End of year review of Effective Altruism Melbourne

By Brayden Mclean and Ryan Carey

Summary

From July to December 2013, Brayden McLean and Ryan Carey (the authors) built a new effective altruist community. We entered this process with only scraps of spare time in-between our full-time jobs, and the support of a few keen volunteers. We promoted this group using meetup.com, leafleting at talks by Peter Singer, and networking. Within a few months our Effective Altruist community was hosting multiple meetups per month, regularly attracting 20 or more attendees. At the same time as the founding of EA Melbourne, we escalated outreach efforts for the local LessWrong chapter, achieving similar successes in community building that we will refrain from elaborating on here. Management of EA Melbourne has been handed over to Helen Toner and Ruben Bloom as of January 2014.

Inception

In June 2013, Ryan received an email from Giving What We Can management. It said that central management had just received an email from Rangi de Silva, another Melbourne-based doctor interested in generating a Giving What We Can presence in Melbourne. Ryan and Brayden gathered together a founding team with Stephanie McQualter from the Monash Philosophy Society, Frazer Kirkman, a mindfulness and wellbeing teacher, and Kathy, a developer and previous collaborator with Leverage Research. We met in a city café on 30 June to plan what kind of chapter we might create. We stated overlapping sets of goals which centred on the following:

  • Enlarging Melbourne's rational altruistic social community
  • Spreading the idea of effective altruism in Melbourne
  • Improving the quality of discussion about effective interventions
  • Gathering Melbournians who can collaborate on effective projects; and
  • Encouraging people to travel to hubs of effective altruism in San Francisco and Oxford to get more involved.

July

On Friday 12th July, we held our first event, a meet and greet at the socially conscious bar Shebeen. There were 15-20 attendees, mostly aged in their twenties. About half were known from Lesswrong or from the founders meeting, while the rest were new. The event went well, and there was lots of discussion of further potential projects. As a result, we were very busy in the month of August, implementing the following projects:

  • Presenting at the Global Ideas Forum (Will MacAskill presenting by Skype, and Ryan presenting in person) Hosting a stall at the Giving Games, with posters sponsored by Matt Fallshaw’s Trike Apps, and with a Giving Games for all delegates of the Global Ideas Forum.
  • Presenting on Effective Altruism to a class of 30 at Powershift, a youth climate activist summit
  • Leafleting two of Peter Singer's talks collaboratively with The Life You Can Save [photo of ryan standing in front of $/thousand lives saved slide and gesticulating idiomatically]

August to October

The Life You Can Save Melbourne had arranged for Peter Singer to give a talk to 500 people at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Prior to this event, The Life You Can Save Melbourne and Giving What We Can Melbourne decided to collaborate under the EA Melbourne banner to distribute leaflets together. We continued to experiment with different event formats, advertising a discussion dinner before Peter Singer’s Melbourne Writers festival talk during our initial leafleting. Peter himself made an appearance at the dinner, meeting with our core group of attendees.

In parallel with our outreach efforts, we started looking into other projects that we had some comparative advantage while being located in Melbourne:

  • Ben Toner began to investigate the why the Against Malaria Foundation had so far failed twice in its applications for Australian tax deductibility status and how this might be achieved later, with limited success.
  • A small group experimented with the mind-mapping software utilised by Leverage Research, with no great effect.
  • Helen Toner was interviewed on community radio and answered listener’s questions on the topic of effective altruism.
  • We attended a talk by Julian Savulescu and met for dinner afterwards.
  • We hosted our first interstate guest, Brenton Mayer, a Giving What We Can member, and who had participated in the Run for Better Days, who spoke to the community at a dinner and discussion night.

The branding pivot.

