Edit: Thanks for the questions! We're wrapping up for now (though some of us will try to write up some last-minute answers to the most recent questions). We'll keep an eye on this post but can't guarantee that future questions will get an answer from us.
We (an assortment of people working in operations at EA organizations) wanted to give people on the EA Forum an opportunity to ask questions to people working in operations at EA organizations. We’re here to answer your questions between February 4th-8th.
What is operations?
Operations can be quite hard to define. It’s a term, commonly used within the EA community (and less commonly outside it), for a group of areas of work that have some features in common. 80,000 Hours says:
"People in operations roles act as multipliers, aiming to enable those in the organisation to maximise their productivity. They oversee the functions crucial to every top-performinginvitation organisation, such as management, overseeing budgets, helping to hire and train new staff, and so on."
Some other areas that might be included in a broad definition of operations are office management, legal compliance, tech support, project management, fundraising, events, personal assistance and communications.
That said, opinions of how best to define operations vary a lot, so feel free to ask us questions about it!
Ideas for questions
We’re happy for people to ask questions about anything related to operations work, but for a few ideas:
- Operations as a career path, such as what skills or experience are useful
- What the day-to-day work in operations roles is like
- What certain areas of operations work consist of
We sent an invite to participate in this AMA to members of a Slack workspace for people working in operations at EA-aligned charities and nonprofits. The people answering are those who expressed interest; it’s not our intent to exclude any organizations, cause areas, or other groups.
(If any readers are currently working in a paid operations role at an EA-linked organisation – including paid local group organisers – you're welcome to join the Slack workspace we mention above, which is used for sharing expertise and resources and helping each other out with operations problems. If you'd like to join feel free to contact one of us by Forum direct message.)
Sawyer Bernath (LinkedIn) is the Executive Director of the Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative, where he manages and executes all BERI operations. Prior to joining BERI in July 2019, Sawyer spent six years working various roles in manufacturing, an experience that has significantly shaped his view of organizations and operations.
Martin Fukui is the Assistant Director at Center for Human-Compatible AI (CHAI) which is based at University of California, Berkeley. He oversees the operations, hiring, finances, external communication, events, and various other aspects. Prior to his role at CHAI, he worked at law firms and the California Bar Association before transitioning to an EA/operations career.
Sven Herrmann (LinkedIn) is the Head of Research Operations of the Global Priorities Institute at Oxford University. Prior to joining GPI, Sven worked for five years in various roles for an NGO in the sustainability sector. Previously, he also worked as a management consultant as well as post-doctoral researcher in mathematics and computational biology. He holds a PhD in mathematics.
Marisa Jurczyk (LinkedIn) started working in operations as a part-time contractor for Rethink Charity in 2018 while in university. In January 2020, she began working in operations full-time, where her responsibilities include payroll, legal compliance, bookkeeping, systems management, and volunteer management.
Abraham Rowe is the Director of Operations at Rethink Priorities. He previously co-founded and served as the Executive Director of Wild Animal Initiative, and served as the Corporate Campaigns Manager at Mercy For Animals. At Rethink Priorities, he oversees operations, communications, and development work. He also occasionally writes about invertebrates.
Kyle Scott started working in EA operations in 2014, with most of his time spent as a personal assistant at the Future of Humanity Institute and subsequently as operations manager at the Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative.
Amrit Sidhu-Brar (LinkedIn) works on operations for the Center on Long-Term Risk in London, where his responsibilities include payroll, compliance, HR, accounting and office management. His main role is part-time at 0.7FTE; alongside this he does some similar work on a freelance basis for a couple of other EA-related organisations, and is a trustee of the charity that runs the EA London local group. He previously ran operations at a UK tech startup, and before that studied medieval languages at university.Hours’
We’re all answering in a personal capacity and are not speaking on behalf of any organization, including our employers.
Other EA resources on operations
In case it’s useful background information, here some links (not intended to be an exhaustive list) to a few other places where operations has been discussed in the EA sphere:
- 80,000 Hours’s (somewhat outdated) page “Why operations management is one of the biggest bottlenecks in effective altruism”.
