Effective Altruism Stipend: A Short Experiment by EA Estonia

post by Risto_Uuk · 2020-06-12T10:48:22.428Z · EA · GW · 6 comments

Contents

  Summary
  Introduction
  Advertising the stipend
  Application process
  Articles for translating
  Stipend process
  Costs
  Results
  Further considerations
  Conclusion
None
6 comments

Summary

In addition to other priorities at Effective Altruism Estonia, we want to cooperate with and support EA groups in other countries. As part of that, we have recently been experimenting with an effective altruism stipend. We offered a stipend of 350 euros to at least 18-year-olds to read, translate, and discuss effective altruism related articles for two months. 10 people applied for our stipend and we selected five to proceed with. Based on our current understanding, all five people who participated in the stipend want to spend time with aspiring effective altruists. We expect 2-3 people to take significant education and career-related actions from the perspective of effective altruism in the near future, but this is yet to be seen. In addition to reading and discussing articles we chose for the stipend receivers, they, for example, started reading EA-related books, taking an EA course, wrote an essay for university, started preparing for an EA presentation in school, met with other local EAs, and helped to organize our outreach event. In this post, I will give an overview of our effective altruism stipend, including how we tried to reach our target audience, what our application process was like, what resources stipend receivers used for learning, what our stipend process was like, and what the costs and results of our experiment were.

Introduction

One of our biggest priority at EA Estonia is to find, motivate, educate, and engage most promising people to sustain and grow the effective altruism community in Estonia. Even larger EA groups suffer from what could be called brain drain, but that is perhaps even more of an issue for small Nordic countries like Estonia. We don’t want the community to stop functioning if one or a few motivated people leave for potentially more impactful roles abroad.

That said, another priority we have is to find promising people who could get into effective altruism jobs in the near future (e.g. within one year). We also focus on people who are earlier in their careers such as first or second year undergraduate students. They probably are not ready for EA jobs in the next years, but could be able to contribute longer-term. With the former, our main job probably is to provide these people with specific options, motivate them to take action on these, and provide them with advanced effective altruism related information. With the latter, our main job probably is to provide resources, learning projects, connections, and introductory career advice among other things.

We have a lot of work to do in areas mentioned above, but our third priority is to benefit the larger EA community. We want to cooperate with other EA groups and support each other as much as we can. For example, we’ve been doing coworking sessions and check-ins with some groups during the last few months. In addition, we want to run experiments and try out things so that other groups could learn from our tests and mistakes. We’ve been experimenting with an EA stipend and recently started an NGO impact assessment project. EA Helsinki’s organizer is participating in that project explicitly with the idea that he can learn from our mistakes and implement an improved version with Finns.

In this post, I will give an overview of our effective altruism stipend, including how we tried to reach our target audience, what our application process was like, what resources stipend receivers used for learning, what our stipend process was like, and what the costs and results of our experiment were.

Advertising the stipend

In order to find people interested in learning about effective altruism via translating and discussing articles, we tried to reach out to those people through the following channels:

We sent most people a similar letter in the following form:

Hello,

NGO Effective Altruism Estonia provides a stipend to at least 18-year-old motivated and skillful people to learn about effective altruism. Successful candidates will be given a stipend of 350 euros for two months of studying. More information can be found from our website: https://efektiivnealtruism.org/2018/09/19/efektiivse-altruismi-stipendium/.

Sincerely,

People that decided to apply for the stipend found out about it through the following channels:

Application process

We opened our application on 19 September and it was open until 9 October. Our first application came on 5 October, the next three came on 8 October, all the rest came on the last day.

Applicants had to send us their resume, translate a small part of Introduction to Effective Altruism [? · GW], and write a motivation letter. More specifically, we asked them to translate the section called “An outstanding opportunity to do good”.

We asked them to answer the following questions in their motivation letter:

We decided to choose candidates qualitatively based on their translation ability and motivation to learn about effective altruism. We created a Google spreadsheet document where we gave candidates scores of 1-3 for each dimension. We decided that if we had a bad intuition about someone’s motivation we wouldn’t go with them.

We didn’t have a specific number in mind for how many stipends we’d like to give out. Our goal was to find at least one person who’d have a good translation skill and who’d seem to be interested in learning about effective altruism. Ideally, we wanted to find two such people so that they could cooperate with each other.

