Last edited: November 7th 2022
This guide was written by the Pineapple Operations team with inputs from several operations staff at various organizations to provide an overview of considerations for entering operations work at EA orgs. We think it'll be especially useful for people new to EA and/or operations who are considering working in this space. We think it could also be valuable for people looking to hire for these roles to understand the perspectives of candidates but it has less directly relevant advice (we may write up something in the future).
We've chosen to publish this now because it seems like it could be useful to many people. We may make updates in the future and will keep a change log in the appendix.
1. What is operations in EA?
TL;DR it’s come to mean “everything that supports the core work and allows other people to focus on the core work” (this is not normally what operations means outside of EA, administration may be a more appropriate term).
Operations in EA is a very broad area that can mean a lot of different things. This guide focuses on most operations roles (excluding PA/ExA roles and operations leadership roles). There are a few roles that we’ve seen open positions for in the last year (2022). Note that many roles will include several items from this list:
- Operations Manager (most often at small / new organisations)
- Implementing and maintaining general systems & processes
- Managing Accounting, Payroll & Legal
- Marketing & Communications
- PA tasks for the team
- Other ad-hoc projects
- Office & Community Manager
- People Ops/HR
- Recruiting Coordinator
- Special Projects Associate / Project Manager (usually helping incubate new projects or do project management)
- Events Associate (events planning & execution)
- Logistics/Supply Chain
Some roles will also have operations staff doing direct generalist work - such as research or program development - as needed, and generalist roles at smaller orgs will also involve operations work. Generalists can do many different things, well outside the ops domain - could be research, sales, and even having inputs on strategy. Generalist work that involves research will be often very different in nature to operations where task switching is common, or external facing work vs back-office admin tasks which don’t require much human contact. If you are hired as an operations person, keep in mind that this will likely be your top priority - it’s literally what keeps the lights on. Read the job description for each role carefully before applying - roles with the same title might have very different responsibilities, and be clear about what proportion of your time could actually be spent on generalist work if that’s mentioned in the JD (and that orgs may not be able to always predict this ahead of time).
"In my current EA role, which is generalist but more explicitly ops-focused, my responsibilities have included ops, communications, and research, and shift based on my comparative advantage relative to the rest of the team. In this type of role it’s important to have a clear sense of priorities and boundaries, because your work could easily encompass… everything. It’s also important to learn to communicate clearly across functions and outside of your org, and to be flexible and excited about learning new things!"
- Emily Thai, Operations Manager @ Giving Green
Operations is often recommended as a good fit for community builders or people with experience organising local groups. There is typically a fair amount of overlap between the two roles - community building can involve many tasks that often fall under ops in EA e.g. events, implementing systems & processes, managing people/community members, communications - but there are also a few differences. Operations can be a bit faster-paced and more structured (ex. doing legal work, accounting, etc). Community building is often more about relationships & communicating high fidelity ideas, whereas a lot of operations can be back-office work. Community building in EA can often involve a lot of planning and strategy work especially if you're director of your local group.
"I started with Community Building (as local group organizer) before going into (what I like calling) "entrepreneurial ops". Looking back at the path that I took, the way in which CB benefited me the most in the work I do today is:
(1) Organizing large-scale community-building projects helped me gain project management skills very rapidly while having impact (I've referred to these projects several times in my job applications)
(2) Having an incentive to understand the community and how it operates (this is knowledge I keep building even today and that has helped me tremendously understanding strategic details of my work today)
(3) Getting to know collaborators more easily to work on small, independent projects where I got to test other adjacent skills beside ops, such as research."
- Cristina Schmidt Ibáñez, Special Projects Associate @ Rethink Priorities
2. What makes an excellent operations candidate?
Here's a list of things we think are useful for operations roles. If you think several of these apply to you, you may be great at and enjoy an operations role. (If you’re not sure, you can try to test your fit)
A service / ownership mindset & interest in operations
- Service mindset - you will most often not be working directly in the cause area, therefore it’s important to understand that going in you will be mostly acting in the background, supporting others in doing their work and on occasion taking over tasks from them. The flip side of this is always feeling like you’re the mediator or the middle person so you may neglect your own preferences.
- Owner mindset - being able to follow through on your work and having a strong sense of ownership is critical to ensuring things get done, even if it involves following up with other people.