- EA Norway’s “So you want to do operations”, part 1 and part 2
- Swimmer963’s “What is Operations” on LessWrong
- Eli Nathan’s recent “Some scattered thoughts on operations”
- Current operations job opportunities on the 80,000 Hours Job Board
For more resources, the EA Forum’s Operations tag is a great place to look!
A question from Dominika Krupocin and myself - it would be great to get more than one response if you have different experiences!
Do you have any experience with implementing a new system (project / task management, CRM, other enterprise software). If so: 1.1. What advice would you give to those who are embarking on this process? 1.2. What were the main bottlenecks / difficulties that you came across? 1.3. What would you have done differently?
If you haven't yet but are considering it: 2.1 What is your current approach? 2.2 What are your main challenges or uncertainties?
One general answer and one specific answer. (Numbering is my own and doesn't correspond to your questions.)
Several months ago, our team all switched over to using Asana. Before that, some were using Asana, some Trello, and maybe some neither. I believe the switch-over went pretty smoothly and there wasn't much resistance to using the new software. A few things that we did which may have contributed to the good adoption were:
We use Slack, Asana, Greenhouse, Notion, and Expensify (which we use in collaboration with BERI). It's worth trying out a few software options with a small team to see which one suits your needs the best. I'd suggest that you have 3 people try out one software at a time for 1-2 days to see what works. Software should be ultimately easy to use and easy to onboard new people seamlessly. Any kind of software that has a lot of complicated features and takes a long time to learn is likely not going to be great because if it's complicated to use then new members will be less inclined to use it and the software will ultimately become useless. One bottleneck for software that I've encountered is making sure that everyone actually uses it. For example, if you are going to use a software for hiring purposes but one person in your team doesn't want to use it or not willing to learn it, then things will likely get more complicated on your end as the person who is managing the software. Even if one person doesn't use the software, your work will grow quite a bit since you have to balance 2 systems instead of one. It's a simple thing to tell people who are looking into implementing software but it's an important thing to emphasize. Some software are more flexible in terms of its use (i.e. modifying layout to suit their needs, etc) which may mitigate this problem a bit. As long as everyone is using it, then this should be fine. It's worth documenting norms and rules related to any software and have new members read that document prior to using the software (although I often find norms surrounding software are fairly easy to grasp simply by using it for some period of time / intuitive). Another thing I'll note about software is that software should be easy to use collaboratively and you should make sure that the software has the ability to tag different people, share documents easily, have multiple people comment on one project, etc. I suspect pretty much all software has this feature but it's something to keep in mind nonetheless.
My general philosophy is that software is quite important to consider since it's going to be much harder to shift your team to use a different software down the line. Suppose you choose a software somewhat haphazardly and you want to use a different one down the line, then it's going to be quite hard to do so. I've often found people are reluctant when it comes to learning new software. The classic woodworking advice, "measure twice, cut once" is sort of the motto here. Also, for me, I try to keep using the same software as long as possible until a serious problem shows up. Like I mentioned before, getting an entire team to use a new software is tedious and takes a long time to implement and even if you do implement it, perhaps you will encounter problems with the software that you didn't think about before you started to use it. There will always be new software that come out and some of them likely offer slight improvements compared to your current system but personally, unless those improvements are substantial, I ignore them.
Recently, I've started working as a full-time personal assistant in an EA org. I'd be really interested to hear any advice on how to reduce the amount of time scheduling takes up (currently 1 h of my day). Is there any advice for how to process scheduling requests, often over different time zones and with busy people? Calendly works for some situations, but is not really that helpful.
Of course I don't know how much meetings you have to schedule, but spending 1h/day for scheduling meetings as a full-time PA doesn't sound like a lot of time to me (? - would be interested to hear what others working in assistant roles think). Scheduling meetings and doing it well so that the person you are supporting doesn't have to spend a lot of time on it themselves and don't worry about, is one of the things where a PA really add value. I think there is a limit on how 'efficient' you can be with scheduling meetings while still making it as easy as possible for the people involved in the meeting, so I wouldn't worry too much about spending some considerable amount of your time setting up meetings.
