State of EA in the Czech Republic
The Czech Association for Effective Altruism is an organization which was founded in the summer of 2016. In November 2020, CZEA has four employees, working 2.5 full-time equivalents. This includes the chairperson, the vice-chairperson and some additional program, community and admin staff depending on the funding and our needs every year. The rest of the community often works as volunteers either for the organization or on specific projects.
First, let us provide an important clarification: CZEA, which houses formally and informally many EA and Rationality-related activities of many people, who are Czech and/or live in the Czech Republic. The “Czech” EA/Rationality ecosystem (again, happening both in the Czech Republic as well as outside of it) is quite large and interconnected.
For now, there are three distinctions we want you to keep in mind as you start reading:
- CZEA often refers to our informal Czech community. Aspiring EAs and Rationalists who either live in the Czech Republic, are Czech or spend a lot of time here.
- CZEA also refers to our organization, a legal entity which we consider to be an “EA organization” with its own activities, projects and impact.
- There are organizations and projects which are part of our ecosystem but are only loosely connected to the CZEA community or the organization. We will make it clear when this is the case but we think that they are relevant to mention for context.
That is why this strategy does not equal a “Community building strategy”. “Creating” more EAs and growing our community is only one of our goals. We have additional goals which often rely on us having an engaged community but are separate objectives in and of themselves. Our goals are not limited to increasing the number of EAs, but include other metrics as well, like developing new projects, improving cultural capital, ability to scale, health of the whole ecosystem etc.
You can find descriptions of past Czech EA projects and organizations in our Annual report.
From the get-go, we have focused on having a good long-term strategy – we wrote our first one (the skeleton of which is still present in this version) before doing our very first public EA meetup. The core of our strategy is focused on opportunities with a long planning horizon and around our comparative advantages – both given by the inherent properties of the Czech Republic but also by the properties of our EA community.
Comparative advantages of Prague / Czech Republic
- There are many socio-economic factors which are relevant for the EA community in the Czech Republic: low-income inequality, state-provided healthcare and college education, relatively affordable cost of living, good welfare system. All of these result in a good standard of living and relative economic stability even in the early stages of life (e. g. no college or medical debt).
- In absolute numbers, the wages are lower than in other popular EA countries (median annual salary is ~$21,000) , which is why focusing on fundraising is not very impactful. On the other hand, doing research and direct work is much more affordable and efficient because the cost of labour is much cheaper.
- It is well placed for serving as a centre/transfer point for Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, helping with e.g. recruitment activities in this area, since it is difficult for people from those countries to get through immigration barriers in the UK (after Brexit) or US.
- Prague is well suited for hosting events (as often done by corporations) since it has low prices and a good central location for European participants
- It has good size for exploration. It is small enough that it is possible for our group to pilot high-impact projects on a national scale. At the same time, it is big enough to serve as a reliable model for other countries.
- It is a small country speaking its own language – this puts us in a good position to experiment with interventions which seem promising but potentially risky since damage would be limited only to the Czech environment. On the other hand, the same characteristics put us in a worse position to influence global decision making (e.g. EU) or scale specific interventions, since the potential benefit is limited.
Comparative advantages of CZEA
- Our team has a good track record of executing EA projects. That includes skills like understanding the global EA landscape and its needs, good management, teamwork and resourcefulness.
- The organization is not just a student group. While students represent a portion of active members, among core 10 members there is only one full-time student – the rest are early/mid-career professionals who are already experienced, both professionally and in life. They have work experience, they started businesses, they have families etc. and as a result, they have a robust and diverse skill set.
- Therefore we have a large pool of expertise and experience to draw upon. That enables us to execute a large number of complex projects.
- The core of our members are skilled rationalists and generalists.
- Our community is healthy – there is a strong sense of camaraderie and friendship in the core group but for many, it is not their main/only social circle. Most members have healthy relationships and find meaning outside of the community as well.
- Our members have very good networks of colleagues and friends in Czech academia, politics and the philanthropy landscape.
As a result, our early focus was on doing direct work which benefits the global EA movement – such as events, community building activities and research, drawing heavily on our community’s availability to volunteer as well as their expertise. Since the inception, we deliberately shaped our organization towards taking action and doing projects, instead of “just” socializing.