- Intrinsic interest in operations - This is something which is repeated often, but I do think is worth repeating. If you find operations work interesting, engaging or rewarding in and of itself, that could be the drive that can help you excel in a role. The following questions are examples of the types of things you could ask yourself (but make sure to ask questions specific to the job description at an org you are applying to):
- Are you the type of person who sees inefficiencies in a process and proposes a way to fix it?
- Do you tend to take over project management responsibilities for a team? Are you the person always making a Gantt chart?
- Are you fulfilled when you help other people do their best work, but don’t necessarily want to be a line manager?
- Do you take on culture tasks like organising office parties, knowledge management tasks like keeping a Google Drive organised, or HR tasks like designing recruitment processes and reviewing resumes?
- Excitement about the organisation’s mission & vision - Working on tasks that you don’t fully align with may make your work harder and/or more boring if you aren’t genuinely excited by the organisation’s mission (not just “it’s EA, so it’s impactful”). This is less important if you are intrinsically motivated by operations work and find it interesting in general.
“Many EAs are fairly intellectual, and as such may feel like they're missing out on something by working in operations roles. Although these positions are often challenging, they tend not to be academically or intellectually stimulating in the same way as school or university. Anecdotally, several people I’ve spoken to who work in operations at EA organisations have mentioned that they miss academia or research in some form or another.”
- Eli Nathan, previously Operations Assistant at Open Philanthropy
Able to task switch, be detail-oriented & organised
- Adept at task- or context-switching - You have to “like to do many projects at the same time, rather than just focusing on one at a time” and you’ll also get tasks assigned throughout the day. Task switching requires good time management skills and attention. One way operations is described is that you’re boosting everyone on your team’s productivity - this is true. But the flip side is that you’re also taking a hit to your own productivity as a result - and this can sometimes suck! There’s been a good amount of research on the costs of task switching on productivity.
- Being detail oriented, but not perfectionist - Being detail-oriented is not the same thing as perfectionism. You can’t be a perfectionist and get everything done with 100% effort and attention in most operations roles. Learning to accept the minimum viable product (MVP) or minimum viable effort is often needed in an operations role. Think 80/20 rule, where getting to 80% of a product takes 20% of your effort, and that 80% is maybe all you need.
- Organised and able to stick to deadlines - it may sound trite, but it’s actually pretty critical for operations. You’re often dealing with real world deadlines (e.g. to submit legal paperwork) and you’ll always have someone relying on you to get something done. You will also have a lot of (small and large) tasks and projects to manage simultaneously. Having good estimation/forecasting on how much time tasks require helps manage work and other’s expectations.
"I’ve worked different roles/projects, and enjoy lots of different things. I saw myself as someone who "gets stuff done" - which I'd equated with being an "ops person". Although, I didn't see myself working long-term in operations, I figured I'd be a good fit for these roles for several years.
After joining my first operations role, I noticed that after the initial learning curve that I wasn't feeling as motivated (especially on more repetitive or monotous tasks). I realised what what primarily motivates me isn't the ops-y nature of the work, but the feeling of "if not me, then who?". I talked to my managers about this and I switched to Product, which turned out to be a much better fit - I think I went from a B to an A in terms of performance"
- Vaidehi Agarwalla, (Product Manager @ Momentum, prev. Ops Manager)
Quick learner & independent, upstream thinker
- Quick learner - you’ll be asked to do things you’ve never done before - whether that’s evaluate an ATS, develop your data use policy or plan a 200 person conference.
- Upstream thinking - being able to think about how things can be improved or done more efficiently, (e.g. multiple requests for the same thing be made into a process or proactively working to solve a problem before it blows up).
- Independent thinker with good judgements (this is more the case in smaller/newer orgs or in a more senior position) - you can often be tasked with a poorly defined tashk, and have to independently make (good) decisions. Part of this comes with experience, having good models of what’s needed (being observational, attentive to detail, etc.), and trusting your judgement. Related - you also need good listening skills to understand peoples’ needs and asking the right follow-up questions.
Note that senior operations roles have input into organisational strategy, stakeholder management, and leadership, and need a skillset beyond what’s above to be able to meet these additional responsibilities.
Prior experience in operations
Unsurprisingly, prior experience in relevant work helps a lot. Experience in community building, running organisations (ex. at university), etc are all similar to formal ops roles and can be good prior experience.
