Note: My views have updated since this post, but I haven't yet written them up.
I moved from NY to the Bay several months ago.
In many senses, the Berkeley community is much bigger than NYC. There's a few hundred members instead of around 30. I had several friends in the Bay before moving here, and have made more since arriving.
But, it didn't actually feel like home to me until a couple weeks ago, at one of the weekly meetups at the new community center.
These are my thoughts about the REACH (Rationality and Effective Altruism Community Hub) space, and what considerations I think are relevant for funding it. It has a Patreon which is currently hitting the "juuust enough money that it might possibly work so long as other things go right" threshold. But it doesn't really have enough funding to reliably break even, let alone thrive.
tldr: I think there are lot of reasons you might want to help fund REACH, both from an effective altruism perspective, and from a "just buy some nice things for yourself" perspective.
Epistemic Status: I'm pretty biased in favor of REACH, and much of my reasoning was at least a bit motivated. I expect to make a lot of use of the infrastructure there, so my thoughts here are a bit self-serving.
I’ve attempted to account for this in my writing of this, and am still fairly confident that there’s something important going on here.
Table of Contents
- Ray’s Opinionated Conception of Meetups
- Mechanics of Berkeley Meetup Brain Drain
- Enter REACH
- Frameworks of Funding
- Buying Nice Things vs Effective Altruism
- Nice Things and Homemade Prices
- Okay, but is this the right nice thing?
- The Case for Impact
- Measuring Intangibles
- Agency Ladder
- Water Coolers and Campuses
- Matching Funds
- In Closing...
Ray’s Opinionated Conception of Meetups
In NYC, meetup means "someone runs an hour long presentation, moderated discussion or workshop." Every week, you can show up to a public meetup. There will be content to learn or practice, and people you can hangout with. It's structured such that if you're shy, or if not as many good conversationalists show up that week, or if you just prefer structure, there's something to learn and engage you.
Meanwhile, if you care more about hanging out with the regulars than listening to a talk, you're free to just arrive later in the evening.
Moreover, there’s a palpable sense that this is a community, more than a circle of friends. There’s a social entity greater than the sum of its parts, and there’s a way for newcomers to get involved.
I think the nearby San Francisco and South Bay Communities have meetups closer to that format (I haven't been yet), but in Berkeley, meetups generally take the form of freeform socialization.
And on one hand, in NYC the freeform socializing is very much the point. Hanging out and making friends is the valuable part, moreso than the presentation or workshop. But the presentation/workshop is what gives that conversation energy and a sense of culture/purpose.
In Berkeley, there’s a weird combination of circumstances where there’s lots of content-driven social events happening, but much of that content is happening in hard-to-find silos. Occasional big tentpole events like Solstice or EA Global happen, you might come to Berkeley at that time and get excited but then a few weeks later you’re looking around and thinking “okay… what next…?”.
NY LessWrong is a small community. Berkeley Rationality/EA is like a village. You’ll walk to the deli and run into a rationalist on the way. There’s roughly a dunbar number of people interacting, and if you get yourself socially networked in it feels quite thriving. But if you’re not networked in, you have this weird sense that something is happening but you can’t tell where.
If you’re on outside, this may look like weird social games and popularity contests. Not gonna lie – I think it’s at least a bit of that. But I think a lot of it is just being stuck in a particular equilibrium, and if we all coordinated to build some infrastructure (physical and social) we could get to a much better one.
Mechanics of Berkeley Meetup Brain Drain
In NYC, if you’re an agenty rationalist who wants to contribute to the community, there’s only one obvious place to put your energy: the meetup itself, much of which is public facing.
In Berkeley, there’s a host of organizations you can volunteer at, focused on rationality training, x-risk, effective altruism research, startups, and all kinds of small-to-medium projects.
Organizing meetups is hard, skilled labor. If you’re the sort of person who’s willing to put in the effort, there’s a long list of competing things, each of which make a credible case for being important and rewarding.
