Recently, I read a very insightful article titled Fearing What They’ll Say on Facebook on a terrific site called Kivi’s Nonprofit Communication Blog.

In her article, blogger Kivi Leroux Miller wrote about the challenges non-profit organizations face in determining what is appropriate for employees and other representatives to share on the non-profit’s Facebook page or other social media outlets.

This is an issue that I have been thinking about ever since this form of communication has become so wide-spread. I am very cautious by nature and tend to err on the side of not saying anything rather than blurting out something I can’t take back. Therefore, there is a big part of me that is intimidated by the spontaneous nature of Facebook.

That said, Kivi brought up some very interesting considerations in her article.  For example, she wrote about how important it is for the administration of the non-profit to be clear with the staff and volunteers when defining the difference between public and private commenting.   This is a very fine and tricky line.

An Example of What Not to Do

Kivi’s article primarily focused on non-profit’s side of the equation. But recently, I came across a Facebook  conversation that was a perfect example of what concerns me from the other side of the equation- that is, the client’s side.

In this example, the director of the program I read about opened up a discussion about a new pricing structure for entrance fees to his facility. He had a very specific rationale for why he set the prices as he did. However, the policy did not make sense to a few of his clients.

A number of them began to question his decision online. Frankly, I was surprised by how openly defiant they seemed. I thought that some of the commenters were downright disrespectful. Unfortunately, the director didn’t handle this attack very well, and he became frustrated and defensive in his written responses. He even resorted to sarcasm toward a couple of the clients.

This isn’t a huge facility, but there are several hundred people who “like” this page. Therefore, every single one of these people could read the entire ugly exchange- both sides. I wonder how the average reader feels about the organization now, after seeing how this issue was handled so poorly. I can’t imagine it’s very positive.

Now, I am fully aware that this is just an isolated incident. It is probably more reflective of this particular director than of any inherent problem with a non-profit’s involvement with social media. However, this is a trap that is easy to fall into.

Facebook Presents New Challenges

Before the advent of Facebook, the clients might still have been frustrated by the pricing structure, but the opportunity for them to collectively air their grievances didn’t exist in a such a convenient and public forum.

While a director of a non-profit has always had to have the ability to answer client concerns smoothly and professionally, Facebook presents a new wrinkle. Since the whole point of social media is to be quick and informal, it’s very easy to just sit down at the computer and fire off a response to whatever is posted, without thinking about the consequences.

Oftentimes on Facebook, these conversations pick up speed and emotion as each new comment pops up. If the director isn’t careful with how a subject is moderated, it can quickly get out of control, as it did in the example I just mentioned above. And by then, it’s too late. Everybody has seen the outburst.

As a result, I think a non-profit has to be very careful in both the discussions it opens up, as well as how it responds to questions, or even criticisms, online.

In fact, I think it would be wise to create a written policy and tape it to the wall right by the computer. It can serve as a reminder, or a speed bump, when the pace of Facebook comments reaches dangerous levels.

This policy could look something like this:

  • Do not ask for people’s opinions on any money-related issue.
  • Do not ask for people’s opinions on any policy issue that has been even slightly controversial within your staff.
  • Do not ever use sarcasm in a Facebook posting.
  • Do not ask for open-ended suggestions, like an online suggestion box.
  • Do not ask any questions that you should be asking within the privacy of a board meeting.

Perhaps if the director I wrote about had such a written policy in the general vacinity of his computer, he wouldn’t have gone off like he did.

I know that some people will think I want to kill the spirit of social media. Perhaps I do. However, after having spent over twenty years working in the non-profit world, I don’t think it’s wise to publicly solicit information that is much better directed toward board members, or at least a formal advisory committee. And, I absolutely do not think it’s wise to engage the public with frustration and sarcasm.

Now, I do think it’s fine to ask for public opinion on much less consequential issues, but even these should be vetted ahead of time in order to avoid any possible controversies.

We in the non-profit world need to be very protective of our public image. We are dependant on the kindness and generosity of the public. We need to make sure that our mission is not compromised by ill-advised comments on Facebook.

What Do You Think?

Does your non-profit have a policy on what gets posted on Facebook?  Do you think my cautious nature is fundamentally at odds with the modern progression toward total openness and transparency?  Let us know your thoughts in the comment section.  I’d love to read them!

Photo by: daveynin

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Posted on 19 February 2011

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EFI