Principles and practices of capacity building

I previously wrote about the challenges of capacity building – hiring, training, and managing a team. We thought we would share some of the principles and practices we’ve come to believe are important to this goal, so that others can both learn from/consider them and provide their thoughts. As in the previous post on this topic, “we” primarily means Elie and myself, as it’s only fairly recently that other staff have taken on managerial roles.

An overriding theme is that of putting substantial work into capacity building (training, evaluating, and managing employees) and constantly integrating capacity-building considerations into our everyday work. In every piece of work we do and every assignment we make, we ask whether the way we’re going about it is optimized for long-term capacity building (training and evaluating other staff such that they end up in the best possible roles), and not just for getting the work done as quickly as possible. Maintaining this attitude can be a challenge, since it involves focusing on a longer-term (and hazier) goal than completion of the work at hand, but we believe that it is the right long-run approach to building a team.

  • We try to think constantly about whether everyone, including and especially ourselves, is assigned work that’s a good fit. Whenever I start a task, I ask, “Am I the best person to do this task? Can someone else on staff, who has capacity, do it just as well? Why does it have to be me?”
  • When we don’t have much sense of what we’re expecting from an assignment, we’re likely to take it on ourselves. By doing the work ourselves, we’re able to get a better picture of how relevant it is and what it consists of, which is necessary if we’re hoping to later assign similar work to more junior staff. (We do have a “Senior Research Analyst” distinction for other staff members that we’re comfortable assigning extremely open-ended work; currently we have one Senior Research Analyst, Alexander Berger.)
  • When we’re doing work ourselves, we often explicitly approach the work with a goal of “getting the work to the point where other staff can carry it on” rather than with a goal of “completing the work as efficiently as possible.” This means a lot of reflection and (sometimes) writing about what we’ve been doing, and thinking about what skills and knowledge base it requires. For example, Elie recently completed a shallow investigation of developing-world infrastructure that we explicitly thought of as a way to reflect on how shallow investigations should be done in general; I am currently focused on learning enough about political advocacy and scientific research to create shallow investigation assignments in these areas for other staff. In general, we see much of our GiveWell Labs work as “learning how to do investigations (so that we can build staff capacity for them via hiring and training)” rather than as “simply trying to understand the topics we’re exploring.”
  • When we assign work, we usually are optimizing for the goal of “training and evaluating staff” rather than simply “completing the work as efficiently as possible.” Ideally, we want each assignment to help the assigned employee learn, and to help us learn about the employee. We think about how each assignment fits into our picture of the employee’s strengths, weaknesses, areas for improvement, and possible long-term trajectory. Sometimes the primary purpose of an assignment is to evaluate an employee, including “stretch” work that gives the employee an opportunity to show that they can take on more responsibility than they have in the past.
  • We try to have a reasonably clear picture of what constitutes “excellent,” “good” and “subpar” work so we can make accurate evaluations. Doing so can be very difficult, and is usually more tractable when we have more experience with a given assignment.
  • When we have an assignment that’s particularly easy to evaluate, we’ll sometimes assign it to multiple employees over time for calibration purposes (i.e., getting a read on different employees’ strengths and weaknesses).
  • When assigning work that is very different from what an employee has done before, we often follow the work very closely, and we are often prepared to spend more time managing the assignment than it would have taken to complete the assignment ourselves. We seek to thoroughly understand, and give our input into, the employee’s thought process and progress, so that the output is a meaningful representation of what will be produced on future similar assignments. We’ve found that a major determinant of an employee’s fit with GiveWell is their willingness to constantly check in with us and keep us posted on their thought process, so that we can stay on the same page.
  • When we gain confidence in an employee’s ability to do a particular kind of work, we step back and reduce our involvement – but we still take periodic opportunities to check in at a greater level of depth. Occasionally Elie or I will “double-do” an employee’s work to see whether we pick up any new insights about how the work is being done and how it could be improved. Most conversations at GiveWell, external and internal, are recorded, and Elie has found it helpful to listen to them when he can.
  • We put significant time and reflection into considering employees’ long-term trajectories and try to make assignments consistent with these.
  • We spend significant time in discussions with employees, getting on the same page about both strengths and weaknesses of recent assignments and likely long-term trajectories. It’s important that employees know where we stand and have the opportunity to point out when they disagree with us on these matters.

