GUIDES AND TIPS

Tips from Local Organisers

General tips

Locations

Venue ideas used by London group:

  • cafes
  • pubs
  • bookshops
  • hotel lobbies
  • student centers
  • Sundays in someone’s office with beer and pizza
  • vegan festival
  • rally for refugees

It can be hard to find a public venue that’s quiet enough for discussion. The Boston group has had success with meeting in an indoor courtyard area near a couple of cafes. It’s quiet enough to hear each other, and because it’s not actually inside a restaurant there’s no pressure for people to buy food if they don’t want to. We’ve also found a cafe that has a downstairs area that’s quieter than the upstairs.

Ben Kuhn writes a good piece on the pros and cons of meeting in restaurants.

In some cities, any location that’s easy to get to on public transit has very little parking, and anywhere with much parking isn’t easy to get to on public transit. Rotating locations may help there be some meetings that are accessible to people who mostly use cars and people who mostly use public transit.

Common problems in discussion

It can be helpful to have a moderator, whether formally or informally. You may want to rotate so that the same person isn’t always in the moderator role. Even if there’s no official topic, some problems tend to come up in EA groups:

Alphabet soup.

Request that people explain what they mean when they reference acronyms, organizations, or individuals, so newcomers aren’t wondering “What is CEA?” or “Who is Holden?” Some phrases like “existential risk” will also need explaining.

People go on tangents while introducing themselves.

Remind people, “Let’s finish introducing ourselves and then come back to that topic.”

If there’s no set topic, no one knows what to say.

Have people introduce themselves and include a question they have or a topic they’re interested in discussing. Then break into small groups: “I heard some interest in how effective altruism got started—if people want to come to this side of the room, we’ll be talking about that here. I also heard interest in existential risk—Angela, could you anchor a discussion over there for people who are interested in that?”

A few people are dominating the conversation.

Try to draw others in (“Sarah, I wanted to hear more about what you were saying a minute ago.”) Or, if others don’t seem interested in the topic, suggest that the people talking break off and have a side conversation.

One person keeps talking about a topic that no one else is interested in.

You may want to designate a person to take them aside and let them talk about the topic (“I don’t know much about land use taxes. Could I ask you some questions about that?”) so everyone else can have a more varied conversation.

People talking to each other have very different interests or levels of commitment.

One has never heard of EA before, and is looking freaked-out in a conversation with a hard-core AI enthusiast. You might join the conversation for a minute and then ask the newcomer more about a topic they’re interested in, or find out if they have questions, or steer them toward another conversation partner.

Someone keeps saying things that upset/offend others or disrupt the group.

It may be best to have a private conversation with them about it. Group leaders may need to let the person know that if they cannot keep their behavior within certain limits, they will be asked to leave.While most of this conversation should happen privately, if no one speaks up about the situation during the meeting, newcomers may conclude that the group condones this behavior. Some groups have had a practice of responding to offensive statements with, “That’s not okay,” or “We’ve talked about this before, and you know I disagree,” or, “We’re here to talk about altruism. If that’s not something you’re interested in talking about, please let the rest of us continue the conversation.” Then follow up privately with the person.

Finding, keeping track of, and inviting people

Some ways to contact people:

If you’re planning to provide food, you may want to keep a spreadsheet to track RSVPs. I (Julia) have one with a tab for every meetup I’ve held. You can also add columns to track things like number of vegans for food planning. I also use it as a mailing list for personal emails. Mine looks like this:

RSVP Spreadsheet

(Person 3 told me they’re bringing a friend, so I marked 2 people.) The totals let me easily see how many people, with what food needs, to expect.

Tips from organizers

From Elizabeth in Seattle:

with additional notes by Julia

When meetings were small (<10) people we used a discussion format, with maybe one person doing some guidance, and it worked great.  As we grew, the same per-person rate of tangents and desire to talk made group discussions untenable. We eventually settled on one or more people presenting, and one person hosting/moderating.  Moderator does stuff like keep time and move us back on track when tangents go too far. Usually one of those people organizes the location but not always. The meetings are more focused, and it’s also been a good way to move people through the organizer pipeline, because it’s easier to talk people into doing one of those jobs than Running The Meeting.

Have more than one leader, particularly if some leaders may move to another city. The Seattle group has usually had 2-3 core organizers and holds organizer meetings that anyone can attend.

