Activities to Be Cautious About

Effective altruism sometimes calls us to take calculated risks that have the potential for high-impact. However, there are some activities we ask groups to consult with CEA before engaging with. Email us at groups@centreforeffectivealtruism.org if you're considering any of these.

Political Activities

Groups funded by CEA cannot support political candidates or attempt to influence policy with the funds they receive. Because CEA is a 501(c)(3), we are required to abide by restrictions. We've included a line about this in your grant agreement.

However, we also recognize that policy can be a high-impact activity, so we understand that some groups may be interested in this. If you are interested in getting involved in policy, we ask that you

  • Do not advertise it as an EA group event, but rather mention it as something some of your members

  • Do not use CEA-funded time (for groups on grants) or means (e.g. Zoom rooms, Mailchimp lists, venues) to promote it

  • Do not advertise it anywhere you're in an official capacity (e.g. a Slack channel where you have "organizer of EA [Your City/Uni] in your profile

We ask that groups consult us before engaging in political activities. If done poorly, outreach by EA groups can close doors to other EAs wanting to reach out in the future.

Partisan Activities

There is a lot of debate about whether EAs should get involved with partisan activities, especially in countries with high political polarization such as the US. CEA generally advises caution around this because if EA becomes partisan, it will be extremely difficult to reverse the effects of this, and this could put off a substantial portion of the population from considering EA in the first place.

These activities include:

  • Inviting speakers from a specific political party

  • Collaborating on events with partisan political groups (e.g. College Democrats or College Republicans)

  • Discussions pertaining to specific polarized issues

We also recognize that, especially on college campuses, many people see "not taking sides" as compliance in unjust systems, and this can also be harmful for EA's reputation. It's important to take these considerations seriously. If you're ever unsure of how to respond to these situations, contact groups@centreforeffectivealtruism.org, and we'll be happy to either advise your situation or connect you with other people who can.

Interacting with Media

Media attention is another area that can have permanent, large downsides if done poorly. On the other hand, many groups have had good experiences with the media, and it can be a way to reach a wider audience and attract more value-aligned people to your group.

If you are approached by a journalist or are interested in writing EA articles for wide distribution read this guide from CEA about talking to journalists, this forum post on what to know before talking to journalists, and “The fidelity model of spreading ideas” then get in touch with Nicole Ross, from CEA's Community Health Team, at media@centreforeffectivealtruism.org for advice.

Translation

While translation can be a useful tool for bringing people into EA, we generally advise being cautious when your translation will be widely shared or used for promotion. Benjamin Todd wrote some considerations about why not to rush to translate effective altruism into other languages that provides some more detail for the arguments against this. As always, you can reach out to groups@centreforeffectivealtruism.org if you're uncertain about translating materials or sharing translated materials in your local language.

Mass Outreach

Mass outreach generally comes at the expense of high-fidelity communication; the larger your audience, the less you can tailor your message to each individual, and the more you risk sacrificing quality arguments. For this reason, we recommend being intentional if and when you decide to use mass outreach, and in particular connecting with people in the groups that you are planning to do mass outreach to see what messages generally do and don't work for them.

Reaching out to professors

For university groups, we suggest using caution when reaching out to professors.

The more (potentially) important a person could be to establish a relationship with (e.g. someone working in a field adjacent/related to EA topics), the more important it is to do outreach carefully (due to risks mentioned above).

Potential Benefits

  • Connections with faculty can lead to research opportunities for group members, recommendation letters, and other benefits

  • Putting the right faculty in touch with the EA organisations can lead to collaborations on high-impact projects/research questions, and in some cases, the founding of new institutes or initiatives, or courses about EA or related topics.

Risks

Outreach to academics, if not done carefully, can go pretty poorly, and it’s possible the downsides often outweigh the upsides.

  • EA has a negative reputation among some academics, including some moral philosophers. In some cases, this is because they have an overly simplistic model of EA, and in other cases, they have more fundamental disagreements about the ethics and actions of the people in the EA community. While it is important for our movement to thoughtfully engage with criticism, discussing EA with academics who have a poor impression of EA can go poorly.

  • Giving First impressions are very important.

    • Negative interactions (e.g. a misunderstanding in conversation, lack of preparation, or an event with poor turnout) may give academics a bad first impression of yourself, the group, and effective altruism as a whole. If an academic would have a better first impression of EA if you waited until another time or if someone else made the approach, then wait. Prioritise the likelihood of long term engagement.

    • You may fail to convey the breadth and true level of the academic rigour of the EA community and research on EA-relevant topics. They may then dismiss EA and those topics when they encounter them in future.

Considerations about whether to reach out

  • If you have a good relationship with an academic already, then there are fewer risks. The existing relationship may allow you to bring up EA more casually, without you appearing to be a representative of the community. You could start talking about EA as “something you are interested in”, and gauge their reaction as you go.

  • When judging someone’s credibility, academics tend to look unfavorably at people misunderstanding or misusing concepts from their field, so it can be especially important to have someone in the same field approach them for you. e.g., if approaching a philosopher, ideally ask a group member with experience studying philosophy. Many people in philosophy academia have some basic misconceptions about EA and philosophy - e.g., they may conflate EA with utilitarianism, and/or an obligation to donate large sums to certain global health and poverty charities. Having someone well versed in EA and philosophy is likely to be in a better position to clarify.

If you know of a professor which represents EA poorly

If you believe their representation of EA causes harm by giving prospective group members a negative impression of EA, please get in touch with Catherine Low from CEA’s groups team (catherine@centreforeffectivealtruism.org) for some advice. This problem might arise if the professor conflates EA with utilitarianism, earning to give, and donating to evidence-based global health charities, and encourages students to critique EA based on this misconception. It might be worth someone knowledgeable about EA talking to the professor, but it needs to be done carefully to be successful.

Connecting Academics with the right EA resources/people

If you encounter a professor who is:

  • Excited about learning more about effective altruism

  • Proactively sharing effective altruism resources in their class (e.g. mentioning the 80,000 Hours podcast, or recommending EA books or content)

  • Or is interested in answering research questions that you see frequently discussed with effective altruism

Please email Catherine Low from CEA’s groups team (catherine@centreforeffectivealtruism.org), sharing a brief description of the professor, their background, their level of familiarity / interest in effective altruism.

This could be a particularly valuable connection if the professor is at the top of their academic field. The CEA groups team will share the information with community members specializing in building the Global Priorities Research Field, who may reach out directly.