We’d welcome thoughts from others on these principles and practices.


Principles and practices of capacity building — 8 Comments

  1. Holden,

    Would you be able to give an example or two of what constitutes an “assignment” or a “task” (if they’re different). I ask because I would imagine that a number of best practices in this area would center around how one takes organizational goals and divides them into individual units of work.

  2. Holden, I wasn’t intending to imply that the distinction was confusing. What I was attempting to ask is if you could provide an example of the kind of thing that you assign to others. For example, is the assignment something specific like “read and summarize this paper” or something more general?

  3. Kerry, an assignment could be extremely contained and well-defined or extremely broad, ambitious, and vaguely defined. In general, newer employees will get the former kind of assignment, and it’s only after we feel we have a very good read on an employee that we’re likely to try the latter.

    Examples of assignments include:

    • Reading papers and summarizing them (contained, well-defined)
    • Sitting in on a conversation and producing conversation notes (contained, reasonably well-defined; lots of examples and instructions for guidance)
    • Producing or updating a writeup on a given intervention (for example, LLIN distribution (intensive, moderately well-defined)
    • Completing a shallow investigation (contained, well-defined for some types of causes and vaguely defined for others)
    • Doing a landscape of a cause (intensive, vaguely defined)
    • Managing contractors or other employees (intensive, varying degrees of well-defined)

    We think of just about everything we do as something that could potentially be an “assignment,” though we’re careful to consider how time-consuming and how well-defined a given task is (in addition to stakes, time limits, and ability to evaluate the assignment) when thinking about whom to assign it to and whether to assign it at all.

  4. What resources do you recommend to new employees and what learning strategies (in terms of resources) do you recommend for people trying to become better charity evaluators?

    I imagine that there are a bunch of people who would be interested in eventually joining GiveWell or similar organizations who would follow your advice regarding training.

  5. As someone who has worked in small business operations for the past 7 years, there is something quite comforting about reading this post–especially the consideration of how to train someone else to do certain tasks at the same time that you yourself are learning to do those tasks. There is a certain short term cost in efficiency, but the long term benefits are substantial. The alternative–an usually the way it goes–is that founders / managing directors are only able to turn over tasks to new hires who are very similar to themselves and do the same style of work by chance. When that eventually stops working, it can be hard for people to remember the specific steps they took to develop the expertise they now have, and thereby design effective training and evaluation programs. This makes the process of finding strong new team members much more “magical” than it needs to be. I think the time investments you are making now will definitely pay off down the road.

    The one thing that seems like a potentially unnecessary inefficiency is outsourcing too much support work. I acknowledge that I am probably biased here because this is my career, but I have never seen an organization of 10+ to 25 people work efficiently without a full time person who handles office management, HR, bookkeeping, contractor oversight and usually one other major task area, like maintaining a CRM system or coordinating an intern program. Having different people do each of these tasks requires too many people to be involved in operational oversight. Ideally, Analysts should be focused almost exclusively on core business tasks (i.e., directly related to charity evaluation), as their capacity and expertise will grow much faster that way. The model is essentially that you have have several people working together who specialize in charity evaluation supported by one or two people who specialize in making a small office run efficiently in every other way.

  6. Ozzie: the training I’ve described varies a lot with our needs at the time and the strengths/weaknesses/interests of the person we’re working with. For generalized thoughts on how to be a “better charity evaluator,” I’d just recommend keeping up with (and/or reading the archives of) our work; we try to share a great deal of our thinking.

    Emma, thanks for the thoughts. We do have a full-time person who handles HR, contractor oversight (including bookkeeping) and our CRM system, in addition to other work (including research work). (Office management is a separate responsibility.)