Besides using tools like calendly where appropriate the only other concrete piece of advice that comes to my mind is that is very useful to know the details of the preferences of the person (or people) you are scheduling meetings for, such as their prefered times for meeting, what kind of flexibility they have for other times of that's needed/the only option due to timezones, etc.
Thanks for doing this! Do you have any advice for EA group organizers (especially university groups), based on your experience with operations at other kinds of organizations? Areas I'm curious about include:
I don't have any experience with organizing EA groups at a university so I'm not the best person to answer these questions but I'll do my best.
Regarding bullet point #2, I think there are two things that are worth doing. First, praise them publicly and privately about their work. If they contributed to something that went well (such as an event), then public acknowledge their effort to the larger community and thank them. Volunteers (and operations folks as a whole) do a lot of thankless work that is largely seen as "easy" by a lot of people so having leaders acknowledge them is helpful. I also think you can praise them privately as well with a simple thank-you email or simply tell them face-to-face (or virtually these days). I often like to tell any operations assistants or volunteers that their work matters. I like to explain the causal link between the successful completion of their duties and the end goal. For example, if the volunteer doesn't create a template for the invite, then this delays the invites for the event and this puts the event in jeopardy. I think volunteers don't have a keen sense of how their work impacts the end goal of a project because they don't have the birds-eye view of the project like leaders do; they don't possess the ability to see the causal link between their work and the end goal. It's important for leaders to clearly draw that line for them so they understand how their work integrates with the larger picture and hopefully, how integral their work is to the project.
Regarding bullet point #3, I think having publicly available resources is a good idea. For example, at CHAI, we use Notion to document all of our internal logistics so any new member can familiarize themselves with our inner workings. If you haven't already, perhaps writing a set of guidelines for new/small organizations is useful. You can write a guide on organizing events, recruitment, marketing, etc and all of the different aspects when it comes to running an EA university organization. Also, documentation of your "missteps" is valuable. What lessons did you learn along the way as you organized events on campus? What former processes did you use before settling on your current one and why did the former one "break"? This gives new/small orgs an insight as to how to think about their own internal systems as they begin to grow and can learn from your previous mistakes and know what to avoid.
Another thing you can do is hold small retreats (virtually for now, obviously) where you invite leaders from new/small orgs and hold talks about various aspects of running an organization.
I'll have a go at adding some more ideas for #2. (Similarly to Martin, I don't feel like this is my area of expertise and I'm sure there are others in the EA community who've thought about thisway more than me, but here goes for a try: )
In an organisation that has paid staff one important thing for commitment would be making sure people are compensated well. While volunteers are unpaid and to a large extent doing it for the impact of the role, I wonder whether there are easy-ish ways to optimise the non-money benefits that volunteers are getting out of the role – e.g. skills, connections and so on. I guess one way to do this would be just to pay particular attention to volunteers "as clients" when doing the group's normal community-building activities. Alternatively, are there benefits that can be provided specifically to volunteers – like maybe connections to more established people doing similar work to the volunteer's role, or social activities specifically for the volunteer team? (Though those probably aren't low-cost, now that I think about it!)
Martin's idea of a retreat could be good for the engagement goal too – at EA Cambridge, where I'm a volunteer, there was a committee retreat one year. To be honest I don't remember what the main goals of the event were, but I think one benefit was helping me feel more engaged/committed in the committee that year.
The other main area I can think of that might help is ensuring that volunteers have plenty of ownership and space to make meaningful decisions and innovate (and that things stay that way as the team grows), both so that people feel a sense of responsibility and are more committed, and just to help the work be interesting. Like, where possible, delegating an area of responsibility, a problem or a sizeable project rather than the implementation of a specific solution; and ensuring that volunteers know what the extent of their freedom to change things is.
