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Social Media in Nonprofit Organizations: Benefits and Legal Restrictions
Similarly to most organizations and companies, social media can be very beneficial for nonprofits. They use Facebook, Twitter, and similar platforms as tools for communication, networking, and engagement with their audiences. Social media facilitates fundraising, volunteer recruitment, spreading a message, advocacy and awareness, and transparency about current events and actions. But it is particularly important for employees of nonprofits to take care when posting certain content, as they are subject to the federal tax classification 501(c)(3). But what does this mean and what should paralegals working in these organizations watch out for?
In this episode of The Paralegal Voice, Vicki Voisin interviews Kate Redman, who practices community enterprise law, about organizations that have the 501(c)(3) status and how they can implement an effective social media policy in accordance with the law.
- How nonprofits benefit from using social media.
- Rules for fundraising, representation, content disbursement, and monitoring
- Regulations for organizations with 501(c)(3) status
- Restrictions including board member benefits and candidate endorsement
- Solicitation rules and being transparent to donors
- Avoiding allegations of fraud, defamation, or copyright/intellectual property violations
- Creating and implementing an effective social media policy
- What to watch out for with investment fundraising
- What to do if you are a paralegal or other employee in a nonprofit organization
Kate Redman is a partner with Olson, Bzdok & Howard in Traverse City, Michigan, where she practices community enterprise law. She specializes in working with small businesses, nonprofits, social enterprises, and other mission-driven organizations. She’s a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and holds a master of public policy from the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Kate was selected as one of Traverse City’s most influential professionals under 40 in 2015.View transcript
Paralegal Voice: Social Media in Nonprofit Organizations: Benefits and Legal Restrictions – 2/13/2016
Advertiser: Welcome to the Paralegal Voice, where you hear the latest issues and trends in the world of paralegals and legal assistance by one of the best known paralegals in the industry, Vicki Voisin. A paralegal for more than twenty years, Vicki is dedicated to helping legal professionals reach their goals. You’re listening to Legal Talk Network.
Vicki Voisin: Hello everyone, welcome to the Paralegal Voice here on Legal Talk Network. I’m Vicki Voisin, the paralegal mentor and host of the Paralegal Voice. I’m a NALA Advanced Certified paralegal, I publish an e-newsletter titled Paralegal Strategies, and I’m also the co-author of Professional Paralegal, a Guide to Finding a Job and Career Success. You’ll find more information at ParalegalMentor.com. My guest today is attorney Kate Redman, a partner with Olson, Bzdok & Howard in Traverse City, Michigan, where she practices community enterprise law. She specializes in working with small businesses, nonprofits, social enterprises, and other mission-driven organizations. She’s a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and holds a master of public policy from the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Kate is from Traverse City, Michigan, and she was selected as one of Traverse City’s most influential professionals under 40 for 2015. That’s the second year in a row that Kate was selected by the Traverse City Business News as part of Traverse City’s 40 under 40, and that’s quite impressive, Kate.
Kate Redman: Thank you, Vicki, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Vicki Voisin: Now before we go further, I do want to thank our sponsors, the people who keep us going here at the Paralegal Voice. That would be Boston University, offering an online certificate in paralegal studies. If you’re seeking a professional credential or just want to further develop your skills, Boston University provides an affordable, high quality 14 week program. Visit ParalegalOnline.bu.edu for information. That’s ParalegalOnline.bu.edu. NALA, a professional association for paralegals providing continuing education and professional certification programs for paralegals at NALA.org. NALA is a force in the promotion and advancement of the paralegal profession and has been a sponsor of the Paralegal Voice since our very first show. And also Serve-Now, a nationwide network of trusted, prescreened process servers. Work with the most professional process servers who have experience with high-volume serves, embrace technology, and understand the litigation process. Visit Serve-Now.com to learn more. The goal of the Paralegal Voice is to discuss a wide range of topics important to the paralegal industry and also share with you leading trends, significant developments and resources you’ll find helpful in your career and also your everyday job. Guests are usually included to help explore timely topics and for that reason, I’ve invited attorney Kate Redman to be with me today. Kate, our discussion will focus on social media ethics for nonprofit organizations. And before we go any futher, Kate, would you please tell our listeners more about your current community involvement and also about some of the articles that you’ve written.
Kate Redman: Thank you, Vicki, I appreciate the introduction. In addition to acting as general counsel for a variety of nonprofits and small businesses and administrative organizations, I’m also very involved in growing crowdfunding and community-based investment opportunities followed with the Sustainable Economies Law Center and I serve on several nonprofit boards as well. I work with cooperative and also hybrid legal and finance instructors for social enterprises and nonprofits.
