Nonprofits Need to Worry Less About the Legal Risks of Participating in Social Media.

Several legal risks that nonprofits should consider when participating in the online social landscape were recently outlined in a presentation composed by Krista Coons and Brian Turoff of Venable LLP.  The informative presentation suggested that marketers should be mindful of key legal risks surrounding social media including the loss of control of intellectual property and the liability of an employee posting a defamatory comment or using others’ intellectual property (2013, p. 5-14).  As informative and appropriate as these issues may seem to nonprofits, in the article below I will propose that there are more relevant and timely risks to consider when making the decision to embrace social media.

The Speed at Which Strategic Decisions Are Made May Not be Fast Enough to Benefit From Social Media

After doing research for my new article, “Google’s New Android App Encourages Social-Giving: A Solution to Apple’s Ban on Donation Applications,” I reached out to one of my favorite nonprofits, because I was certain that they would be a great fit as a featured project on Google’s One Today app.  This particular nonprofit is not affiliated with any religion or political wing, is almost entirely staffed by volunteers, has a global appeal, and most importantly possesses a one-of-a-kind “story.”

For all of these reasons, I was certain that the aforementioned nonprofit would jump on this opportunity.  Alas, one can only imagine my dismay when I received the email below from the organization in response to my suggestion that they should try the One Today app:

“…Thank you so much for bringing this great fundraising tool to our attention. After reviewing the information in the article, which was great, we feel that we may participate in the future but at this time we would like to do some further research to see how this can best benefit the [name of nonprofit intentionally omitted].  Thanks again for bringing this opportunity to our attention.”

This email response brought the stereotypical Generation Y tendencies out of me.  I wanted to reply in all-caps: GOOD GRIEF!  WHO WOULD PASS UP FREE ADVERTISING VIA THE THE MOST POWERFUL TECHNOLOGY COMPANY IN THE WORLD? WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO LOSE?!

Instead of offending a well-intentioned volunteer with an unprofessional email, I decided to repurpose my Millennial tendencies and use this instance as an example of the risk a nonprofit faces if it is unable to make strategic decisions in a timely fashion.  Companies in the private sector have successfully embraced the speed at which social media operates and have realized how it can make positive changes within their organizations.  For example, in Groundswell, the authors noted that after Dell tapped into its community forum,, it decreased its new product development timeframe from fifteen months to just two months (Bernoff & Li, 2011, p. 167).

 Therefore, regardless of whether an organization operates for profit or for good, participating in the social landscape will require it to accelerate the rate at which strategic decisions are made.

While it could easily be argued that new product development and fundraising campaigns are two separate beasts, there is certainly a shared underlying theme of a desire among professionals to shorten the time required to take a project from conception to delivered benefit.    Therefore, regardless of whether an organization operates for profit or for good, participating in the social landscape will require it to accelerate the rate at which strategic decisions are made.  If a nonprofit is too slow to react to opportunities that are revealed via social media, it risks never being able to accurately calculate ROI on its online efforts.

Attempting to Control Employees and Volunteers’ Involvement in Social Media Can Hinder Engagement

One of my favorite sentences in Groundswell reads, “After all, businesses and institutions are built on control, and the groundswell [the online social landscape] weakens and undermines control” (p. 17).  Editorial control over employee publications is one form of power that has been historically deep-rooted in an inter-departmental approval process.  I remember when I first began working for an ad agency well over a decade ago, nearly anything that anyone wrote, even emails to clients, could be subjected to a bureaucratic editing process that would take a week or more to move through.  Today, if a nonprofit tried to use this old-fashioned process it would effectively communicate its distrust of employees and volunteers (good luck retaining high-talent Millennials); and, at the same time, it would greatly hinder critical engagement on social media networks.  If engagement is hindered, ROI on social activity cannot be accurately illustrated.

If engagement is hindered, ROI on social activity cannot be accurately illustrated.

To avoid the risk of hindering engagement on social media channels, Intuit’s Turbo Tax business relies on a huge team of employees from nearly every department to participate within social media networks on its behalf.  According to Bernoff and Li, TurboTax’s Twitter team is staffed by various employees across the organization, including those working in marketing and PR to professionals in training and software engineering.  Because Intuit trusts its employees on social media networks and empowers them with their own editorial control, “in 2010, their average response time was four minutes—and they responded to nearly two thousand tax tweets” (Bernoff & Li, 2011, p. 209).  These tweets represented measurable engagement and powerful word-of-mouth marketing.  This was quantified in a social media survey conducted by Intuit, which revealed that seventy-one percent of respondents said they would recommend the tax service to others.  And, as the authors of Groundswell put it, “Given the high level of social connectedness of Twitter users, those recommendations will carry a lot of influence” (p. 209).

 The nonprofits that are nimble and use groundswell thinking will successfully mitigate the risks and reap the rewards of social media.

In conclusion, there are always legal risks that any organization faces when participating in social media.  However, the risks involved in entering the groundswell with an unwillingness to move at the speed of social media or not trusting your employees with active engagement should be far more concerning to nonprofits.  There is no time to over-think or over-talk opportunities like Google’s One Today App, nor is there room for editorial power struggles.  The nonprofits that are nimble and use groundswell thinking will successfully mitigate the risks and reap the rewards of social media.


Bernoff, J. & Li, C. (2011). Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review

Coons, K. & Turnoff, B. (2013). Social Media Legal Risks for NonProfits: How to Successfully Navigate the Pitfalls. Retrieved from


  1. You brought up a great point. Seems as though businesses are so worried about being sued, that they walk on too thin of a thread. I agree that we should all walk a fine line and avoid things that could lead to a legal woe, but we should not be so uptight.

    Businesses need to utilize social media as much as they could, and worry less about the legal consequences. Follow the rules, but utilize social media. The same goes for non-profit organizations too.

    Great blog!!!!

    1. Rebecca,

      It was so nice of you to take the time to comment on my article. I agree that legal risks exist, but they can be mitigated and should never be a reason to not actively engage with customers in the social landscape, regardless of your industry.

      Thank you,

      Anna Seacat

  2. Very informative! I agree, inaction can be dangerous for any company – whether they are nonprofit or for-profit. Nonprofit organizations also have competition when it comes to funding and receiving donations, which means any platform that can help increase their budget should be utilized immediately.

    It’s confusing why the legal implications of using an app for promotion weigh so heavily on this particular company’s actions. Risks of being sued are everywhere. Websites and other social platforms can also potentially pose legal risks – but that should not stop companies from using those powerful tools. In my opinion, they should consult with a lawyer for their legal questions asap and start on the app project as soon as they are finished talking.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to post such a thoughtful comment.

      Since the One Today app was produced by the largest search engine in the world and backed by Network for Good, which is an industry leader in Donor Advised Funds, I do not think a nonprofit could justify consulting with a lawyer before proceeding. Likewise, a nonprofit that chooses not to utilize a donation app that is totally free is disappointing.

      Again, many thanks for providing such a great comment.

  3. It is really interesting Anna that you enlighten that side of social media’s risks, social media legislation are still under a continuous developing process and the consequences associated with social media engagement still vague and need to be revised constantly whether the company was profit or non profit, I totally agree that nonprofit organizations should be far more concerning but at the end. Engaging social media platforms in the upcoming future will be inevitable to avoid by any business sector even with all the accompanied risks because the risk will be not to inter that social new world.

    1. Ayham,

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.


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Ethan McCarty

Digital strategy | Social business | People-centric biznology

Alana Harris Photography

some of my favorite photos and their stories


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