A case for targeted introductions to effective giving for specific (workplace) audiences

TL;DR—Rationale for conducting a defined outreach effort, consisting of a series of articles targeted to and tailored for very specific audiences outside EA, to orient them to effective giving (which I will define as a lighter and more consumer-friendly selection of key ideas from EA). This is followed by an acknowledgement that the outreach effort described might be tempered by the desire to publicize EA ideas more slowly in general, or to continue with the status quo.

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This entry seeks feedback on its potential efficacy, arguments for and against, and ideas to make it stronger. It was originally submitted as a reply to this post by Julian Hazell about contributing to GWWC as a writer or content creator. His and other responses suggested that my entry might gain more helpful feedback as a standalone, so I am reprinting it here, with several addenda, which is a really fun word to say several times.

It is not unlikely that something akin to the following idea is already in the works somewhere in EA and, if so, I am sure the community will not let me remain uninformed.

The idea below is not half-baked; nor is it completely cooked. I have confidence in it as an approach to outreach, but there may be better ideas for reaching targeted or general audiences more efficiently, such as through wise use of social media or by relying on existing media voices (Vox’s “Future Perfect” comes to mind) that are already—arguably—laying the groundwork for widespread acceptance of EA ideas.

More foundational, there is legitimate debate over the optimal rate of EA movement growth, insofar as expanding the circle of outreach to a more general public. I do not address this in the detail it deserves in this post. My original concern was simply to consider unexplored channels for a crafted and controlled EA message, but certainly this debate is relevant and, some would argue, existential to the movement. It may need to be resolved as an antecedent to any meaningful outreach effort.

However, even as we discuss it, the nature of information, a restive bird in a crepe-paper cage, may render the discussion moot.

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THINKING LIKE AN ARCHER

There is much discussion, as EA increasingly meets the world, about how to disseminate information about the movement’s ideas clearly, delicately—after all, you are asking people to examine their values—and in manageable doses. First impressions are oh-so important. You can see discussions about this around the forums. A few quick examples include this Forum post from @weeatquince; this podcast with Luke Freeman and Geetanjali Basarko discussing this set of guidelines; this discussion from Helen about framing EA as a question and avoiding “-ist”; portions of this Forum post from Catherine Low et al. about (among many other things) the dangers of a “low-fidelity [first] exposure” with effective giving; and this video providing teacher Danny Lipsitz’s views on risks and solutions around external movement building.

As marketers know, a specific target audience is easier to reach than a very broad one. You can choose a channel that already targets that audience with a message tailored to reader and context (e.g., a magazine about knitting reaches knitters particularly and quite efficiently). Plus, you might benefit from the medium itself if its ideas are trusted by and shared widely between people in that target population.

So alongside any efforts to write content for a broad distribution, one might visualize a specific project to turn out a series of highly focused introductions to effective giving targeted toward specific audiences outside the central circles of EA, written by (or at least in the voice of) an “insider,” and pitched to relevant publications.

The example that sparked this idea was an intro to EA written specifically for product managers by Clement Kao, speaking the language of its audience, making connections between their approaches and EA’s that would, one hopes, make Kao’s fellow product managers feel 1) well understood and 2) positively inclined toward some of the approaches that comprise effective giving.

The underlying issue is this: Effective Altruism is going to continue to gain more attention in the coming months and years, especially if it is very successful (or the precise opposite, which I will not contemplate here). Indeed, the idea of accelerating the development of a broad culture of giving—in workplaces, in schools, among the most fertile donor classes, and more generally—is an unarguable good that many EAers are striving to cultivate. Controlling the message now, or at least starting to do so more deliberately, allows reasonable and attractive ideas to proliferate.

Besides continuing to motivate a giving mindset in different groups and potentially increasing the real numbers around effective giving (and engagement with EA among a subset of those reached), I believe outreach now can soften the landing of more tricky messages of EA, if and when they reach a broader public stage. These might include longtermism, cause agnosticism, reliance on expected value, what I like to call “overcoming proximity bias”—anything that asks people to break the seal on their moral compass.

Information wants to be free, so you might as well dress it for success.

