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These are my views, they are not necessarily the views of Effective Altruism Netherlands. Thanks to those people who provided comments on a draft of this post. 

Summary

In this post I introduce a set of terms that could be useful for discussing EA community building strategy. 

I  take as a starting point the claim that broadly speaking, effective altruism is an attempt at social change. 

There are four different approaches to social change: Social Movement Support, Field Building, Network Development, and Promoting the Uptake of Practices by Organizations. The post illustrates these approaches using different historical examples:

  • The Civil Rights Movement mainly used Social Movement Support
  • The field of Public Health primarily focused on Field Building
  • The United Nations emphasized Network Development
  • The Fair Trade movement concentrated on Promoting the Uptake of Practices by Organizations

I  then take a stab at describing EA’s current approach. Something like: Field Building (40%), Network Development (35%), Movement Support (20%), and Promoting the Uptake of Practices by Organizations (5%).

I also suggest a re-balancing: Field Building (50%), Movement Support (25%), Network Development (15%), and Promoting the Uptake of Practices by Organizations (10%). This shift would make EA more engaged with society and more focused on its core mission, while spending less time in its own bubble.

Finally, I have a few questions for you, the reader:

  1. Do you agree that, broadly speaking, EA is an attempt to bring about social change? 
  2. Is there something missing from the set of social change approaches I’ve described?
  3. What do you think EA’s current social change portfolio is?
  4. What do you think it ought to be? 
  5. How should we inform the above decision? Historical case studies? Something else?

Introduction

Effective altruism has been called many things. MacAskill defines it as follows:

(i) the use of evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to maximize the good with a given unit of resources, tentatively understanding ‘the good’ in impartial welfarist terms, and

(ii) the use of the findings from (i) to try to improve the world.

(i) refers to effective altruism as an intellectual project (or ‘research field’); (ii) refers to effective altruism as a practical project (or ‘social movement’).

CEA's outward-facing website (effectivealtruism.org) uses a similar definition: “Effective altruism is a research field and practical community that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice”. Wikipedia also: “Effective altruism is a philosophical and social movement that advocates ‘using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis’”.

I think these definitions are broadly correct. However, to speak in more abstract terms, I think EA is an attempt to bring about social change. By social change I mean the not-insignificant alteration of society. For example, changes in social institutions, social behaviours, or social relations. Examples of other attempts at social change include: building the field of public health, the fair trade movement, the civil rights movement, and the development of the UN.

Following MacAskill’s definition, the social change that EA is aiming for is something like: building effective altruism as a research field and helping people use its findings when making decisions about their donations, careers, etc. The assumption being that, by doing this, you’re pursuing one of the most effective strategies for doing good and, in the words of CEA, you’re helping to build a radically better world, a world in which humanity has solved a range of pressing global problems — like global poverty, factory farming, and existential risk — and is prepared to face the challenges of tomorrow.

However, there are many different approaches to bringing about social change, and I don’t think we know which (mixture) of these we ought to be employing. 

One view is as follows, expressed recently by MacAskill: “On this broad view, what EA should aspire to be is not a club, a social movement, an identity, or an alliance of specific causes. And it should only be a community or a professional network in a broad sense. Instead, it should aspire to be more like a field — like the fields of philosophy, or medicine, or economics."

This would be quite a big change. MacAskill's original definition describes EA both as a field and a movement, as does the Wikipedia definition, and recent big pieces in TIME and The New Yorker mostly describe it as a movement.

I think it’s important we figure this out because it has significant implications for our community-building efforts. 

Hopefully, this post can help us by providing a shared vocabulary for those interested in EA strategising. 

Four approaches to social change

According to this briefing, there are four different approaches to social change. It isn’t a perfect list, and there’s a lot of fuzziness and overlap, but I think it’s a start. The approaches are as follows:

  • Social movement support
  • Field building
  • Network development
  • Promoting the uptake of practices by organisations 

These are all quite blurry and, in reality, it’s unlikely a process will adopt just one of these approaches exclusively. 

To make things more concrete, below I have written about several historical social change processes and have given a subjective description of how they allocated their ‘social change portfolio’. In other words, how much of their efforts they assigned to each of the above approaches. 

An approach to social change focused on supporting movements: the civil rights movement

This movement, which took place primarily during the 1950s and 1960s, aimed to end racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans and to secure legal recognition and federal protection of the citizenship rights enumerated in the Constitution and federal law.