Vicki Voisin: That’s quite impressive, and as we get into talking about social media for nonprofits, there’s been a huge rise in the use of social media and I’m assuming that’s the same for nonprofits as it is for everywhere else. Can you explain why that is and how social media is beneficial for a nonprofit.
Kate Redman: Just like for any organization, it could be a wonderful tool for communication and for sharing and gathering information and just for networking and communicating for the people who are interested in what you’re doing. For a nonprofit, that might mean that you’re fundraising or that you’re recruiting volunteers. Maybe you’re just communicating messages related to your mission or you’re promoting advocacy or awareness of the different issues or even just communicating about the organization being transparent about what the organization’s doing.
Vicki Voisin: Now, Kate, there’s been a rise in the use of social media by everyone – by Brick & Mortar, by businesses, corporation and also by nonprofits. Can you tell me why? And also, how is social media beneficial to nonprofits?
Kate Redman: As you know, just for any type of organization, social media can be a wonderful tool for communication and for sharing and gathering information or just networking and a nonprofit can use it for fundraising, for volunteer recruitment to help share information related to their mission or even implement their mission and raise advocacy and awareness for issues they’re concerned about. Or even just organisational communication and transparency.
Vicki Voisin: What about people working for nonprofit, whether they’re the executive director or a paralegal or receptionist or whatever. Tell us why it’s important for them to think very carefully about social media posts. What should they be thinking about?
Kate Redman: The same rules apply actions and organization takes through social media just as if it was taking those actions in person. But I think with social media, it is so easy to click that button and to do things that if you had to actually mail a letter or do something in person, you would probably think a lot harder before you did it. It’s a good opportunity for people to really think about how and why they’re using social media. I tend to think of it as falling into four areas. If you’re fundraising through social media, there’s a set of rules that are going to apply off the bat. If you are dispersing content through social media thinking about the legal considerations that would apply to your content, there might be restrictions that apply to you because you’re a 501c3. It might mean thinking about copyright or intellectual property or concerns such as defamation and fraud. And there’s a third area to think about: who is representing you on social media. Who among your employees or board or volunteers are you authorized to represent you and under what platforms do you want to authorize them to represent you. And there’s a fourth and final area: How are you monitoring and enforcing how social media’s being used by your organization and through your organization.
Vicki Voisin: Well, Kate, let’s back up just a minute and talk about the difference between social media ethics, say in a law firm or a for profit corporation and a nonprofit organization. You just mentioned 501c3. I’d like for you to define that – I know the difference but maybe you can define that for our audience.
Kate Redman: 501c3 is a type of federal tax status. If you’re a nonprofit organisation, there are several different tax classifications you can have. 501c3 is probably the one we hear the most about, and what that is is an organization that is operated for charitable, educational, scientific or religious purposes, and they’re a special organization because people who give money to 501c3 organizations are able to claim a tax reduction on their return. But 501c3s are subject to special rules and restrictions that don’t apply to even other types of nonprofit organizations and certainly not for profit businesses or other entities.
Vicki Voisin: And how is it different for a person working for a non profit organization, what did they have to think about for social media ethics that maybe I wouldn’t working in a law firm?
Kate Redman: Some of the categories of restrictions that apply to a 501c3 are, for example, restrictions on lobbying and imbursements of political candidates. Another category that applies is that a 501c3 can not act primarily for private or individual benefit or – the clunky legal term is private inurement, which just means financial benefits to insiders such as its board members or staff.
Vicki Voisin: Oh, okay. And we also have to worry about donors and all of that?
Kate Redman: Yes. 501c3s also have restrictions because these donors are taking deductions in terms of being transparent to donors and making sure that they’re following fundraising and solicitation rules that apply at the state and federal level.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Now when we violate the social media rules, are there any specific ramifications for a non profit organization that would be different?
Kate Redman: It depends on what type of violation we’re talking about since the same rules apply in social media as they do in real life. For a 501c3, they do have the unique thing that they could lose their 501c3 status if there’s too much private benefit from what they do, if they violate the restrictions on lobbying. And in addition to that just like any other organization, they also have to worry about potentially being subject to allegations of fraud or defamation or copyright or intellectual property violation.
Vicki Voisin: Now, Kate, tell me what is the best way to avoid mistakes with regard to social media ethics.
