from me personally and does not reflect CEA’s views. The hope and aim is to:

  • Share some info that might be relevant to others in the community

  • Create a wider discussion on the topic

  • Get input relevant to if/​how to make community building into a more attractive long-term career path.

This post is directed to EA as a community, and I am happy for all input. But I think it is especially relevant for those directly involved in community building. Further, it is obviously most relevant for CEA’s community building efforts and again I want to stress that input mainly comes from city and national group organizers. But I think much of what is said applies to community building within EA more generally.

Below you will find:

  • Context for this analysis being done

  • Findings from the interviews and survey

  • Conclusions and recommendations on how to make career building into a more attractive long-term career path

In the section “Findings” I have done my best to represent the opinions expressed in the interviews/​survey objectively. In the sections “Context” and “Conclusions and Recommendations” I also present my own thoughts, which are based on the interviews/​survey, previous work on this topic,[1] and some other data.[2] Throughout the post I try to make it clear when I present my own impressions and thoughts.

In bulleted lists, the ordering does not imply importance/​prioritization. In numbered lists, the ordering indicates level of importance/​prioritization as based on how often and strongly respondents expressed a certain point (starting with most important (1)).

I have put a fair amount of work into the underlying analysis and preparing this post (~35 hours), but it should very much be seen as work in progress and I am very open to push- and feedback, so please add (critcal) comments! Also, I want to explore this topic further, so if you think it is an important topic, please let me know as it will help me decide on how I should prioritize it.

Context

Community building is important

There is wide consensus in the international EA community that movement building is an important cause area.[3] And community building through groups coordinated by local community builders seems to be an effective way of building the EA-movement.[4]

Being a great Community Builder is important

There is reason to believe that the success of groups will vary a lot depending on how capable different community builders are. In general, the impact between people within a career varies greatly depending on personal fit.[5] Further data suggests this is the case in EA-community building. E.g.

  • A grant given to EA Stanford grew the small executive team to 13 people, allowing them to organize introductory and cause research fellowships. The introductory fellowship attracted 195 participants, and the research fellowship accepted 20 of 250 applicants.

  • A grant given to EA Brown University allowed their community builder to build the group from having no “highly engaged” members one year to having 37 the next.

And current community builders seem to think there are large differences.

(Alternatives were: ~100 X, ~10 X, ~3 X, Less than 1.5 X, No differences and Other (specify))

Few stay long in their community builder role

To date most people who have been in CEA’s community building programs leave their positions quickly. A short glance comparing the list of the 32 CBGs appointed in 2020 to CBGs active in February 2022 in the same groups indicates that more than 55% have left their positions.[6] Note that I don’t know to what extent those who left still carry out community building work outside the CBG-program, but I do not think many are.

Those who we conducted exit interviews with stayed in the position:

  • Average ~2,5 years

  • Median: ~2 years

None of them are still doing community building.

Those who answered the survey have been in the position:

  • Average ~1 year

  • Median: ~0,4 years

All these are still in the CBG-program, but they do not seem to be planning to stay long in the position.

It seems important to make community building into a more attractive long-term career path

It’s tautological to say, but if the community building role became more attractive it might attract more talented people! In addition, it might make people stay longer in the role. And there is reason to believe that people who have been in the role longer are more effective. Firstly it seems to be that case in general. From 80,000 Hours: Most people reach the peak of their impact in middle age. Income usually peaks in the 40s, suggesting that it takes around 20 years for most people to reach their peak productivity. Similarly, experts only reach their peak abilities between age 30 to 60, and if anything, this age is increasing over time. Research indicates that expert-level performance in established fields requires 10-30 years of focused practice. K. Anders Ericsson, the leader of this field of research — who himself has been working on it for over 30 years! — said “I have never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.”.

Further this is the experience from community builders.

That being said, it seems worth noting that in many contexts, e.g. at university groups, a 45 year old community builder would probably not be the most effective. And as universities are one of the key community building contexts for EA and I think community building can be a very good way of building career capital for other careers, it seems to me that we want to have many young people doing community building for a few years in their early to mid twenties, who then go of to do other things.

Findings

To avoid repeating things and keeping this post shorter I will treat answers from exit interviews and surveys simultaneously in this section. To a large extent they concurred with each other, but you can see them separately in the whole report.

The community builder role

Best part of the job

  1. Autonomy

  2. Interacting with a lot of interesting people in the EA community

  3. Counterfactual impact

  4. Learning a lot, both about EA and community building

Worst part of the job

  1. Lack of mentoring/​guidance from someone experienced

  2. Funding issues—short notice and short grants (which can have practical implications like not being able to get a mortgage)

  3. Working too much

    • Though it should be noted that this to a large extent is at community builders’ own volition—“The workload can be what you make it, there is flexibility to do more or less, although that might lead to internal pressure to feel bad about not doing more”, represents comments from many.

