Commentary: How nonprofits should approach social media policies

Colleen Dilenschneider, Know Your Own Bone blog, 1/23/13

It's no secret some nonprofits have been defensive about allowing folks to interact or "contribute" to the organization's reputation or area of expertise online. Some organizations have tried to exert control by putting forth aggressive social media policies. A nonprofit is the opening case study in this week's New York Times' article summarizing recent court rulings concerning social media policies. These recent rulings do not indicate social media policies are a bad idea; rather, they suggest social media policies that aim too strongly or aggressively to limit freedom of speech (and then use these policies to take away jobs) are a bad idea.  Organizations too ignorant to understand the role of social media in society may be doomed to confront significantly larger problems than disgruntled, chatty staff members. The critical takeaways for nonprofits from these recent rulings are less tactical and more strategic and conceptual - and absolutely necessary. Here are four guiding principles that nonprofit organizations may benefit by adopting:


1) Stop being scared of social media. Web/social media are the public's #1 method of accessing information and social media plays a leading role in driving the decision to visit a museum or other visitor-serving organization. Social media is critical to increasing online reputation, which directly aids in long-term financial solvency. An organization that runs from social media, or tries too hard to control it rather than contemplating how the organization may benefit from digital communications, may risk speedy irrelevance. For quote-lovers, a harsh reality of being a leader may be summarized here: "You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable." The world moves. Times change. Social media is here and it's important.  Embrace it.


2) Consider what your social media policy is supposed to do. Not all social media policies are stifling. In fact, having a smart social media policy is wise for nonprofit organizations. Effective social media policies should:

  • Provide staff members with the tools and information required for them to optimally communicate with/about the organization.
  • Outline expectations for social media interactions, etc.
  • Encourage team members to channel thoughts to higher-ups who intend to listen and work to find viable solutions instead of broadcasting their critiques to the web.
  • Remind staff members negative posts reflect poorly on the organization. Chances are your employees are actually out to elevate the organization and its mission.
  • Underscore items that staff members truly should not communicate. Be detailed about what is okay to share and what is off-limits.
  • Encourage social sharing. Let staff members know that positive word of mouth marketing has an impact on promulgating your mission.

3) Understand that staff member satisfaction (now more than ever) strongly affects the reputation of your organization and, ultimately, your success. It may require a bit of a change in the minds of executive leaders, but thanks to the increased use of social media, staff members are also critical stakeholders in much the same way as are donors, board members and other constituents. It's been vogue for some time now for leaders to issue generic platitudes along the lines of "Our most important resource is our people," but this sentiment, while arguably always true, is now on display to the world.  Smart organizations know how to leverage these most valuable resources. 


4) Know and accept that your "internal" culture is external. Like the merging of personal and professional realms that increasingly seems to be occurring in society today, the line has also dissolved between what happens inside of your organization and what happens outside of it.  Recent rulings indicate that there isn't "protection" for organizations on this front. In fact, nonprofits may do themselves a grave disservice by ignoring the connection between internal culture and how that culture is perceived externally. Anything your organization says or does to upset staff members may indeed be held against you. And - in the age of social media and the desire for transparent organizations - perhaps it should be. This is not a reason to be scared of staff members. Instead, it is a reason to empower them and pay attention to them.  


If your nonprofit has a social media policy with "blanket" rules for behavior on social media, you haven't done anything wrong. But it is your responsibility to evolve and stay legally ahead-of-the-game. If your organization's policy is too broad, now may be the time to open it back up and write in more details or discuss appropriate repercussions for violating the policy. And when you close the policy and roll out the changes, understand that you may not be closing it for good. And understand that that is okay.


FROM TC: You may be interested in looking at the website Social Media Governance, which offers 219 examples of social media policies from different industries.


Commentary: Social media advice for nonprofit workers (and job seekers)

Aine Creedon,Nonprofit Quarterly, 1/14/13

Social media has increasingly become a valuable source for finding employment and volunteer opportunities, but it can also hinder some job seekers. Last week, NPQ [posted about] National Public Radio's use of Twitter in recruiting new interns. Yet as this article in the Global Times points out, social networks like Facebook also create a predicament in which a user's entire life, from their friends and interests to where they are physically located or will be in the future, is open for the public to see -- and judge. There are now six states which have passed laws banning employers from requesting social media account passwords from staff and applicants, yet Congress is still sitting on any federal legislation. NPQ has previously documented instances of firings that came about due to social media posts and how nonprofits should address these concerns. On the organizational level, we have urged nonprofits to discuss this issue and implement consistent social media policies. But for the individual worker, here are some tips that err on the side of caution:

  • Browse over your photos and recent posts and remove or privatize anything you might consider inappropriate or that you wouldn't be proud to show your family.
  • If you are working with an organization that has a strict non-partisan policy (which most nonprofits do), make sure you aren't aggressively asserting your partisan political views unless you include a disclaimer. Many Twitter profiles have included disclaimers in their descriptions such as, "All opinions are my own."
  • Utilize privacy settings. With Facebook's versatile new settings, you can segment posts to a specific audience, and you can always check how your profile appears to another user by clicking the "View As" option in Facebook settings.
  • Facebook also allows users to request approval of anyone tagging them in posts or photos before they appear on your wall for all to see. This may be a useful tool to provide you with an extra layer of control over your social media identity.
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