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With social media, the greatest risk is doing nothing

Deryck Williams shares some insights from global charities on the real risks involved with social media


The dangers of social media are clear, but the risk to a charity of not getting involved is far greater. A story that emerged during the research for our new report, ‘Growing communities: How charity leaders govern social media globally to thrive online’, illustrates this perfectly. The RSPCA Queensland in Australia were faced with disaster during the 2011 floods, with animals in their shelters at risk from rising waters. Yet using a Facebook post, they were able to temporarily rehome 350 animals in just a few hours. Few other tools could manage that feat so efficiently.

Our interviews for the ‘Growing communities’ report revealed that isolating risks and applying appropriate resources should be best practice for boards and senior management. From my perspective there are two main risks to be managed: technology and reputation. Charities have a fair understanding of reputational risk, but aren’t so good at profiling technological risk. However, regular meetings to ensure consistency and including social media in the charity’s enterprise risk management plan will help mitigate risks and identify opportunities.

One of the key ways that charities can manage technological risk from social media is through efficient monitoring, although resourcing it can be problematic. If a charity’s social media activity is the preserve of one or two people, they reduce the ability to tackle problems head on and can affect consistency if they leave.

An active online community steps up to rebuff critics, but the primary information has to come from the charity and its experts. Using specialist tools that report on keywords and sentiment in social media gives charities the opportunity to step in if negative or false reports are circulating, and to feed into beneficial conversations at the right time. As with many tools, budget may dictate their accuracy, so charities should be careful about their use.

Giving staff training to identify risks and the means to report and counter them is a good start. Making sure senior levels understand the technological as well as reputational risks of social media is essential. Since managing technological risk may be difficult for charities, the speed and effectiveness of their response is all the more important.

Avoiding risk means asking who has access, when they should join the conversation, and how they should speak. Some organisations insist on mandatory social media training for all staff online to avoid reputational risk through unqualified commentary, careless remarks or simply contradictory, repetitive conversations. Guidelines can also be issued at a volunteer level to minimise exposure to risk, though this is only advised if your volunteers are experienced and can be relied on to manage your online reputation.

Reporting on social media should be part of the larger enterprise risk management reporting structure, but ad-hoc reporting to the board in extreme cases seems to be the general rule, with few charities having social media-specific lines of reporting. If staff have robust guidelines and training, they can be left to self-moderate.

Simplicity is the key to setting successful protocols. Don’t create obstacles that cause an overly cautious approach. People rarely read policy unless they think they may have broken it, so keep guidelines simple, open and accessible, much like the medium itself.

Risks will always be present on social media but they are outweighed by the opportunities it offers. Understanding the dangers strategically rather than expecting operational involvement from the board is the best way forward.

Deryck Williams is national leader of charities and Not for Profit, Grant Thornton Canada.