Some problems in operations at EA orgs: inputs from a dozen ops staff

post by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla), Amber Dawn (Amber) · 2023-03-16T20:32:22.608Z · EA · GW · 19 comments


  General Brainstorming
    Knowledge management
      Potential Solutions
    Unrealistic expectations
    Suboptimal delegation of tasks to ops staff
    Lack of prestige or respect for operations
    Exclusion from decision-making processes 
    Less frequently mentioned pain points
  Appendix: the full general brainstorms to generate action items
    Pain Points Group #1
    Pain points Group #2
    Pain Points Group #3
    Pain Points Group #4

This is a brief summary of an operations brainstorm that took place during April 2022. It represents the views of operations staff at 8-12 different EA-aligned organizations (approximately). We split up into groups and brainstormed problems, and then chose the top problems to brainstorm some tentative solutions. 

The aim of the brainstorming session was to highlight things that needed improvement, rather than to evaluate how good EA operations roles are relative to the other non-profit or for-profit roles. It’s possible that EA organizations are not uniquely bad or good  - but that doesn’t mean that these issues are not worth addressing. The outside world (especially the non-profit space) is pretty inefficient, and I think it’s worth trying to improve things.  

Limitations of this data: Meta / community building (and longtermist, to a lesser degree) organizations were overrepresented in this sample, and the tallies are estimates. We didn’t systematically ask people to vote for each and every sub-item, but we think the overall priorities raised were reasonable. 

General Brainstorming

Four major themes came up in the original brainstorming session: bad knowledge management, unrealistic expectations, bad delegation, and lack of respect for operations. The group then re-formed new groups to brainstorm solutions for each of these key pain points.

Below, we go into a breakdown of each large issue into specific points raised during the general brainstorming session. Some points were raised multiple times and are indicated by the “(x n)” to indicate how many times the point was raised. 

Knowledge management


Organizations don’t have good systems for knowledge management. Ops staff don’t have enough time to coordinate and develop better systems. There is a general lack of structure, clarity and knowledge. 

  1. Line management
  2. Capacity to cover absences [see Unrealistic Expectations]
  3. Covering / keeping the show running
  4. Responsibilities
  5. Working across time zones
  6. Training / upskilling
  7. Management training [see improper delegation]

Potential Solutions

Unrealistic expectations


Employers have unrealistic expectations for ops professionals. Ops people are expected to do too much in too little time and always be on call. 


  1. Bandwidth (?)
    1. Increase capacity
    2. Have continuity
    3. [give ops staff the] ability to push back on too-big asks
  2. Recognition
    1. Create transparency
    2. Create intra-team comms & strategy
    3. Make the “invisible” work visible
    4. Make the manager aware of the actual size of a task
  3. Clarity
    1. Don’t idealize the really tedious; be upfront about the nature of work
    2. Manage expectations (both ways)
    3. Humanize employees
  4. ??? [emotional support]
    1. Hug it out
    2. Make more sense
    3. Emotional support horse
    4. Have a good cry

Suboptimal delegation of tasks to ops staff


Employers don’t use their ops staff well. Ops staff are assigned tasks that could be more easily done by other staff, or by non-EA contractors. Ops staff have to do tedious, low-skill tasks for which they are overqualified.  


Lack of prestige or respect for operations


Employers don’t respect or appreciate operations work, leading to ops workers not always being (or feeling) included in the organization.


Exclusion from decision-making processes 

Relatedly, many mentioned that they were not sufficiently informed about or involved in their organization’s strategic decisions.

Less frequently mentioned pain points

Appendix: the full general brainstorms to generate action items

Pain Points Group #1

Pain points Group #2

Pain Points Group #3

Pain Points Group #4

  1. Hiring
    1. Time consuming
      1. Geographical restrictions (West coast, Oxford, etc.)
    2. Bad hiring decisions
    3. Finding/reaching candidates
  2. Lack of Project Management Skills
    1. Using the same systems in the same way
    2. Knowing what system to use
      1. Complex or simple
      2. Relative to the task/project
    3. Setting it up “right”
  3. Setting organizational structure
    1. Line management
    2. Capacity to cover absences
    3. Covering / keeping the show running
    4. Responsibilities
    5. Working across time zones
    6. Training / upskilling
    7. Management training
  4. Lack of Clarity + Knowledge
    1. Legal
    2. Compliance
    3. HR
    4. Hiring
    5. Wellbeing
      1. Burnout
  5. Change management within the organizations
    1. Onboarding (capacity/time)
    2. Software


Thanks to Amber for help cleaning up and organizing these notes! 


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Grayden · 2023-03-17T09:12:32.496Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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
Replies from: abrahamrowe, jlemien
comment by abrahamrowe · 2023-03-19T13:35:20.769Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with several of your points here, especially the reinventing the wheel one, but I think the first and last miss something. But, I'll caveat this by saying I work in operations for a large (by EA standards) organization that might have more "normal" operations due to its size.