On the flipside: if you’ve just arrived and you’re not socially connected, it may take longer to find those competing opportunities. The public-facing community dearth is an obvious thing to focus on. But if you do, you’ll likely find in the process of doing so that you’ll gain confidence and skills, and you’ll meet people working on other projects.
Soon after, you may have a cluster of friends who you know well, who are interested in the things you’re interested in. I know a couple people who briefly tried organizing meetups and then found there were other things that felt more exciting to them.
Public meetups tend to be a grab bag of people with varying interests. Even just showing up once a week is something that competes with having conversations with roommates and friends and coworkers, whose interests may more directly relate to your own.
Motivations and Social Pressures
It seems like the only people who focus on it are those intrinsically motivated to welcome newcomers into the fold. And not only is that rare, but various things subtly punish that. The social fabric rewards people who can tell an exciting story about how what they’re doing is Saving The World somehow, and “I’m making this a nice home to help newcomers” is a bit harder to do that with.
Meanwhile the rationality community attracts the sort of person who is... well... slightly socially and environmentally oblivious sometimes, which makes it less intrinsically rewarding to provide a community hub. The people who show up are smart and friendly but perhaps less likely to help take out the trash, which can add another layer of frustration.
So, year by year, you have a community of 300 people that somehow has no high quality public-facing way to get involved.
I think this is a problem worth coordinating on, but it’s a problem that has to actually be solved while realistically accepting the people’s incentives and goals.
Right now we have a rare confluence of personal motivation, real estate and… for lack of a better word “community magic”, that makes me feel more optimistic that this problem is solvable.
For the past year or so, Sarah has been exploring options for a community center in Berkeley.
This is something I’ve heard various people talk about for while. Some group houses aspire to be community center-esque things, but run into issues like “the people in the house actually want to live their lives which sometimes means they don’t feel like hosting travelers or meetups.”
The CFAR office has made some effort to be this. But it’s not really optimizing for it, and the building’s security system creates a bizarre set of trivial inconveniences you have to overcome to get in. (literal barriers to entry :P)
(This seems like it shouldn’t matter, but totally matters). It’s also a bit out of the way if you live in southern Berkeley.
The problem is, community centers require lots of startup capital, and it’s a vague endeavor with fuzzy benefits that aren’t obviously worth $60,000+ a year.
But Sarah said “this seems important enough to just do it,” spent a bunch of her own money renting out a cafe near an existing rationalist house, and hoped the project would prove it’s value. The Rationality and Effective Altruism Community Hub (REACH) was born.
There’s a list of official things REACH is aiming to provide a space for:
- Weekly meetups
- Various events that range from “social/community” to “intellectual/growth”
- Cheap beds for out-of-town rationalist/ea travelers visiting berkeley
- Classes or activities for kids to help the growing number of parents in the community
- Space and support for helping people in the community brainstorm about and start new endeavors
On paper, these look potentially valuable, but I think a reasonable person might be skeptical you can actually achieve them.
I’m excited about REACH because I’ve been to the weekly meetups, and… got a deep sense that the place felt like home.
I admit I’m a bit biased here – there was a bunch of nostalgia feeding into my experience and I’m not sure how universal it is. But… finally, there was an actual god damn meetup – a workshop run by a community member (we were practicing Gendlin’s Focusing), a dozen people helping each other learn a technique and navigating our internal emotional blocks. And afterwards, freeform discussion, people bouncing ideas around.
A couple weeks later I went to a second meetup, just as vibrant, twice as many people, run by a different community member. And I got a strong sense that there’s a surplus of pent-up organizational energy in Berkeley – lots of people who would totally step up to run events if they were given the affordance to.
Meanwhile, perhaps most importantly, were people in the aftermath bouncing ideas around, discussing their projects, thinking about how to collaborate.
I think REACH has the potential to solve the Public Meetup Brain Drain problem, via:
- Being a dedicated space for it, located within walking distance of a large number of rationalists, and a couple blocks from the Ashby BART station.
- Having a dedicated person working at least half-time on maintaining the infrastructure (both physical, organizational and social) for meetups and other events to happen
- Since the infrastructure is already there, it’s much easier for newcomers to get involved, run a couple meetups, maybe help improve some of the underlying infrastructure, and then (most likely) end up moving on as they get involved with other organizations in the Bay.
