I’m fairly new to EA, and this is my first contribution to the forum, mostly because I didn’t feel particularly expert enough on any EA topic to weigh in. However, I’m not new to the world of ‘operations’ and have found that I’ve been approached by a variety of people who want a better understanding of what is meant by operations and help deciding if it would be a good career choice for them.
There has already been a bit of past discussion of ops on the forum; EA Norway’s posts do a great job of breaking down the skills needed, Eli_Nathan’s post shares some thoughts on alignment and personal fit and finally, this AMA post gets a bit more into the weeds for those who are more interested in some of the specifics. Also, this 80,000 Hours podcast is quite inspiring.
This post is intended to be a summary of the broad advice and suggestions I would say to someone considering operations.
Why I am qualified to write this article
I definitely don’t claim to be an operations ‘expert;’ these are more just the thoughts of someone who’s been doing this for a while, in my case, going on about 14 years, specifically working in younger, small-sized orgs. I’m currently the Operations Manager for the Happier Lives Institute and also working on launching a separate mental health project (teaser- watch for a future post).
How I got here
I started out by going the formal studies route: first through a master’s in social work with a concentration in social service administration (basically how to manage a nonprofit) where I took classes on topics such as grant-writing and HR. Then, I did a second masters/postgraduate degree in Nonprofit Management (Administración de las organizaciones sin fines de lucro, for my beloved Spanish speakers) from the Universidad de San Andrés in Buenos Aires (should anyone be interested) where we went even more in depth on topics like org charts (lots of Drucker), finances for NGOs, and marketing etc. Unless you want to specialize in a particular one area, you don’t have to study formally for these sorts of roles, but like anything, it helps.
What do operations people do?
If you google ‘what does an operations manager do?’ (which I just did) you’ll find the descriptions extremely vague and will include terms like ‘design, maintain, and improve organization operations.’ The reason for this is that operations will vary tremendously across industries and the size of the industry.
When I worked for a handmade fair trade jewelry company, I thought a lot about details like “does this barcode sticker have the right size font to meet the corporate warehouse requirements?” “How can I create a color chart to ensure that every time a customer buys earrings in ruby red, they get ruby red and not crimson red?’
Whereas, when I worked for a human rights org doing work in the Amazon, I would research what type of anti-venom the team should have in the first aid kit they took into the field.
Working now with HLI, some of the most fun moments to date have been organizing and running our team retreat. We spent time hanging out and cooking together in a quirky condo while collaboratively defining the organization’s big picture ‘moonshot’ goals….and I also forced everyone to take a ‘team-building’ hike off my personal bucket list (the sneaky secret advantage of being the one to set the agenda).
In summary, my definition of operations is: keep the internal bits of the organization functioning smoothly. I’ve noticed in EA, as they tend to be fairly small / young ogs, the term operations manager is used to encompass all the random backend administration tasks that an org needs to do to keep operating. This will likely include some variety of:
- Human resources (HR): writing job descriptions for new hires, conducting interviews, creating employment contracts, writing a staff handbook, creating company policies on vacation time, making sure you are in compliance with national labor laws, on-boarding a new employee. This will likely be the largest chunk of your time.
- Financial management: Unless you have a dedicated finance person, there might be some budget creation, accounting, and financial projections. Making sure staff get their correct salaries, paying contractors, buying any of the stuff you need (including websites, software subscriptions), and setting up an annual audit.
- Fundraising: Unless you have a dedicated fundraiser, you will likely do a bit of that too. For example, in my current role with HLI, I helped create our pitch deck and write funding proposals to send to donors.
- Technology: Organization of google drive, figuring out the best accounting software, getting everyone on zoom, making sure a new employee has the right software installed in their laptop.
Then depending on the size of your org, there might be a smattering of comms work (creating a newsletter, social media posts), event planning (staff retreats, special events, conferences), and legal (reading and ‘understanding’ all the contracts, knowing and complying with the national laws for nonprofits). If your team has a physical office, you will most likely be the one finding that space and negotiating the rental contract, the internet provider, and any other services that go into the office support.
Everything else is really going to vary depending on the exact industry, and the exact org. Be sure to ask for lots of examples: What does a typical day look like? What would success look like? What other types of support staff are already part of the team (HR, finance, comms, legal?) The presence, or lack of presence, of these other roles will determine how broad the responsibilities of the operations role will be.
I quickly checked recent topics in the EA Ops slack, and it includes highly-engaged conversations on themes such as reimbursement policy for personal office equipment, selecting the right US bank, creation of internal decision-making processes, lifetime limits on tax-free donations, immigration and visa issues, and advice for microphones for group calls.
As I’m hopefully starting to give you a bit of a picture, this is a very ‘behind the scenes’ role. You don’t get to do the ‘real’ work that the org was created to accomplish (deep research on subjective wellbeing in the case of HLI, fighting court battles for human rights in the case of the Amazonian NGO), but rather you will be supporting the people who actually do that stuff. If it’s a small org, you might occasionally dip your toe in, and of course you’ll be around it all and sort of breathing the air, but it's not going to be how you personally spend the majority of your hours. You will be reading contracts, calling tech support, figuring out how to transfer money to a contractor in a different country. Small warning, it’s not for the person who needs to be in the spotlight or accepting the big award.
