Student group notes #2: don’t be embarrassed

August 2014

This is the second post in a series on lessons I learned while starting a student group almost from scratch.

The first time Harvard Effective Altruism did any sort of publicity was at Harvard’s “student activities fair,” where literally every student group at Harvard lined up at rows of tables, and masochistic students ran the gauntlet in a doomed quest to find meaning in undergraduate life.

We were running a Giving Game in which we presented people with three charities and asked them to choose one to receive a dollar.

Here’s how a typical HEA pitch went:

(student walks past)

(another student walks past)

(third student walks past)

(fourth student walks past, awkwardly glances towards the HEA poster)

Ben: Hi?

Student: Um, hi, what is Harvard Effective Altruism?

Ben: (sheepishly) Okay, so I know this sounds cheesy, but we actually try to figure out the best ways to improve the world and then do those things.

Student: Huh?

Ben: Like it turns out some charities are WAY better than others! Want to play this Giving Game?

(bemused student makes excuses and leaves)

After three hours of such pitches we had a grand total of one person who came back for more than one meeting.

The reason our publicity was so disastrously bad is that I was bad at talking to people, for a couple of reasons:

  1. I realized that the idea of HEA seemed crazy: “join us and we’ll try to figure out how to maximize the good we do in the world!”–it combined the tired cliche of trying to save the world with the taboo of declaring that some ways of saving it were better than others. But my mistake was letting other people know that I knew HEA seemed crazy. As soon as they realized that I myself felt goofy, it was game over for convincing them to get involved.
  2. Because I felt like I was pushing a crazy idea, I was also worried about wasting people’s time. This was just silly. If the students didn’t want their time wasted, they shouldn’t have tried to run the activities-fair gauntlet. And anyway, they were perfectly capable of extracting themselves from the pitch if they wanted to. We should have been less polite.

By contrast, here’s a similar pitch from when we were advertising in a dining hall this year:

(student walks past)

(Ben walks up to them, holds out a dollar bill)

(student automatically takes dollar bill)

Ben: Do you want to donate this dollar to charity?

Student: Huh?

B: Like, we have a list of charities, and you can pick one to give this dollar to.

S: Oh, okay, I guess.

B: Awesome! It’s actually not literally that dollar, it’s this computer form. Can you read through these three blurbs and select whichever one you think will do the most good with your dollar?

S: Sure.

(S reads through blurbs)

S: So what’s the deal with this?

B: I’m glad you asked! So, like, you want to improve the world, right? (S: Yeah.) And you prefer improving it more if you can, right? (S: Yeah.) So we try to figure out how to improve it the most. It’s weird how nobody else is doing that, huh?

By this time, I had gotten over my feeling of goofiness, and just powered through. I often acknowledged that HEA was uncommon, but not that it was weird. Plus, I was more aggressive about initially engaging with students–they had come to be marketed at, after all. I still didn’t give people a hard sell if they didn’t seem interested, but I was okay with being pushy to get their attention away from all the other pushy people. As a result, students were way more interested and engaged.

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David Rubenstein

I like it. Well done!