- Meanwhile, old-timers with experimental ideas have a venue to try them out, in a way that contributes to the public-facing commons.
Frameworks of Funding
Renting the REACH space is fairly expensive. $60k+ is nothing to sneeze at. Should it be funded? Who should fund it?
I think this is a legitimate question. What are reasonable frameworks for deciding whether and how to fund a community space? I’m biased in favor of the REACH center, but think it’s important to get this question right.
Ben Hoffman noted the hazards of forcing people to sell a narrative around impact in order to get funded. It forces people to lie, or warp their vision to satisfy a funder’s goals (or worse, warp it into an abomination trying to satisfy multiple funders goals, and in all likelihood failing to satisfy anyone).
Ben also argued that if you advocate a strategy that includes recruiting people to the Bay, you have an obligation to actually take care of those people once they get here, and part of that includes giving humans a space to be.
I think both these arguments are important. But aren’t quite the frame I’d approach this with.
People spend money for different reasons. I decided to frame this post as advice I’d give to alternate versions of myself. People who shared my general values, but might vary along axes like:
How much money do you have?
How well do you get along with the social clusters that are most involved with REACH? (although note that different events and coworking days-of-week tend to attract different people)
How often do you visit Berkeley?
How close do you live to REACH?
Would you benefit from a coworking environment?
Effective Altruism vs Paying for Nice Things
There’s basically two reasons I’d personally give people money:
One reason is effective altruism – helping people as much as I can with the resources available to me (this can include investing in my own future capabilities, or funding projects that seem like they will have good impacts even if it’s not necessarily their mission statement).
That’s great and all. But, much more common than altruism is that I like having nice things.
Sometimes I just want to go see a movie. Or have a nice place to live. Or art supplies or video games. Getting these things involves paying people.
Notably, having Nice Things includes buying things for my friends because they make me happy. It also includes engaging in positive sum trades, and one boxing in Newcomb-like-problems so that people will reliably model me as the sort of person they can trust with good opportunities.
Both EA and NiceThings perspectives sometimes involve symbolic value – doing small token things to remind people (or myself!) what I care about. If I’m doing it right (which I don’t always), the token is obviously a token (i.e. not deceiving myself or others), but just as obviously representative of something real that will pay off later.
If I’m poor right now, I might donate small bits of money, to remind myself that I’m the sort of person who will put his money where his mouth is, so that later on when I can afford it, I’m in the habit of actually doing that.
I think there’s an Effective Altruist case to be made for REACH. (I think you can make that case without contorting people into weird compromises over their vision). But before we get into the realm of EA, let’s just ask straightforwardly:
Does a community center sound like something you’d benefit from?
This is not a rhetorical question. Maybe the answer is no. But if you would benefit from meetups, or coworking, or periodically get crash space in Berkeley for cheap… maybe you and others should just pay for that because it’s nice and you’d benefit from it.
This’d be harder (though not impossible) in most cities – even other places in the Bay, because there are only so many rationalists and community centers are expensive. But one of the uniquely promising things about REACH is that it’s located within walking distance of a village-worth of rationalists and EA folk.
If you find yourself in a village, it’s quite reasonable to ask yourself “do I want my village to be a place with nice things?”. What sort of nice things would you like? How much are you willing to pay for them?
Nice Things and Homemade Prices
What is the price of nice things? The first price, attention to detail. The quest for nice things is a sacred quest. Creation of them, even more so. It requires effort, focus, sacrifice. You have to care.
Otherwise, we can’t have nice things. Because you didn’t make them.
Quoth me, in more detail, in Melting Gold:
It costs more to build something yourself than to buy it factory made. Things you make yourself are often able to be more unique and special than things mass-produced by capitalism. They can cater to niche interests without enough demand to develop mass production.
“Homemade” may trigger bad associations, because there was a weird followup step where Capitalism noticed that people had noticed that homemade things took more time and were worth more. And enterprising entrepreneurs saw free money and learned to slap a "homemade" label on products for a quick buck.
