One of the fears that many organizations harbor when it comes to social media as a communication channel is that an employee will share sensitive information, disparage the organization -- or worse, a donor -- or spend a great deal of time on Facebook or Twitter under the guise of "working."
Another issue nonprofits must address, according to nonprofit consultant Jay Frost, is whether a nonprofit’s employees can personally "friend" or connect with a constituent.
"Once that connection is made outside of the organization, it then brings up the question, 'Who owns the donor?'" he said in a webinar earlier this year. There is also the concern of those who may not be directly involved in the communication strategy for the nonprofit, such as C-level executives, but who represent the organization in the public eye.
To address these issues, companies and organizations -- from Ford, to IBM, to the American Red Cross -- have created social media policies for their entire staff. These policies give clear guidelines on what can and cannot be shared publicly (on social media and other communication channels), whether employees can post as "themselves" or as official company spokespeople, and even how much time an employee can spend on social media during work hours.
14 Questions to Ask When Implementing a Nonprofit Social Media Policy
Whether or not you create a policy is up to your organization’s management team, the nature of your work, and the size of your organization. To determine if your nonprofit needs a set policy or a more loosely structured set of guidelines, we recommend asking yourself the following questions:
1) Is your organization's work sensitive in nature?
If you're a political, religious, or environmental organization, specific opinions can be sensitive to talk about. If some employees don't 100% agree with your stance, them being vocal about it on social media may go against your organization's mission and reflect poorly on you.
2) Do you need to contend with local laws or culture?
Much like an organization with sensitive work, if your organization is lobbying for policy change or law enactment, employees either need to own their opinions on social media or they need to comply and support the organization's stance publicly. Local culture can also be something that your organization goes up against and is important to consider in your public communication strategy.
3) What is your organization’s liability should an employee post something questionable?
If you're setting a social media policy, there may be consequences if breached. Also, if there are state or federal laws about disclosing organizational information, like donors' contact information, make sure that all employees are aware of these laws and policies.
4) What processes do you have in place should a mistake happen, such as if an employee posts something sensitive, questionable, or offensive?
Along with the consequences, outline what should be done when/if something questionable or offensive is posted by an employee on social media. How someone should report the offense, what the punishment is, whether one is suspended or terminated, are all important to communicate to your entire staff.
5) What is the size of your organization?
The bigger the organization, the harder it is to regulate what people post on social media. Consider the size of your organization and the likelihood that a social media policy will be enforced. Identify the people (usually managers or directors) that will enforce the policies. If you're a small organization you may only have one or two people representing your organization on social media. They should be aware of the policy and may even be helpful in creating and implementing it.
6) Do you have one office or many around the world? And if so, do you need to consider other cultures and how they use social media?
If you have multiple chapters across the nation or world, think of how you are going to communicate the policy across many people, whether it's via email, on your internal network, or at a conference. It's important that the policies are enforced across the board. If you have offices outside the U.S., consider doing research to understand how individuals in those countries use social media and what the local and national laws are around social media and nonprofits, as they may be different than laws in the U.S.
7) What is your organizational culture like (i.e. lots of red tape and hierarchical, or flat and collaborative)?
Understanding your organization's culture is important when thinking about how to distribute and enforce your social media policy. Identify if you'll need approval from many stakeholder or if you can distribute the policy yourself. If you have to get others involved in crafting and enforcing the policy, make sure they are involved early on in the process and understand your intentions of creating a policy.
8) Is your brand well-recognized (i.e. are you in the public eye nationally or locally)?
This is important for big organizations that have a substantial following on social media, as well as a large constituent base. If someone posts something questionable or offensive and it will quickly be picked up by major news outlets -- make sure you have a backup plan and a PR team to help resolve any issues or backlash.
9) What traits are already associated with your brand, and will these be maintained and communicated through social media?
If your CEO or founder doesn't typically communicate with your constituents, you may want to consider giving them a voice on social media to do so. If they are more front-facing as a "spokesperson" for your organization, incorporate them in the policy creation process and understand how they are interacting with your audience online currently.
10) Will staff and board members be advised to post using personal accounts with a qualifying statement? (I.e. They’re connected to your organization, but that opinions are their own.)
This would require having everyone (or most staff) posting on social media, unrelated to your organization, but clearly stating that their opinions and tweets are their own and are in no way endorsed or supported by the organization.
11) Or, do you want them to post only under your brand name, having one person -- or a small team -- controlling your social media channels?
You could have just one person posting as your brand name, and act as the voice of your organization via social media channels. This decision is completely up to you, but should be communicated clearly in your policy.
12) Will you allow employees and staff to "friend" or become personally connected with constituents?
Again, this is up to your organization, but if you have a fundraising or development staff that is active on social media, outline if they are allowed to communicate with constituents on social media. If there are guidelines you want to set in place about what can be communicated over social media, make that clear, as well.
13) How will you communicate your social media policy or guidelines?
How are you going to communicate your policy within your organization? Will you include it in your hiring contract and require them to read it? Will you include it in your initial training for new staff and train current staff on the new policy? Make a clear communication plan for your policy, as well as a place where everyone can access it at any point online.
14) Will you train employees and staff to use social media within the context of your brand?
This is more of a suggestion than a question. Once you've developed your policy, it's very important to make everyone on your staff aware of the best practices and guidelines associated with it. Mandatory training (for everyone including the C-level executives) is extremely important to incorporating the policy into your organization's culture.
As you can see from these questions, a social media policy is dependent on your organization and its unique culture, needs, mission, size, and location. How you craft your policy -- and how lenient or strict you’ll be in enforcing it -- is up to you or your management team. Do your research, discuss the questions with your team, and pick and choose what works best for your organization, brand, and culture.
Consider this, though: In an age when social media is playing a notable part in many organizations’ cultures -- and donor and fundraising acquisition strategies -- it makes sense to give your staff members and employees the freedom and ability to connect with constituents, share the joy of helping others, and spread the message about your cause, while also protecting your brand and organization.