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.
(I’m sure we all heard the story about the American Red Cross and the #gettngslizzerd slip up!)
With all the fear mongering and bad news being reported on the destructive use of social media and other online tools, it is no wonder that some nonprofits are wary of jumping into the social media pool.
In a nonprofit organization, discretion, respect, and trust are absolutely paramount. A violation online (or offline), even a slight one, could lead to loss of jobs, loss of funding, loss of 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: A domestic violence shelter.
“We are worried that potential clients who need us will be less likely to seek our services if they think there is a danger of their name or other identifying information being revealed.” Example: An HIV counseling center.
“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.
While this fear is understandable, unfortunately it is also counterproductive. The benefits of using social media to interact with donors and to tell stories vastly outweigh the potential negatives.
Here are 5 steps you can take to help assuage the fears at your nonprofit as you bring your organization into the social media fold:
1) Address the skeptics.
Social media skeptics tend to believe in two pervasive myths: Only younger people are on social media, and young people are not sharing any information of value.
These people tend to view social networks as vehicles to post photos and videos of cats and celebrities, and cannot conceive of these platforms as vehicles for social good.
These assumptions are harmful and, when perpetuated, completely disregard the fact that people of all generations are expressing interest in issues about which they care using social networks.
Your donors are on social media right now, 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. See more at pewinternet.org.
2) Create clear and concise policies for all staff and volunteers.
Before you jump onto the social media bandwagon (and definitely before you overhaul your website or start sending an email newsletter), 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 you have already have in place on paper, but may not be readily enforced.
Your organization needs to ensure that everyone is on the same page about:
What information 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 lose 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 they get fired? Unpaid leave?
3) Think carefully about your specific community and your clients.
If you cater to teens and youth, you do have a responsibility to protect against predators and inappropriate language/behavior online as well as off.
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) Hold interactive trainings on social media tools and good ways to use them.
Your staff and volunteers already have social media accounts of some form or another – you can bet on that.
Turning a blind eye or simply telling everyone they can’t use Facebook is pointless.
Provide them with helpful guidelines as to 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 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 on 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, Instagram, and Foursquare.)
5) Encourage good sharing and positive participation on social media.
When formulating your social media policies, 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?
Will you let your clients interact in your online communities as long as they are anonymous? This is a topic for a much more in depth blog post, but it is important to start thinking about the rules of the road for your online community as you go forward.
A positive way to think about social media and confidentiality comes from this quote by Jayne Cravens,TechSoup’s Community Forum Manager: “The best way to protect confidentiality is to think about humans as much, if not more, than the technology.”
There shouldn’t be a “social media person”. Social media should be interwoven into the culture of the organization and not in 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.)
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 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.”
Please share your thoughts in the Comments section, and share on your social networks! Thanks for reading!