Is an artisanal hand-crafted coffee mug really worth more than a mass produced version on Amazon?
But... when the homemade thing is unique, when you literally can't get it anywhere else, and you are getting important social or cultural value from it... then... well, if you want that thing, the only way to get it is to pay homemade prices for it.
You may not be able to pay for them with money. They are usually labors of love. If there was enough demand for them for someone to do them full-time, you'd probably be able to mass produce them more cheaply anyway.
It's unlikely the people making them could actually more easily produce them if they were paid more. Or, the amount of money would be dramatically more than what seems obvious. It's not enough to cover costs. It has to be enough to quit your day job, and then not worry about quitting your day job turning out to be a horrible idea.
This means if you want to pay for a rare, precious thing that you want to keep existing, it is quite likely that the only ways to guarantee its continued existence is to put in sweat and sacrifice. If things are well organized it shouldn't need to be a major sacrifice, but it may mean serious time and attention that you were spending on other things you cared about too.
I don't mean to say any of this in a moralizing way. This is not an essay about what you "should" do. This is just a description of what is in fact necessary for certain things to happen, if they are things that matter to you.
Or, sometimes, you just plain need both a lot of sweat and effort and literal dollars.
There’s a saying: "Charity starts at home." Most people’s default orientation to altruism is “find nice projects nearby that make me feel good and donate there.”
I don’t think this mode of altruism is wrong. But I think it’s been warped by the rise of modernity. A modern city has millions of people nearby, and you don’t actually have more connection to them than you do to drowning strangers in Africa or far-future-civilizations. Whereas in The Before Times, the impulse to help people around you directly led to a world where you had more opportunities, were more trusted or respected by your peers, and felt more fulfilled.
Naive application of traditional charity results in a worst-of-both-worlds, where you aren’t really getting much out of it, and you aren’t helping people very well.
I think it’s very good that the rational/EA-sphere spends attention on helping far away or future people, even if they won’t return the favor. Part of living in the present era can and should include noticing that you have a lot of power, and the opportunity to use that power to help people at scale.
But, while money is the unit of caring, there’s plenty of things to care about other than far away people.
Freethinker-esque communities don’t just have trouble cooperating for grand altruistic projects. They struggle to cooperate to just buy themselves some god damn nice things.
I’m of the opinion people do not spend nearly enough money investing in their own communities.
How much is a community center worth?
If I didn’t have a job, or were otherwise struggling, I wouldn’t donate more than a token amount. I think it is far more important to get yourself to a position of abundance and strength, so that you can help people for real.
If I had money but didn’t live close to REACH, I’d probably direct my Nice Thing budget towards more local events. (Oddly enough, I suspect it makes more sense to fund REACH if you live in South Bay than in San Francisco, since in South Bay you get the benefit of reliable crash space when you visit).
But given that I live nearby, and I’m in a financial state where I’d pay $15 for occasional movies, dinners or outings, it seems to me that the lower bound for the value of a good meetup is something like $10.
If 20 people are coming to a meetup each week, and 15 of them can afford small luxuries, it seems like a reasonable lower bound on the meetup’s value is (15 people x 4 weeks x $10 = $600/month), with each person chipping in $40.
If you’re getting value from connections, opportunities, and fulfillment, then I think a good meetup can easily be worth more than a $15 movie.
The function of “how valuable is it?” might not line up with “how much can I realistically pay?”. But this brings up an additional question:
If you’re someone who did get a lot of value from meetups (when you were new to a city, didn’t have a job and were struggling to make ends meet) but now are a programmer making a 6 figure salary… I think it is quite reasonable to put in something extra from a “pay it forward” standpoint, even if by now you’re spending more of your time with particular friends rather than the public-facing meetups.
Check that it’s worth it
There’s an important counter-viewpoint here:
If you’re not getting value out of meetups – if you showed up and hoped some magic would happen but it seriously just didn’t – then please do not let yourself feel pressured to give out of a vague pro-social-guilt. I am arguing about why you should be willing to pay for nice things for yourself, not nice things for other people.