Here are several other principles that were important when we were forming our strategy:
Stability of the organization and a long planning horizon
Compared to an average university group with high member turnover (as they take on other student groups, internships or graduate), national-level groups are more stable and can have longer planning horizons, especially when members are older and more stable in their lives and careers. This implies the following considerations.
Building an ecosystem
In addition to focusing on creating individual and independent EAs, there is also value in growing organizational structure, helping to create impactful spin-off projects and in general improving the quality of our ecosystem to be able to generate impact over many years.
Synergy of projects
When prioritizing projects it is not only important that they make sense as standalone initiatives, but also that their combined value is more than the sum of their parts.
Scale-up at the right time
Growing a community is extremely hard to reverse. Therefore it is useful to get more experience with a smaller community that is more easily steerable to be sure we will get it right.
Quality over quantity
We do not want to grow our community just for its own sake. We have quite high standards for our members and are intentional about bringing in people who can help us maintain a high level of our core values and characteristics.
There is value in being nimble and opportunistic
We do not optimize for maximum capacity of our members and of the organization. We want to leave room for creativity, experimentation as well as ad hoc opportunities we want to be ready for.
It would be an easy mistake to restrict our impact to only a national level. We expect our projects and activities to become important in the European (and eventually global) EA landscape.
It is beyond the scope of this document to list our activities, projects and outcomes. These are described in more detail in our annual report, which also includes an assessment of our impact.
For more information on our early days, you can read this article by our Strategy Director, Jan Kulveit.
- 1) Maintaining a healthy, engaged and capable community.
- 2) Promoting excellent epistemic standards and rationality
- 3) Fostering X-Risk research and opportunities in Prague and Europe.
- 4) Organizing events for the global community.
- 5) Gaining valuable information.
Specific short-term implementation of these goals is beyond the scope of this document.
1. Maintain a healthy, engaged and capable community
Our community is at the centre of all our activities – either as participants or as organizers. It is the key to our success and our main priority.
The key qualities that we focus on are:
a) Solid command and understanding of EA principles and ideas
We are aware that this is the skeleton in which we build everything else. Without a solid understanding of EA principles and ideas, we cannot expect to have an impact and achieve our other goals. Additionally, the higher the average level of understanding of EA, the easier it is to delegate and scale the organization.
b) Motivating our members to be action-oriented and actually do things in the world
We try to foster not only our members‘ ability to deeply understand EA principles but also getting things done. Since we think both of these qualities are necessary for having an impact.
Overall, we encourage our members to find ways to get practically involved in some way. This can mean either taking on a role in an existing project but also taking initiative and proposing something new themselves.
c) Be an uplifting community
We think that a good community goes beyond having a group of individual EAs. A good community elevates its members, provides resources, inspiration, guidance and stability. It is a stimulating environment which provides opportunities for its members who in return build the community up.
Because of their long-term stability, national groups are well suited to be “uplifting communities” which recognize talent and can grow and develop it to its fullest potential.
In general, our goal is to create a powerful cultural capital. A culture that will give our members useful tools, good habits, shared knowledge and expectations for self-improvement and collective work on impactful projects. We expect these aspects of culture to be preserved while the community grows. At the same time, it is easier to tweak such aspects of our culture early on, when there are fewer people around.
2. Excellent epistemic standards and rationality
While there is a distinction between the Czech EA community and the Czech Rationalist / LessWrong community, the former spun off from the latter and there has always been a significant overlap between the two. Strong rationalist thinking has always been present in our EA community – for example over 20 of our members went through CFAR workshops and several through CFAR instructor training. What started as a founder’s effect has become an intentional part of our community building and we have supported our members in advancing their rationality skills.
In particular, our flavour of rationality culture is rooted in the following virtues:
- Truth Seeking – as opposed to being impressionable to seemingly strong (but actually weak) arguments
- Agentyness – looking for truth is not enough, it is also important to take action and “make things happen”
- Wholesomeness – be a grounded person, with a strong moral compass.
This combination seems to be very useful for coordination. It is much easier to resolve differences of opinion when everybody has good knowledge, for example of NVC, double-crux, Elephant in the brain, and is explicitly trying to find truth.
