Paige Henchen
Paige Henchen

We Need More "Doers": The Case for Consultants Considering a Career in Charity Operations

We had the opportunity to chat with Paige Henchen, Director of Operations at Open Philanthropy who transitioned to full-time impact-focused work from a consulting career at Bain. Read on to learn about Paige’s job search experience, thoughts on her new colleagues at Open Phi, and why she thinks “Ops” work is overlooked by too many consultants.

Paige, what motivated you to go into consulting in the first place?

I joined Bain right out of undergrad — mostly because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and it seemed like a pretty good job. I wouldn’t have described it this way at the time, but I wanted to build “career capital” and keep my future options open.

That seems to be a pattern among many of the consultants we speak to: viewing consulting as strong, generalist career capital-building for those who don’t know what they want to do. In what ways would you say your experience differed from your expectations?

Consulting exceeded my expectations for building career capital in the first couple of years. I learned so much about how to be an effective generalist and get a lot of things done to a high level of quality. I still carry those good work habits with me today. I do think that consulting probably under-delivered on the variety of work versus my expectation. Even though the clients change and the teams change, a lot of the work is very similar case to case (in the grand scheme of things).

A lot of [consulting] work is very similar, case to case.

Turning towards high-impact, tell us about how you got your current role. 

Well, for me it all started when I read Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save in 2010. I found the basic idea compelling — that we have a moral obligation to help others if we can. I did some volunteer projects for GiveWell between 2012 and 2020, and I took the Giving What We Can Pledge in 2015, but I was mostly focused on my business career during this time. I was an Effective Altruism (EA) community “lurker” until late 2019, when I decided I wanted to do more directly impactful work and started applying to jobs in EA. It took me 14+ months and 66 applications, but I eventually landed at Open Phil!

Sounds like quite the job search! Were there any resources or opportunities during that time period that were especially helpful?

The 80,000 Hours job board was super helpful. I also found it really valuable to attend an EA Global Conference! I also participated in EA Oxford's “In Depth Fellowship” course, which was really valuable for getting up to speed on the areas of EA I was less familiar with, like existential risk.

So your job search was successful and you are now Director of Operations at Open Philanthropy. Can you tell us a bit about Open Phil's mission, and your own goals within the new role?

Open Philanthropy’s mission is to help others as much as we can with the resources available to us. We’re a philanthropic funder and we try to translate money into impact as effectively as possible.

One misconception [I had before exiting] was that I would miss working at Bain because the caliber of colleagues was so high.

As the Director of Operations, I lead all operations at Open Phil including grants, legal, finance, people ops, recruiting, and business operations. My goal is that the ops team provides world-class “mission support” to our research and program staff. That means delivering both highly reliable, “no-fail” standard processes, and flexible, creative, and responsive service to new requests. I also get to help Open Phil by partnering with our co-CEOs on strategic organizational issues like risk management.

What does your day-to-day look like on the job?

My day-to-day is usually a mix of meetings and focused time. I meet with my direct reports, who lead the various operations departments. I also meet with the co-CEOs, program officers, researchers, and other internal “customers” to get feedback, understand their needs, and problem-solve issues. During my focused time, I review work products from various folks in my department; maybe a new policy for supporting international hires, or a proposal for Q1 goals for the grants department. I spend the remainder of my time on “leadership” activities like setting goals.

You’ve been at Open Phil for a couple of years, but looking back, did you have any misconceptions about transitioning from consulting to working full-time at a non-profit?

One misconception was that I would miss working at Bain because the caliber of colleagues was so high. Everyone always says that the best thing about working at a place like Bain is the people, and that you never get that again in other workplaces. I’m super spoiled that the people at Open Phil are the most incredible colleagues I’ve ever had.

What value do you think current and former consultants contribute to high-impact organizations?

The consulting skill set is fairly valuable for generally getting stuff done. You learn how to plan a project, gain stakeholder buy-in, execute quickly, and maintain high quality against deadlines, using data and research along the way. The impact space and non-profits need more of that. While we have tons of great thinkers, I’d love to see more “doers” joining the ranks. I think of people with consulting experience as having a relatively good start on the “doing” side of the ledger.

What advice would you give to consultants who may be thinking of exiting to a value-aligned organization or role?

It’s always hard to leave consulting for a variety of reasons: golden handcuffs, the feeling of losing option value or closing doors, and the sense of always being on a steep learning curve (“one more year” syndrome, or “one more promotion” syndrome). I’d encourage people to be clear-eyed about what is really keeping them in consulting. I think the much more common mistake consultants make is staying too long rather than leaving too soon.

What blind spots do you think consultants have in their job search process?

I wish that more consultants would consider operations as a career path. I think a lot of consultants are motivated by prestige and status and advancement; no shame — I am motivated by those things as well. Operations is (for some strange reason) seen as less prestigious in the impact space, so I think consultants sometimes shy away from it. That’s a real mistake because operations are literally essential to getting anything done in the real world! Whether running operations for a larger high-impact organization or founding a new project, we could use more folks rolling up their sleeves and making stuff happen effectively.

Any final words to leave us on?

I’m excited for more consultants to work directly on the world's most pressing problems!

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This feature was first published in January of 2023, since then Paige joined GiveWell as their Chief of Staff.