Maybe you don’t get along with the organizers. Maybe the sort of people a space attracts aren’t that interesting to you.
Only you know what things are actually nice.
Dangers of overcommitment
Fun fact: I initially pledged $100/month to REACH. Then I walked that pledge back to $50.
REACH is easily worth $100/month to me. But. There’s a bunch of other things in the same reference class that are also worthwhile.
Summer Solstice, EA Global, the CFAR Reunion and other major events are coming up. These events tend to barely scrape by with funding (and often, the organizers just lose thousands of dollars). I want to make sure I can afford to support a healthy, diverse social landscape.
There are also other meetups nearby, which you might want to support doing more ambitious projects.
I want to engage in fundraising strategies that will work for the long term, allowing other community members to get new projects funded – next year’s version of something-weird-the-way-Solstice-2011-was-weird.
Part of this means being careful with the public resource of “discourse around fundraising”, and not getting people to overcommit so that they can’t afford the next aspiring project.
(Also, since I spend a lot of time at REACH, I wanted to reserve some money to just spontaneously buy specific nice things for it that I particularly want, like the coffee table I just ordered. Spontaneously buying presents for myself and my friends is nice. See Robby Bensinger’s Chaos Altruism.)
Bringing the Party
One source of value that REACH brings is making it salient that you can hold more events, or bring your own value to the weekly meetup.
Oftentimes, I want to try something out – a new exercise, a weird event, a new way of looking at the world that I think is interesting but want to sanity check. Sometimes these seem valuable from an EA lens (more on that later), and sometimes they’re just weird and fun.
Having an existing community infrastructure drastically lowers the activation-energy needed to try something like this out.
Okay, but is this the right Nice Thing?
I’m highly confident that we should be willing to spend a bunch on community infrastructure. I think it’s reasonable to debate whether this is the right Nice Thing to spend a bunch on, within the Nice Things paradigm.
[Note: it’s a bit fraught to ask “is this the best thing to spend money on?” That way leads endless decision paralysis. But before we converge on “spend a bunch on this particular thing” it seems reasonable to look at some alternatives. Is this at least a reasonable contender for expensive thing to coordinate on funding?]
Is the physical space important? Is it more important than having a fulltime person doing the meta-organizing? Is Sarah the right person for the job? Is the current approach the best approach? Is the current venue the best venue?
Instead of a venue, you could hire two full-time people who didn’t manage a space but who did coordinate public events (potentially in different cities).
Ben Hoffman asks that we take care of the people we recruit. From this perspective, is a community-center shaped thing more important than, say, hiring a full time therapist, mediator, Berkeley-bureaucracy-specialist, other support role that the community could use filling?
I think that question is important, and I’d tie that back to the “don’t overcommit your resources” issue. It seems obvious to me that something community-center-shaped would be valuable, and just as obvious that other things would be valuable. My sense is that most of the alternatives to a community-center-shaped-thing are harder to execute.
I’m not sure how to think about that. Meanwhile I’d say something like: If you think you’d commit resources to other community-focused projects conditional on them looking viable, maybe...
- If making recurring donations (a la Patreon), maybe donate in proportion to how much you’d want to support the community center in particular, if you were also donating to other community-focused projects that you considered higher priority.
- Meanwhile, if you have additional income now that you’d like to spend on community infrastructure (but no current projects to give it to), maybe make an additional one-time donation.
Since REACH is still in the “getting set up” stage, there’s a lot of things they could use an influx of cash for, like “get a real shower/bath set up”.
My overall thoughts here:
A. There’s been vague gesturing in the direction of REACH for years, with no one actually making it happen. If you’re worried about the exact execution, I think it makes more sense to frame objections in the form of “how do we take the momentum we currently have and optimize it?” rather than “should we even have this momentum right now?”
The rationalsphere has hit a point where I think agency and good ideas are more precious than money, and I’m wary of accidentally killing that momentum.
B. Ultimately, my reason for supporting the idea basically as-is is because it’s working, and I don’t want to mess with it too much.
