Charities should consider the wider issue of how to regulate the use of social media by trustees, staff and volunteers.

A particular area of risk for charities arises from the use of social media by trustees, staff and volunteers. For charities with a large cohort of members, this risk can be even more difficult to manage.

Utilising social media as a tool to promote activities and develop new opportunities is vital to most charities. The risk implications that need to be considered in this area almost always arise from an individual’s misuse of social media.

Whether deliberate or inadvertent, improper or inappropriate use of social media by individuals associated with a charity can give rise to the following:

  • Unauthorised disclosure of confidential and proprietary information;
  • Infringement of third-party intellectual property rights;
  • Liability for discriminatory or defamatory comments; and
  • Reputational damage.

To minimise such risks charities should have clear social media policies and deliver training on these to trustees, staff and volunteers. All obligations or requirements (including any potential sanctions for non-compliance) should be properly communicated.

For staff, unless employers are able to show they have taken ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent their employees committing acts constituting discrimination, harassment, bullying or other such acts, they can find themselves vicariously liable for their employees’ actions if committed ‘in the course of employment’. Employers need to show they have been proactive in avoiding such situations. Having clear wording on appropriate use of social media, within a social media policy will minimise the risk of vicarious liability.

Individuals may not realise that if a social media posting is defamatory, discriminatory and/or constitutes bullying or victimisation, it can also make them personally liable to the third party. Posts made in the heat of the moment can have serious repercussions for both the organisation and the individual.

Charities should also consider the wider issue of how to regulate the use of social media by members who, like volunteers, do not fall within the control of an employment relationship. Members can have blurred identities when they use social media accounts where they comment both as a member and as a private individual.

Some organisations have taken the step to create a ‘Code of Conduct’ for their members to educate them of those potential risks. There is a balance to be struck, especially in relation to professional societies, between the freedom to express controversial professional views and comments which can expose the organisation to legal, regulatory and or reputational risk. Common provisions include:

  • Treating others with respect – avoiding offensive comments;
  • Refraining from publishing anything received in confidence; and
  • Ensuring they do not bring the charity into disrepute.

In some instances, any provisions to remove members contained in the constitution may need to be invoked to reinforce the repercussions of bringing the organisation into disrepute and to remind members of their responsibilities when using social media.

The appropriate approach to adopt in relation to social media will depend on a risk assessment of its pros and cons. This will vary from charity to charity. Any social media policies and accompanying procedures should be pragmatic in dealing with the risks and be enforceable if there are any breaches. A “one size fits all’ policy which is not tailored to the charity is unlikely to be as effective in managing risk as one that is clearly well thought through.