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)

I don't think this is fully accurate — my impression is that "operations" is used widely outside of EA in the US nonprofit space to refer to 90%+ of what ops staff in EA do. E.g. looking through a random selection of jobs at US nonprofits the operations jobs seem similar to what I'd expect in EA, which is basically working on admin / finance / HR / legal compliance, etc and some intersections with fundraising/comms. At lots of small nonprofits (like EA ones), these jobs are staffed necessarily generalists — you have to do all those functions, but none might be a full-time job on their own, so you find one person to do it all. I've worked at a bunch of US nonprofits outside of EA and all of them had staff with titles like "Operations Director" or "Operations Coordinator" who basically did the same thing as I'd expect those roles to do at EA organizations. I think EA likely just took this titling from the US nonprofit space in general, though EA does have some unusual operations norms (e.g. being unusually high touch).

I think that there is definitely a different use of this term in a lot of for-profit contexts (e.g. business operations) but I've also seen it used the same way there sometimes. And,  COO usually stands for Chief Operating Officer, not Chief Operations Officer, and those are definitely different things.

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

I agree that operations at EA organizations do lots of things that might often in other contexts be done by managers, and your specific example might be correct, but I also think that sometimes, especially in a nonprofit context, a large amount of admin burden is placed on programmatic staff, and it can be good to design systems to change this. That being said, the examples from the original post (e.g. dealing with emails for someone) sound more like an Executive Assistant's role, or just bad?

I think that lots of nonprofits outside of EA are under weird kinds of pressure (e.g. Charity Navigator rates charities on "administrative expense ratio") to not have particularly high operations costs. And an easy way to do this is to shift those expenses to managers (e.g. managers doing more paperwork). I don't think this is necessarily intentional, but a pretty undesirable effect of having fewer ops staff. I don't think EA organizations are under the same pressure, and that seems generally good.

Replies from: Grayden
comment by Grayden · 2023-03-19T21:31:35.342Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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.

Replies from: abrahamrowe
comment by abrahamrowe · 2023-03-20T01:27:03.424Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I definitely agree with that - I think a pretty common issue is people entering into people management on the basis of their skills at research, and they don't seem particularly likely to be correlated. I also think organizations sometimes struggle to provide pathways to more senior roles outside of management too, and that seems like an issue when you have ambitious people who want to grow professionally, but no options to except people management.

comment by Joseph Lemien (jlemien) · 2023-03-17T15:09:36.565Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The term “Operations” is not used in the same way outside EA

I agree that this is weird. In EA operations is something like "everything that supports the core work and allows other people to focus on the core work [? · GW]," while outside of EA operations is the core work of a company [EA(p) · GW(p)]. Although I wish that EA hadn't invented it's own definition for operations, at this point I don't see any realistic options for it changing.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2023-03-17T19:59:13.045Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Is there a word in the rest-of-the-world that means "everything that supports the core work and allows other people to focus on the core work?"

Replies from: Linda Linsefors, Grayden, vaidehi_agarwalla, jlemien
comment by Linda Linsefors · 2023-03-20T20:21:18.206Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I took a minute to think about what sort of org has a natural distinction between "core work" and "non-core-work".

A non-EA example would be a Uni research lab. There are usually a clear distinction between

  • research (core work)
  • teaching (possibly core work, depending on who you ask)
  • and admin (everting else)

Where the role of admin seems similar to EA ops. 

comment by Grayden · 2023-03-18T18:34:30.792Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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

comment by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla) · 2023-03-17T20:01:47.283Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"administration" ? but that sounds quite unappealing, which is why I think the EA movement has used operations. 

Replies from: Grayden
comment by Grayden · 2023-03-18T18:30:27.130Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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

comment by Joseph Lemien (jlemien) · 2023-03-17T22:03:55.046Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think there isn't a single term (although I'm certainly not an expert, so maybe someone with a PhD in business or a few decades of experience can come and correct me).

Finance, Marketing, Legal, Payroll, Compliance, and so on could all be departments, divisions, or teams within an organization, but I don't know of any term used to cover all of them with the meaning of "supporting the core work." I'm not aware of any label that is used outside of EA analogous to how "operations" is used within in EA.

comment by Deena Englander · 2023-03-16T22:41:40.389Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think another bottleneck is the unwillingness to hire outside of EA. It's not so hard to find good ops people who have experience outside of EA, and as long as it's a good personality fit, I've seen that working out well. Also, your typical EA is not a great ops person because they're happier working on the big picture. To find people who are good at implementing, you have to look outside the group since they're not naturally drawn to EA.

comment by CristinaSchmidtIbáñez · 2023-03-16T21:30:54.999Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Ops people should have the power to say no, since people don’t respect their time.


I think a major skill that any ops person needs to succeed and not burn out in the process is to set the right boundaries and have what I'll call great "interview skills". You need to be able to ask the right questions (ideally on the spot) instead of falling into a "reactive mode"

  • How important is it to get this done today/this week from 1 to 5?
  • How important is it to you that I do this task quick vs at a high quality level?
  • What do you think is a reasonable timeline to deliver this?
  • What does success for this look like?
  • How is this a bottleneck for other things you're doing?
  • If there's something from this list of things, which would you be OK dropping for 1-2 weeks?
  • Can we time cap this task?
  • How does this task relate to our OKRs?

