Call for action for German university groups!

post by Arne · 2022-02-02T11:19:40.238Z · EA · GW · 10 comments

Contents

  TL;DR
  What's the problem?
    State of EA groups in Germany
    State of EA groups outside Germany
    Non-EA groups in Germany
  Why should we care?
  My best explanation of the status quo
    What are possible reasons why EA groups in Germany are smaller than EA groups in the US/UK?
      First claim (social engagement US vs. Germany): 
      A second, less confident claim (way of commitment): 
    What are possible reasons why EA groups in Germany are smaller than non-EA groups in Germany?
      Third claim (EA is boring): 
  How to transition from the current status quo to bigger student groups?
    What makes EA attractive to students?
    My solution
    In a nutshell, the semester start could look like the following:
    What NEAD would do
      Impact workshop
      Fellowships
      Conferences
    What local groups would have to do
  Next steps
      Last remarks
None
10 comments

Are you part of the German community? Read it and leave your feedback!

Are you a community builder? I would love to hear your thoughts.

And for everyone, I'd welcome every feedback on my first forum post.

TL;DR

There are no big local student groups (30+ active members) in Germany. I want them to grow, because student groups and friends are among the most important factors for the growth of the EA community. Reasons why no large local student groups have appeared might include cultural differences to the US and UK, as well as the status quo of the German EA community. That's why,

I call for coordination and a spirit of optimism. 

Here is a short plan for the coming semester:

  1. First Week of the semester: Advertisement [EA · GW]
  2. Second Week: Intro talk + social
  3. Third Week on the Weekend: Impact workshop
  4. Fourth Week: 1-1s [EA · GW] and social
  5. Fifth Week: German-wide fellowship starts as well as a career planning fellowship
  6. Throughout the semester: Socials as well as lunch breaks in the uni café
  7. Halfway through the fellowships and the semester: ((f)un)conferences
  8. After the semester: another ((f)un)conference
  9. Plus EAGx Berlin in autumn ^^

What's the problem?

State of EA groups in Germany

There are currently 22 German local groups listed on effektiveraltruismus.de and 25 groups on eahub. More than half of the local groups are student groups. And even though the German community is the third-largest EA community, the typical German local group is in a tough spot. The core of a typical group is at best a strong group of friends of max. 4-5 people. The average to me looks more like 2.5 organizers per student group. Dying student groups are not uncommon. 

In addition to the local chapters, NEAD (Netzwerk für Effektiven Altruismus Deutschland) exists as the Germany-wide head organization and runs their own fellowship (now for the third time in a row), writes a newsletter and provides some group support.

Just recently, the German community hired it’s second paid community builder (part-time), welcome, Christiane Ranke. Until then, it was just Manuel Allgaier, who also was responsible mostly for EA Berlin. 

Furthermore, there has been less funding requested for German groups than for their counterparts in the US, UK, and probably France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Last but not least there are very few senior EAs working from and/or in Germany.

State of EA groups outside Germany

Student groups outside Germany are hitting membership numbers far beyond everything that we are dreaming of.

I am remembering thousands of newsletter subscriptions in Yale, whereas NEADs newsletter has ~270 subscriptions, and the board alone of EA Oxfords student group consists of 18 people according to their website. PISE in Rotterdam has an executive board of six and six additional committees. Look how they celebrated [EA(p) · GW(p)] their giving pledges. Some local groups even have an (un)official EA house, office hours, or one of the craziest things I’ve heard was an EA (dance) ball. Another big step would be to hire campus specialists for German universities, or to be present with workshops and/or a booth at job fairs.

Non-EA groups in Germany

Outside the EA realm, large student groups and initiatives do exist. Student parliament and university political organizations attract a lot of new students (often close to political parties RCDS, JULIS, JUSOS, SDS, Campusgrün). Similarly, Antifa (loose network of very different types of smaller and bigger groups), Green peace (100 groups, ~50 people per group (unsure)), Amnesty (650 groups) and Enactus (1700 students in 35 German cities, average of 48 students per group) are among the biggest student networks/initiatives I can think of from the top of my head. Some of these networks have adopted grassroots democracies (Basisdemokratie) on a wide range. This is a tendency towards designing political processes that shift as much decision-making authority to the organization's lowest level of organization.

I wonder: why we haven't seen a single German university group see the growth and engagement that other EA student groups have seen?

Why should we care?

Last year's EA survey showed that most EAs heard about EA while being a student and from personal contacts (16.3%) or from local groups (7.7%). Further, 35.4% said that their personal contacts and or local groups (29.2%) were a crucial factor in their engagement. These makes local groups, personal contacts and the community among the top five factors for EA recruitment.