Format is usually a presentation followed by Q&A and then unstructured discussion/social time.

Using Meetup.com to post events brought in a wider range of people than when it was word-of-mouth. They have also recruited at a Peter Singer talk.

From Sam in London:

as noted by Julia

Try lots of variations. Different times of day, days of the week, large vs. small venues, themed discussions vs. purely social gatherings, potluck food vs. ordering food.

Ask for feedback as people are leaving.

A facebook group is a good place to ask people for ideas about venues and types of activities they’d like.

Have a strategy meeting every few months to come up with ideas and have people sign up to make them happen.

From Laith in Vancouver:

The first meetup was a potluck held at a local university (SFU) where several of the individuals studied. We organized a few more casual meetings at my university (UBC) and some cafes, and those meetings were great to share ideas and gauge each other’s enthusiasm and knowledge. Someone suggested it would be nice to meet at someone’s home, so as not to feel obliged to spend and also as it would be more relaxed an atmosphere. So I offered to host a potluck at my place and it went well.  At the first potluck we did not have any structured meeting of any kind (no agenda or minutes etc..), only interrupting the natural conversations at one point to collectively (re)watch Peter Singer’s recent TED talk and then continue our conversations. With the number of people, small groups of conversations naturally emerged, and it was agreed that this was much more desirable than some sort of structured meeting or forcing a single conversation upon the group of 8 people. So we will do this again on Monday. Also, the food was quite good and everyone contributed something (even if modest) and everyone was exposed to something new.

From Jeff in Boston:

After I’d been working at Google about six months I decided to host an “effective giving” discussion at lunch.  I sent out emails to the local “miscellaneous” mailing list, made a sign, and claimed a table at lunch. We got about ten people, ranging from a Less Wrong reader who had been into effective giving longer than I have to GiveWell fans to people who didn’t think effectiveness was the point of charity.  

From Brayden in Melbourne:

Here is a 5 minute summary of how we achieved getting 50 members of our meetup group to attend at least one event in the last 4 months, as well as connecting with many more people in the not-for-profit sector.

We have been running things every 2-3 weeks, with turnouts of between 10 and 30 people each. My advice is to just pick something and run with it and learn if it works or not. Events we are running or have run recently are an 80,000 hours information night with skype call with 80k, a megameetup dinner social with video presentation by Leverage research, an all day brunch fundraiser where we discussed charity selection, a dinner party to host interstate EA guests and talk about causes, an existential risk workshop where we brainstormed ideas, a dinner with Peter Singer before one of his talks, a discussion meetup after one of Peter’s talks that he helped plug for us, a presentation at a conference for other not for profit volunteers about how they could be more effective with their time resources, other social networking events at bars, a presentation at a global health conference about the orders of magnitude more good that some health interventions can have with GWWC presenting via video, and a giving games at said conference that encouraged people to compare warm fuzzies with evidence based impact.

We achieve our numbers by constant advertising via meetup.com, plugging our events at networking events, posting to university club facebook groups, and generally trying to provide a high value experience for attendees so that they invite their friends next time. Our philosophy is to grow by empowering our members with productivity techniques, rationality skills, higher level strategic decision making skills, and providing a high value networking community, rather than asking for them to immediately contribute or change their causes.

From Julia in Boston:

Since 2011, my husband Jeff and I have been hosting dinner/discussions on effective giving. It started as inviting one person to dinner, but soon it grew to include all the people we could think of who would want to spend an evening talking about this.

Currently the meetup consists of monthly dinner and discussion at our house, sporadic other gatherings at cafes or other public places, and speaker events held by student groups at Harvard, Tufts, and MIT.

Outreach

We have a Meetup.com page, which brings in maybe a third of attenders. It costs $10-15/month to have a Meetup page. We’ve found that while Meetup brings in some great people who are really interested in the topic, it also brings in a lot of kind of random people interested in promoting their own charities, etc. We also have a Google group and Facebook group. I keep a spreadsheet to keep track of email address of people who aren’t on the Meetup or Google lists, and to keep track of RSVPs from all these sources. For meetups in a public place, RSVPs aren’t necessary—it’s really just for times when we’re providing the food.

Although there have been suggestions that we make the dinner into a chapter of an organization like Giving What We Can, we’ve deliberately kept it unbranded as anything other than  “discussion about effective altruism.” This has worked well.