Here's a subjective breakdown of the Civil Rights Movement's social change portfolio:

  • Movement Support (60%): The Civil Rights Movement relied heavily on mass protests, civil disobedience, and grassroots organizing to rally public support and pressure the government to change laws and policies. Key events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, and the Selma to Montgomery marches were pivotal in mobilizing support for the movement.
  • Field Building (20%): The movement did work to build a field of civil rights law and advocacy, but this was not its primary focus. The emphasis was more on direct action and public demonstration.
  • Network Development (10%): The movement involved the development of networks of civil rights organizations, activists, and supportive politicians and celebrities. However, compared to the direct action and public demonstration, this was a smaller component of the movement's strategy.
  • Promoting the Uptake of Practices by Organizations (10%): The movement did work to promote the uptake of non-discriminatory practices by organizations, but this was not its primary focus. 

In this case, the emphasis was on mobilizing public support and direct action to achieve social change, rather than on building a field of knowledge or changing organizational practices. This reflects the Civil Rights Movement's focus on leveraging the power of the people to bring about change.

An approach to social change focused on building fields: public health

Public Health as a field aims to improve the health of communities and populations through the promotion of healthy lifestyles, research for disease and injury prevention, and the detection and control of infectious diseases.

Here's a subjective breakdown of the Public Health field's social change portfolio:

  • Movement Support (10%): While there is some element of public advocacy and awareness-raising in Public Health, the primary drivers are health professionals, researchers, and policy makers, not mass public support.
  • Field Building (60%): The creation and development of Public Health as a field involves building a body of knowledge and practice around population health and disease prevention. This includes developing methods for epidemiology, biostatistics, health services, and health policy. It also involves training professionals in these methods and advocating for the integration of this knowledge into policy and practice.
  • Network Development (20%): A significant focus of Public Health is on developing a network of professionals and organizations committed to improving population health. This includes public health departments, research institutions, and health care providers.
  • Promoting the Uptake of Practices by Organizations (10%): While Public Health does work to promote the uptake of certain practices by organizations (such as disease surveillance and prevention programs), this is not its primary focus. The emphasis is more on building a field of knowledge and practice that can inform a wide range of policies and interventions.

In this case, the emphasis was on building a field of knowledge and practice to improve population health, rather than on mobilizing public support or directly changing organizational practices. This reflects Public Health's focus on leveraging scientific research and professional expertise to address health challenges.

An approach to social change focused on developing networks: establishing the UN

The UN was intentionally created by international leaders after World War II with the aim of promoting peace, security, and cooperation among nations.

Here's a subjective breakdown of the social change process that led to the creation of the UN:

  • Movement Support (10%): While there was some public advocacy and awareness-raising around the creation of the UN, the primary drivers were political leaders and diplomats, not mass public support.
  • Field Building (20%): The creation of the UN did involve building a new field of international law and diplomacy, including the development of principles and norms for international relations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Network Development (60%): A significant focus of the UN's creation was on developing a network of nations committed to peace, security, and cooperation. This includes the establishment of various UN bodies and agencies to facilitate cooperation on issues ranging from health and education to peacekeeping and economic development.
  • Promoting the Uptake of Practices by Organizations (10%): While the UN does work to promote the uptake of certain practices by its member states (such as respect for human rights and peaceful resolution of disputes), this is not its primary focus. The emphasis is more on fostering cooperation and dialogue among nations.

In this case, the emphasis was on building a network of nations and facilitating cooperation among them, rather than on mobilizing public support or directly changing organizational practices. This reflects the UN's focus on leveraging the collective resources and influence of its member states to address global challenges.

An approach to social change focused on promoting the uptake of practices by organisations: fair trade

The Fair Trade movement aims to achieve better trading conditions and promote sustainability. The movement advocates the payment of higher prices to exporters, as well as improved social and environmental standards.

Here's a subjective breakdown of the Fair Trade movement's social change portfolio:

  • Movement Support (20%): While there is some element of public advocacy and awareness-raising in the Fair Trade movement, the primary focus is not on mobilizing mass public support but rather on changing business practices.
  • Field Building (20%): The Fair Trade movement does involve building a field of knowledge and practice around ethical and sustainable trade. This includes developing standards and certifications for Fair Trade products and conducting research on the impacts and benefits of Fair Trade.
  • Network Development (20%): A significant focus of the Fair Trade movement is on developing networks of businesses, non-profit organizations, and activists involved in promoting and implementing Fair Trade. This includes organizations like Fairtrade International, which certifies Fair Trade products and promotes the Fair Trade movement globally.
  • Promoting the Uptake of Practices by Organizations (40%): A major focus of the Fair Trade movement is on promoting the uptake of Fair Trade practices by businesses. This includes encouraging businesses to source Fair Trade products, to pay fair prices to producers, and to adhere to social and environmental standards in their supply chains.