3. Realities about some roles
These are things we think it's important to be aware can happen in some roles, but note that there are many roles where this is not the case. Some of these points are true for non-ops roles as well.
Think about what's important to you in a role, and trying to find out as much as possible about a position when applying or considering an offer. Be honest with yourself (and potential employers) about your needs.
Ops can be separated from the core mission
Doing ops at a (larger, more established) EA org may feel more similar to a non-EA job a job at any other organisation. It may feel more removed from impact than the other roles at the organisation. Some roles can also involve a lot of monotonous or tedious tasks.
It’s important to clarify expectations about how the position fits into the rest of the organisation, the company mission, and what (if any) input you have in strategic direction (if any) and decision-making. This way, you can go in fully informed about the reality of the role.
"In the first few weeks of my job, I found myself confused and slightly regretful of my decision to leave my old job for this new company. I thought I would be working on EA stuff, that it would be super high impact, and my day-to-day would feel like I was an EA working at an EA org.
The reality is that while I was working for an EA org, it was essentially no different that an ops. position at a non-EA org in the sense that I wasn’t using my ‘EA skills’ in any way. I was doing generic ops. tasks (such as ordering supplies, managing projects, etc) but just for an EA aligned company.
I ended up being happy working there - but I definitely wish before I accepted the job I had asked about how the position fits into the rest of the company.”
That being said, on smaller teams you might have more inputs on strategy decisions, where the boundaries between roles are less clear.
"The senior vs non-senior distinction gets tricky on small teams - a lot of junior roles can be boring monotonous stuff, but on a small team, you could have an entry or mid level ops title and still have strategy and stakeholder input (at least that’s been my experience)”
- Emily Thai, Operations Manager @ Giving Green
Ops can be lonely
At smaller orgs, you could be the sole operations person. Sometimes, this is great - you could be pulled into other projects and be involved in the company in many ways. But it can also means that you’re often working alone, on projects that are pretty different from the core work of your organisation. You may not get the “team feeling”, and there may not be automatic opportunities for teamwork and relationship-building. When taking a job talk to your manager about how to create those opportunities if you want them.
"I love working with others - I love the process of building something together with people, bouncing ideas back and forth, getting feedback. As an ops manager it was really rewarding to see the inner workings of the company, but I didn't get opportunities for collaboration. This felt isolating and reduced my motivation. Switching roles helped solve this problem.”
- Vaidehi Agarwalla, (Product Manager @ Momentum, prev. Ops Manager)
Some roles can be very intense
Some roles can be pretty stressful, intense and gruelling. Below we describe some ways. Be honest with yourself about what you can handle and make sure to advocate for your own needs. It’s better to not take a role than to burn out on one which is a bad fit - there are lots of projects looking for great operations talent!
Long hours: Sometimes ops work isn’t a 9-5 job (ex. some ops teams work 7 days a week, 10+ hr days) and hours can fluctuate over time (ex. events are more than 40 hrs in the lead-up to the event). There are often unspoken assumptions that people work more than 40 hrs / week.
Firefighting: In some positions you’ll be in ‘firefighter mode’ a lot of the time dealing with emergency situations (ex. dealing with a flood in a building) or short timeline projects (ex. setting up a venue for a program in 10 days). These can be very high-stress, high-workload events that can be taxing.
It can be unclear what is normal treatment and what is unacceptable: We know of some instances where operations contractors have not been treated well. This kind of treatment is not something we as a community endorse. We encourage you to bring up issues with your manager directly if you are able to. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, you can always reach out to CEA’s community health team who can help talk through your options and provide support.
“In one ops role I was in. I was often put under pressure. Everything was a ‘fire’ all the time and we didn’t have the company structure where I felt comfortable asking questions or pushing back. This led to stress and chaos all the time – and created an environment where I couldn’t ask clarifying questions and we just had to do insane tasks (things that often took hours and lots of money with no real purpose) with no ability to voice our opinions.
It was also challenging to say anything to the senior leadership or give any input. Everything was more of an order and we we’re just being paid to do last minute, very high-stress tasks.