Around this time, Brayden, Helen and Ryan, who were now managing the group met to discuss ongoing strategy. It was suggested that the Giving What We Can brand that we had previously been emphasising did not necessarily best represent the group and its activities. There was a mixed degree of interest in poverty alleviation, some notion that the group was more interested in career choice and research than in monetary donation, only a couple of participants had pledged ten per cent and at that time no one had newly signed the GWWC pledge as a result of our activities Giving What We Can Melbourne. Brenton presenting to EA Melbourne (arguably two members have done so since) Moreover, the group identified more strongly with the broader Effective Altruist label than with Giving What We Can in particular. Based on this assessment, a provisional decision was made to continue our efforts under the name Effective Altruism Melbourne. Subsequently, we have not run any further events under the Giving What We Can Melbourne brand.

Maintenance - November to January

We continued to run events after this, and quickly found a popular and repeatable combination of event formats that required less overheads. These continued at a decreased frequency of two per month. During this period we held an all day brunch fundraiser and social mixer event at Brayden’s rationalist sharehouse, and two telepresentations, one by Geoff Anders from Leverage Research, and another by Jess Whittlestone from 80,000 hours.

Succession

At January 2013, it was noted that Ryan would be travelling overseas for the duration of 2014 and that Brayden would be travelling to the Bay Area for three months. Thus if Effective Altruism Melbourne would continue into 2014, someone new would have to take responsibility for maintaining its ongoing operations. We met with Helen Toner and Ruben Bloom to assist them in setting their goals and mission that they will bring to the community. This new team is off to a great start by starting a regular monthly lunch meetup that is displayed along with other events on an online calendar. Since the inaugural lunch discussion group, they have hosted effective altruist researchers Katja Grace and Paul Christiano, and have since filed a lecture hall at a presentation by Julia and Anna from CFAR.

Impact

I will now discuss to what extent Effective Altruism Melbourne achieved each of its goals using examples of events that seemed to succeed and events that didn’t.

Enlarging Melbourne's rational altruistic social community

  • we gathered a regular group of attendees of effective altruists from our friends, family, acquaintances, networking at relevant conferences, LessWrong, the universities’ philosophy societies, the universities’ secular societies, and online meetup groups.
  • there seemed to be a very positive effect from the growth of the LessWrong community (from 20 to 50 individuals) on Effective Altruism Melbourne and vice versa. There is a >50% overlap of attendees between these two communities, so it becomes difficult to split up

Spreading the idea of effective altruism in Melbourne.

  • We didn’t get any new pledges for Giving What We Can, although a few new individuals pledged to 80,000 Hours due to the existence of effective altruism in Melbourne
  • Talks by Will Crouch, Geoff Anders and Jess Whittlestone were delivered via teleconference, and Ryan presented in person. These talks seemed well understood, and were discussed in more detail e.g. each Geoff and Jess, who had question time, responded to half an hour’s worth of intelligent questions from new and old members alike, and then the topics of their talk dominated conversation for half an hour afterward.
  • In her interview on community radio, Helen explained effective altruism clearly and with a good manner. As is unfortunately the risk with broad outreach events, we don’t have clear evidence that the show did good – none of our new members indicated hearing about the group on the meetup.com sign up question.
  • Presenting at Powershift conference – attendees politely listened through Brayden and Ryans 15 minute presentation on effective altruism, but had a much lower degree of interest in our discussion and understanding of it than the global health crowd at Global Ideas Forum.
  • The Giving Games was useful as a quick and memorable way of transferring ideas. Participants seemed to understand that comparing charities is difficult, and that it depends upon the degree of need of recipients, the good done by a charity relative to the size of its budget, and other factors.

Improving the quality of discussion about effective interventions

  • It’s not clear that the existence of Effective Altruism Melbourne has contributed greatly to this goal. Ryan and Helen are having ongoing discussions about the most up-to-date research from each of the EA organisations, but much of the rest of the community, including some of the core members, are heavily engaged in business activities, and so they prefer to focus on their job – their comparative advantage – while leaving the charity evaluation to others. The broader community, including many new members, are starting to read more articles and post occasional comments in the EA facebook group. Helen aims to build up deeper understanding of EA ideas by collating important blog pieces and papers monthly for discussion at the regular lunch event. This is the first activity to directly target this goal.
  • The core members think they have better altruistic career plans than previously, although this is hard to prove.

