Is Social Media Hurting Your #Nonprofit Organization?

We’ve all heard the stories of social media success. President Barack Obama was perhaps the first US presidential candidate to raise a significant amount of money via social media. The Ice-Bucket Challenge generated awareness and raised over $100 million for the ALS Association in addition to millions more for other ALS charities. Countless charities have raised vast amounts of money through crowd funding campaigns and other social media campaigns.

Despite the success stories, there is a dark side to social media that can actually hurt your nonprofit organization.

Let me share a cautionary story involving Ursinus College. It reveals how, when used improperly, social media can embarrass your charity, cause supporters to abandon the organization, and reduce contributions.

Here’s what went horribly wrong:

Got to love a janitor with a ‘Ban Fracking Now’ sticker on his bucket. Barack is clearly reaching his target demographic.”

“Yoga pants? Per my DTW visual survey, only 10 percent of users should be wearing them. The rest need to be in sweats – or actually get dressed.”

“Just saw an Aborigenese in ‘full gear’ talking on an iPhone. What’s next Ben Franklin driving a Tesla?”

“Bruce Jenner [Caitlyn Jenner] got 25 K for speaking engagements. Caitlyn gets $100K. What wage gap?”

Those are just four of the, ahem, colorful tweets posted on Twitter by Michael C. Marcon, an insurance executive and 1986 Ursinus graduate. These tweets, and others from Marcon, might have gone unnoticed except for one thing: When they were posted, Marcon was a member of the Ursinus College board of trustees and, as of July 1, he served as Chairman of that board.

some-failed-tweets-by-irish-typepad-via-flickrRecently, several of Marcon’s tweets were publicized on Facebook by Jordan Ostrum, an Ursinus senior, and later on Odyssey by Haley Brush, an Ursinus English major. She told, “The tweets that were sexist made me really uncomfortable…. Comments like that are really inappropriate for someone in his position.”

David Bloom, another member of the Ursinus board, made an even stronger statement about Marcon’s tweets when he resigned in protest. He said, “I read strong evidence of an elitist, racist, sexist, body-shaming, anti-LGBTQ, exclusive-minded and generally intolerant individual.” He also called for Marcon to resign.

Ostrum was the first to publicly raise the issue of contributions when he said, “I pledge to not donate money to the Ursinus College Annual Fund while Michael Marcon remains on the Board of Trustees… If he remains on the board, they are saying yes [to] his behavior. I will say no — with my money.”

Days after the news story broke and Marcon met with administrators, faculty members, and students, he resigned from the board. In a written statement, Marcon said:

I was proud of the way the Ursinus faculty and staff allowed me to address a situation that has been so concerning to the Ursinus family. However, in order for true healing and true growth to take root, it needs to occur under fresh leadership of the board of trustees. The students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni deserve the greatest chance for renewal at this time, and so I believe it is in the best interest of the Ursinus family that I resign as Chair of the board of trustees.”

Marcon certainly has the right to freedom of speech, including the right to be as offensive as he wants to be. However, he failed to recognize two important facts-of-life in the digital age:

1.   There is a difference between one’s personal/private and professional/public self. What one might say to a buddy over a beer is not necessarily what one should broadcast through social media to one’s personal contacts, professional associates, and the general public.

2.  When one assumes a position of leadership within an organization, particularly a nonprofit, one must be prepared to surrender some personal freedom of expression in order to protect the organization and advance its mission.

Marcon’s tweets demonstrate that careless, thoughtless, offensive personal tweets can have a troubling impact on an organization. They can lead to alienation, fear, offense, loss of passionate supporters, and loss of donations.

We all need to separate our personal selves from our professional selves. When we represent an organization, we have a responsibility to that organization. If we’re not prepared to hold our tongues and thumbs, at times, we should not agree to serve. More generally speaking, we should all probably refrain from using social media to broadcast snarky, inane, hurtful comments; they do nothing to enhance public discourse, and only serve to further rile people to no positive, constructive end.

Marcon ultimately did the right thing, but not before damaging the good name of Ursinus College and causing himself considerable embarrassment.

Fortunately, there are some collegiate leaders who understand how to use social media in an appropriate way to further their message and engage people thoughtfully and productively. Jeff Jowdy, President of Lighthouse Counsel, wrote an excellent article recently for NonProfitPRO (“As a Nonprofit Leader, Are You Really Engaged on Social Media?”). Jowdy writes:

If you are going to be engaged on social media and interact with your key constituents, you need to be sure that you are sending the right messages and truly engaging with them. In today’s fast-paced, often remote world, this is a priceless opportunity. However, you need to embrace social media with the right knowledge, plan and a commitment.”

In his article, Jowdy shares a number of tips for how to properly use social media as an engagement tool. In addition, he provides links to the Twitter accounts of three collegiate leaders who effectively use social media.

If you’re going to use social media, do it right. If you’re not willing to make the commitment to use it properly, if you’re going to just wing-it, then do yourself and your organization a big favor and stay away from social media. Used properly, social media can be enormously helpful to you and your organization. Used inappropriately, social media can cause significant problems.

Does your organization have a social media policy for board members and staff? What happy or nightmarish social media stories can you share?

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

7 Responses to “Is Social Media Hurting Your #Nonprofit Organization?”

  1. Good post! I will be using this as a point of discussion for students in an Intro to Nonprofits class tonight.

  2. Thanks as always for another thought-provoking post. You happen to have hit on a topic of extremely personal nature to me [I’ll spare the soul baring here]-I’m kind of mad at you right now. But, as the professional I am, I’ll personally reflect on THAT and definitely incorporate this discussion into all areas of my work in Philanthropy. I hope that AFP et al and BoardSource will make it easy by providing templated language for a Social Media Posting Policy for organizational leaders. It’s a big question: what’s personal and what’s my responsibility to my work/vol work? Thanks for helping us bring vital question to a foreground. Here’s a 2014 article on legalities as a resource:

    • Susan, thank you for caring enough to share your thoughts despite the topic hitting home the way it has for you. Ouch! I regret that this topic brought up some bad memories. Social media is a tool that can be used to build positive relationship or do harm. It sounds like you’ve experienced both sides of social media.

      I also want to thank you for sharing the link to the terrific Nonprofit Times article. It contains some very useful tips. I hope my readers take the time to check it out.

  3. I’ll also be showing this to students in a social media for nonprofits class. Thank you.


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