C. Re: the “if you want to take care of people, is this the best way?” question: There are a bunch of other roles and infrastructure that the local community could use, which I’d tie back to my “danger of overcommitment” point in the previous section.
I also think having a centralized community center will be make those things easier to coordinate on. (I think this is also an explicit part of Sarah’s plan, although I think it’s good not to overpromise on a new initiative SOLVING ALL THE PROBLEMS, and focus initially on just doing one thing well).
D. It seems extremely rare (not just among rationalists but generally) to have the opportunity to build a good village. The central Berkeley Rationalist/EA world pretty closely resembles the sort of community-shaped-hole that I think much of modern America has been missing.
There’s around 50 people I know and (I think?) another 50 that I don’t who live within walking distance of each other. Having come so close, sort of by-accident, I really want to see what a rationalist village can do when given the resources necessary to thrive.
Infrastructure seems valuable. In-person community spaces seem valuable for people to thrive.
Epistemic Status: Speculative and all that, but it seems real important for villages to have a community center.
The Case for Impact
People buying themselves nice things only gets you so far. Many of the people who would most benefit from the nice things are people new to the area who haven’t gotten jobs yet.
There are literally billions of dollars floating around in the EA sphere.
Is REACH a reasonable donation target from an EA paradigm?
This requires a more careful answer than the “buy ourselves nice things” perspective. When buying nice things, it’s important not to overthink it too much. Choices are bad and can interfere with the having-of-your-nice things.
When trying to save lives and bring about the best possible longterm future, it matters a lot more whether your strategy is good. You should be at least a little suspicious if the question “what’s the most good you can do?” outputs “buy your community some nice things.”
But underconfidence is just as real a sin as overconfidence. And by 2018, the sheer track record of meetups clearly indicates that community infrastructure is a contender for “serious EA cause”.
Quoth Mingyuan in What Are Meetups Actually Trying To Accomplish:
> I don’t work on meetups just because I want people to have friends (although that’s definitely a nice side-effect); I work on them because it seems that they have historically been able to produce people and outputs that have maybe marginally contributed to us being less likely to go extinct within the next couple of decades. So let’s try to figure that out.
At the very least, meetups are a weird black-box that outputs agenty people and projects. And just like you might want to keep funding basic-physics-research because it seems to output cool shit without a clear case for the impact, I think we want to keep pouring effort into local communities.
But I do think we can get more specific than this.
The most saliently high-impact output of meetups I’m aware of:
- The Boston meetup provided a lot of enthusiasm and volunteer infrastructure that allowed Max Tegmark to launch the Future of Life Institute, which in turn got Elon Musk involved with AI. (There’s room to debate if this was net-positive or not. But my current guess is yes, and the magnitude of the impact was both unmistakably high and unmistakably causal with meetups)
- I’m not sure how relevant the meetups were, but my impression is that years ago in NYC, the existence of the rationality community lowered the activation energy for Michael Vassar introducing Holden Karnosfky to Carl Shulman, most likely substantially changing Givewell’s direction.
More generally, meetups seem to :
- Foster the growth of rationalists and EAs, many of whom then go on to work on important projects. Sometimes this effect is immediate, sometimes it happens over the course of years
- Introduce people to each other (and to the broader ecosystem of organizations and thinkers) that increases the overall “luck surface area” of both individuals, and the collective rationalsphere.
- Provide a change-in-social-environment that allow important ideas from the sequences to actually take root, leading eventually to more capable individuals and ideas.
- Incubate projects (I think FLI counts. MetaMed didn’t work out in the end but I think from an expected-value and learning framework it counted. I think many organizations have their roots in people bouncing into each other at meetups)
There are two particular aspects of this I’d like to dive into:
The Agency Ladder
Agency – the ability to look at a situation, notice things that could be improved, and that proactively set out to do those things on purpose – is a muscle that can be trained. And it’s easier to train with a smooth difficulty curve, with stakes just high enough to be meaningful but not so high as to be paralyzingly intimidating.
Weird fact: a lot of people I know (myself included) gained a bunch of agency from running meetups.
