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I recently wrote about the history of Effective Altruism Finland, the local EA group I am part of and used to work for. I suspect most readers can guess the main activities we carry out even without clicking on the post. (Spoiler: we have an intro to EA program, a career advising service, an effective donations website, support for university groups and regular EA-themed discussion events).

Why do local EA groups often seem so similar to each other? I believe this is because many groups inadvertently become satellite groups. In my post, I try to explain what I mean by this, and argue that local groups should consider developing more distinctive features, even though there may be reasons to deliberately remain a satellite group.

What is a satellite group?

Some characteristics that would define an archetypal satellite group are:

  • They mainly follow materials produced by other groups, such as introductory fellowship curricula
  • They try to undertake activities that are inspired by other EA groups and follow "official" EA advice
  • The members' goals are to eventually join another "real" EA organization or move to an EA hub "where the real EAs are" (as opposed to aiming to do things as a group locally or as a collaboration between the members of the group they are currently affiliated with)
  • They might feel the “real EA knowledge” is possessed by other people elsewhere, and that people in their surroundings are not fit to meaningfully contribute to the EA project yet

The theory of impact of a satellite group comes from broadcasting EA material to new people and connecting their audience to other EA groups and organizations. The actual impactful stuff happens only when a group member starts doing impactful things somewhere else than in the context of the group.

If you are a new group, starting out as a satellite group makes total sense. For some groups, like university groups, staying a satellite group indefinitely can also be also a good idea. However, for some groups, focusing only on satellite type of activities has also a cost of missed opportunities.

Satellite activities are safe and beginner-friendly

There are a bunch of reasons why groups might get stuck in the satellite phase, even if they intend to move towards more original activities. Satellite activities are often locally optimal: if you need to decide what you personally should do in the next couple of weeks or months, in terms of expected impact it often seems like you should focus on satellite activities. It is easy to make the case for organizing an 80 000 hours themed career planning workshop or a giving game.

Satellite activities are also relatively well-regarded within the EA community. If you post on the EA forum about having organized such a career workshop or giving came, other readers will think that your group is doing the reasonable thing.[1]

This positive attitude also somewhat translates to funding. If you can show that your group has inspired many people to work for EA organizations, EA funders are more likely to provide funding for your group in the future. It is harder to prove that your members are doing impactful things if they are working on a original local project that the funders don't know much about.

Furthermore, doing satellite activities can protect your group from doing obviously bad or useless things. If you can reliably organize an introductory fellowship to EA, it is guaranteed that a certain number of people will understand EA better than before. You don’t need to spend a lot of time calculating your expected impact or thinking about potential downsides: if you can execute the program well enough, you can be assured the thing you do probably makes sense.

Moving from satellite activities towards original activities

Despite all this, I suggest that it would be more beneficial for many EA groups to focus a larger share of their efforts on non-satellite activities: activities that are unique and based on the group members' situation, local conditions, and their own perspectives of the world.

To help your group generate ideas on how to do this, you can start by asking questions such as:

  • If EA was invented in your country (or your socio-economic group, or whatever groups you belong to), what would it look like? What would be better and worse about it compared to the current situation?
  • If you could not collaborate with any EA organizations in the future, what organizations would you want to collaborate with? Or would you do any collaboration?
  • If it was up to your group alone to solve the world's most pressing problems, how would you try to do it?

Obviously, you are not supposed to follow the advice from these prompts directly. But these kinds of questions might help shift your mindset from repeating EA materials and redirecting people to organizations that do the actual EA work, to thinking about your group's unique abilities to make an impact in the world.

In the best case, this shift in focus can help your group discover opportunities to influence the world in ways that other people in the EA movement have not yet thought about or tried. This is particularly important for city and national groups, as it can bring a wider variety of perspectives into EA and create better opportunities for people who are unable or unwilling to move to EA hubs. A larger variety of EA organizations and projects also makes EA as a movement more resilient, especially if it also comes with diversification of funding for these organizations.

Moving focus towards an original mindset also protects groups from trying out not-so-relevant satellite activities just because they have been successful elsewhere. As an example, I now wish EA Finland had spent significantly less time in trying to do donations related projects, including a larger volunteer project I was responsible for running. While we tried to understand the local context for donating, we still largely underestimated the hindrances we would be facing.[2]

However, there are some downsides to creating more new EA organizations, especially with diverse sources of funding. One downside is the increased difficulty in coordination and understanding the EA organization space if many new small organizations emerge. Another is that non-EA funders may have goals that are not directly aligned with EA principles, but that recipients should still adhere to. Again as a local example, many Finnish funders want student or young adult organizations to have programs that emphasize social inclusion. However, most EA Finland activities are only suited for people who have rather high levels of social inclusion already (such as people who are in a position to do career planning based on how they’d want to influence the world, not how to get any job).

What blocks groups from moving towards more original activities?

For those drawn to EA because of their willingness to question their own intuitions and carefully consider potential solutions from multiple angles, the prospect of creating novel activities can be daunting when so many pre-existing options are available. It can be hard to overcome this, even if you recognize that a healthy amount of skepticism is crucial for creating successful novel projects.

Time constraints also pose a practical challenge for local group organizers, many of whom are volunteers. As someone who works full-time elsewhere, I can only dedicate around 5 hours per week to cognitively demanding EA volunteering (and some more to more relaxed volunteering). While this may be enough to start a small project alone, a significant portion of that time is already allocated to responsibilities that are difficult to delegate or drop at this point. I imagine that many others who believe in the importance of original projects face similar constraints.

I believe that increased collaboration, both within and between local groups facing similar circumstances, is a possible solution to these issues. Collaboration allows for the refinement of ideas so that they become viable solutions to observed problems, and helps to maximize even small amounts of weekly hours when everyone is working towards a common goal in an organized manner.

I’d be curious to hear any thoughts, including collaboration ideas, critiques of the "satellite vs. original" model, or arguments for why groups should focus solely on satellite activities. If you have read this far and are attending EAGxNordics next week, I would love to chat with you!

  1. ^

    It should be noted that forum users also like documentations of experiments, such as https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/hjhG6hb8dsPrcuwn8/should-you-use-ea-in-your-group-name-an-update-on-pise-s

  2. ^

    My retro-perspective for this project was in Finnish, but Karla has written a good write-up about another rather unsuccessful donation focused project at EA Helsinki: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/mLAkwFb9AnZ4uDanJ/giving-guide-for-student-organisations-an-ineffective





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Some interesting things to reflect on here, thanks for sharing! Quick question: When you wrote:

"If you could not collaborate with any EA organizations in the future, what organizations would you want to collaborate with? Or would you do any collaboration?" 

..did you mean to write it in the negative, or did you mean "If you could collaborate with any EA organizations in the future...?"

Thanks in advance for the clarification!

Thanks for asking! I meant to write it in negative – my point with this question was to encourage thinking about collaborators outside the EA organization space. This is because I think local groups can have the tendency to just think about (international) EA orgs when thinking about potential collaborators, and sometimes it could be valuable for them to collaborate with (local) organizations (in addition to EA orgs). Or maybe the question would show that no organizations that are interesting collaborators for the local group would even exist in the imaginary case – this would make the priorities of the local group clearer, and maybe encourage members to start new local projects.

Thanks for your reply, Ada. I completely understand what you mean, and it's true that sometimes the focus is too much on getting to work for the most famous international EA orgs and not enough on local orgs, companies, charities, etc. Thanks for sharing (and clarifying) this insight!

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