In this case, the emphasis was on changing business practices to promote fairness and sustainability, rather than on mobilizing public support or building a broader social movement. This reflects the Fair Trade movement's focus on leveraging the resources and influence of the business sector to achieve social and environmental goals.

How I would describe EA’s current approach to social change

Based on little more than vibes (and running EA Netherlands for just over a year), I think EA’s current portfolio looks something like the following:

  • Movement Support 20%: The EA movement relies on public support, but it's not a mass movement in the traditional sense. It's more about influencing individuals to make more effective altruistic decisions, such as choosing careers where they can have a significant positive impact, or donating to charities that provide the most benefit per dollar.
  • Field Building 40%: A significant part of the EA movement involves building the field of effective altruism itself. This includes developing and refining the principles and methods of EA, conducting research to identify the most effective causes and interventions, and promoting a culture of critical thinking and rigorous evaluation in altruism.
  • Network Development 35%: The EA movement involves developing networks of effective altruists, including researchers, philanthropists, charity entrepreneurs, and others who are committed to the principles of EA. These networks help to disseminate ideas, share research, and coordinate efforts.
  • Promoting the Uptake of Practices by Organisations 5%: The EA movement works to promote the uptake of effective altruistic practices by organizations. This includes encouraging charities to evaluate and improve their effectiveness, and influencing philanthropists and grant-making institutions to consider cause prioritisation and cost-effectiveness in their giving. It also includes encouraging organisations such as governments to adopt policies that have been developed through rigorous cause prioritisation and cost-effectiveness analysis, e.g., the work of LEEP.

What I think EA’s approach to social change ought to be

I think EA’s current portfolio is quite close to what I would like it to be. However, my loosely held view is that more ought to be spent on field building, movement support, and promoting the uptake of practices by organisations. This would mean spending less on network development. This might look something like the following:

  • Movement Support: 25% 
  • Field Building: 50%
  • Network Development: 15%
  • Promoting the Uptake of Practices by Organizations: 10%

The result would be a slightly more outward-facing movement, one that spends more time talking to and working with the rest of society to achieve shared objectives, more time focused on its core (field building), and less time spent talking to itself (network development). 

Questions for the reader

  1. Do you agree that broadly speaking, EA is an attempt to bring about social change? 
  2. Is there something missing from the list of social change approaches I’ve described?
  3. What do you think EA’s current social change portfolio is?
  4. What do you think it ought to be? 
  5. How should we inform the above decision? Historical case studies? Something else?
Comments6
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:46 PM

I appreciate how this post adds dimension to community building, and I think the four examples you used are solid examples of each approach.  I'm not sure what numbers I'd put on each area as current or ideal numbers, but I do have some other thoughts.

I think it's a little hard to distinguish between movement support and field building in many community building cases.  When someone in a university group decides to earn to give instead of researching global priorities, does that put them in movement support instead of the field?  To what extent do they need to be involved in evaluating their giving to count as being part of the field?  And when a group runs an intro fellowship, is that movement support or field building?

I'm still very excited about network development and wouldn't change its fraction of the portfolio.  I personally tend to get a lot of value out of meeting other people within EA and understanding EA orgs better.  Networks facilitate field building and movement support.  I'm also less excited about promoting the uptake of our practices by outside organizations.  I think we're at a pretty low percentage and should stay there.  A project or two like this would be great, but I don't think we need enough of it to round away from 5%, mostly because of tractability concerns.  These projects are also supported by field building work.

Thanks for the post!

Thanks for the thoughtful reply! 

Distinguishing between approaches at the level of the individual

I think it gets a little tricky at the level of the individual. But with your specific example, I'd classify an E2G individual on the basis of what they give to. If they give to HLI or GPI I'd say they're field building. If they give to CEA I'd say they're doing movement support and network development. 