Sometimes I didn’t always do as good of a job as I wanted. I had to learn to separate out personal worth from your performance in the ops role. In hindsight, I wish I would have said something earlier to the senior leadership about the company culture and how they we’re creating an unsustainable and unhealthy work environment. I also wish I had communicated to my manager more about this – so they could have communicated this to leadership earlier. I ultimately did give that feedback – the conversation went well and it was very appreciated." - Anonymous
We think it’s important to note that many organisations also have good work-life balance, and people have had positive experiences finding a good balance. Abraham Rowe (COO at Rethink Priorities) talks about their approach to hiring to try and avoid situations where ops staff are overwhelmed with work. Amrit shares his experience with ops work below:
“I comfortably work a normal ~40-hour working week, take ~5 weeks off a year, and only work evenings or weekends for specific scheduled things (e.g. events), in which case I’ll take other time off to compensate.
In operations, there’s always more work that could be done, and I do sometimes not get important/pressing things done, which it’s possible I’d finish if I worked longer hours. But ultimately I know where I want my boundaries to be, so I prioritise and do what I can within them – if that’s not enough to get everything important done, then I’ll discuss it with my manager, and we can work out how to resolve that in a work context: perhaps we need to take on more staff, outsource something, or take on less work. I’m happy to have found my managers to be supportive of this."
- Amrit Sidhu-Brar, CLR
Professional development can be challenging
While learning on the job can definitely contribute to professional development, it’s not the only way to develop professionally. Especially at smaller organisations you may not have access to lots of great mentors and managers, or have the bandwidth to take time off to skill up via classes or self-learning. At some organisations, you may not have a lot of room for growth into other roles.
Some roles are temporary and contract-based
Many roles in the operations space are part-time or contract roles. If you’re comfortable with these kind of roles, it can be a good way for both you and the person hiring you to get to know you better and test your fit for the role. It can also help you get future roles if you do a good job, because many employers will seek referrals from people you’ve worked with in the community.
However, it can also be stressful. Some kinds of contract work can be very intense and full-time. This can mean that you don’t have time to take on other projects, or have runway to find a new job when the project is over. It’s important to think through what you will do after a project - although finding new projects is easier, it’s not guaranteed. Talk to your employer about your financial needs and whether they can be met before taking on a project.
Other times, it may feel like the contractor role is an extended work trial - and it might seem like it’s worth taking on a project with a potential employer because it could increase the chances you get a full-time job, even if the timing or situation is less than ideal (e.g. you have a full-time job already). Generally, if someone asks you to take on a project you’ve already passed their bar of competency. It seems that the marginal value of taking on additional projects is lower, and may not improve your chances as much as doing the first initial project. It may seem intimidating to say no, but it’s important to think about what’s best for your situation.
In all these cases, it can help to be upfront with your manager about what the expectations are and what your needs are. If you feel you have an open line of communication it may be a flag to think about what a full-time working relationship would look like.
"Taking on contract work and temporary projects helped me a lot in building up skills and credibility to find and receive ops opportunities within the EA ecosystem. Nevertheless, it wasn't an easy task to balance things in my life doing so much at once and I burned out more than once.
Therefore I recommend thinking carefully about the tradeoffs to your health when taking on side-projects. I take my work-life balance much more seriously these days and luckily have an organization (and manager) that support that."
- Cristina Schmidt Ibáñez, Special Projects Associate @ Rethink Prioritie
4. What do I need to read, learn or skill up in?
Often orgs will be flexible in hiring someone who is generally competent and a quick learner if they don’t know specific things (e.g. you’ve never done accounting before) - in those cases, if an org makes an offer you can check in with them to make sure you’ll get the time & resources needed to skill up in something (e.g. by taking an accounting course).
If a role requires expertise in an area it’ll say so in the description, but there’s a wide variety of specific skills that are needed and needs are constantly evolving in ways that are sometimes hard to predict.
It does seem valuable to invest in your own personal development and productivity systems, but this is true for any position. (It may benefit you a little more in a role where you could share that knowledge with your teammates).
5. How can I test my fit?
If the above description of operations tasks and roles motivates and excites you, then that’s great! If you’re not sure, then look back at your own tendencies - do you seek out new tools and try to learn them? Do you enjoy this process? And do you think about your projects and actively organise them to ensure they get done? If the answer is yet, then operations may be a good fit.
