Student group notes #6: lessons from the philanthropy fellowship

This is the sixth post 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.

The event we ran that really got our membership going was what we called the “philanthropy fellowship.” Although the content was specific to HEA’s mission, I think the idea and lessons generalize to any kind of student group. Here’s how the philanthropy fellowship worked:

  1. We cold-emailed a bunch of awesome people asking them to give talks for Harvard Effective Altruism’s philanthropy fellowship.

  2. We also got an anonymous donor to promise to match any funds our philanthropy fellowship raised for the term.

  3. At all of our events at the beginning of the year, we told everyone that we were running a “philanthropy fellowship” program in which fellows would apply and be accepted to attend a series of talks and dinners with our awesome speakers, and run a fundraiser at the end. At this point I believe our list of promised speakers included Peter Singer and Jaan Tallinn, so this generated a fair amount of interest.

  4. We put up an application with some basic questions, gave it a deadline, and publicized it to a ton of mailing lists (both ones for which it was on-topic, and dorm-wide mailing lists where it was permissible to hawk random clubs/activities.

  5. After the deadline, we called back all the applicants we thought were a good fit for a short one-on-one interview with one of the HEA organizers, where we asked them a couple questions (mostly to get to know them) and gave a little spiel about how the fellowship would go (schedule, expectations for attendance, the fundraiser at the end, etc.).

We weren’t very selective at all with the application—we mainly used it to screen out people who were obviously there just to promote their own charities, and I think we invited everyone who interviewed to do the fellowship.

But it still ended up creating a core group of people who came to nearly all of our events and engaged with HEA a lot. I’m not sure about all the factors that led to the success of the philanthropy fellowship, but I have a couple theories. (Note that these are only theories, i.e., not empirically verified—so generalize at your own risk!)

  1. There was a big incentive for joining the fellowship. Although our speakers’ talks were open to the public, the dinners with them were restricted to members of the philanthropy fellowship. We advertised this fact heavily and I’m sure the prospect of dinner with Peter Singer got at least one person to join.

  2. Scarcity creates value. If people perceive your group as hard to get into—even if it isn’t—then they’ll value their membership in it more, and get more excited about your events. This is why we had an application process, even though it was more work for us and we only rejected a couple people.

  3. We asked for an explicit commitment to attend events first. A problem for a lot of groups is that students are really interested at the beginning of the semester, but as classwork piles on they start to feel swamped and stop going to as many events. Since we asked students to commit to attending the entire fellowship at the beginning of the semester, they tended to make it a higher priority.

Of course, there are plenty of other lessons we learned from the fellowship as well—mainly about how we could have run it better. I’ll be going over those in a future post in this series. Stay tuned!


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