Yale Effective Altruists has a serious mission, and we’ve had the help of many different people in our early days. I’m writing this progress report for two reasons:
- To help our supporters learn what we’ve been doing.
- To help our members, and potential future members, gauge the success of the group, and understand honestly whether they’d like to get or stay involved.
How Are We Doing?
When I started this group, I tried not to make too many explicit predictions about what would happen. But our success has been roughly equal to what I expected. I’d say there’s a 75% chance that the group will survive until the end of next year.
We have somewhere between 10 and 12 members who attend meetings regularly and have helped with multiple events, plus another half-dozen people we could ask for help in an emergency. There are a few people who may become active members next semester. Our mailing list has 129 subscribers as of today, roughly 2/3 of whom open our emails.
Through YEA, I’ve met quite a few passive Givewell or Less Wrong fans who were thrilled to learn about the existence of a welcoming community of thousands of other effective altruists. This knowledge alone probably makes them more likely to become long-term donors, and meeting them has been a surprising benefit of founding the group.
What We’ve Done So Far
Our initial recruitment looked like this:
- ~125 people signed up at the activities fair (we had a very ugly display, and several passionate people who wore themselves out with dozens of in-depth conversations).
- ~20 people came to one of the initial “interest meetings”. Half of these were personal friends; half were either students who’d signed up at the fair or friends of one of the co-founders (myself and Tammy Pham).
- ~10 people came to the first project meetings, and attendance holds steady at 6-8 members each week for “work meetings”, which tend to be a mixture of work and chatter about philosophy, charity news, and so on.
We’ve held two formal campus-wide events this semester:
- A two-day Giving Game which reached over 200 people, half of whom signed up to receive a post-Game message as to which charity “won”. Looking back, the Giving Games were good exposure, but don’t seem to have brought us any new members; still, running them helped us bond as a group.
- A “Giving Tuesday Party” open to members of any nonprofit group on campus. Roughly 30 people attended the event, most of whom had never attended a YEA meeting. We had the chance to meet members of several charitable campus organizations, most notably Net Impact, which is one of the groups we’d like to imitate (in terms of popularity and the ability to get things done).
We’re also hard at work on several projects. You can see more at the link, but here’s the quick summary:
- We’re interviewing people who work in the field of corporate social responsibility at corporations which direct millions of dollars in giving. We’ve arranged three interviews thus far, including one with a vice-president at a company with over $100 billion in revenue. We will post summaries of the conversations as we obtain permission to do so, in the style of 80,000 Hours.
- We’re building a website we hope will be a useful resource to high school students aiming to start charities. This is a common activity in the U.S., but few serious resources are available. Through the site (not public yet), we plan to start conversations with ambitious students who might be receptive to messages about effectiveness.
- We’re setting up talks with notable people in sectors relevant to EA — global health, poverty alleviation, applied rationality, and more. We’ve arranged for two events like this for the next semester and are in talks with several additional speakers.
- We’re in the initial stages of looking into various EA “writing projects”, whereby we hope to spread messages about charity effectiveness to new audiences. One of our members is co-writing a piece for a Czech newspaper with a friend from Harvard Effective Altruists; inspired by this, we collected a list of U.S. newspapers with circulation of 100,000+ people and will reach out to several such papers soon.
Notably, we’ve seen several other projects fall by the wayside, including a project to design infographics based on EA-related topics. This typically happened because of a lack of bandwidth — if we had more members, I think we would be getting more done.
Finally, we’ve inspired at least one person to sign up for the Giving Pledge who otherwise wouldn’t have done so, and it seems likely that several others will also take the Pledge in the near future. This is likely to be by far the greatest impact YEA has in the long run, and we’re thinking about how to make it happen more often.
College EA Observations
Students tend to be interested in EA topics; after all, most people have given money to charity in the past, and almost everyone has feelings about what kind of giving is “best”. The hard part is translating that interest into a desire to take action.
What works: Prepare a few brief introductions you can use with people who ask questions like “what is effective altruism?” or “what makes this group different than [insert student group name]?” I like to make a general statement, followed by a story to illustrate that statement. Something good that one YEA member came up with: “Giving isn’t just about money leaving your hands — it’s about where the money goes. We think about how to make sure the money goes towards improving people’s lives.”
What doesn’t: If someone just isn’t interested, don’t keep hitting them with slogans — ask them about their values. What kind of world would they like to see? How do they contribute to making that happen? And while this isn’t something we’ve run into, it’s worth saying: Do not devalue the work that other students are doing. It’s fine to ask questions like “how do you measure the impact of your service trip?”, but don’t start making blanket claims like “service trips are a waste of money”.
If someone expresses a strong interest in joining the group, but doesn’t come to any subsequent meetings, follow up personally once in a while. Invite them to a party, or to hang out at a Giving Game table. College schedules fluctuate wildly; the next time you meet this person, they may have a lot more free time, or be more inclined towards joining for some other reason.
Mistakes So Far
These mistakes are my responsibility — YEA’s members have done fantastic work.
I’ll start with the big, general things:
- Spending time in the wrong places: Before YEA had any non-founder members, I was already obsessing over creating elaborate Google Folder structures to store information and weird meeting-procedure rules to ensure that the group would be “special” in some way. This was silly. The group’s focus should have been on recruiting people and making progress on projects — not taking notes.
- Not enough early wins: The early projects moved slowly; it’s taken us all semester to get to the point where we are actually interviewing people and finding speakers. This was partly because we wanted to get tons of information in the door before acting — for example, finishing a long list of corporations before emailing anyone. Instead, we should have worked to release some “finished products” before the semester ended.
- Too many ambitious plans: I’d been brainstorming “EA projects” all summer, in hopes of doing “important work” through the group. But projects are hard, and they aren’t what student groups do best. Our highest added value is likely to come from our convincing people to donate more, and to better causes — rather than the research or design projects that we can only spend a few hours on each week. The best ways to bring people into the EA fold are probably speakers and parties; we should have spent more energy on those “traditional” things.
And some minor issues:
- Giving Game: We should have given people the ability to sign up for our mailing list, instead of a “special” mailing list just for GG participants. In addition, we spent too much time choosing the charities for this; we should have saved hours by going with exactly the same charities/handouts as another EA group. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
- Giving Tuesday Party: We made this event too long. Some people showed up at 8:30, others at 10:30. This meant that the crowd wasn’t dense enough to hold the attention of the people who came in later, and many people likely chose not to attend because of the apparent time commitment. 90 minutes is plenty for an event: You can always extend the time, or move to another location, if people are having fun.