Last week, I sat down with a public notary to sign some papers to open new bank accounts for partner organizations in Rainier Valley Corps’s operations support program, where we handle the back-office tasks for partner orgs so they can focus on delivering vital programs and services. We were on a time crunch, and our bank’s new rules required signatories be notarized, which has been a huge hassle. It took days of RVC’s Operations Support Program Manager, Kristine, and me running around, sending endless emails, and strategically deploying chocolate: “So ... maybe this half-eaten bar of Theo sea salt almond 70% cacao might convince you shave a day or two off the paperwork turnaround time, wink ...”
In the middle of all this paperwork and failed attempts at bribery, I realized that we really do not appreciate our operations staff as much as we should. While EDs get all the credit, program staff get warm fuzzies, and development peeps get leftover gala wine and accolades when they bring in money, operations folks often operate like clockwork without much fanfare. And in fact, the better they do their work, the less they are noticed, because we only tend to notice operations when they don’t go well—payroll didn’t run on time, bank accounts are not up-to-date, etc.
Our sector has a weird view of operations, which for this post I’m going to define as essential things like payroll, financial management, Human Resources, legal compliance, contracts, and insurance. These areas are often considered “overhead,” which has been made into a no-good, very-bad thing, so we often minimize our investments in them, lest people think we’re “wasting” funding. Then there is the assumption that anyone should be able to handle all these operations tasks after a workshop or two, because they’re sooooo simple and easy to do.
These views are insulting to the professionals who spend their lives gaining skills and experience in these crucial areas that we take for granted. A while ago, I wrote about the future of the nonprofit sector, where we move away this idea of every nonprofit doing its own operations. Instead, nonprofits would band together into alliances, with a supporting organization providing operations support. The shared operations would not only be more efficient and cost effective for partner organizations, it would allow communities to build collective wealth and power, which are essential to solving society’s challenges.
This is what RVC has been doing—we now have eight organizations in our operations support program, with more coming (so we’re hiring another operations manager). This program came out of the realization that in order for our sector to address social injustice, we must strengthen nonprofits’ operations, and do so in a way that makes sense. Without strong infrastructures and well-run operations, we cannot effectively fight injustice.
But we cannot build strong infrastructures if we continue to take operations, and operations professionals, for granted. So, I’m declaring this week “Operations Professionals Appreciation Week,” a time for us all to reflect on how important operations and our colleagues who handle operations are to the sector, and to demonstrate our appreciation. Here are a few ideas:
- Thank the operations staff at your organization. Write them a heart-felt note. Buy them some chocolate. Take them out to lunch. Crochet them a sweater. Remember, everything would come to a halt without their work.
- Thank the staff you outsource operations tasks to. Many of us rely on other organizations and companies to do bookkeeping, HR, and other tasks. Yes, we pay them for it, but they often do all sorts of extra things behind the scenes to make our lives easier. And we usually only call them when things go wrong, so it’ll be nice just to hear thanks.
- Turn your fricken receipts and timesheets in on time. You know how irritating it is when program participants don’t fill out surveys, or donors and funders don’t answer emails? Well, it’s just as irritating for operations folks to track down colleagues to turn in receipts, time sheets, or other paperwork each month! They have plenty of stuff to do. Don’t make them waste time chasing you down!
- Spend time learning some operations. I am a firm believer that operations work is complex and should be handled by the professionals who specialize in it. But I also think it’s good for all of us to spend some time trying to understand what our operations colleagues do, so we can see how complicated it can be. It’ll help us be more appreciative and understanding.
- Budget PD for operations professionals: I do a lot of speaking at conferences (mainly because that’s where RVC gets all of our pens and tote bags), and it’s always to EDs and development and program staff. I don’t encounter many operations staff. Operations professionals are critical to this work, so there should be funding in the budget for their professional development so they too can travel to conferences and think about the sector as a whole.
I’m sure there’s plenty of other things we should all be doing better. The point is, without strong operations, none of us can do our work effectively. Kristine, RVC’s Operations Support Program Manager, wrote a blog post last week about time poverty, and how effective operations support can save time and make our sector more effective.
We need to appreciate operations professionals for the critical role they play in the fight against inequity and injustice. Behind MLK, Gandhi, and other iconic leaders, there was probably a team running payroll, making sure insurance is up to date, monitoring contracts, producing financial reports, researching personnel policies, creating disaster preparedness plans, among a gazillion other essential tasks we all take for granted.
Operations professionals, you are amazing and magical AF. And because y’all tend to not be in the limelight, the rest of the field needs to recognize and appreciate your work. And turn in our receipts on time.
Vu Le's column, Point of Vu, appears monthly in the GuideStar Blog. The preceding is a cross-post of a May 28, 2018, article from his blog, Nonprofit ... And Fearless. Vu Le is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit in Seattle with the mission of developing and supporting leaders of color to strengthen the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits and foster collaboration between diverse communities to effect systemic change.