We think that CZEA is a good case study for how EA and Rationality can coexist in healthy and synergistic ways. We also hope to provide good support for the whole European rationalist scene through helping with CFAR workshops and reunions, cooperating with Epistea.org etc.
3. Fostering X-Risk research and opportunities in Prague and Europe
Our core community has both members with solid experience in AI Alignment research and a group of members with serious interest and technical ability. This group, together with the local STEM universities, is a strong base for directly and indirectly supporting global X-Risk research efforts. Prague is a good location for research work (see our comparative advantages) and most CZEA members have a stable life here, allowing for longer-term planning.
We focus on the following areas:
Development of community members
Some members get research experience in international organizations and events, bringing back expertise and know-how, including good understanding of the current research trends and issues, and strategic insights. They in turn share their knowledge with other members, by mentoring, lectures/reading groups, research projects, and organizing projects and events, creating common knowledge and motivation on various expertise levels. This member base then significantly contributes to the quality of our events and attracting further talented people into our network (locally and internationally).
Creating opportunities for research in Prague
The activities in this area range from work with individual talented students, through organizing international research events, to creating opportunities for future research projects or organizations. These are not isolated but rather form a full spectrum. Having a community of people involved or interested in X-Risk research on multiple levels of expertise both significantly improves our events and helps attract and level up more talent. We have and build close relations with STEM universities in Prague (e.g. co-organizing events, collaborating with department members, mentoring students). The biggest practical initiative in this area is Human-Aligned AI Summer School hosted with cooperation of MFF UK, CTS UK and AVČR.
Networking and service to global research community
Some CZEA members have been very active in initiating projects, funding them and getting them off the ground, for example, the Human Aligned AI Summer School (2018, 2019) or AISC (2018) and AISRP (2019-2020). Those projects are driven by individual members rather than CZEA itself centrally, but CZEA provides crucial resources through volunteers and other services (material, accounting, legal entity), and is the community the organizers come from and develop in – both personally and as EAs.
We focus on organizing events locally for international audiences, taking advantage of our home base and the convenience of Prague, but we also organize events abroad to reach out to experts (AISRP 2019 near Oxford). The benefit of either, beyond any direct value to the global research community, is networking with experts and other EAs, CZEA member growth, as well as demonstrating our competence.
Current and future research and related projects depend on strong international cooperation with area experts rather than relying on our members or local schools. building strong global networks is crucial for any such project. Our ambition is to gradually increase the concentration of X-Risk and other EA researchers in Prague, thus improving any future projects together with the expertise level of the whole CZEA community, and increasing the gravity pull of the community.
4. Organize events for the global community
Our focus on events came from a larger principle of identifying needs in the global community and filling that gap due to our comparative advantages. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, events are likely not going to be needed at least in the first half 2021, but as they start to be safe to do again, we expect to continue doing them, since it worked well in the past.
In the meantime we are working on improving our processes to make it more efficient for us in the future by creating guidelines, checklists, standardizing and documenting procedures, etc. Our goal is to make logistics overhead cheaper both in terms of money and the amount of work. These processes can be helpful for other groups who also run events so we expect to share our general best practices with the broad EA community.
One area that we started to explore in the past couple of years was running events in England since for some events it is more important that they are close to Oxford or London than being cheap. People in our community already have experience with this (running AISRP in 2019, ESPR in 2019 and supporting a CFAR workshop for FHI in 2018) and we are working on making it as smooth for us as possible – this mostly consists of getting familiar with venues and vendors – such that we can offer this to other organizations in the future.
We also consider what are other, similar services to a global movement that would well exploit our comparative advantages.
5. Gaining valuable information
One of our comparative advantages is that Czech Republic is a relatively safe space for experiments which would otherwise be considered too risky in an English-speaking country. Therefore, it seems that it may be useful to try activities here and gain valuable information and experience that can be shared with the rest of the EA community.
There are particular areas which we consider to be of high potential and a relatively high chance of success that we want to explore further:
- Working with politicians and public policy
- Promotion of various framings of EA or its parts (eg: a popular website about critical thinking, or reducetarianism)
The value of these experiments lies in better understanding of what worked and what did not as well as in the actual value of what worked – for example changing certain public policy. If such a pilot were successful, it can be adapted in other countries and communities.