A few things come to mind:
1) Be an understanding, compassionate human. It sounds easy but I (and I think many others) actually suck at this once you bring important projects with deadlines into the mix. If someone doesn’t do things on time, it’s easy for me to get frustrated with them, but as a student leader I wish I would have reached out to people who were dropping balls and actually tried to work with them to see where they were at and how I could help rather than assuming they were lazy or disorganized. This sounds higher-cost but I think it actually saves time in the long-run if you can set up your team members to run things themselves without management having to pick up all the dropped balls.
2) Provide channels for feedback (and actually act on it). Whether that’s a time during your meetings, a channel in Slack, or an anonymous suggestion box (physical or virtual), I think one of the biggest morale killers is built up resentment about a thing being done less-than-optimally when no one seems interested in fixing that thing.
I think it’s worth noting that from my experiences in volunteer management, I expect to have a certain number of people who join and then drop-off/ghost after a while. (For me it’s almost exactly 10% within the first month or so each time, and then the number goes towards 25-50% over a year depending on the situation.) This is completely normal, especially in university as people go on to explore other clubs or take on internships or get hit with heavier coursework. Don’t stress over these people: it’s better for them to be honest with you about their commitments than to push them to take on more responsibility than they have time for.
I recall hearing from Alex Barry at the EA Summit a couple years ago who, at the time, was leading Cambridge EA (iirc) and they had an absolutely incredible rate of engagement from volunteer organizers/members contributing time to the EA group's events and activities. And huge numbers of them. IIRC, he said the key for them was to have one basic requirement: the organizers had to commit to checking and responding to Slack daily. That way, they'd know write away if someone didn't have time to keep working on something, and they'd quickly find someone else to do it.
Fellow group organizer here! (and former uni club leader, though not for an EA group) Honestly I don't think there were that many specific skills I learned from operations that helped me in group organizing, but rather it was the general operations mindset, which to me involves: a) noticing when things aren't running smoothly as they can be (for me this is feels like a special kind of stress, and if I'm not careful, my brain directs the blame towards other people involved in the system rather than the system itself), and b) trying things, whether that be new management structures, different software tools, etc. In particular I've found that familiarity with tools like Airtable, Slack, and Asana has been helpful for group organizing but you can probably find resources for that on the EA Hub.
I'll answer the rest of your questions separately.
I consider myself a new organizer so I don’t have much to add here other than a) one-on-ones, and b) sharing systems etc. that work for you (e.g. for tracking attendance, advertising, workshops). I think every new group is going to have different questions and different needs so I suspect there’s not a one-size-fits-all formula, which is why I think one-on-ones with organizers can be especially helpful, since you can gauge their bottlenecks and help brainstorm solutions.
Short answer: Asana. Long answer: Clearly define everyone’s roles and responsibilities and delegate wherever you can. As you get bigger you’ll probably want to have something like a traditional management structure, where e.g. the President oversees four committees, and each committee is run by one person, rather than one giant executive board. That way the President doesn’t have to keep track of every little thing that’s happening. This works best if you have a lot of people who are interested in helping out and are actually responsible.
Also: be realistic about what you can accomplish. If you don’t have enough people/capacity to do a thing well, it’s not worth trying to do the thing mediocre-ly.
I'm also curious:
For point #2, one speculative thing that comes to mind is the legal and governance structure of an incorporated organisation, i.e. being incorporated, and having a board – whether a board of directors/trustees who have legal responsibility for the organisation and whom the team ultimately report to, or an advisory board.
I know that plenty of larger EA groups, particularly national ones, have these kinds of things already, and I wonder whether it would be beneficial for more large EA groups to do so. (I don't know what the answer to this question is.) Possible advantages that I can think of of such a setup:
DIsadvantages I can think of include the effort and administrative complexity (which for a charity, might be very high), the time cost to the board members, the financial cost (e.g. incorporation fees, insurance etc, maybe legal advice or professional fees depending how much you did yourself), and maybe worse consequences if things go wrong (like forgetting to do some legal filing or doing your accounting wrong or something). I also have no idea whether groups that are student societies are allowed to be incorporated.