Do some research & talk to people
80,000 Hours has a short guide on how to research your fit in any field. Apply for 80,000 hours career advising (or Animal Advocacy Careers) to talk to them about if operations could be a high-impact path that’s right for you.
Do any kind of project or role related to operations
Non-EA ops job A small and/or quickly-growing org can be particularly good for skill-building (and getting a legible signal of your skill), as you're likely to get experience across more areas and more ownership in a junior role. But at smaller orgs you're less likely to get good mentorship/training, and plausibly higher risk of bad management/working conditions.
After I graduated, I talked to a few people in EA about operations work and one recommended small, quickly-growing companies as particularly useful for skill-building. I lived in Cambridge (UK) where there are a lot of tech startups, so I emailed about 15 of them saying I was interested in administrative work. One replied saying they were about to look for an office manager, interviewed me, and offered me a 2-month internship that later turned into a permanent role as their first ops employee. (I’m unsure whether this strategy works a lot of the time or whether I was just really lucky.)
Over the next two years, I was able to take on responsibility in HR, accounting, compliance and recruitment alongside office management, as the company grew from 10 to ~40 people; and towards the end recruited and managed a small team. I think this was really valuable fit-testing and skill-building for me: I learnt that I like this kind of work, seem to be competent at it, and gained a legible signal of my skills. I continued using the skills and knowledge I’d learnt when I eventually moved on to a role in an EA priority area.
- Amrit Sidhu-Brar, Operations Lead @ CLR
"My first two jobs after college were junior generalist roles at small/young orgs; my main job description at both was to do technical and research work but, due to the nature of a small team, I ended up taking on more and more ops work and learned I really enjoyed it. I think generalist roles at small/young orgs are a good way to test ops fit without necessarily committing yourself to an ops job title."
- Emily Thai, Operations Manager @ Giving Green
Volunteer / side project ideas: help out with local charities, student societies, community/hobby groups to e.g. run events/conferences/trips, do administration. Help a friend get a visa, move house or do their tax return.
Apply for jobs & do trial tasks
Applying for EA ops roles can be a good fit test, even if you don't get the job. You can learn things from the work test or interview process if you get that far; can ask questions about the job in the interview. You might get feedback (though be realistic that only some processes provide this). More on the benefits of applying here.
Within EA, you could contribute to existing EA groups, volunteer or do contract work
Operations is something you can also test your fit in part-time / over time.
If you are part of a student group or work with your local EA group, then the great thing about operations is that many of the things you are likely already doing in these organisations are things that you will do in an operations role. Do you organise a student group? Well, putting on events, keeping track of a budget, acting on strategy goals are all things that people in operations do. EA operations is pretty similar to community building, running events, managing projects, etc. So, an easy, low-effort way to test your fit in operations (especially more generalist and events ops) is to do community building and organising.
Volunteering and contract work are great ways to get to know an organisation, the people, and the role you may have. Pay attention to fit with organisation culture, your future colleagues, manager, and responsibilities. Just because you enjoy and are good at operations doesn’t mean you will love every job, so it’s important to evaluate on multiple fronts.
Lastly, talk to people to learn about other organisations, work they’re doing, and other aspects. This is also a good way to hear about gaps within the EA community and potential jobs. You can also read these posts on more tips for getitng EA jobs here and here. More suggestions are listed in this guide by Eirin.
|“Volunteering at EAG has been a great experience! Working together with the other volunteers and the whole team has been fantastic, everyone really cared about running a great conference. I felt like I could really contribute, we would work together to find and fix problems, and come up with improvements. And being able to help all the participants is just a great feeling!" - Anonymous
6. How much are operations employees paid?
Pay seems to depend on the company’s size, cause area, salary philosophy, funding and work location. The smaller the organisation, the more likely they have less funding to offer you. Most larger organisations will be able to pay more, and these roles tend to have pay differentials depending on the location.
As of 2022 roles in the UK are advertised in the £35,000 to £75,000 range and sometimes more. In SF and Boston, salaries are advertised in the $70,000 to $170,000 range. There are also many remote roles, which generally adjust based on your location.
7. Do I need to be very involved with EA or mission aligned ?
If you’re looking to work with early-stage, or smaller EA organisations, then yes. A cultural fit allows the small team to better work on a daily basis and overcome challenges, as everyone is in lock-step with the organisation’s direction and purpose. EAs are more likely to understand the organisational culture, overcome setbacks, and stick around for longer.