Evaluating translations was relatively easy. Very weak candidates who made multiple very simple spelling mistakes were immediately rejected. For the rest, we evaluated whether translations sounded good in Estonian rather than being translated very directly.

Evaluating the motivation letters was more difficult. For example, we liked when people were more interested in learning about different cause areas rather than being very passionate about the environment or animals only. In one case, the candidate had already heard of EA and explicitly said that she’d learn more about it on her own albeit probably significantly less than during the stipend.

We decided that unless something really annoyed us about the motivation letters and the translation was good, we would select the people and give them an opportunity to learn about effective altruism. To specify, someone with very good translation ability (and unsurprising due to her career in relevant jobs) applied, while her motivation letter didn’t indicate any interest in EA whatsoever.

If we had been more selective, we would have gone with three people instead of five. We decided that we’d like to give people a chance even though we felt that these people were kind of wildcards. Looking back, these two people were quite promising and our intuitions were not correct to necessarily favor others over them.

Articles for translating

We created the following initial list of articles to translate (minus some articles at the end that were added during the project by us or participants themselves):

Introduction to Effective Altruism [? · GW]

Prospecting for Gold [? · GW]

Crucial Considerations and Wise Philanthropy [? · GW]

The Moral Value of Information [? · GW]

The Long-Term Future [? · GW]

A Proposed Adjustment to the Astronomical Waste Argument [? · GW]

Three Impacts of Machine Intelligence [? · GW]

Potential Risks from Advanced AI [? · GW]

What Does (and Doesn't) AI Mean for Effective Altruism? [? · GW]

Biosecurity as an EA Cause Area [? · GW]

Animal Welfare [? · GW]

Effective Altruism in Government [? · GW]

Global Health and Development [? · GW]

How valuable is movement growth? [? · GW]

Potential Risks from Advanced Artificial Intelligence: The Philanthropic Opportunity

Making Sense of Long-Term Indirect Effects [? · GW]

Guide to working in AI policy and strategy

Reducing Risks of Astronomical Suffering: A Neglected Priority

Using Evidence to Inform Policy [? · GW]

How Much Evidence Is Enough? [? · GW]

Reasons to Be Nice to Other Value Systems

EA Community Building [? · GW]

Building an Effective Altruism Community [? · GW]

What makes for a dream job?

What are the biggest problems in the world?

Which jobs put you in a better position?

Which career is right for you?

How to be successful in any job

Our top rated careers

Why improving future generations should be our key priority

Why despite global progress, humanity is probably facing its most difficult time ever

How to compare two jobs in terms of impact

Should you wait to make a difference?

Is it ever OK to take a harmful job in order to do more good?

What are the most important moral problems of our time?

52 Concepts To Add To Your Cognitive Toolkit

Mental Models: The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions (109 Models Explained)

Why we prioritize the long-term future

The benefits of cause-neurtality

Is it fair to say most social programmes don't work?

Considering Considerateness

We told the stipend receivers that they can choose articles from our created list or if they read the standard EA resources and find something interesting, they could offer to translate those instead. In the second week already, one participant offered to translate an interesting article from FRI about cause-neutrality, another participant wanted to translate 80,000 Hours’ article on whether most social programs don’t really work, and some other articles were offered as well.

Stipend process

Our stipend followed the following general structure. On Mondays, we had a 20-30 minute meeting on Skype where we briefly talked about the previous week and planned for the next week. Participants talked about how their translations and discussions went and what they wanted to translate next. They were encouraged to ask for any help regarding their stipend process and whether we could change anything to benefit them more.

On Wednesdays to Saturdays, we had 1.5-hour discussions about the material people were going to translate. Each group participated in one session. The idea was to choose an article for translation and then also discuss that during the week of translation. Each participant started the discussion by explaining to the other people what their article was about and then we discussed particular aspects of it. Since we had five participants in total, we split them into groups of two and three people. We tried to mix people so that they could discuss with everyone and get different views about various topics. At least one more senior EA community-builder facilitated the discussion.

Since some of the articles that people were supposed to translate were quite long, unfinished translations kept piling on each other. On week three and week seven, we instead decided to discuss podcast episodes by 80,000 Hours so that people could finish up their translations and another unfinished work wouldn’t accumulate on top of everything else.

Costs

Since we decided to select five people for the stipend, that cost us 1,750 euros in total as one person received 350 euros for the two months. We decided to choose this amount based on roughly what professional translators in Estonia would be paid if they were translating the volumes we expected our participants to translate.