Do you think, on the margin, that EA orgs could get more and better ops work/people by paying substantially larger salaries?
I think yes up to a certain point.
Thanks! I wonder if some sort of two-tiered system would work, where there's a value-aligned staff member who is part of the core team and has lots of money and flexibility and so forth, and then they have a blank check to hire contractors who aren't value-aligned to do various things. That might help the value-aligned staff member from becoming overworked. Idk though, I have no idea what I'm talking about. What do you think?
There is probably a version of this that works. I know that some orgs have tried something sort of like this. One problem with "hire contractors who aren't value-aligned to do various things" is that you then have to manage those people (whether they're value-aligned or not). This is getting outside the scope of your original question, but I think people underestimate how much it can drag on an organization to hire new people without thinking hard about their onboarding. If you have a very well-defined task, with a clear deliverable, then it can make sense to contract it out. But if you just have a problem and need help, often bringing on a new person to solve that will make things worse in the long run.
All else equal, higher salaries almost always would lead to more candidates, but once you close to a level that is relatively competitive (eg compared to similar roles in other non-profits) and seems generally relatively fair compared to the rest of the organisation, I think other aspects of the role might become more important to candidates (eg the general work environment, how much freedom people get in the role, how much involved they can get in other aspects of the organisation if they want to, etc).
Thanks! How can an org give ops staff more freedom and involvement-if-they-want-it? What are some classic mistakes to avoid?
There are a few ways which allow me to get involved in other areas of our organization:
It seems as if EA organisations were in need of more operations people around 2018 (as evidenced by that 80k article), is there currently a need for more operations people in EA orgs?
Relatedly, how difficult is it to get a position doing operations work for an EA org, especially if you have some but not tonnes of operations experience?
Regarding your first question, I think this is correct. I spoke to some EA operations folks at the 2019 EA Global and they said that the need for operations people has decreased. Seems like after the article came out, there was a large influx of people applying for different positions and those positions have been filled (for the most part). This isn't to suggest that there aren't any operations positions open anymore - I'm sure if you look at the 80k Job Board, you will find operations job opportunities.
Regarding your second question, I don't have a good sense of how easy or difficult it is to get an operations position at an EA org these days. My general sense is that there are still quite a bit of qualified candidates applying to open operations positions so individuals who only have some but not a lot of operations experience may experience a disadvantage when applying to those positions. I can't speak on behalf of any other EA org but at CHAI, we occasionally use contractors on a temporary basis to off-load some of our operations tasks. If you have some but not a lot of ton of experience (as you put it), I would suggest that you reach out to EA orgs that you are interested in and see if any of them are looking for any short-term / contractors.
+1 to Martin's suggestion of reaching out to EA orgs and asking whether they need any short-term/contractor (or possibly volunteer) work doing.
Orgs will rarely run full hiring rounds for these, but my impression is that a fair amount of this kind of work exists. (Not saying that I think this strategy is anywhere near certain to work, but I would recommend it.) I never managed to make myself proactively ask people for roles like these, but the roles in this category that I got (which I think happened to me through chance really) mostly ended up being really useful for skill-building.
Yeah it seems accurate that the need for operations folk is significantly less than in 2018. That said, I've seen plenty of operations job postings in the last year or so, and it looks like e.g. CEA and OpenPhil currently have roles on the 80k job board. Combining that with the fact that EA organisations seem to generally be growing, it seems like there's still a need for more ops people in EA orgs overall. I guess the harder question is similar to your second one, namely whether such roles are currently easily filled with the in-EA people already aiming for them or with non-EA applicants, vs. whether there'd be a benefit to more EAs (with a particular amount or type of experience) doing so. I don't have much of an answer to this, unfortunately.