Our long-term objectives provide value and impact in and of themselves. However, as an organization and a community, we have additional goals which alone do not provide such value but contribute significantly to our ability to achieve those long-term objectives. We call these instrumental goals:
1. Improve organizational efficiency
As the organization is growing, we are working towards several improvements related to the internal effectiveness so our resources are used wisely and effectively. We do not want to introduce useless processes and bureaucracy just for their own sake, but we do implement functional procedures where appropriate, mostly driven by specific practical needs. We are aware of the fact that scaling up is hard and want to avoid traditional pitfalls.
As the number of projects grows, it is harder and harder to see how they are progressing and where they are stuck. Where possible, we “decentralize” and just provide enough support and resources so the team responsible for the project executes in the way they consider to be the best. This assumes a high level of trust and confidence that we do not take for granted.
For the core part of the organization, we follow these principles to improve efficiency:
- Every piece of work has clear ownership, responsibility and accountability
- We communicate effectively, such as using asynchronous communication, value transparency, being honest while sensitive, encouraging giving and getting feedback.
- The formal organization structure must serve the purpose of solving problems, such as clearly dividing responsibilities of the board, chairperson, vice-chairperson or others. The chairperson is the executive and makes most relevant decisions
- Follow modern project management practices such as using project management tools (Asana) to:
- Improve task delegability to enable volunteers to join and to remove bottlenecks from specific individuals
- Increase transparency for better overview of the organizational outputs (e.g. by the board)
- Have a clear project lead (related to the ownership above)
2. Develop influence and credibility in Czechia
This one is rooted in our comparative advantage of living in a “small-but-not-too-small country” and our community having a good network with public intellectuals, academia, politicians, CEOs and social media influencers.
One of the promising activities is gaining more allies. By that, we mean people with high potential who are not active EAs and may not even consider themselves EAs but who generally agree that effective altruism is a good idea and who we are doing important work which they want to support.
We expect this to be useful in the following ways:
- Gain allies who can help us achieve our objectives in the future
- Introduce EA to influential people in Czechia such that they become more EA-aligned in their activities
- Further grow our network
In general, we hope to become a smaller, but respected voice on Czech intellectual and philanthropic scene.
3. Develop stable and diverse sources of funding
Our funding is currently a combination of:
- Community building grant from CEA ~$90k annually
- Individual contributions from our supporters ~$10k annually
- External funding we secure for our projects – mostly the LTFF and the Meta/Infrastructure Fund. These vary largely depending on how many projects we run every year but generally, it’s in the orders of tens of thousands of USD per project.
While this currently puts us in a healthy financial situation which generally allows for us to fund all of our main priorities, we would certainly consider ourselves funding constrained – especially when it comes to funding more staff. Additionally, we are too dependent on one funder, which is potentially risky and not considered best practices for organizational financial health. To this extent we will pursue additional sources of funding:
- More long term institutional funding from other organizations
- Large gifts from individual donors – both from our community and from our broader network.
4. Improve external communication
CZEA is on the frontier of national EA chapters. It is therefore valuable for us to share our experiences with other chapters since many will later grow into similar situations. This also means that we should design our activities to optimize more for value-of-information, instead only for direct impact.
In general, we want to increase information flow between our community and the rest of EA movement primarily through supporting the publication of content on EA Forum, and through in-person visits. Thus we could both share our (hopefully valuable) experience with rest of movement and also get feedback from them.
At the same time we want to keep certain independence of thought and approach to EA from the rest of the movement. There seems to be a value in diversity of approaches and in independence of thought among EAs regarding community building and other topics.
5. Maintaining physical space: Epistea Space
Epistea Space (previously Epistea Lab) has been our dedicated community space for over two years now and has been at the centre of our community as well as our direct work. It gives us stability and capacity to organize as many events as we need, in a way that we want. Additionally, it’s where the team meets and works together. This provides for many opportunities for ad hoc meetups and “watercooler” encounters and conversations. It’s also a place where we can direct visitors from other groups or participants from our events. This value has become much more apparent now that we can no longer use it and we are looking forward to resuming its operation in 2021.