  4. Lack of a team and having to do everything, including things one doesn’t like/​feel qualified to do

  5. Lack of metrics/​evaluation methods and not knowing if one is doing a good job

Reason for leaving (from exit interview only)

  • Most people left because they thought they were better suited to do something else allowing them to have even more impact (not because they thought the CBG role was bad). Many seemed to have thought of the role as transitory from the beginning, using it to explore other careers and build career capital.

    • “I didn’t necessarily want to leave, it was more that the new role seemed more interesting and of higher impact” represents comments from many.

    • I think most people were correct in their assessment that they were better suited to do something else.

  • One important factor seems to be lack of prestige and provable career capital. Those interested in careers outside the EA movement all mention this.

  • There was no particular bad experience involved in anyone’s decision to start looking for other jobs or to leave.

  • The triggering factor for many was a more interesting job opportunity arising.

The CBG Program

This section is mostly relevant for CEA’s CBG-program. But after having spoken to other community builders, e.g. people doing community building on an infrastructure grant, it seems their situation with regards to pay and training and development is similar.

Payment and benefits

For context, CEA used to pay $70,000 annually to community builders in San Francisco, with lower salaries in areas with lower costs of living. There has so far been little to no differentiation between groups or people based on other factors. And grants have been given on an annual basis. Now CEA have updated their payment policy, with salaries baselined to $90,000 in San Francisco, with a cost of living adjustment for other locations, and an annual increase to recognise experience. ~$60,000 annually will be at the lower end, for locations with lower costs of living.[7] Also, CEA recently issued their first two-year grant. I think the answers below more respond to the earlier circumstances, but the respondents did know about the updates and still responded the way they did, so perhaps they feel the updates are insufficient.

  • There are mixed feelings but most are satisfied with the level of pay at the moment.

    • Respondents who have worked previously (in other sectors/​roles) and respondents in areas with higher costs of living seem less satisfied.

      • I think it is worth noting that many do community building as a first job or very early in their career.

    • I think it is plausible that people who would not be satisfied with the current levels of pay and benefits simply do not apply for being CBGs making this data less relevant.

  • A large majority have concerns with the employment form and job insecurity.

  • A large majority would be more attracted to being a CBG as a long-term career path if they had higher pay.

    • In comments, many explicitly mention increasing salaries with time and experience as an important factor for considering being a CBG long term. A yearly increase leveling off at ~USD 6,500/​month before taxes is an average ask.

My impression is that many are concerned with not seeing a career trajectory including higher pay in community building.

Training and development opportunities

  • Those who were CBGs early on were dissatisfied with training and development whereas almost all current CBGs are neutral or satisfied, indicating improvements in this regard.

  • A large majority would be more attracted to being a CBG as a long-term career path, if they had more training and development. Suggestions for improvement from respondents:

  1. Workshops or the like from “experts” on topics relevant for community builders.

  2. Mentoring or coaching

  3. An Introductory course/​fellowship for new CBGs (CEA just did a first intro course)

My impression is that CGBs, especially those interested in careers in non-EA organizations, are concerned by not building provable career capital in the role.

Where the program performs well

  1. Getting non-earmarked money to do community building.

  2. Retreats

  3. Peer support

How respondents would change the program

  1. The grant system (longer grants, longer exit grants, funding teams/​organizations).

  2. More opportunities for training and development (See above)

  3. (More) continuous support from CEA. Many think the program should simply include more continuous support, nothing very complicated or particular, just some mechanism for input and to help one feel less alone. My impression is that it is some kind of connection to CEA or another senior/​expert actor that is most in demand.

  4. More systemization of knowledge and best practices, esp. regarding impact evaluation.

  5. More competitive pay.

Overall satisfaction and intangibles

NPS = 25

My impression is that CBGs, like other community builders, are concerned with prestige/​status. And I think that such concerns play a bigger part in EA’s career plans than we’d care to admit. I know that is the case for myself. (Being honest with this, both as individuals and as a community, and talking about it seems important. More on this later.)

Conclusions and Recommendations

Again, this will mostly be relevant for community building done through CEA. But I have tried to make it useful for thinking about how we can make EA community building more attractive in a general sense.

Funding and Pay

  1. Work to give community builders more job security. How to do this would obviously depend on the situation at hand, but in cases where community builders are on grants one could consider longer grant periods, longer exit grants and/​or support and incentives for people to start legal entities which then employ them as community builders.

  2. Those funding community builders should consider creating “policies” regarding (increasing) wages for community builders over time and/​or dependent on age and previous experience for community builders.

    1. I don’t think higher pay will have large effects on the short-term output of community builders but it seems important to consider some kind of “policy” for increasing wages over the long term.

    2. Such a policy could:

      1. Help people see that this is a viable career path, where one will be able to sustain a nice living standard with increasing costs of e.g. buying an apartment or forming a family.