My best explanation of the status quo

My best explanation is a collection of semi-confident claims about how EA groups in Germany compare to both successful EA groups outside Germany and non-EA groups at German universities.

What are possible reasons why EA groups in Germany are smaller than EA groups in the US/UK?

First claim (social engagement US vs. Germany): 

Especially in the US, social engagement through universities seems more frequent than in Germany. Observations in favour of that claim are: students compete in university-affiliated sports, most students live in university dormitories, Alumni networks, donation to your university at a later stage in life. These universities seem to spend a lot more money on facilitating social engagement via student life offices than in Germany.

A further consequence is that your peers are rather the people you are studying with in Germany than the friends of a student group, sports club or a dorm, how I imagine it in the US and the UK. When you enter university and make your first acquaintances, and don’t get to know many more people that are in the same situation, you just stick with those you met in the first lecture.

Also keep in mind, fraternities did play a very significant role in the history of German universities and had some features that were very attractive (protests, projects, parties). However, they are not popular any more and no new student groups/sports filled in their space. These fraternities obviously have alumni networks, head organizations, elected boards, and parties that made them interesting.

A second, less confident claim (way of commitment): 

A key difference in the commitment and engagement in student groups in Germany vs. UK, US, Netherlands is the way a student commits. When elected to a board, they expect to get some career capital, which also increases their commitment (You're also more likely to mention your engagement on your CV when elected). Those official roles are less frequent in grassroot democracies, which are popular among student networks. Differently, in a grassroot democracy, anyone can participate in the decision-making without committing to put the decision into action. But they would also not get any credits even when committing a lot. 

What are possible reasons why EA groups in Germany are smaller than non-EA groups in Germany?

Third claim (EA is boring): 

EA is not attractive to engage in, compared to other student organizations. As mentioned above, students have a preference for active engagement (protests, projects, parties). From the beginning, you can contribute to organizing a protest or make a decision. There is a lot more activism involved compared to the classical EA intro talk, fellowships and longterm thinking. Whereas, engaging in EA often means managing your way through the jungle of information and learning, learning, learning, after you have just studied for your exams. Not very appealing, right?

Obviously, once you have a large student group, it's much easier and more attractive to pull off bigger and non-community-building projects (e.g., convince your city council to donate 1% effectively each year, run EA books, or found a new effective charity with a charity incubator).

So, a simple question:

How to transition from the current status quo to bigger student groups?

What makes EA attractive to students?

Two simple answers that pop into my mind:

  1. Career planning (high quality information and support to make good career decisions)
  2. The community (values, epistemic humility, communication norms, rationality, scientifically minded)

EA student groups have the potential to be a large local society that you identify with and love to hang out with, that is focused on having impact (career planning and support) and on its individuals (socials, party, mental health, etc.). In addition to that, the German community seems ideal to find and make friends with other EAs (possibly find people for your tribe [EA · GW]). There are EAs in many cities that are not too far away and easy to find. NEAD runs conferences to aid building your network (on national and regional level, retreats, unconferences, (f)unconferendes, EAGx Berlin).

My solution

I think that we can reduce the workload for all the local group organizers and at the same time increase our chance of success by collaboration. The more groups join and collaborate, the greater the chance of success, since additional groups would not have to organize that much more, and we could sell the workshop and the fellowship even better the more groups and students participate. And last but not least, because one more group joining means one more potentially large student group in the future. 

I call for coordination and a spirit of optimism.

My model for the summer semester 2022 and possibly the semester afterwards: 

In a nutshell, the semester start could look like the following:

  1. First Week of the semester: Advertisement [EA · GW] (4.4. or 11.4. for most of the universities)
  2. Second Week: Intro talk (+ social afterwards) + social (in the week after)
  3. Third Week on the Weekend: Impact workshop (22.4. and/or 29.4.)
  4. Fourth Week: Followed by 1-1s [EA · GW] (or see this link) and a social
  5. Fifth Week: At the beginning of May, Germany-wide fellowship starts as well as a career planning fellowship
  6. Throughout the semester: Socials (at least every second week) as well as lunch breaks in the mensa (uni café) and other regular talks, workshops, etc. that you’d like to organize
  7. Halfway through the fellowships and the semester: At least one ((f)un)conferences depending on the amount of participants
  8. After the semester: another ((f)un)conference
  9. Plus EAGx Berlin in autumn ^^

What NEAD would do

Impact workshop

This impact workshop will be a key ingredient, and shall combine the two selling points mentioned above. Locally, new students as well as advanced EAs sit together at the same place (local events > online events) and all the other local groups do the same at the same time. Then we can advertise this really as a big event and sell it much better (NEAD, 80k, all the local groups). The syllabus of the workshop doesn’t exist yet, but would probably build up on the work of the Global Challenges Project. It would start with a motivation, inspiration, and moderation from a professional career advisor, either Manuel Allgaier and/or 80k

The rest of the workshop for advanced EAs is to work on their existing career plans and welcome and help the new students. For the new students, the first goal is to spark interest in the EA ideas by asking big questions as well as giving them tools to answer those (e.g., 80k's three factor framework). The second goal is to welcome them into the EA community, which commits itself to these five core principles. The group organizers and advanced EAs would only have to answer questions. The content would be completely provided by NEAD.

