Why your nonprofit needs a social media policy
“None of our staff uses social media,” said no nonprofit with a realistic view of the past few years. Social media permeates our lives and your organization is being represented online—whether you’re paying attention or not.
While you can’t dictate what other people say, a thoughtful social media policy helps bring disparate voices together and sets guidelines for the people you can influence: staff, board members, volunteers and other champions for your cause.
It’s not unusual for a social media policy to exist entirely in someone’s head, especially with a small social media team—or, perhaps more likely, a team of one.
But an unwritten approach is a risky one: every decision becomes a best guess and, while public drama (like this notorious example from Applebee’s) is rare in the nonprofit space, the absence of direction can leave anyone blankly wondering what to do next.
The best way to mitigate the risks of social media isn’t to ignore them, but to provide consistent guidance based on careful consideration, not spur-of-the-moment decisions made by the person who happens to have the login information.
You should also ensure that everyone within your organization—not just active social media users—shares a common understanding of expectations.
Keep your policy clear, flexible and brief
There are different ways to approach social media policies, spanning from strict to relaxed. Every policy is unique, shaped by each organization’s culture, capacity, tolerance for risk, and understanding of social media.
I think guidelines should land somewhere in the middle. They must balance the need to protect your reputation with the need to build community and be responsive. They should also be broad enough to be flexible: The social web changes too often for any policy to be all encompassing.
Seven topics your social media guidelines should reference
Whatever the actual components, there are a few areas I think should be reflected in any social media policy.
- What’s the purpose of the policy?
- Who does it apply to?
- Why does your organization use social media? (This isn’t meant to replace a social media strategy, but the two documents are complementary.)
- What are your organization’s values, and how can they be reflected through social media?
Practical and legal considerations:
- How can someone evaluate whether a particular comment or piece of information is appropriate to share?
- How should critical issues like privacy—particularly photography and geolocation (like Facebook “check ins”)—be managed?
- Where is the line between personal social media use and professional?
- How should situations like friend requests from clients or supporters be managed?
- Can social spokespeople share personal comments on official accounts? What about comments about the organization on personal accounts?
In case of emergency:
- What should someone do if they think they’ve made a mistake?
- What’s the process for responding to negative situations, or other emergencies, through social channels? (Consider not just negative comments but other situations like unexpected office closures or controversial news about your cause or organization.)
Where to go for help:
- Who has ownership of your social media presence when it comes to making decisions or providing guidance in unusual situations?
- Who is on your official social media team, and how can they be contacted?
Your policy should address employees first, but nonprofits often share the same—or slightly modified—guidelines with others who may represent the organization online or in the community.
Additional information and examples
There are many different points to consider for your social media guidelines, not all listed above. Before writing your policy, be sure to check out resources like:
- “14 Questions to Ask When Developing Your Nonprofit’s Social Media Policy” from HubSpot, which highlights questions to use when deciding whether a strict or loose policy is better suited for your organization
- “Creating a Social Media Policy” from TechSoup, which looks at the different components a policy should include and many of the questions that will shape each one
- “Social Media Policy Best Practices: Trust Is Cheaper Than Control” from Beth Kanter, which includes links to some excellent resources. (Kanter also wrote The Networked Nonprofit, an inspiring read about the impact an empowered social network can have.)
Some examples I often refer to include the Canadian Red Cross, who relies on volunteers to monitor and distribute information in an emergency. Their social media guidelines for staff and volunteers strike a great balance between organizational considerations and practical best practices.
For such a sprawling and multifaceted organization, I think the U.S. Army has put together an excellent social media handbook: it’s a plain-language reference with information for soldiers and families alike, with a blend of specific direction and more general guidance.
In the short term, taking time to create a social media policy is easy to skip past to focus on more pressing work. But over the long haul—and social media isn’t going anywhere—the lack of shareable guidelines can stifle your ability to communicate and leave too much of your reputation to chance.