At larger organisations, where there are specialised roles, EA alignment is still useful, though may be less important. Orgs sometimes seek specific skills (e.g. nonprofit accounting or legal aid) that may be hard to fill from within EA. We know of a handful of operation staff at various EA organisations who did not have a lot of EA background before starting.
8. How do I talk to people and network to find opportunities?
We think the best way to find promising opportunities is to talk to others. Contract/volunteer roles are rarely advertised, and you're most likely to get one by already being on the radar of someone who needs the work done; or by happening to ask at the right time. Ask people you meet at EAG whether they need any work done you could help with.
This isn’t necessarily the best situation, Sawyer Bernath makes the case that EA is too reliant on personal connections and decreasing reliance could help support “better ideas, increasing community health, and improving the community’s reputation among outsiders.”
Here are some suggestions:
- Attend EA conferences (advice on networking at conferences here)
- You could reach out to people with ops experience publicly listed on the Pineapple Operations database, (You can also list yourself - employers running closed hiring rounds sometimes candidates listed on there)
- Reach out to people on this Forum or EA Hub, the EA professionals 1-1 program lists some ops people.
"While working in ops at a non-EA tech company I started working on two part-time volunteering and contracting projects in the EA space. This included setting up and running a few basic systems (e.g. bookkeeping) for a small new organisation; and taking on a compliance research project for a larger one.
My first project I found through local EA group connections: the founder of a new org wanted some ops help and someone they reached out to knew me from an EA Cambridge retreat and remembered I was interested in ops work. I found the second project by asking an organisation leader at an EA Global conference,whether they had any volunteer projects I could do. I think I gained useful knowledge and professional connections through these projects.
I think getting opportunities like this is pretty hit-and-miss: most times you ask there won’t be one, but I do think they come up from time to time, and it’s often worth asking if you have the time available. "
- Amrit Sidhu-Brar, Operations Lead @ CLR
9. What legal and logistical things do I need to consider?
Any time you are working, especially in a foreign country, and there is compensation involved, it’s important to understand the legalities of the situation and to ensure that you can get paid (in a timely fashion). Here are three types of ways you can work for an organisation and the respective considerations:
- Volunteering - volunteering means doing free work for an organisation. If there is any chance of compensation for your work, then ask for more information and work through the logistics before starting your volunteer work. Compensation can change your status to “being employed”, which then changes your tax liability and access to federal protections. Even if you are a volunteer, you may be required to sign a contract for a nondisclosure agreement or for data privacy reasons.
- Contracting - While a great way to gain experiences across multiple orgs, there are many classifications of independent contractors (see definition in US, UK, Belgium, Germany). Be careful, as misclassification of your employment status can incur heavy tax penalties, impact your access to unemployment benefits, healthcare, paid time off, etc. Contracting is best for short-term or project-based arrangements. Don’t forget about correctly reporting your employment status and income to comply with laws. Anti Entropy has a very good guide on being an independent contractor.
- Employment - working directly with an organisation allows you to get access to the full benefits and legal protection from the organisation, in addition to compensation. Some organisations will allow you to continue contract work for other orgs, but that’s not a given and we recommend you check with your employer about this.
10. What resources are there?
80,000 Hours guide on operations
The Forum's Operations tag has a number of personal reflections, insights into operations and "writing about my job" profiles including an AMA with perspectives from a handful of operations specialists
Look into building your skills in this comprehensive “Professional Development in Operations” guide.
EA organisations specialising in operations
Charity Entrepreneurship - incubates and supports new EA-aligned charities
Effective Ventures - offers fiscal sponsorship and support for some EA projects and organisations
High Impact Professionals - matchmaking/recruiting service for EA organisations looking to hire
High Impact Recruitment - people ops service helping smaller organisations with the hiring process (recruiting, interviewing, vetting candidates)
Rethink Priorities - offers fiscal sponsorship and support for some EA projects and organisations
This guide was produced by Pineapple Operations; Alexandra Malikova and Vaidehi Agarwalla are the primary authors, with significant contributions from Elika Somani. Thanks to several ops people for sharing stories, feedback and suggestions to this document. We’re exploring creating other guides and resources for operations staff - if you have suggestions or needs, please comment or reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.