Today's post is the first of a two part series that focuses on why and how a nonprofit or charity should use outsourcing. I was first introduced to this concept while reading Tim Ferriss's book The 4 Hour Work Week. If you haven't read this book it is a must read for any nonprofit or charity that needs to upgrading their online toolkit. Click here for a blog post of other must reads like this book.

My first use of an outsourcing service was a result of a conversation I had with a graphic designer who offices in the co-working space, Geekdom, of which I am a member.  I mentioned to my fellow geek-in-arms my concern regarding how much work I had to address each day and how lean my boss wanted me to be in running his foundation (i.e. a foundation of one person, me). My biggest complaint was that my inbound requests, both in phone calls and emails, was so overwhelming that there were weeks when people would get buried in my email never to get a return response. He looked up at me and said very nonchalantly, "You should just hire a VA."

What the heck is a VA?

As I scratched my head and tried to figure out what a VA was, he thankfully answered the question for me: a VA is a Virtual Assistant. A virtual assistant is a worker you hire, typically overseas, to take care of tasks you want to clear out from your schedule.

Most of these workers are based in places like India or the Philippines, with hourly rates that are incredibly low for American standards - as low as $1.50 an hour, depending on the type of work.  I think there are legitimate concerns regarding wage rates for VAs, and I look forward to wage analysis and research for this up and coming virtual field of workers.  From my own experience with hiring VAs, I can tell you that wage rates are negotiable by both parties, and through the platform I have used for hiring, VAs can turn down jobs if they do not feel the wage is fair.  What is 'fair' in this ever changing and flattening world?  It's a good question to ask.  And remember: the point of hiring a VA is NOT so that you can get cheap labor and exploit people for the sake of saving money.  The point is to more effectively manage your time and to use online tools that are available to you to better leverage the resources that you have in our global economy.  I have greatly enjoyed getting to know my hired VA - he is a great worker that is excited about his job and for prospects of completing international and business-related work.

An additional concern I have heard is the worry the that hiring a VA is unsafe: is it really okay to allow access to your files, online tools, and information about what you do to anonymous workers overseas?  There isn't an answer to this concern that will ease everyone's worries, however I feel that spending time screening, interviewing, and getting to know potential VA hires will help tremendously.  In the second post of this series, I will further discuss how to evaluate a potential VA.

Regarding how I felt a VA could help me, it was very simple. The biggest tasks I needed help with to be more efficient with my day was scheduling conference calls and meetings. Nearly 90% of the requests that come in to the foundation I work for are either requests for funding or general requests from folks that just want to "see what we are up to." The act of merely scheduling these calls and meetings is very time consuming, and I knew an administrative assistant would be a huge help to me.  However, I didn't need 20 hours per week of help, so I didn't think it would be worth finding someone for part-time help...until the concept of hiring a VA to be my part-time help entered the picture.  I just needed to share my Google Calendar with a capable and polite VA who could help me handle the lengthily exchange of "does Tuesday at 2pm work, no, what about Wednesday at 5, no, what about Friday at noon?"  I would be able to focus my time on more important things for the foundation while my VA organized my calendar for me and helped with meeting cancellations and rescheduling requests.

What else can a VA do?

The fun and short answer here is...basically everything. If you need something done, just hire someone with the skills you need.  Some VAs will have skill sets primarily consisting of research, while some can get their hands dirty managing your website, making phone calls for you, or even putting together reports and documents.

The more complicated the task, the more important effective hiring becomes. Here are just a few great suggestions for saving time using a VA:

-    Scheduling phone calls and managing your calendar
-    Data entry in to your website
-    Compiling spreadsheets from web research
-    Acting as a gatekeeper for incoming e-mail

What does all this have to do with nonprofits? The answer is cost. Effective cost control should be top of mind with nonprofits right along with raising money. Too often I fear that nonprofits think, "if I can just raise more money I can hire someone to help me." This is the wrong way of thinking. The right way to think is this, "in what ways can I make my money go further?" Any start-up business will tell you that the number one cost on the Income Statement is Salaries and Wages Expense. People are the most expensive (and most important) part of your operation.  When you decide to hire someone you have to be absolutely positively certain that you have exhausted all other possible ways to effectively manage your donors' money and contributions.

Outsourcing in this way can allow you to be more efficient, more organized, and to better leverage your spending dollars on hired help.  When you look into your nonprofit tool box this is without a doubt the swiss army knife: it can do virtually most anything you need it to, virtually. The question is, do you know how to use it?