In this blog, we’ll be looking at the pros and cons for charities of outsourcing work versus doing it yourself.
Outsourcing work to external freelancers or agencies is an important decision for any charity. It can take time and can be a significant investment, so it’s important to get that decision right.
I’m a freelance writer who works with charities – clearly, it’s in my financial interests to encourage you to outsource work (if not to me then to one of my freelance buddies).
But to be honest, outsourcing your work might not always be the best choice for you and your charity. Sometimes, doing it yourself ‘in-house’ is the better option.
This article explains the pros and cons of outsourcing working and doing it yourself, as honestly and transparently as I can. Whether you regularly outsource work, or if you’ve never outsourced work before, I hope I can show you the benefits and potentials risks of both. By the end of this article, you’ll understand the best option for you, for any given project.
Benefits of outsourcing
- Expertise – outsourcing can bring in expertise that you don’t have in-house. Experience from other organisations, sectors, and industries can be a huge benefit to the project you need doing.
- Capacity – you can increase your team’s capacity to do more work when you outsource. Or ease the workload of your team when you’re busier.
- Fresh eyes – outsourcing brings in someone independent who can look at a problem differently. They offer a new perspective or solutions.
- Skills – there’s a huge range of freelancers and agencies out there. I’m always amazed by the breadth of the specialisms. Whatever it is you need doing, I’m certain they’ll be an expert who can help you.
- Easier than hiring someone new – outsourcing is often much less complicated than hiring a new person to expand your team. It avoids job adverts and interview processes. An outsourcee means less work for you as a manager. For example, you don’t need to do performance reviews every year. And you don’t need to manage their attendance or make sure they do fire safety training.
- Flexible – you can hire an outsourcee in lots of different ways – one-off projects, regular support, or ‘retainer hours’, and so on – to match exactly what you need.
- Necessary – sometimes it’s necessary to outsource, e.g. independent auditors for accounts.
- Connections – Freelancers often have a good network of other freelancers. Tapping into their connections can help your charity in lots of different ways.
Risks of outsourcing
- Tendering process – the process of finding freelancers or agencies (and going through due diligence procedures) can take time. Some charities reserve hiring agencies/freelancers for large or critical projects.
- Unknown risk – bringing on a freelancer you’ve never worked with before can be scary (like hiring someone new). How do you know that they’re going to deliver and be easy to work with? You can mitigate this with recommendations from a trusted colleague/friend. Use Facebook groups like Third Sector PR & Comms network and Fundraising Chat. Or forums like CharityComms community and Charity Connect.
- Additional budget – your team or colleagues can seem an ‘invisible’ cost to the charity (it’s there, but you don’t feel it). However, hiring a freelancer or an agency needs a budget. Do you control the budget? Do you have a budget for freelancers?
- More expensive (sometimes) – hiring a freelancer for a project can sometimes be more expensive than the equivalent daily/hourly rate for a staff member. However, this isn’t always the case. Hiring a freelancer can be cost-effective compared to hiring a new member of your team. Or having to drop other work to fit a project in.
- Unfamiliarity – the freelancer/agency is often not going to be as familiar with the topic and how your charity operates. Depending on the project, it may take a while to bring someone up to speed, and you will need to factor in this time. The end result is you won’t immediately claw back 100% of the time you would be spending on it.
- Lack of oversight – handing it over to someone external means you might get fewer updates on the project than handling in-house. You can mitigate this by agreeing to regular catch-ups.
- No ‘upskilling’ – “On-the-job learning” is an important part of team development. Handing over a new or complicated project to a freelancer/ agency means your team won’t have the opportunity to learn how to do it themselves. This might not be a problem if it’s a one-off task. Yet, if it’s something you’ll be doing regularly, it could increase dependence on outsourcing in the future.
- Ownership – in some rare situations, outsourcing something can mean that you cannot alter it later. (For example, I’ve heard of websites being built for charities, which means that they aren’t easily editable). You may find out that you don’t actually ‘own’ what you paid for (for example, some photographers retain ownership of the photographs they’ve taken and license them to you under strict conditions). Ask and confirm in writing exactly what you’ll own once the work is done. And how you might be able to change, alter, or use afterwards.
Benefits of doing it yourself
- Familiarity – if the work is done in-house, it’ll likely be done by people who are familiar with the topic. They may have done the project/task many times before. Briefing them may not take very long, and they can just crack on.
- Known – you know your colleagues and team and their capabilities
- Oversight – you can easily check up on progress with a project at any point. Even the feeling that it’s being done ‘in-house’ rather than ‘externally’ can give you a bit of peace of mind.
- Upskilling/training – process of doing a project and learning a new skill is important for team development. The more they do something, the better they’ll become.
Risks of doing it yourself
- Capacity – you only have so many hours in the day and so many people in your team. New work or unexpected projects could mean you’ll either have to rush everything, drop other work, or working long hours. Expanding your in-house capacity means hiring a new team member or borrowing time from other teams. Neither of which is easy.
- Prioritising – when everything seems essential work, deciding what has to be done and what needs to be dropped can be difficult.
- Lack of skills – if your team lacks the skills or experience needed to do the job, it can take a long time, or result in a poor outcome or something that doesn’t achieve your aims. This may ultimately require further work to fix errors, and take even more time.
- Stale thinking – Working in-house can sometimes lend itself to uncreative thinking or rigid processes: “we do it this way, because this is the way we’ve always done it”. This can be difficult to shake off sometimes.
- Office politics – siloed working and inter-team tensions can hamper even the most positive people’s work on a project
As you can see, there’s quite a lot to think about. But to make things easier, consider the following questions when thinking about a project:
- Do I have the budget (and the control of the budget) to be able to outsource?
- Is our time to work on this limited?
- Do we lack the skills/experience in-house to make this a success?
- Does this outweigh any potential ‘upskilling’ benefit gained from learning on the job?
- Does this project need an independent perspective, someone to bring in new ideas?
- Am I willing to put in some time into finding and briefing a freelancer/agency?
- Would the alternative mean having to drop work, or hire someone brand new to my team?
If you’re answering “Yes” more often than “No”, then outsourcing could be a good option for you. If you’re answering “No” more often, then sticking with doing the work yourself in-house is probably the best bet.