In some other countries maybe only one person could be motivated with that amount of money or perhaps something like 500-1,000 euros should be offered as a stipend. This is just a guess as we haven’t done any actual research on it. It’s worth mentioning that offering people money to motivate them to learn about effective altruism doesn’t sound necessary, but money is required to save up some time or to be able to prioritize some things over others. For example, I was very interested in EA before committing to community building, but I increased my output 400%+ when I received funding to quit my previous job and plan my studies properly.

Another cost we tracked was our time. Two people worked on the application, meetings, discussions, and support. This project took us 65 hours in total. The application and project generation part took some of it and meetings, discussions, and support took us the rest. In reality, the project took us more time and there was always some preparation for meeting and discussions, but we didn’t track these. We also had a philology intern who edited the articles before they went on our blog. We didn’t track her time.

Results

In total, 10 people applied for our stipend. All of the applicants were complete strangers to us. Maybe somewhat surprisingly, we didn’t only find undergraduate students for our stipend. In fact, many applicants already had Master’s degrees and a few had a lot of work experience. We also got one application from a last-year high-school student. Nine applicants were female, one was male. Four people who applied were living or studying abroad.

The five people that we decided to reject were given feedback about their translations as well as their motivation letters. We also provided two simple call-to-actions to them: (1) read our blog and join our newsletter, and (2) follow our FB page and attend our public events. None of these five people have so far done these actions to our awareness.

When we set out to run this experiment, we thought that it’d be good to get at least eight publishable translations. People who participated in our project were able to translate at least 16 articles in total and may be able to finish more after the stipend. Four of these articles have been published on our blog so far.

But much more so, we wanted to try this stipend to engage newcomers to learn about effective altruism. We thought that we’d be very successful if at least one person wanted to continue pursuing EA-related activities and spend time with aspiring effective altruists after the 2-month period. Based on our current understanding, all five people want to spend more time with effective altruists.

One person started to consider AI policy as a career path, one person is considering mental health and animal welfare for career and volunteering, and one person appears motivated to take EA into consideration when choosing an undergraduate program and internship. Two other people are more interested in local contribution, one of them would be interested in a remote job that’d contribute to the most pressing problems. We are currently not at the point to evaluate whether these intentions will come to action, but we’ll try to pay attention to it.

There were other outcomes that we didn’t anticipate. One participant wrote an essay for his university titled “‘Earning to Give’: Critically assess this approach to making the world a better place.” Another participant who actually currently lives in Sweden contacted some local EAs and participated in their meetups several times and wants to continue participating (and maybe even help with organizing) their activities. Two participants found Peter Singer’s effective altruism course on Coursera and started taking that to improve their understanding of philosophical underpinnings of effective altruism.

One person started reading Doing Good Better during the stipend and also got The Most Good You Can Do as the next reading. Two participants helped to generate content for an outreach event. In addition, participants sometimes indicated big changes in their considerations. For example, one participant said after reading the article Potential Risks from Advanced AI that the article updated views on the topic and generated career-related interests.

On week six, three participants attended their first in-person event organized by us and two of them said that it increased their motivation to engage with effective altruism. On week six, one participant said that s/he doesn’t like to identify as part of a community even though EA as a movement is very acceptable. At the end of the stipend, this person was one of the most motivated people in terms of career and intellectual interest. S/he added that s/he’d like to take part of a good project together with other aspiring EAs if they wanted him/her to join. On week seven, one person said that s/he and another person want to give a presentation about EA in their school.

What would have happened otherwise? Of these five people we accepted, two had never heard of EA and found out about it due to us offering the stipend. One person who had heard of EA told us in the motivation letter that s/he’d learn about EA on her/his own as well but less intensely. Another person had heard of EA very recently when reading an article by Peter Singer for class. S/he was not part of the EA community or consumed EA-related information regularly. In post-project feedback, s/he said he didn’t know anything about EA and anyone from the EA community before the stipend. Another participant said that s/he had heard of EA from a friend a few years ago, but got actually interested in it now by finding out about it from our blog.