And many other questions an ops person might want to ask. You have to ask yourself what you're saying yes to and be able to verbalize the negative ramifications of doing this task on a short-notice.

After gathering that information you can actually start negotiating with the other person and only then commit to a deadline/work package.

Another thing that some people might want to try if they feel comfortable (we do this in our team) is to share a  list of ongoing requests they are prioritizing during the week and so there's more transparency around the workload a person has at any given week. 

Replies from: jlemien
comment by Joseph Lemien (jlemien) · 2023-03-17T15:15:49.743Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Agreed. One of the things I've struggled with is taking the time to interrogate the task rather than diving into it. Power dynamics and desire to please certainly come into play. I suspect that this is common (although I might merely be victim to a typical mind fallacy).

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that having clarity about the task (priority, dependencies, etc.), allows better work to be done. But I think that many employees, especially people with relatively little work experience, struggle with it.

comment by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla) · 2023-03-16T20:39:09.028Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My view: I think many of the issues raised here are closely related to leadership and management are much harder to address. Examples from the brainstorms above include: 

  • Lack of prestige / respect
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Improper delegation of tasks
  • Exclusion from the decision-making and distance from org strategy

These seem like deeper cultural issues with how certain organisations or members of the community view operations, which is difficult to chang. I’m not really sure what the best way forward there is - I hope that this post could raise awareness about the issue, and hopefully spark conversations at relevant orgs, and make future founders aware of the existing issues in the ecosystem. 

I / Pineapple Operations  have publishing FAQs [? · GW] so that potential candidates have a more realistic picture of working in ops at EA orgs, and why you might consider it. We hope that potential employers and org leaders will also read the FAQ. We will also be publishing a post soon with information for folks who’ve recently joined operations roles at EA orgs. Slightly farther afield,  Elika Somani and I have written a few posts [? · GW] around issues and improvements that could be made to EA events.

comment by Jason · 2023-03-17T14:33:48.274Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Regarding asking EAs to do work for which they are overqualified and that non-EAs could do, I wonder whether financial incentives come into play here.

As a general rule, charitable organizations pay their employees below-market salaries and expect that the psychological value employees get from working for an organization they are aligned with ("warm fuzzies," to save space) covers the difference. Although some might disagree, I think this is a good practice in many roles and up to a certain point -- you often want to select to some extent for the extent to which the job candidate gets warm fuzzies working for your organization vs. is just doing it for the paycheck.

To the extent an organization's general pay strategy is -- say -- 70% of market rate (expecting the other 30% in warm fuzzies), that isn't going to be competitive for people who don't value the warm fuzzies significantly.

Imagine you have three types of jobs in the world -- private-sector, Save the Puppies (StP), and opera. Alice really likes puppies but only mildly likes opera, so she values StP fuzzies but minimally values opera fuzzies. She would be equally happy with a private-sector job, a 30% haircut to receive StP fuzzies, or a 5% haircut to receive opera fuzzies. Bob has similar preferences except that he values opera fuzzies and only mildly values StP fuzzies. Claire places only mild value on all fuzzies.

Suppose StP has a job opening that needs someone with an 80K level of qualifications/experience. Alice is a more qualified candidate (private-sector market rate = 100K) than Bob or Claire (whose rate = 80K). However, she is actually cheaper for StP (will work for 70K) than Bob or Claire (will work for 76K). Thus, there is a natural incentive to hire Alice for work she is overqualified for -- plus demonstrated alignment to StP's mission probably has some value for the organization, especially if it is smaller and finds it inefficient to separate out tasks for which alignment is important.

That is, of course, merely a model. But EA, both by its nature and its recruiting strategy,  generates a population of EAs who are highly qualified/capable, so the Alice/Bob/Claire hypothetical is more likely to happen in EA than in StP. Since liking puppies is generally consistent across ability levels, StP can probably find someone at the 80K level who is aligned with StP and will work for 56K.

comment by Sabs · 2023-03-16T23:34:16.998Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If EA has a management skills shortage, which seems to be the takeaway from a lot of posts here, one obvious conclusion is to try to recruit more people with managerial skills, but another might just be that there are just way way too many EA orgs and they could all be rationalized and merged a bit.

comment by cjcorliss · 2023-03-22T17:58:48.644Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Low-conviction observations from my experience in local group organizing: I think there is a false assumption that these problems are solvable. Working in private sector, I have observed that very senior managers spend a lot of their time approving expense reports and other awful tedious things. In EA people tend to see this problem and write a(nother) 60-page best practice document or plan to start a central organization to handle this for all EAs for all time. In general, I think ops should first focus on the big chunks of repeatable work. Idiosyncratic ops should be kept with whatever part of the organization is leading those. I.e. local group ops are better for logistics on weekly meetups than logistics for a one-off conference.

comment by DLMRBN · 2023-03-22T21:24:13.420Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is great, thanks for posting! Also, "Emotional support horse" haha, love it!