Maybe equally important as the workshop might be the following 1-1s [EA · GW] (link). For organizers, that means to identify the most promising new students, with whom you want to have a 1-1 in case of limited resources. Otherwise, try to have a 1-1 with everyone.

Fellowships

Evander Hammer already organizes an intro fellowship (currently for the third time) and already mentioned he will probably do it again. In addition to that, a career fellowship is often requested, but a lot of effort to organize for local groups. Therefore, NEAD should jump in. 

Conferences

Large conferences are often reported to be highly effective in improving the connection to the broader EA community. Again, they are difficult to organize by individual groups, therefore NEAD should take care of it. 

What local groups would have to do

The small local student groups should not focus on the organization of non-social events. Leave the organization of fellowship, career building to NEAD and the paid community builders. At the beginning of the semester in April, make advertisement [EA · GW] and outreach for the first Germany-wide impact workshop the priority. Make it as appealing as possible. NEAD would provide funding and resources for you. Then you should mostly focus on socials and 1-1s!

The cost for local group organizers would be reduced to advertisement, intro talk (potentially not even this depending on whether we can find enough speakers), 1-1s, socials, and find a place for the impact workshop. In case there are more than 3 students who sign up for the fellowship, local group organizers could moderate the weekly sessions locally, but use the organization and resources from NEAD.

Next steps

If you want to do community building in Germany, Switzerland, or Austria and like the ideas of mine, please get in touch with me (arne.tillmann.vellmar[at]gmail.com). I am just about to start and set the plan into action.

Last remarks

None of this is fixed. The ideas are open for discussion and improvement.

Many thanks to Evander Hammer, Matt Esche, and Manuel Allgaier for their very helpful and detailed feedback on this draft. Furthermore, I’d like to thank Birte Spekker, Toni Hoffmann, Nadia Mir-Montazeri, and many more who helped me to clarify my thoughts. Last but not least, I want to thank my local group and friends and tribe, in particular, Katja, Tilman, Rasmus and Julian.

10 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Yannick_Muehlhaeuser · 2022-02-02T13:27:58.867Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have thought about this topic a lot, so I am always excited what other people think about the question. I basically agree with all the explanations you came up with and I think they explain most of the difference. 

There is another points I think might be part of the explanation: Many highly engaged EAs are very ambitious and often highly intelligent. Those are the kinds of people that would be much more likely to attend highly competitive universities like Oxford or Cambridge. So if you just look at the EA-potential of the set of students at one of those Unis, I just think it's a lot higher than at the average University in Germany where no such selection effect exists and students don't differ that strongly between cities.

Additionally, due to the absence of tuition in Germany a lot of  german students seem to not take their studies very seriously, so the percentage of students registered at the university that would invest significant time in a local group is reduced before even looking at things like value alignment and stuff. 

From my experience small EA groups are often stuck in a bad equilibrium. Without many members it becomes challenging to do many events. A lot of the responsibility will rest on the shoulders of the organizer(s), but those are often less motivated if only a few people attend the events. This might even lead to them investing less time in the future. The exact opposite happens if a group is on an upward trajectory in membership. 

Overall I fully share your opinion that we need much more ambition and a spirit of optimism and I am excited for the future of the Göttingen local group! 

Replies from: JohannWolfgang, ludwigbald
comment by JohannWolfgang · 2022-02-02T14:08:30.245Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

a lot of german students seem to not take their studies very seriously, so the percentage of students registered at the university that would invest significant time in a local group is reduced before even looking at things like value alignment and stuff.

That does not seem to be a problem for all the uni politics groups? Also, maybe we could turn this into a selling point? I personally find EA stuff so much more interesting than my studies.

Replies from: Yannick_Muehlhaeuser
comment by Yannick_Muehlhaeuser · 2022-02-02T16:25:30.758Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I meant it more in the sense that students might either not even attend university on a regular basis or not be at a point where they don't really value intellectual pursuits that much. Or they might just be registered at the university for some  legal and administrative privileges. 

