Outsourced Volunteering – Cheating or Brilliant?

If you outsource your volunteering, does it count?

I used to scoff at people who read self-help books. I was too busy with Literature. Books were some of my best friends – except for the time I read The Tin Drum at age twelve, and developed an unshakeable fear of eels and dwarves – and the idea that they held  infographics and lists, instead of stories, turned my stomach (almost as much as the eel).

As an adult, however, I’ve discovered a wonderful world of books that I would like to regenre-ify “Life Suggestions & Topical Explorations.” Each of these texts has provided an opportunity to learn and think about one small facet of life. I’ve learned about decision making, forming a taxable entity, developing intuition, understanding passive agressiveness, all at my leisure at whenever my interest is so piqued.

There is one text that really got me started: Timothy Ferris’ Four Hour Workweek.

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I first read this gem when I was a humble school teacher in the South Bronx. I don’t remember why I started reading the book – something between morbid curiosity and desperation probably led me to pick it up, and I’m sure as hell glad I did. Although many suggestions in the book weren’t things I could immediately implement in my own life in the classroom (negotiating with my boss to work from home once a week sounded fantastic, and did give me some ideas about interesting policy changes we could make to prevent teacher burnout) there were bits and pieces that I could take, which led me tocut about 10 hours out of my workweek, and get to the point where by the end of the school year I was no longer brining work home with me.

So when I recently found myself overwhelmed by the amount of volunteer commitments I had signed on for, in addition to trying to really get my coaching business off the ground this summer, I picked up The Four Hour Workweek again. Different topics stood out to me – especially since I’m now a business owner – and one in particular stuck.

OUTSOURCING.

Apparently there are companies in Bombay with phalanxes of MBA-wielding personal assistants who take care of all your life crap while you’re slumbering. They’re highly organized, well trained, meticulous, efficient, and relatively affordable.

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One of the tasks in the book is to make a list of all the things you could outsource, even if it gives you a touch of vertigo to consider  it. These include things like researching reports;  booking reservations; finding the contact information for people who can help you grow your business; etc. So I made my list:

1. Contact hotels & restaurants for Mercy Hospice fundraiser raffle prizes
2. Order flowers for all family members’ birthdays for the next 6 months
3. Create and send out the E-Post weekly online newsletter for the Washington Square West Civic Association
4. Organize my six Google calendars
5. Input last six months’ worth of business invoices into QuickBooks

Beyond feeling ever-more curious about hiring a virtual personal assistant as I delighted in fantasies of free afternoons and überefficiency, #1 & #3 beg the  question that lingers and fascinates me:

If you outsource your volunteering, does it count?

Over a late afternoon meal of crispy brussell sprouts and watermelon summer salad, I told two of my girlfriends about Ferris’ challenge, and my question of whether I could outsource not only my Quickbooks inputting, but also the fundraising I was working on for the local women’s shelter.

Kelly speared a cube of feta with her fork, looked down thoughtfully, and pursed her lips.

“It’s basically like you’re the head of a foundation,” she finally started, slowly,  “and having other folks do the legwork while you’re dealing with the big picture. Right?”

“Exactly!” I replied excitedly. “I mean, I think that makes a lot of sense.” My doubt started to creep back in. “I just, you know, would be worried thinking what the other committee or board members would say or think if they found out I’d had a personal assistant in India do all of the work for me . . . ” I smiled mischeviously, looking to both of them to see whether they’d agree or not. Or thought I was being funny. Or a genius. Or an asshole. Or all.

My friend Lily – ever the ethicist – leaned back and frowned.

“But I think Justine has a point – if the other board members thought she was doing everything herself, and found out she was having a personal asisstant in Mumbai make calls for her instead, don’t you think they’d feel deceived?”

“I don’t know – she’s still contributing to the goals of the organization and doing good work, right?” Kelly argued.

“Yes, but it’s what we call it, not that it’s good or bad, which is up for debate. I feel like if you outsource it it’s no longer volunteerism – it’s philanthropy. Volunteering connotes that you’re giving your time. Like, what would be the difference between writing a big check to donate, and paying your Personal Assistant  in Bombay to make calls for you?”

“Well, she’s doing more than writing a check – she’s coming up with a vision, a plan, and implementing it. She just happens to be paying someone to help her with it.”

Lily turned in the booth to face Kelly.

“But isn’t that different than rolling up your sleeves and doing it yourself? I still think it’s something different, and comes down to philanthropy vs. volunteerism.”

I chewed on a brussel sprout and mused aloud.

“Could we call it Philanteerism and call it a day?”

“That might work,” Kelly smiled, and took a sip of her beer.

We all chewed on things for a minute. I still felt fixated on finding the point on the horizon at which the Sun of Volunteerism disappeared and the Moon of Philanthropy began to rise. The question continued to roll around in my mind:

If I outsource my volunteering to an assistant, does it “count”?

What do you think? Is there something unethical about having a virtual personal assistant do the grunty backwork  in volunteer activities? Or is it just smart, freeing up time to work on higher level planning, and not getting caught up in the nitty gritty details? Would you be upset as a board member if you found out that a colleague had been using a personal assistant to help with tasks? Would it be different if it were a CEO  having their secretary send emails and make phone calls, versus a bespectacled 28-year old entrepreneuress hiring Mr. Chowdhurry  in Bombay to write my community e-blast while we sleep in the west?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I’ll keep you posted on what I end up doing!

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One thought on “Outsourced Volunteering – Cheating or Brilliant?

  1. I’m of the mind that your friend hit the nail on the head – it’s a matter of what you call it. I think people would feel deceived because you’d be doing something that made you look good in the community, only to find out that you weren’t really doing it, even if it got done. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong but in the ways we are often raised to think about money (bad, something to be atone for, better to give than receive, and so on) v. charity (holy, prescribed by Jesus Christ himself, selfless), you’re setting yourself up to look like a rich asshole who tried to take the credit for doing something good, and then paying someone else to do it. Plus think of the particular archetypes you’re invoking by being the busy, well meaning, liberal, white woman in wealthy, east coast America, kicking the undesirable tasks to a less economically advantaged brown person. Yikes. People would get it when it came to business, but outsourcing your volunteerism? Not likely to be well received.

    Meanwhile, on a more pragmatic note: if you need to outsource your volunteerism, would it be more valuable to the organization to write them a check? If it’s costing you $5 to get this done, probably not, if it’s $25 or $50 – they can spend the money and, let’s be real, still find another volunteer to do the work. Maybe not a fabulous leader like you but that’s kind of your point – this isn’t fabulous leader work if you’ve already paid your dues and have the experience and capacity to be doing board level stuff as opposed to research type grunt work.

    I think it comes down to asking yourself how much you have the capacity to give of your time and money. If you can’t affect the amount of change you want, and you know time is fixed, then you can always looking ways at generating or raising more capital. You’re an incredibly savvy budgeter – it needs to be done with time as much as money. To me, considering outsourcing volunteer tasks is a bandaid solution to the underlying problem (that I experience too) of feeling like I want to give more than I currently have.

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