When I arrived in the NYC community, I noticed an opportunity for some kind of winter holiday. I held the first Solstice. The only stakes were 20 people possibly having a bad time. The next year, I planned a larger event that people traveled from nearby cities to attend, which required me to learn some logistics as well as to improve at ritual design. The third year I was able to run a major event with a couple hundred attendees. At each point I felt challenged but not overwhelmed. I made mistakes, but not ones that ruined anything longterm or important.
In the Bay, there are many organizations, some of which are looking for volunteers. But there are only so many volunteers an organization can productively make use of (and often, even those positions require skills that a newcomer may lack, especially if they’re young).
There isn’t enough surface area for newcomer-molecules to bind with and start building their skills and network. One of the most important services I think REACH can provide is being optimized for providing agency-ladder opportunities to newcomers, in a scalable way.
Water Coolers and Campuses
I’ve talked a lot about the meetup-aspect of REACH, because historically I’ve been a meetup-oriented guy and I have a lot of opinions about it. I also hadn’t really seen the coworking aspect of REACH start to bear fruit until recently.
But I’ve lately come to believe this is extremely important.
There’s a campus based model of innovation I’ve been chatting about with Oliver and others. There’s a reason Google tries to get all its engineers to spend a lot of time at Google Campus, providing for all kinds of physical and social needs. It keeps engineers from different departments bumping into each other. It makes for an environment where people can slowly come to know each other in an organic fashion, bounce ideas off each other (casually at first, then perhaps more seriously).
It means that if you want to know something about someone’s project, you can just ask someone the next time you see them at lunch, without the vaguely obligation-shaped variant where you send them an email and they have to get around to responding.
Water Cooler talk is an important aspect of innovation.
I think the coworking aspect of REACH can be very valuable for this. In theory, CFAR offers this, but in practice CFAR is far enough away (and again with the trivial inconveniences of their security system), that I wouldn’t visit the office nearly as often as I’d visit REACH.
Recently, Katja Grace started experimenting with an “People working on independent AI projects get together to co-work” thing sometimes at REACH, inspired by a similar thought process.
This is the sort of thing a community center can facilitate.
From an EA grantmaking perspective, I don’t think REACH should be at the top of the list of things you’d want to give money to. But I do think it should be somewhere on the list. This is a case where the relevant question is “are you more money constrained, or shovel-ready-project constrained?”
If you’re an Earning-to-Give person who has non-trivial but limited amounts of money, another important consideration is that, with OpenPhil and BERI funding many of the most obvious, credibly high-impact-projects, most of the value of being a mid-level donor is in using your local knowledge to seed-fund early stage, fuzzier projects.
From both perspectives, I think it may have been fair to not want to fund the project before it had any track record. I think I probably roughly agree with CEA’s decision (at the time) to not give a grant – at that point it was hard to tell what was going to happen, and it was fairly expensive as far as community projects go.
But I think a reasonable way to evaluate this sort of project is a matching-grants paradigm. The fact that individuals have put forward $2500/month on Patreon by now is pretty strong “put money where your mouth is” evidence that REACH is providing the value it aspired to.
So… In Closing…
I think REACH is pretty good.
If you’re considering donating from the “buy ourselves nice things” perspective but aren’t yet sold… well, just come on by and check it out. Weekly meetups are on Wednesday at 7pm. Coworking is every weekday (and hopefully soon on weekends once we work out some kinks).
If you get value out of it, I think it makes sense to pay for a nice thing.
If not, no worries.
If you’re considering it from an EA/impact perspective and think it’s promising but have some specific concerns, it’s probably at least worth a chat with Sarah to see if those concerns can be addressed. As noted earlier, I think it’s important for projects not to be too beholden to funders, but I do think there’s room for an earnest exchange of ideas.
If you’re living in some other geographic area, think REACH sounds great and wish you had one in your area… you might want to think about how to make that happen. Different cities may have different constraints, but I suspect it will often be achievable. There’s a range of possibilities between “group house functioning as de-facto community hub” and “full fledged center.”
If you’d like to make a one-time donation, you can do so here.