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Jah Ying Chung, Project lead

Eirin M. Evjen, Exec. Dir. EA Norway

Jørgen R. Ljønes, Ass. Exec. Dir. EA Norway

In a forum post in February, we posted our plans for organizing an operations camp aimed at improving recruitment of operations talent for EA organizations. The EA Meta Fund gave us a grant for the project in March. This is an update on this project, our reasoning for changing course, and what we have found so far.

Executive summary:

  • We started researching the operations bottleneck in the fall of 2018, and decided to run an operations bootcamp for which we received a grant from the EA Meta Fund.
  • In April, after more feedback on our plans, we took a step back and decided to conduct more research into the key operations challenges at EA organizations. With the help of Jah Ying Chung, we conducted interviews and ran a workshop with operations staff at EA organizations.
  • Based on these interviews, we identified twelve challenges in operations at EA organizations. To identify which of the challenges are the most pressing, we surveyed EA operations people at EA Global San Francisco and through an online survey.
  • Through differently weighted models of the data we collected, we have identified the five challenges which stand out as most pressing. The top two are:
    • Standardization and documentation of routines and processes.
    • Talent retention.
  • While hiring was mentioned as a challenge by several, we did not find it to be among the most pressing challenges and have decided not to run a camp to improve recruitment.
  • We are currently considering our next steps for testing possible solutions to one or more of the top challenges.

What is this post about?

In this post we will explain our shift away from an operations camp to our new approach for increasing operations capacity at organizations in the EA space (from here on referred to somewhat loosely as “EA organizations”). We identified twelve operations bottlenecks (including those related to hiring) and researched what the most pressing challenges at EA organizations are, according to their operations staff. Then we narrowed these down to the five top challenges, namely:

  • Standardization and documentation of internal policies and processes
  • Talent retention
  • Making time for strategic thinking
  • Sharing best practices between organizations
  • Onboarding and integrating new staff into the organization and community

From our analysis, the first two challenges seem significantly more pressing than the next three, and all five stand out from the rest.

We plan next to explore possible solutions to one or more of these top challenges. Here our skills and experience are lacking and we aim to recruit new project contributors with more relevant experience than us to take the project forward. We intend to present our findings and tentative results at EAG London and write a third forum post on this soon after.

Where we started

Eirin and Jørgen at EA Norway researched operations recruitment questions during the fall of 2018 to better understand operations challenges in the EA sphere and how we could help mitigate these. We focused on the recruitment challenge in the wake of 80,000 Hours’ call for more interest in operations-type roles and on the discussions on coordination problems between orgs and potential candidates.

Given what we learned and that we understood the recruitment challenge as mainly one of coordination and information asymmetry, we came up with the idea of an operations camp to lower these barriers and find operations talent for EA orgs. 80,000 Hours and operations staff at EA organizations confirmed in January this year that this was still a significant challenge. This was the basis we had for applying for and receiving a grant from EA Meta Fund in March for this project.

As a next step in our preparations we reached out to other people in the movement with more domain expertise. These conversations led us to take a step back and ask: What are we fundamentally trying to achieve here? Our answer is that in essence, we want to increase the total operations capacity of EA organizations, which is a broader target than helping with the hiring challenge. We realized that we were not certain that an operations camp was the best way to achieve this broader goal.

Our project changed significantly from organizing an event, with content developed in collaboration with domain level experts, to more fundamental research into all operations challenges of EA organizations. This also demanded a different set of skills and experience than Eirin and Jørgen assessed they had, so they engaged Jah Ying Chung to lead the research. Jah Ying has been a leading contributor to the project since April this year. We updated the Meta EA Fund management team on our plan changes in June for transparency and expectation management.

Exploration of bottleneck candidates

To gain a better understanding of the challenges operations staff at EA organizations face, we interviewed multiple people at various EA organizations in Europe. Nine interviews were conducted across eight organizations within our loose categorization of Funding, Meta EA and Far Future. In addition to these structured interviews, we strengthened our understanding of the challenges through more informal conversations with various people in operations roles, leaders, and other longtime EAs.

We analyzed the interviews and identified a set of twelve clusters of challenges, which we have organized under the following short descriptions (in no particular order):

  1. Seeking professional mentorship and coaching for operations staff at EA organizations
  2. Professional skill development
  3. Networking among operations staff
  4. Sharing best practices between organizations
  5. Making time for strategic thinking
  6. Hiring and developing junior associates to build internal capacity
  7. Effective internal communication and feedback loops
  8. Talent retention
  9. Standardization and documentation of internal policies
  10. Accessing external networks, e.g. for talent recruitment
  11. Cultural challenges in orgs and EA community
  12. Accurate expectations of operations and organization

Each challenge was mentioned by at least one interviewee, but we had little information about the relative importance and prevalence of these challenges across multiple organizations.

At EAG San Francisco in June we organised a workshop with 14 operations staff across eight organizations. Some of these had previously contributed as interviewees in the previous stage of our project, but most of them had not. First we presented our work so far and the challenges we had identified, and then we had the participants vote on which challenges they thought are most pressing for their organization.

Because it was easy to do, and to mitigate selection bias, we sent an email with an online form to organizations that didn’t participate at the workshop. Through the form we we got four more responses from three additional organizations.

Identifying top bottlenecks

The data showed a robust result, even when we tried different weights of the votes in our analysis. Five challenges stood out from the rest, and the first two in particular:

  • Standardization and documentation of internal policies and processes - EA operations staff noted that they often move from task to task, without collecting and documenting past learnings and experiences. Collecting this knowledge will lead to greater efficiency, more confident legal compliance, and preservation of institutional knowledge.
  • Talent Retention - Effective Altruism is a small but growing space that attracts passionate and dedicated staff. As EA organizations mature, they will need to consider how they will encourage their top performing staff to stay, as the cost of recruitment is very high.
  • Making time for strategic thinking - High-level staff at EA orgs are solely responsible for organizational strategy and big-picture thinking, but they do not feel they spend enough time on it.
  • Sharing best practices between organizations - Similar to the “standardize and documentation” challenge, sharing best practices between organizations will lead to greater efficiency and preservation of field-wide knowledge. There is also interest in considering whether it would be useful for operations staff to meet at events and gatherings.
  • Cultural challenges - Several operations staff mentioned a perceived “cliqueness” to parts of the EA movement that newcomers may feel is hard to break into.

An important update is that we no longer think recruitment is the most important challenge for increasing the operations capacity at EA organizations. We don’t think it is much less important or tractable than we had thought; rather, we think other challenges are even more important and urgent. Therefore we will not be hosting an operations camp as initially planned.

What are we going to do now?

We are currently discussing our next steps and the timeline until EAG London. This project has morphed and increased in complexity, and the continuing research on these challenges and possible solutions to overcome them require experience and expertise we feel we are lacking. We are now expanding our team to counter this limitation. If you are interested in helping out as a volunteer or making your domain expertise available, we would like to hear from you in the comments or by email to post@effektivaltruisme.no

In broad strokes we imagine that in the time leading up to EAG London we will be onboarding new team members to the project, continue researching the top challenges and start planning for how we may explore and test possible solutions. At EAG London we intend to run a workshop or seminar for operations staff and managers to present our findings and suggestions. After EAG London we will summarize our work and most likely also share this in another forum post like this one.

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Great stuff! Looking forward to more

I strongly upvoted this post. I'm glad to see you changing your plans based on feedback and research, and for sharing those with the rest of the EA community.

Same. Keep up the good work. I'm looking forward to hearing more.

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