This is the first part of the Q&A in a series on lessons I learned while starting a student group almost from scratch.
Looking to start an EA student group? Please get in touch if you’d like! Starting a student group is a great way to improve the world and you’ll learn a lot doing it. I’m always happy to help new student groups in whatever way I can.
A reader interested in starting a student group wrote in with the following question:
I’d like to get involved somehow, and while I don’t have much experience organizing people, I do have access to a sizable network of students and faculty here. I’ve hesitated though, because I’ve wondered, once I have a roomful of people who have been introduced to the methods and motivations of EA, what kinds of activities should I propose? Is there any basic script or set of guidelines for navigating activity planning during the early days of an EA community? Should we begin by spreading the word via advertising and networking, and then trying to get people to donate right off the bat?
This is an interesting question and one that I haven’t covered all of in the student group notes, so I’ll take a crack here.
Unfortunately, we’re still in the very early days of EA student groups, so I don’t think I know of a single recipe that’s known to get good results in a diverse set of cases. That said, I can talk about what’s worked for Harvard Effective Altruism specifically—hopefully at least some of it will generalize.
At Harvard Effective altruism we’ve done a few things that built up student interest. One is the Philanthropy Fellowship, which I previously wrote about. Before we had the fellowship (which is hard to start off with, since you need to start lining up speakers about a semester in advance), we also had a number of one-off talks and dinner discussions from less-prestigious (but still awesome) people. To get people for these we dragooned our friends and promoted them to a bunch of open-access email lists (e.g. dorm-specific mailing lists). We also had a small mailing list of our own, which we’d built up via sign-ups at talks. (If we had known about it, we could have gotten more emails by running more Giving Games, too.)
One activity that was really successful for getting new people introduced to effective altruism was running a group Giving Game. Unlike the standard formula I talked about before, for this one we had three of our organizers read up a lot on one specific charity and act as its “representative” to a group of students. Each representative gave a short introduction to their charity, and then the group of students collaboratively decided where to donate a $50 sum, with the representatives around to answer questions. (Our plan was to allow the students to vote on which charity to give to, but I think they ended up coming to a consensus.)
Something that HEA didn’t do enough of, but which I’ll recommend anyway, is run purely social events—we consistently underestimated the importance of these, and philanthropy fellowship members frequently asked for more in the feedback forms. Getting to know the rest of the group members as friends, not just intellectual peers, is important for making people want to go to your events and for keeping discussions friendly. We wouldn’t hold typical loud-music-get-smashed college parties, but we did hold a few low-key events—just hanging out in someone’s common room—that were a lot of fun.
Regarding getting people to donate: At HEA we actually haven’t pushed hard at all for students to donate money themselves (for instance, we ran a fundraiser but did not push the students who were running it to donate). We haven’t tried asking students to donate or pledge, so I can’t say for sure whether this is the right strategy, but my worry would be that students would be scared off if they were pushed to donate when they didn’t want to. I think it’s likely to be more effective not to pressure students to donate, but to use softer kinds of influence—removing inconveniences that cause people not to donate when they might want to, or making the act of donating more salient in a non-pushy manner, etc. For instance:
Not knowing where or how much one wants to donate is a barrier to many people. You could have an (optional) “donation workshop” where interested people help each other work through choosing where to donate (and if they’re comfortable, how much to donate). Eliezer Yudkowsky’s advice on donating for students seems relevant here (paraphrased from an in-person comment):
If you’re putting off donation until you start earning to give later, do at least the following: donate (a) at least $10 every three months, (b) never to the same organization twice in a row, (c) never the same amount twice in a row. That way you’re practicing the mental skill not only of donating anything at all, but also deciding where and how much.
You could keep a public log (e.g. on your student group’s website, if you have one) of where people chose to donate.
If anyone in your group signs the Giving What We Can pledge or does something equally momentous, invite people to a celebration (if the person in question is okay with it).
(Note: HEA hasn’t tried these yet because we were focusing on other things—they’re just brainstormed ideas we had lying around.)
There are also a lot of other resources which have been collected by Samuel Hilton in this Facebook comment.