If they just give to AMF or whatever, i.e., an org doing 'direct work', I'd say they aren't strictly speaking contributing to the specific social change EA is aiming for, viz., increasing the extent to which people use reason and evidence when trying to do good. And so I wouldn't use the classification system I've laid out in this post to describe them.[1] 

But that isn't to say they aren't an EA. I wouldn't say you need to be pushing for the increased use of evidence of reason when doing good to be an EA, you just need to be adopting the approach yourself.

What does running an intro fellowship count as?

Based on little more than vibes, I'd describe running an intro fellowship as movement support rather than field building. This is because it isn't directly pushing EA forward as a research field, nor is it providing a professional level of training for future researchers. It also fits quite well into this system for measuring the progress of social (protest) movements (see page 60).

Why I think movement support and promoting the uptake of practices is currently more valuable than networking

Yes for sure networking is important, I get a lot of value from it too, but when I'm talking with other EAs I often find myself saying/thinking, "Have you thought about asking someone who isn't an EA for their opinion on this?", and that to me is an indicator we spend too much time talking to each other. I also think there are lots of people who would benefit the EA movement who are not currently part of it, particularly people beyond the anglosphere and Europe. 

Given these two beliefs, I think we should use more of our limited 'social change budget' on getting more people involved. This would also grow the pie, allowing us to do more of all the other stuff. To be more specific, I think we should massively scale up the intro fellowship. In 2021 we had about 60 people complete it in NL, in 2022 it was around 400. I think we should aim for thousands.  

Re promoting the uptake of practices, personally, I've updated positively on this after seeing how often CE recommends interventions of this type (and the subsequent successes of its incubatees, e.g., LEEP). 

Thanks again for your comment!

  1. ^

    For what it's worth, I'd describe them as field building in the field of global health and development (with the social change being aimed for being something like: "improve the health and wellbeing of populations, particularly in low and middle-income countries").

I quite like how you distinguish approaches at the individual level!  I think focusing on which area they support makes sense.  One lingering question I have is the relative value a donor's donations vs. the value of their contribution toward building a culture of effective giving.  I also think it's at least somewhat common for people to get into other areas of EA after starting out in effective giving.

Agreed on the intro fellowship point as well!  Long-term it supports field-building since plenty of participants filter through, but it's more directly movement support.

I'm a little less sure on the networking point.  I notice that because I'm exploring lots of EA-related areas in relatively low depth, I haven't hit diminishing returns from talking to people in the community.  I do imagine that people who have committed more strongly to an area would get more value from exploring more.  I do agree that lots of people outside the traditional EA geographical areas could do fantastic work.  Enabling this doesn't seem very resource-intensive though.  I would guess that EA Virtual Programs is relatively cheap, and it allows anyone to get started in EA.  Maybe you'd like to see more traditional local groups, though, which would be more costly but could make sense.

I think the uptake of practices category can be separated into two areas.  Area one would be promoting the uptake of EA-style thinking in existing foundations and the other work you list under "How I would describe EA’s current approach to social change".  Area two would be pushing for the implementation of policies that have come out of EA research in existing organizations, which is what LEEP and lots of animal welfare orgs do (and I suppose more biosecurity and AI people are getting into the regulatory space as well now).  I only question the tractability of area one work, area two work seems to be going quite well!  The main challenge in that domain is making sure the policy recommendations are good.

Thank you for the detailed response!

Ah that's a very good point about the uptake of practices. I think when I wrote that I had area two in mind much more than area one, but I definitely didn't make that clear. I'll edit it :)

Thanks James for your post, I like that you tried to dissect the rather vague idea of "social change" a bit.

  1. Do you agree that broadly speaking, EA is an attempt to bring about social change? 
    1. Yup
  2. Is there something missing from the list of social change approaches I’ve described?
    1. Not sure - there are very different ways of dividing aspects of social change, that class things as approaches to elicit personal, relational, cultural/knowledge & structural change. Have a look, but I think that framework is rather different from the one you used.
  3. What do you think EA’s current social change portfolio is?
    1. not sure - I don't think I have better overview than you.
  4. What do you think it ought to be? 
    1. I generally agree with your idea here, I'd also like to see more engagement with other subgroups in the fields that EA moves into, and more influence on(new) organizations that are not EA. Reducing the networking aspect might also help resolve the problems we have with implicit and invisible hierarchies and power structures.
  5. How should we inform the above decision? Historical case studies? Something else?
    1. Check out examples of movements similar to EA that achieved their goals
    2. If we want to be able to adapt to changes in morality, we might want to stick closer to movement support, as all other ways of influence tend to get rigid quickly

Thanks Milena! 

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