Charities are increasingly embracing social media; taking advantage of new platforms on which to engage with their supporters and to enhance their communication and fundraising campaigns. Many remain cautious, however; scared off by the risks which social media, in its various guises, could potentially present to their well-earned reputations. Stories such as the comedian who claimed to have been “bullied” by a children’s charity online do not do much to allay concerns.

Social media - from Facebook to Twitter, and from LinkedIn to YouTube - provides unique and wide opportunities to participate in interactive discussions and to share information with constituents and supporters. Employees’ use of social media, for charity and for personal purposes, can pose grave risks, however, to charities’ confidential and proprietary information, and to their professional reputations. A single misguided Tweet from a charity's official account could lead to significant adverse publicity, and potentially to complaints to the Charity Commission.

To understand, address and minimise such risks, charities should effect and enforce comprehensive social media policies; tying employees’ use of social media into employment contracts, and ensuring that social media is used appropriately and effectively within wider communications and marketing initiatives. Careful thought should be given to whether charities monitor staff use of social media on charity IT equipment, and whether they might give guidance on employees’ personal use of social media, i.e. outside of their charitable work. Robust social media policies will identity who may speak on behalf of the charity, and the ways by which others should make clear that they speak in their own stead. Often employees benefit from specific training, to understand the appropriate and acceptable use of social media, and to ensure that any issues which may arise are addressed quickly and professionally, before a negative media story is generated.

As donors are increasingly finding and sharing information online and through social media, charities should be encouraged to engage. Taking proactive steps to mitigate the risks, charities’ use of social media can help significantly to advance fundraising and campaigning goals.