person texting on their cellphone, representing a nonprofit social media account

5 Steps to Address Your Nonprofit's Social Media Concerns

Starting out on social media can be a scary proposition for many nonprofits. Horror stories abound — staff members "going rogue" and posting inappropriate Facebook photos, volunteers tweeting too much information, negative comments being left in LinkedIn groups.

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And of course, there's the story about the hapless American Red Cross employee who tweeted about #gettngslizzerd from its official account.

There's lots of fearmongering on the destructive use of social media and other online tools. And so, it's no wonder that some nonprofits are wary of jumping into the social media pool.

At a nonprofit organization, discretion, respect, and trust are paramount. A serious online mishap could lead to a loss of donors, volunteers, or community investment, or worse.

Common fears include

  • "Our client and staff identities need to be protected at all costs, or lives will be at risk." Example: When I worked at a domestic violence shelter, people were concerned that using social media would mean confidentiality breaches and legal problems.
  • "We are worried that people who need us will be less likely to seek our services if they think their name or other identifying information could be revealed." Example: An HIV counseling center might be worried about the stigma associated with the disease preventing people from coming forward.
  • "Our nonprofit deals with a controversial issue, and we are afraid that we may be the target of online harassment." Example: An LGBTQ advocacy organization is afraid of encountering hate speech online that may intimidate and traumatize its community.

Although these fears are understandable, they are also counterproductive. The benefits of using social media to interact with donors and to tell stories vastly outweigh the potential negatives.

Here are five steps you can take to help assuage the fears at your nonprofit as you bring your organization into the social media fold.

1. Don't Listen to the Skeptics

two people commenting on nonprofit social media accounts

Social media skeptics tend to believe two pervasive myths: Only younger people are on social media, and young people are not sharing any information of value. Some people tend to view social networks as vehicles to post photos and videos of cats and celebrities, and can't conceive of these platforms as vehicles for social good.

But in reality, many of your donors are on social media as we speak, sharing experiences, reading articles, and connecting with others based on collective values and beliefs. Even the so-called old guard is getting online in droves and demanding more personal, inside access to the causes about which they care.

Pew Internet releases studies every year on Internet and social media use and age. Consistently, year after year, Internet users aged 60+ are the fasting-growing demographic on social networks.

2. Create Clear and Concise Policies for All Staff and Volunteers

Before you jump into using social media platforms, your nonprofit should have protocols and policies in place to empower and educate employees and volunteers.

You may be surprised what your current staff and volunteers don't know about the policies that you already have in place on paper but that may not be readily enforced.

Your organization needs to ensure that everyone is on the same page about the following.

  • The information that should be confidential and why. Is the safety of the staff and clients at stake if there is a confidentiality breach? Will you lose funding? Will you lose integrity and the trust of the community?
  • What breaches of confidentiality look like. Give examples, either from real life or made up. Show offline and online examples.
  • The individual consequences for ignoring this policy. What will happen? Will the offender get fired? Unpaid leave?

3. Address Your Specific Community and Your Clients

If you cater to teens and youth, your nonprofit has an ethical responsibility to protect against predators and inappropriate language or behavior online as well as offline.

Adapt the policies you use in real life to keep your participants safe — what do you do when they are in your center or classroom? Is there always an adult present?

What policies are the most important to you on the ground and how can they be modified to fit into the online world?

4. Train People on the Appropriate Use of Social Media Tools

Your staff and volunteers already have social media accounts of some form or another. The proliferation and popularity of social networking and smartphones means that turning a blind eye or simply forbidding everyone to use Facebook is pointless.

Provide people with helpful guidelines about what is acceptable to share online. This is a perfect teachable moment for younger people in the office who may not be accustomed to censoring themselves online in any way. And it will also create security for others who may not be sure where the boundary is.

Topics to cover include

  • Communications training — how all staff and volunteers represent the nonprofit, even via their personal accounts.
  • What is appropriate to share and what is not on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, personal blogs, etc.
  • Is fundraising OK? Promoting events? Sharing articles relating to the nonprofit cause? Advocating?
  • Is identifying your location or "checking in" OK? (Think Facebook and Instagram.)

5. Encourage "Good" Sharing and Positive Participation on Social Media

When formulating your social media policies, suggested questions to address include

  • What will you encourage people to post on your nonprofit's Facebook page, and what is inappropriate?
  • Will you enable picture tagging on your Facebook page, or will you shut that feature off?
  • Will you let your clients interact in your online communities? Do they need to be anonymous?
  • Can staff "friend" and follow clients on social media? Is that prohibited? In what circumstances may that be allowed, if ever?

You may have different questions to consider that better fit your specific nonprofit. But it is important to start thinking about these guidelines for your online community as you go forward.

Look at your human resources policies; your employee and volunteer orientation materials; and your standards, values, and ethics as an organization.

A positive way to think about social media and confidentiality comes from Jayne Cravens, TechSoup's former community forum manager: "The best way to protect confidentiality is to think about humans as much, if not more, than the technology."

Further Considerations When Addressing Nonprofit Social Media Concerns

There shouldn't be a "social media person" who is locked in a closet with a laptop and told to just go get followers and fans. Social media should be interwoven into the culture of the organization and not placed into a silo.

Do your best to encourage an open, transparent culture of education and empowerment, not of accusations and finger pointing.

Change the organizational culture to one of being open and receptive to online tools, not closed off and fearful. (Trust me, these tools aren't going anywhere.)

Create an annual social media calendar, and stick to it. This will set clear, high-level expectations of the content you produce at your nonprofit and when, allowing fewer opportunities for people to go rogue. In fact, I'm teaching a first-ever 301-level course for TechSoup from September 19 to October 31 titled How to Create and Implement an Effective Social Media Marketing Calendar. It's a unique blended learning opportunity (live instruction plus self-driven modules) that will include live interactive events, videos, worksheets, practical activities, and more.

Allison Fine, co-author with Beth Kanter of the book The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, wrote: "It's easy to look for reasons not to do something, and we have been acculturated to think of that as smart management. But the risk of not becoming more social is too great to let fear continue to be the default setting for our organizations."

The rate at which technology, social media, and online tools are changing is astounding. Nonprofits need to be open to learning about the tools and platforms available. And they need to be willing to educate their staff and volunteers on the best and most appropriate use of these tools for their unique organizations and constituents.

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Additional Resources: Social Media for Nonprofits