WHO AND HOW

This targeted outreach could be addressed to any community: Unitarian Universalists; sci-fi fans; AARP members, eSport gamers; you name it. But certainly EA has been looking to establish more momentum in reaching people in the workplace (through programs both focused and more wide-reaching), and there are widely distributed publications within just about any professional community. As an example, consider how many developers’ eyeballs meet mass-distribution magazines like CODE or .NET. These publications speak their language, talk about topics dear to them, make them feel like members of a tight-knit or at least defined community.

Such a project could start by targeting the broadest and potentially most EA-aligned audiences—for our Market Testing team to identify, of course—and aim to be published in top specialized media for those groups. While drawing from a central common set of well crafted ideas and terminology, articles would differ in addressing the particular concerns of people in that target group, and using their own idiom to do so. Texts would highlight particular ways effective giving fits their world view and how its tenets can help them improve their work or their lives.

In order to speak in the voices of authentic insiders, we might do well to mine the multitalented ranks of EA for writers to author articles on areas in which they have experience.

One additional idea from Julian is to frame such an effort as a series of profiles of people in defined disciplines, e.g., “How this software engineer approaches charity.” It is possible this framing might be a good alternative to reach people in disciplines similar to that of the person profiled, and might even relate to a wider audience, if that is the objective of the messaging.

Can anyone see a downside risk here? I haven’t so far—with some caveats discussed under Broader Questions below—and it seems to me that, with careful attention to leading readers toward further engagement with effective giving and beyond that, EA, such an effort might also cultivate a growing crop of EA groups in the workplace (or among any targeted groups).

BROADER QUESTION: HOW RAPID SHOULD THE MOVEMENT GROW?

So, I am not the most qualified person to bring this issue up here, and it deserves its own post—maybe even its own forum—but those who commented on my initial post are right that the vision above does need to acknowledge the question of at what speed the EA movement should be encouraged to expand in terms of reaching the general population (however you define it). It is a real concern that EA as a movement is better off if it does not grow rapidly, but rather more deliberately. At the risk of oversimplifying this topic to an enormous extent, my observations would be:

  1. This is a valid concern. Trying to move too quickly makes it difficult to control the message. One of my main interests since I jumped into the EA swimming pool has been to understand what are the best channels, messages and levels of effort that EA should make to ensure the messages it sends out are clear, convincing and motivational—leading both to understanding of and active support for EA ideas. There is always the danger of an audience receiving “low fidelity” or possibly off-putting messages. Something as simple as one widely-disseminated message containing misinformation or an unfortunate framing can do a lot of hard-to-repair damage. A problem could just as easily arise through misjudgment by an EA concern around a particular audience’s tolerance to reflecting on their current moral choices. The above outreach idea does address this somewhat, insofar as it is a measured and targeted release of information.

  2. Perhaps there would be an organization near the center of EA that would take on this effort and would help to define the particular ideas about effective giving that are most valuable to share. Coordination by one particular EA entity might help lean outreach toward a consistent, vetted message using consistent EA language. This as opposed to what is happening currently: ad hoc (though not necessarily ineffective) outreach through various organizations in the community, to their own audiences and based on their specializations. However, mine could be far too confining an idea; it could be argued that letting each group reach its own audience is exactly the best way to get the message out most flexibly. Note: I would be curious to hear what others think about how ideas around effective giving are being disseminated in the current moment. Is there something I should understand differently?

  3. Whatever the intentions of the movement, the need to expand the culture of giving and the nature of information means we can expect more attention to EA in the coming months and years, and it will not be possible for any one group to have full control over this spread, especially due to the burgeoning number of EA-aligned, outreach-oriented individuals, groups and interventions emerging in this exciting moment in time. My question is whether it is better to make deliberate moves now to shape this growth than to debate it until it’s too late to get the bird back into the cage.

Postscript: I am as guilty as anyone of sometimes conflating “EA” with “effective giving”—I hope I have not done so too much in this writing, as this can make the debate muddier, as well. I would risk saying that we all agree more effective giving is desirable and worth working toward. The above idea is about planting seeds for the latter and not necessarily explicitly promoting the former. If this deserves its own debate, I have brought it on myself!

(Thanks: David Reinstein and Devon Fritz for feedback on various drafts and Sunnie Huang for extra encouragement, as well as Peter Slattery and Julian Hazell for the thoughtful suggestion to make the former threaded afterthought into a “real” boy.)