Working (6-15 years of experience)
986London, UKJoined May 2020


Private equity investor (E2G)

Co-Treasurer @ EA UK

Trustee @ EA for Christians

Trustee @ ICM UK

Director @ EA Good Governance Project



Topic Contributions

Thanks for this! You might be right about the non-profit vs. for-profit distinction in 'operations' and your point about the COO being 'Operating' rather than 'Operations' is a good one.

Re avoiding managers doing paperwork, I agree with that way of putting it. However, I think EA needs to recognise that management is an entirely different skill. The best researcher at a research organization should definitely not have to handle lots of paperwork, but I'd argue they probably shouldn't be the manager in the first place! Management is a very different skillset that involves people management, financial planning, etc. that are often skills pushed on operations teams by people who shouldn't be managers.

Most organizations do not divide tasks between core and non-core. The ones that do (and are probably most similar to a lot of EA orgs) are professional services ones

Administration definitely sounds less appealing, but maybe it would be more honest and reduce churn?

I don’t work in ops or within an EA org, but my observation from the outside is that the way EA does ops is very weird. Note these are my impressions from the outside so may not be reflective of the truth:

  • The term “Operations” is not used in the same way outside EA. In EA, it normally seems to mean “everything back office that the CEO doesn’t care about as long as it’s done. Outside of EA, it normally means the main function of the organisation (the COO normally has the highest number of people reporting to them after the CEO)
  • EA takes highly talented people and gives them menial roles because value-alignment is more important than experience and cost-effectiveness
  • People in EA have a lower tolerance for admin, possibly because they elevate themselves to a high level of importance. I‘ve worked with very senior and very busy company executives in the normal world and they reply to my emails. Yet in EA, it feels like once you have 2 years of experience in EA, you are too important to read your own emails and need somebody with 1 year of experience to do it for you
  • EA has so many small organizations and there seems to be so much reinventing the wheel, yet when it comes to specialists there are none
  • Managers within EA don’t seem to realise that some things they call operations are actually management responsibilities, and that to be a manager you need to be willing to less or maybe none of the day job, e.g. the CEO of a large research organisation should probably not do research anymore

There are some very competent leaders within EA so I don’t think we should make sweeping assumptions. I think we need to make EA a meritocracy

@Jack Lewars is spot on. If you don’t believe him, take a look at the list of ~70 individuals on the EA Good Governance Project’s trustee directory. In order to effectively govern you need competence and no collective blindspots, not just value alignment.

Thanks, Joey. Really appreciate you taking the time to engage on these questions.

To be clear, I’m not seriously suggesting ignoring all research from before the decision. I’m just saying that mathematically, an independent test needs its backrest data to exclude all calibration data.

It strikes me that there are broadly 3 buckets of risk / potential failure:

  1. Execution risk - this is significant and you can only find out by trying, but you only really know if you’re being successful with the left hand side of the theory of change
  2. Logic risk - having an external organisation take a completely fresh view should solve most of this
  3. Evidence risk - even with an external organisation marking your homework, they are still probably drawing on the same pool of research and that might suffer from survivorship bias

Thank you for writing this and for all the work you (and others) have put in over the years.

My question is to what extent you think CE’s impact measurement is tautological. If you determine something to be a high impact opportunity and then go and do it, aren’t you by definition doing things you estimate to be high impact (as long as you don’t screw up the execution or realise you made an error). To full adjust for selection effect, you would have to ignore all research conducted before the decision was made and rely solely on new data, which is probably quite hard to come by.

The 40% seems very high. For-profit start-ups have a much higher failure rate. If that’s true, that’s incredible, but I’d expect to see more like 5% of charities and 50% of funds.

what qualifies as a 'task'

Basically anything that involves actually delivering the organization's goal. It's probably easier to define as everything that's not governance or advice.

why does it reduce independence for the board to do it

If board members are doing it, then board members become part of the organization rather than separate from it.

why does it impede governance

The most important function of a board is to provide accountability for the CEO (and by extension the team below them). If they are involved in something, they cannot also provide external perspective.

why is either of those effects necessarily (or in expectation) bad?

It means you don't have a system of governance that has been shown repeatedly to lead to better organizational performance.

how do you differentiate between 'important strategic decisions' and 'tasks' or 'advice strongly recommended by the board'

In terms of 'important strategic decisions' vs. 'tasks', there's no black and white rule about what decisions are strategic vs. what decisions are tactical. For example, "should we double in size?" is a board-level decision, whereas "should we apply for this grant equivalent to 1% of our annual income?" is probably not. Each board needs to gauge where the balance is.

On the other hand, there is a big difference between decisions and advice.  If the CEO chooses to ignore the advice, then they are accountable for the outcomes. Do also note that decisions are typically taken by the board collectively[1], whereas advice is frequently given by individual board members. An individual board members does not have the authority to speak on behalf of the whole board unless a decision has been taken.

Why is it better for the trustees to evaluate performance than the staff

I'm saying the board[2] must evaluate performance as one of its core duties. I'm not saying trustees are the ones collecting the data or doing the analysis.

Staff have a conflict of interest (they are paid to do something that may or may not be worthwhile) and lack independence (they are close to the action so their objective judgment may be impaired).

a) a small charity that doesn't have sufficient funding to hire a CEO?

The advice above refers to organizations that have at least 1 member of staff (whether paid or unpaid).

b) a charity that has enough funding for a CEO, but far more work than that CEO can plausibly deal with, while having trustees who are willing to take some of the workload off them? (and no-one else who can credibly commit to doing so)

My advice refers to "Wherever practical", i.e. having this set-up is not ideal and may impair the effectiveness of your board but is better than the organization not doing the work it needs to do.

  1. ^

    The exception is if the board has delegated some authority to the Chair or a committee

  2. ^

    I'm referring to "the board" rather than "the trustees" because I think it's important to stress that it is a collective body not simply a group of people.

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