Social Networking for Nonprofits: For some or all?

by Anne Yurasek on April 10, 2008

Web20Contributed by Anne

I spent the morning yesterday talking with an Executive Director on a range of topics from board development to physical plant planning to…social networking.  Our discussion focused primarily on how to manage/nurture/control the presence of the organization within the social networking space.  As many of you know, the "buzz" of nonprofit bloggers is to "get online, develop your online marketing, connect with your donors and constituents, be a part of the new Web 2.0 revolution"...but does it make sense for every nonprofit organization?

In this case, as a youth-serving organization, their staff work with children from the ages of 8 - 18.  Many of these children are already using Facebook or MySpace to connect with their friends and have integrated social networking as a key component of their communication and interactions with their social set.  If a relationship is established, the children may send friend requests to the staff member following the completion of the program.  The organization, due to concerns about liability, has instructed staff to not accept these requests and to not pursue online friendships after the completion the program. Additionally, program participants start groups on the social networking sites as program alumnae - wanting to stay connected with their bunkmates or teammates - using the organization’s name to find fellow participants. Without any control over these groups, the organization must monitor their activity—and should inappropriate content be posted, intervene.  It is a sticky situation.

I also had the opportunity yesterday to listen in on a compelling conference call with Seth Godin about his new book - "Meatball Sundae".  (Thank you to Edith and the team at SFEntrepreneur for putting it together!)  Seth spoke primarily about the revolution of permission marketing over the last five years and its impact on business. He stressed that in fact, organizations (even non-profits) have the "obligation to take advantage of the revolution versus fighting it."  Seth noted numerous trends that are part of the revolution but one struck me as pertinent to the challenge facing this particular ED.  In the marketing revolution that is occurring, every consumer is a critic, which in this case, would include program participants.   These consumers have the ability to shout from any variety of rooftops - including Facebook or MySpace profiles or groups, blogs, Twitters - the good and the bad about their experience with not only any retailer…but any nonprofit organization.

So where does that leave this Executive Director?  How can this organization both embrace their consumers and in doing so create advocates for their organization through social networking, while simultaneously protecting their own liability?  Your thoughts?