Monday, August 29, 2011

Outsourcing Non-Profit Communications?

Every non-profit everywhere is trying to save money. Many of them have tried outsourcing parts of their administrative functions -- IT, HR, finance, training and more -- with varying degrees of success. The question I have is "Can non-profit communications be outsourced?"

Surprisingly, I think the answer can be yes.

The advantages of outsourcing are well known. It can give you expertise, speed and ease or a combination of the three. The disadvantages are also clear. Badly done, it can lead to gaps in overall service delivery, it can be uneven in results (due to control problems) and it can be expensive (if not carefully thought through). So, where does non-profit communications fall on the outsourcing continuum?

Small and medium-sized non-profits already suffer from a skills gap in their communications departments. The expertise that outsourcing could give would be welcome. Often times, these communications positions are in fact shared jobs in many organizations. For example, it's common in some small social service agencies for the CEO's secretary to also do communications. So, by definition, there is also a speed issue -- non-profit communications can be very slow. Finally, non-profit communications usually suffers from being a non-core function which makes it the stand out in the normal flow of work. Consequently, it is often a 'big bother". The ease of outsourcing it looks attractive.

The disadvantages are real, but to some extent they exist already. Control issues are very common already within non-profit communications. For example, many communicators I know already feel disconnected and out of touch to the rest of their non-profit organization. Outsourcing would not be the disconnect it would seem. In many ways it might even improve things. The challenge of getting results would be real, but no more so than the often miserable results in-house departments can deliver.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in communications would be cost. Here, there are several issues. First, the fact is that this kind of outsourcing is rare. There's no market price for this. Figuring out what to pay is tricky. Second, and perhaps more important, is that there are not many vendors who do this. True, there are literally billions of ad agencies, writers and designers, but the services they deliver are not outsourcing, they are flash-in-the-pan, one-shot services. If you outsource, you will need a service provider who can actually manage your communications, not just sell you things.

So, where can you begin? First, set a budget. A good rule of thumb for outsourcing (but by no means the only one) is to set a goal of reducing overall labour costs 30-50 per cent. So, take what you have now in labour, divide by half and see what you end up with. That's your budget.

Second, look for a specialist in non-profit communications who offers full communications management outsourcing. Here, you will need to look far and wide. I started offering this service recently, so I know that there are no real competitors in my neck of the woods. Some ad agencies I know say they do this, but they just don't have the management skills to make it a long-term effort.

Third, you may have to accept trade-offs. For example, I operate in Kingston (a medium-sized city in Ontario). While I offer this service in Toronto, I can only do it through occasional visits and mostly emails/phone calls. In other words, a full-time onsite presence might not be possible. This would make potential crisis situations a bit tricky, but still manageable.

I can tell you that this is a rather innovative way of thinking. I've talked to many people about this and many of them scratch their head over it. Perhaps the timing of this hasn't come yet. But I think it makes sense. Everything that most in-house non-profit communicators can do I can do faster, better and with less fuss. That will save money. And in today's world, that means something.

1 comment:

  1. John
    Thanks for the post - it is interesting as it fits exactly with my own business model here in south London, UK. I am currently only starting out as an independent communications consultancy, but I have managed to secure two clients, a social housing organisation and an alternative education provider. Given the state of public sector finances here in the UK I think the offer of providing outsourced communications will be very attractive in being able to save money for organisations but also help them manage reputation when resources are so scarce.