Location

In Boston, most locations are either easy to drive to or easy to reach by public transit but not both. This means that if we host at a more urban location, we get more young people without cars who are fine with taking the subway, and suburban folks are less likely to come because there’s limited or no parking. We get an opposite demographic if we host at a more suburban location. We’ve found it helps to coordinate rides to the nearest subway stop if someone is driving home in that direction.

After having a baby, Jeff and I found hosting more difficult for a while (though now it works great because we can just put her to bed upstairs at her bedtime instead of needing to leave early to take her home). Some friends in the Boston area have also hosted at their place.

Food

This population has a lot of vegetarians and vegans. In California I suspect there are more low-carb/paleo diets, and it’s pretty difficult to make one meal that works for both of those populations, so I’ve sometimes ended up making two main dishes. In the original email, I ask people to let me know about special food needs with their RSVP. People often bring something extra for dessert or snacking, but I think it’s easier for guests if it’s not an all-out potluck, so they know it’s fine if they just show up. I’ve written out some menu ideas. Another local couple who host sometimes usually do some variation on pasta, beans, salad, and bread. Depending on the food, I’ve found it costs about $3-6 per person. Jeff and I consider the cost a worthwhile investment in the movement.

Structure

As people trickle in, we usually do informal snacking and saying hello. Then when there’s critical mass, we sit down with dinner and do some introductions, with each person saying how they got interested in the topic of effective giving or some aspect of it that they’d be interested in talking more about. It usually branches out from there, and after an hour or two we get up for dessert and end up splintering into smaller groups (which allows people to talk with people who are interested in similar topics).

I think people usually enjoy the discussion a good bit. One of my favorite moments was hearing someone call a friend during a discussion to say, “Can you leave that other party you’re at? Because this one has a lot of smart people talking about really interesting things.” The friend did indeed leave the other party and come to ours.

A few times, we’ve scheduled these dinners for when some interesting person was going to be in from out of town.  We often get guests who wouldn’t normally come. These dinners tend to be less about open discussion and more about “ask Toby Ord questions.”

I think it probably helps in general to have a host who enjoys hosting and not just the topic. I enjoy feeding people and helping them feel comfortable, and it can be more difficult to help people feel comfortable when talking about tricky ethical issues than it would be at a regular dinner party when you can always switch to a safe subject. When someone seems uncomfortable (often because they came with someone else and weren’t necessarily interested in the topic) I find some time to make small talk with them so they don’t feel completely out of place. It would be a good idea to have someone who plans to do this, even if the host asks someone else to do it if they don’t feel up to it.

Logistically, I think it helps to have at least two organizers.  Jeff and I usually divide up work: as people are arriving, one of us is finishing up cooking while the other gets the door and gets people settled with snacks and drinks.  Later, one is keeping the discussion going while the other is refilling food. At the end, one might be driving people to the subway station while the other is cleaning up.  We did it once with just me, and I asked a reliable friend to come early and get the door, etc.

It helps to have someone who’s adept at steering discussions. Some dynamics that tend to come up:

  1. People go on tangents while introducing themselves. Remind people, “Let’s finish introducing ourselves and then come back to that topic.”
  2. After introductions, no one knows what to say. This is a good time to break into small groups: “I heard some interest in how effective altruism got started—if people want to come to this side of the room, we’ll be talking about that here. I also heard interest in existential risk—Mike, could you anchor a discussion over there for people who are interested in that?”
  3. Two or three people are dominating the conversation while everyone else is silent. It helps to have someone draw others in (“Sarah, I wanted to hear more about what you were saying about [topic].”) Or suggest that they break off and have a side conversation.
  4. One person keeps talking about a topic that no one else is interested in. You may want to designate a person to take them aside and let them talk about the topic (“I have a question about land use taxes. Could we go talk in the other room?”) so everyone else can have a more varied conversation.
  5. People talking to each other are in very different places of commitment or interests (one has never heard of EA before, and is looking freaked-out in a conversation with a hard-core AI enthusiast). Usually I join the conversation for a minute and then steer the newcomer toward something some person or topic I hope they’ll find less weird.

Sometimes we announce a particular topic (“the new GiveWell recommendations”, “Rob will show part of his new documentary”). This usually doesn’t take most of the time, and there’s still a lot of other discussion.

In general, I think this movement can come across as too cerebral and cold. Providing a warm and pleasant social atmosphere in which people can have cerebral discussions is a good thing.

This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.