Further considerations

I have to offer some caveats. We didn’t anticipate some of these results, but rather found out about them during the project. We couldn’t have anticipated what kind of people apply, therefore, we didn’t really know what kind of support we could offer to them. For example, we didn’t know someone living in Sweden would apply and that we could put her/him in touch with local Swedish EAs. In principle, we could have come up with the idea that if someone from abroad applies, then find her/him a local group that could provide even more support and resources.

In addition, we expect that some motivation and intentions are exaggerated and won’t actually be acted upon. We have generated specific follow-ups together with stipend receivers to see what the longer-term effect of the stipend will have been. For example, one person set a deadline for completing a written career plans based on 80,000 Hours material. We will contact her/him to see whether this plan came to fruition.

We received some feedback from participants to improve our stipend for the next time. It was suggested that participants could take notes during discussions and share them with others so that even more could be learned from others’ discussions. Another suggestion was that participants who have an interest in writing should have an option to write something by themselves for our blog or some other publication. That said, if one of our stipend receivers wanted to write something by themselves (like the one person who wrote an essay at university), we would have definitely encouraged it.

In addition, participants very much liked those two weeks when we chose one podcast episode and discussed that the entire session compared to focusing on several topics during the discussion. A mix of both was considered a good approach. Since several of our participants were living abroad, they didn’t get the full benefits of engaging with the community, but we are organizing a meetup for them at the end of the year since they are visiting their family during the holidays. We are also trying to get them connections in the regions where they currently reside.

Conclusion

We probably achieved the main goal of engaging newcomers to learn about effective altruism with the purpose of motivating them to spend time with other aspiring EAs and pursue EA-related activities, but specific longer-term outcomes are yet to be observed. We currently expect that at least 2-3 participants will take significant education and career-related actions from the perspective of effective altruism in the near future.

In addition to reading and discussing articles we chose for the stipend receivers, they, for example, started reading EA-related books, taking an EA course, wrote an essay for university, started preparing for an EA presentation in school, met with other local EAs, and helped with organizing our outreach event.

6 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2018-12-20T04:09:38.902Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Nice project! I think that ideas of the form "give people with a lot of time and curiosity some small incentive to learn about EA instead of something else" offer a lot of room for exploration. I wonder whether this sort of thing is better than an 80,000 Hours-style career workshop (with career planning followup from your group, the 80K newsletter, etc.)? Maybe it depends on the value of the translations?

comment by eirine · 2018-12-17T15:24:35.521Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is very cool! Exciting results. We'll definitely look into doing something similar in Norway. Thanks for writing this up and sharing.

comment by David_Kristoffersson · 2020-06-18T09:59:14.435Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sounds like you got some pretty great engagement out of this experiment! Great work! This exact kind of project, and the space of related ideas seems well worth exploring further.

The five people that we decided to reject were given feedback about their translations as well as their motivation letters. We also provided two simple call-to-actions to them: (1) read our blog and join our newsletter, and (2) follow our FB page and attend our public events. None of these five people have so far done these actions to our awareness.

Semi-general comment regarding rejections: I think, overall, rejection is a sensitive matter. And if we do want rejected applicants (to stipends, jobs, projects, ...) to try more or to maintain their interest in the specific project and in EA overall, we need to take a lot of care. I'm, for example, concerned that the difficulty of getting jobs at EA orgs and the situation of being rejected from them discourages many people from engaging closer with EA. Perhaps just being sympathetic and encouraging enough will do a lot of good. Perhaps there's more we could do.

comment by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2020-06-18T10:36:01.789Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Do you think you'll keep running the project? How impactful do you think it was per $ spent?

comment by Risto_Uuk · 2020-06-20T08:36:45.488Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This post was actually published in 2018 for the first time, but for some reason I wasn't able to share the link with some people as it showed up as a draft. I resubmitted it and it has received some interest from the community again.

I think that the longer term evidence right now indicates that the impact of this was lower than the short-term evidence made me anticipate. I expected to have several highly engaged new members in the EA community longer term, but currently it appears that these people are only weakly involved with effective altruism. Hence, I would say that the cost-effectiveness of this project was not high. But there are some indirect effects this might have had related to marketing and reaching more people indirectly, which I don't have a good understanding of.

comment by Asaf Ifergan · 2020-06-14T10:09:57.740Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Exciting project!

I really love how it enables to do a lot of different things: helps produce content, allows a "trial period" to examine the potential of prospects, acquiring highly-engaged and highly-informed community members, and building the local community.

Waiting to hear about the longer term effects, but it already seems quite worthwhile.