You have to have a service/support mindset; your first and foremost role isn’t to stop factory farming, but to serve the team who is doing that. Your job is to make sure the inner workings of the organization get out of the way of the people doing the ‘real’ work. You set up a system to help them know how many vacation days they have available, so they don’t have to spend their working hours calculating that. You create a calendar to make sure the org submits its reports on time to donors, so that it keeps getting more funds to do its awesome work of stopping the AI takeover.
I might be making this sound all a bit tedious. Honestly, it can be (no one as a small child dreamed of creating a google drive file naming structure), but it’s also fun in that it's always so varied. Each day is often quite different, you get to wear a zillion different hats, you get to learn the ins and outs of how your org runs (the proverbial ‘man behind the curtain’ – actually you are the person behind the curtain). It’s lots of fun problem solving. It takes a ‘can-do’ attitude. You’ll get to interact with lots of different people across lots of different fields. You get the secret satisfaction of knowing without you, the whole thing would come tumbling down (even if no one else sees it).
Who will thrive in operations?
The people who are going to thrive in this role are generally pretty organized (think lots of lists), can see the small details and the big picture at the same time, don’t get stressed out by juggling multiple balls at once, and like to do many projects at the same time, rather than just focusing on one at a time. You probably like people. Especially in a small EA org, you are going to be the jack-of-all-trades, generalist, which is great if you really care about a particular cause, want to work to support it, but don’t have deep professional expertise in that field.
If you’re still in school and considering ops (or even if you’re not), I would ask myself: “Do I like organizing people, stuff, events? Do I like figuring out the details of how to make something happen? Do I stay (relatively) calm in the face of lots of questions and things coming at me from all directions? Do I like to think how I can make this better and how could things run more smoothly? Am I highly ‘practical’ in nature?” If yes, then ops might be for you.
Hopefully, this has provided a helpful overview for anyone considering a career in ops. It would be super interesting to get the perspectives of other ops people, in particular about their more specific tasks and responsibilities based on their individual orgs. I know it's going to vary a ton. Because, like I’ve been trying to show, that’s the name of the game.
The most fun part: you constantly get to learn something new, constantly get to challenge yourself to improve. And when it all works (and even when it doesn’t perfectly), you get the satisfaction of knowing you were there, making it all happen.
"Service/support mindset" reminds me of healers in role-playing games. You don't show up on the damage charts, but you kept everyone alive (and allowed them to optimize their builds for damage)!
hahah love this analogy!
This is a great overview of ops, thanks for writing! I especially like the emphasis on service mindset. For me, the immediate reward of ops has typically been pleasing people: It makes me happy in the moment to help people, and then I get my higher-level abstract satisfaction from my belief that those people are doing stuff to improve the world.
thanks for the kind feedback! It is really satisfying to know you are helping make sure that the org is a good place for people to work and also, hopefully grow and thrive!
Thanks for taking the time to write this, Joy! I like your clear and engaging writing style, and the length and structure of the post.
Things I've done in the past that fall under ops (and haven't been mentioned before)
Things I'm now doing as an Executive Assistant:
Some more random thoughts:
these are great additional examples, Sara! thanks for adding.
and yes, I completely agree its about 'removing obstacles before they happen'! good insight!
This is such a great summary, thanks, Joy!
Building on what Sara said, I would add that there is also an "invisible part" which I would name "building a thriving Culture", notably by organizing social events, or listening to people when they have issues in their work (and sometimes personal lives) and find ways to solve those. The idea is to continue building a high level of trust and engagement... and maybe make work fun too? :)
Thank you, Joy! "How do I know if I'm a good fit for X?" is a question that I commonly hear. I'll be sending this post along to people who are asking about ops!
Two specific things I liked:
Thanks so much, Akash! Hopefully it can be helpful!
A lot of this is pretty specific to doing ops for smaller nonprofits - alot of big companies will also have ops staff as well, and they be doing things that are quite different! but the general concept of internal-focus and problem solving will be the same!
Thanks for writing this up! It also strikes me as a good overview and will probably be my default link if people ask me what ops is like. I like the specific examples across different orgs. It varies a lot!
My ops buckets:
These buckets are specifically geared towards 'supporting beams', bases for me to ensure I have covered. Helps to keep priorities in order and avoid the always-putting-out-fires syndrome.
That said, I'm probably wrong in my thinking about this, and it will vary widely across organizations and staff. Specifically I think I'm wrong in that priorities are more dynamic and diverse than this framework implies, so it's more an ever unfolding process of sorting out the prioritization of supporting beams / need-to-haves vs. nice-to-haves.
really great to hear about your experiences as well! Very much agree, its a challenge to keep focused on the bucket of 'important priorities' and not just get caught up in 'fire-fighting' mode. What do you find works for you to keep that focus?
My best tool is to become a connoisseur of what it's like to be shifting into reactive / fire-fighting mode, and make a craft of switching back to prioritizing.
(responding to this post has the sort of dizzy pulling-away feeling that reactivity has, so I'm going to yolo submit and try to shift back to proactive mode)
I remember asking you this question in a one-on-one hehe. I'm glad you took the time to write it out! This will be helpful for me to return to :)
:) It was thanks to thoughtful questions from people like you that made me thing this might be helpful to share!