But your right, in one sense it also can be an advantage. 

comment by ludwigbald · 2022-02-02T15:32:16.253Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm looking forward to having this discussion specifically for EA Tübingen, but I'm pretty sure EA needs to focus much more on community-building. More than anything, this means creating opportunities to socialize with interesting people, and create a shared community-building culture. It means taking into account the local context and adjacent communities.

To me, it also means unbundling EA (the philosophy) from EA (the community) to make it easier to join even as a newbie. It could mean doing more public events, like talks and discussions. It could mean sponsoring and connecting the best existing local initiatives.

comment by Yannick_Muehlhaeuser · 2022-02-05T11:40:01.761Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Another thing that came to my mind recently. In Germany many EA meetups are still held in english. Maybe there are some people who would be open to EA ideas, but having to listen and more importantly speak english before people they don't know comes with extra effort. So at the beginning the hurdle for joining may be a just a bit higher. 

Replies from: Jonathan_Michel
comment by Jonathan_Michel · 2022-03-17T15:59:13.782Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree that this is an important thing to keep in mind. Especially introductory events (talks, fellowships etc.) should be offered in German (or at least with a German option, i.e. one fellowship group which is in German).

comment by Luise · 2022-02-07T16:45:18.415Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

(I'm an organiser at EA Edinburgh and from Germany.)

Yes. Your point about the social culture at German universities seems crucial. The lack of an extensive extracurricular life in and around the university should lead to smaller EA groups (because of people not looking for student groups, less enthusiasm from organisers, lacking knowledge about how to build such groups, ...)

In terms of action plans, I think an important component is getting EA group organisers excited and ambitious. Communication between large, vibrant EA groups and German groups would be good for this. Show them what is possible. And then we probably need upskilling.

Apart from that, German groups probably need the same things as other groups. I think that this is mainly, again, excited organisers, who are willing to put in time. Just in case this is interesting to you, I'm thinking about running a “bootcamp” in the UK for new organisers, fellowship facilitators, etc. to get them excited about organising. (Approaches similar to this seem to have an amazing track record.) Would be happy to chat about this!

comment by MaxRa · 2022-02-02T15:25:38.897Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and plans, I also think it would be really great to work on scaling up German local groups. :)

I was recently considering the idea of moving to a city with more active EAs, e.g. Berlin or Tübingen, and wonder if this is something we might encourage more generally. E.g. we could make it easier to move to Berlin by supporting finding a flat there, by spreading knowledge about which Bachelor‘s or Master‘s in Berlin are especially good, etc. Maybe also paying the travel costs for people who might want to visit in-person fellowships at EA hubs, so they can see what it’s like to live in more populous EA communities?

Student parliament and university political organizations attract a lot of new students

Anecdotally, student councils of the different departments (Fachschaften) also swallow up a lot of engagement, maybe more so than in other countries?

Also anecdotally, the three Amnesty groups I was part of more or less also struggled with the same problems as the few German EA groups I’m more familiar with.

Replies from: Yannick_Muehlhaeuser
comment by Yannick_Muehlhaeuser · 2022-02-02T22:04:16.155Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

From my limited experience with Fachschaften, they don't seem like they are being overrun with new members. Maybe there are some where it's different. 

comment by mic (michaelchen) · 2022-02-02T17:31:27.061Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Your plan for a semester sounds excellent. Some questions I have are: To what extent are German university groups already doing these things? Are they running introductory fellowships, and if so, what are the main levers by which we can make these programs more successful? What is the most successful Germany EA university group, and how could other German uni groups replicate their success?

In the past year, I've had the honor of starting EA at Georgia Tech (in the United States), and its growth has exceeded anything I would have anticipated if you had asked me a year ago. I started off in April 2021 by advertising the virtual intro fellowship in lots of large group chats and on the university Reddit, and we had about eight people participating that round. Advertising the program again in the fall semester, both on mailing lists and in group chats, we had 35 participants that semester, six of whom joined our organizing team. This semester, we'll have 62 participants in our intro program, 27 in our reading group of The Precipice, and 36 in AI Safety Fundamentals. I'm really excited for our group's future, and I hope that my experience may be helpful for German uni groups as well.

I think our most important activities were advertising the intro fellowship (especially on lots of mailing lists and large group chats), and then running it. Everything else we did – general discussion meetings, free vegan lunches, a computer science careers workshop, etc. – was of secondary importance for the purpose of building up the group and having more organizer capacity. So if you have limited time, I would try to focus your efforts on helping the advertising reach an incredible number of university students, though the other activities seem helpful as well. Maybe have calls with the uni groups to try to help them make their advertising strategy the best that it can be. But take my thoughts with a grain of salt, as maybe Georgia Tech is very different from German universities.