One random thought on this is that different kinds of operations experience might can be important as well as different amounts of experience. I have the impression that EA orgs are getting large enough that operations roles can get fairly specialised in some places. For example, I'm not certain, but I think I've seen roles for people focussing on automation, for a Salesforce admin, for junior accounts people. I could imagine that for these roles, experience in the right specific thing might be an advantage, even if the experience isn't that long. (Though I wouldn't take that too strongly.) Something pointing in the other direction would be that, for more specific roles, value-alignment may be less important and so it may be easier to recruit from outside EA.
Worth flagging that we at Rethink Priorities have had no trouble finding many well-qualified candidates when we do our operations hiring.
My personal impression is that it's a bit easier to find operations staff than before, but still difficult.
We wrote this update at the top of the original article:
For a long time I would discourage people from going into operations unless I (or they) had reason to think they're an especially good fit because I thought it was difficult to get in (mostly based on reading this post, and my assumption that operations roles have looser requirements than other roles, so more people tend to apply).
However, at recent EA conferences I've talked to a lot of people interested in operations, and over a six month time frame, I tend to find that almost all of them that continue to actively look for work in operations find it.
Like Martin and Amrit said, a lot of these positions go unadvertised. Of our current staff at RC, none of us formally applied for our roles. Two of us are former volunteers, one is a former contractor, and two are people our staff/former staff knew from working together at other organizations who were asked if they wanted to be on our team, without a formal hiring round. It's not impossible to get a job by applying directly - in fact, if you have demonstrated interest in EA, I think you have a good chance at at least making it through the first round of applications - but you'll likely have more luck by being proactive with a few organizations that you're especially interested in working at.
+1. Like Marisa mentioned, some operations individuals get jobs without applying to jobs via the "traditional" route. I started off as a contractor and was promoted to a full-time employee.
I've heard differing opinions on this from different organizations, and I think this is in large part because different organizations have different standards for operations hires.
For example, an organization that thinks that having an EA-aligned hire is important and is looking for someone with significant nonprofit/operations experience will have a more difficult time filling a role than an organization that's just looking for someone with certain soft skills (e.g. problem solving, learning quickly, etc.). I think EA organizations tend to lean towards being more relaxed about their requirements, especially for junior roles, which is why it isn't as hard for them to find operations hires.
That said, I think that having less strict hiring standards can lead to less-than-optimal hires, so even if there isn't as much need per se for operations people, you can still have a big impact here if you're an especially good fit. I've heard of some complaints about high turnover in operations roles (senior roles can be very stressful since you're juggling quite a big, while junior roles can be boring since you'll end up doing a good deal of admin work), so if you're reasonably confident that you have the personality to stick with operations for a long time, you can have more impact by acquiring more skills and preventing your organization from having to do another costly hire a few years down the road. Similarly, people who have special skills (e.g. technical knowledge for automation, bookkeeping, HR, knack for organization, etc.) could have a higher counterfactual impact in an operations role.
So tl;dr, yeah, we probably technically don't need more operations people, but that doesn't mean you can't have an impact working in operations.
What work tests/type of application questions have you found most valuable in finding the right candidates/filtering out good fits?
And if you do work trials, how valuable have you found them ?
We do work tests for all roles, operations or not. I think they are far and away the most valuable part of our hiring process.
The ones I have found the most useful for operations hiring:
The least helpful:
In a (written) work test I would usually try to have a situation that is similar to something slightly challenging that would be encountered in the actual work (Something that is based on an actual situation but adjusted so that it works well for a test environment is usually good.). This allows to get at least some idea on how people would address a problem at work in practice and I would try to incorporate to test for some of these skills:
What exactly you would do would of course depend on the specific characteristics of the role (eg if the role involves a strong Finance component you would probably add something specifically relevant to that eg dealing with spreadsheets).
For these kind of generalist skills, a work test in my experience works relatively well in separating very good from merely 'okay' candidates (And usually quite easily identifies bad candidates.)
There are other skills that are very well tested in interviews or similar situations and the combination of a work test and an interview has in my experience worked to judge candidates for (junior) ops roles.