Nonprofit Radio: Social Media Boundaries


Nonprofit radio
On Friday, April 12, I'll be on Tony's show discussing social media boundaries. Nonprofit Radio starts at 10 am PT / 1 pm ET. You can listen live here or catch us later on iTunes.

Here are examples of the social media issues we may discuss:

Charitable solicitations. With the advent of social media, nonprofits are increasingly coordinating fundraising activities across the country. But nonprofits need to know there are some registration requirements that can be triggered by these activities. Beyond that, charities must recognize their legal responsibilities to exercise control over their solicitation activities. If these are driven by volunteers in other states, charities must ask themselves if they are exercising adequate supervision over these agents and efforts.

  • What happens if volunteers are urged to coordinate a local event and somebody gets hurt there?
  • Will the charity be liable?
  • Will the charity's insurance cover it?

Advocacy. Charities can engage in lobbying and certain political activities, and social media certainly can be used in such efforts. But again, staff and volunteers using a nonprofit's social media channels need to know the rules of the game before engaging in advocacy that may:

  • trigger registration and reporting requirements,
  • require measurement of expenditures and other resources, and/or
  • jeopardize the organization's 501(c)(3) status.

The board should set rules, not guidelines, that prohibit the charity's social media vehicles to be used for lobbying on issues not related to the organization's mission or directly or indirectly endorsing political candidates. Charities need to be careful of allowing issue advocacy on wedge issues around election time. They need to think of what a "like" on Facebook, a "retweet" on Twitter, or a hyperlink to another site might mean in terms of lobbying and prohibited political activities. It does little good if only the executive director understands these rules when a much broader group controls the charity's social media.

Published content. Nonprofits are not immune from lawsuits for copyright infringement when it copies content from another source and publishes it on its own site or social media channels. Just because there is content on the web doesn't mean it's free for use, and simply providing attribution doesn't make it okay. Excerpting a small portion of an article may be alright (with attribution), but if you copy too much, the nonprofit may find itself in deep trouble.

Other content issues that can create serious problems for a nonprofit: defamation (a false statement that injures another person's reputation); harassment; discrimination; and bullying. Beyond potential legal violations, people get seriously hurt from these actions, and a nonprofit's reputation can suffer. Boards must make sure everybody creating or moderating content for the nonprofit is aware of the rules.

Response to violations or firestorms of controversy. Nonprofits should enforce their policies and determine what needs to happen if there is a violation. This may include deleting content, printing an apology, restricting access to the individual violating the policy, and in some cases termination.

But nonprofits need to know their employment laws if imposing any kind of punishment on employees for complaining about the organization or their supervisors. There are laws that protect certain types of speech, and nonprofits can face serious consequences for violating them. See Emily's article on the subject published by the Nonprofit Quarterly, “I Thought We Were Friends!” Can Nonprofits Terminate Employees for Their Social Media Posts?


10 Issues to Address in Your Nonprofit's Social Media Policy (Nonprofit Law Blog)

Preparing an Online Social Media Policy: The Top Ten Legal Considerations for Your Nonprofit (Venable LLP)

Influencing Public Policy in the Digital Age (Alliance for Justice)

A Nonprofit’s Legal Counsel Is The Social Media Manager’s Best Friend! (Beth Kanter)