      2. Help attract and retain people who have previous work experience, where they have become accustomed to higher pay.

      3. Better demonstrate the value of the role, rightly positioning it more in line with other (prestigious) positions in the EA community.

      4. Simply incentivize people to stay in the community builder role.

  3. Increase wages for community builders, to be (roughly) equal to people in similar EA orgs (like CEA, 80k, etc) with similar experience. This is not asked for by most community builders but I think it would increase the status of the program. If top candidates for community building also get job offers from similar EA orgs with a significantly higher salary, that might bias their decision towards taking the job that pays more rather than the one that has more impact.

  4. Incentivise getting funding elsewhere. This is not explicitly asked for by former/​current community builders, but I think it could help lower stress/​uncertainty with not getting renewals and I think it is beneficial for EA organizations/​people in general to be less dependent on a sole financier.

Support

  1. Work to make sure community builders, especially those who are working alone, have easy access to someone more experienced to talk to on a regular basis. Again this will depend on context, but suggestions include:

    • That community builders financed by CEA can reach out to CEA for calls when desired, and for CEA to ensure this still happens even if community builders don’t reach out (e.g. some might feel awkward about asking for regular calls even when they have things they’d like to ask).

    • Providing mentorship or coaching. I think this could be done through many different schemes:

      • A cooperation with Magnify Mentoring

      • A cooperation with a prestigious and effective org for (executive) coaching

      • Regularly ask in the Community Building Slack and other foras whether people think they would benefit from mentorship and offer help finding a good mentor

  2. Work to make sure all community builders can attend some form of retreat. Apart from retreats organized by CEA I think experienced community builders should (continue) to arrange regional retreats for community builders. There should be available funding and support for such endeavors.

  3. Create an onboarding process for community builders, considering the journey people have into the role. In the best of worlds all (new) community builders should be invited to a fellowship or introductory course for community builders.

  4. Provide opportunities for more systematic and professional training and development for tasks that are common to community builders, e.g. impact assessments, management and leadership skills, various ops things, etc.

    • I do not think activities have to be carried out by CEA, and one alternative could be to construct a list of recommended courses/​workshops and provide funding and encouragement to take them.

    • I think increased attempts to provide training and development should aim at building provable career capital.

  5. Continue creating space for peer support.

  6. Better guidance/​a clearer system for measuring impact and comparing performance, e.g. continued work with the HEA concept, performance reviews, and concrete OKR setting

    • This could be complemented with more data on overall community builder impact, ideally quantified as much as possible and (at least partially) shareable with future potential community builders and other EA community builders.

Miscellaneous

  • Make further investigation into:

    • Differences in impact between community builders

    • To what extent community builders become more impactful over time

    • Characteristics of effective long-term community builders

  • Provide channels/​incentives for community builders to give feedback/​report their experiences. This should be for both regular feedback and for one-off topics like length of grants and similar hot topics. Conduct exit interviews with community builders.

  • Create a public list of projects/​activities that CEA/​community builders think would improve the program and incentivize community builders to (help) carry them out.

  • Work to make community building more prestigious/​high status.

    • Put forward good work from community builders (Needs to be done well—could cause harm if the things that are put forward don’t seem that impressive to a general audience, or if it feels like some individuals and groups are arbitrarily put forward while others are ignored)

      • Share community builder impact assessment (if there’s anything shareable?)

    • Do (more) talks about and including community builders on EAG(x).

    • Get CEA (together with a community builder) on EA(-adjacent) podcasts.

Please give feedback!

As said I hope to do further analysis of this question and would love your input! Please provide any feedback. I am especially keen on thoughts regarding these questions:

  • Do you agree we should work to make EA community building a more attractive long-term career path, in relation to other EA careers? Why or why not?

  • How big do you think differences in impact between community builders are? Do you have data on this? Or ideas on how to answer this question?

  • How do you think we could make community building into a more attractive career path?

  • Who do you think would be an effective community builder over the long term?

  1. ^

    Survey and report from Harri Bersceli former CBG-program lead at CEA, Feedback on the community builder-program from Eirin Evjen former CBG.

  2. ^

    See sources in footnotes throughout the document.

  3. ^

  4. ^

  5. ^

  6. ^

    https://​​www.centreforeffectivealtruism.org/​​blog/​​ceas-2020-annual-review#community-building-grants (I am not certain of the exact number of people who have left the position as I have not been able to assess exactly who is still on the program but I am confident this gives a good idea of the number.)

  7. ^

    The exact formula is: Base personal expenses x (0.6 ((N + X)/​2) + 0.4) x FTE/​Year x Grant length x 1.03^Years on CBG. The “base personal expenses” is updated to $90,000. N and X are cost-of-living factors (San Francisco is a “1” for both variables; other locations have those variables set based on how their cost-of-living compares to that of San Francisco).