Gathering Melbournians who can collaborate on effective projects

  • Ben is reaching the end of his investigation of the feasibility of achieving tax deductibility status for the Against Malaria Foundation.
  • Ben, Brayden and Ryan did ~ 10 hour each of goal factoring sessions, as a spin-off of Leverage Research’s Connection Theory, but did not identify any insights into improving the process.
  • Ryan and Brayden escalated their involvement with the creation of an effective altruist book, an effective altruist community blog, and some dot impact projects during this period. International collaboration picked up on these projects at the start of 2014.

Encouraging people to travel to hubs of effective altruism in San Francisco and Oxford to get more involved.

  • One Lesswrong community member travelled to San Francisco and came back intending to give 10 per cent of his income to charity. It’s possible, but not probable that he would give ten per cent of his income without Effective Altruism Melbourne.
  • Brenton Mayer visited Giving What We Can Oxford, something that he would not have done if not for Effective Altruism Melbourne.
  • Brayden remained confident in the decision to move to the Bay Area for 3 months.
  • Helen made a trip to the Bay Area
  • Ryan visited the Bay Area
  • Eleven members of either Less Wrong Melbourne or Effective Altruism Melbourne signed up to attend one of the four day CFAR workshops in February 2014, which encouraged additional discussion of high impact ideas and getting involved.

Lessons learned

Three things that worked well:

  • Being known to central EA organisations. It's not essential to be a part of any particular body, but it's essential that when another resident of your city contacts Ben Clifford or Mark Lee to express their interest, then these central figures know to forward their email on to you. In a city of about 4 million residents like Melbourne, expect central EA organisations to collectively discover a new member who is interested in starting something around twice a year. Members found in this way are often very passionate and competent.
  • Word of mouth: most of our most effective members were friends, acquaintances and family.
  • Subscribing to meetup.com: this was the only effective public outreach strategy. At each event, we had around 5 attendees who discovered the meetup through meetup.com, about half of whom were new on each occasion. These people often were interested in ideas related to effective altruism, including animal welfare, global poverty reduction, social entrepreneurship, and so on. Members who discovered the group through meetup.com were about ~ 5 times less likely to attend events than members who were introduced through friends, however 2 of the 11 attendees from the community at the CFAR workshop originally discovered the community through meetup, so the ability to find highly committed members through this medium should not be underrated (especially in cities where there is a dearth of events for rational or intelletual altruistic individuals)

Three things that worked badly:

  • Mailing list: we maintained a mailing list of about a hundred emails of people who we met in passing, and who signed up to our sheet at conferences and during leafleting. This had a clickthrough rate of less than ten per cent and apparently yielded no new attendees.
  • Leafleting Peter Singer's lectures: we got many emails written down on our notebooks at Peter Singer lectures, but these were not helpful, as previously described. Furthermore, we handed out hundreds of leaflets indicating the next effective altruist events. There were as many as four different leafleters, who had a mix of gender, age, and marketing ability. Despite this, even when the leaflets promoted a dinner on the very same day, we only got a few new attendees. We didn’t do any further leafleting after this.
  • Conference networking – although the Global Ideas Forum and Powershift (climate-change) conferences, were enjoyable, and appeared to offer opportunities for follow-up meetings or presentations, we regret that we did not follow-up on these, other than to invite atendees to our meetups.

A final note on Actually Doing Things

Organising your first effective altruist event should take not more than two hours of organisation. It just takes a few people to sit down and do it. We are proud that we avoided analysis paralysis by implementing a simple plan. In doing so, we gathered information that should be useful for the rest of the effective altruism movement. We are excited to see Effective Fundraising and Dot Impact similarly measuring their activities.

Any questions about how to emulate the good bits of our project and avoid the rest may be directed to Ryan at ry.duff@gmail.com