Kate Redman: I think for a 501c3 non profit organization as well as for any other organization, it’s just good to be intentional about how you’re using it and to think ahead of time what is your objective in using social media policy and what does that mean for your employees, your volunteers, your board members, what kind of guidelines do you want to give people. So I really want to recommend adopting a social media policy that provides people guidance and also gives you the tools to be able to monitor and enforce how your social media policy is being used. They’re also to be used in social media for fundraising or addressing employee limits or rights or an employee handbook. But in general, I think to the extent you can set the different pieces of how you’re using social media into organizational policies so that you’ve thought about it ahead of time. It’s a good best practice for an organization.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. It’s time to take a short break for a word from our sponsors, and when we come back we’ll continue our discussion about social media ethics for nonprofit organizations with attorney Kate Redman.
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Vicki Voisin: Welcome back to the Paralegal Voice. I’m Vicki Voisin, and my guest today is Kate Redman, a partner with Olson, Bzdok & Howard in Traverse City, Michigan, where she practices community enterprise law. Now, Kate, before the commercial break we were discussing the use of a social media policy to help avoid mistakes. So what should be covered by a non profit social media policy?
Kate Redman: As a general matter, I would advise with any policy that you make sure you have a way to giving it to everyone that’s affected by it. That includes your employees as well as volunteers and perhaps even board members and that you disperse and make sure that people really understand it and consider even doing the training. You don’t necessarily need to try to address everything in the world that would come from your social media policy. It might be a good idea just to provide guidelines for decision making and also flag areas when you think employees should ask for further guidance. Especially as an attorney, I’m concerned about areas where the seek the guidance of attorneys and some particularly legally risky areas for example are if they’re thinking about doing lobbying and the organization doesn’t have a lobbying policy in place or if they’re doing fundraising or really anything where they’re sort of primary benefit to private individuals that could raise benefits to their 501c3 status. So when you start thinking about your social media policy, some areas that it should address are what are the purposes of social media use for your organization and who is going to own your content. Which platforms do you want to use? There are certainly a variety of options out there and are growing rapidly every day. Who in your organization are you going to authorize to open accounts on behalf of the organization and how do you ensure that your organization has access to those portals and those accounts so that if that employee leaves it doesn’t affect your organization’s ability to continue using them. You want to think about what type of communication and conduct will be covered within your social media policy or what might you want to exclude from what your organization will use. Its employees are using devices and accounts that your organization issued either special restrictions will apply if you don’t want them visiting certain websites or making certain types of content available. The same record keeping rules apply to information that you put on social media as to other organizational pieces. And really with any content that you’re putting on any social media platform, you want to ask who owns this content. Does the organization have the right to use it if it was content that somebody else generated? Or for generating it, you want to make sure that your organization owns it and that if you are the employee or volunteer that is letting you use it either that you own it or that you have a written agreement that is giving you the right to use it and defining the scope of what you can use it for. And it’s important for a lot of different areas for social media to make sure that your organization is monitoring how social media is used and that you have consequences for violating those policies by employees or by people that are posting on your site and you’re making that a practicability. And of course, any policy with that should also be consistent with the substance of limitations on social media for nonprofit organizations.
Vicki Voisin: There are a couple of other things I want to ask you right here. The first isn’t necessary – and probably that it is – to include something in your policy for in the event an employee brings their own device to use at the office or wherever they’re working. Sometimes when they bring their own device and work on company projects on their own device, that probably should be covered in the policy. Is that right or is that not a problem?
Kate Redman: That absolutely can be a problem and whether that should be addressed in a social media policy or an employee handbook, but you should want to provide guidelines and expectations for how much your employee can use – rather they’re using their personal device to log in to do work related to what you’re asking them to do or if they’re using your device to log in to their personal account. Any time you have that sort of intersection, you, the organization run the risk for being on the hook for whatever it is that they’re doing. So it’s a good idea to have guidelines to give them. If you don’t want them using their personal devices for anything related to the organization then that would be fine. Or if you don’t want them using organizational devices for their personal use, that would also make sense.
Vicki Voisin: Right.
Kate Redman: Put some sort of policy in place so that they know what the expectations are that are applied to them.
Vicki Voisin: Okay, and what about security? How do we make sure – I mean I know that hacking is a big thing. With the use of social media, I’m sure it has something to do with that. Is that where you’d be concerned or would it be some other area in the IT policy or something?
Kate Redman: Well, a big consideration especially for a 501c3 organization is your donor information and if you have people making donations online, ensuring that you’re protecting their private and confidential information. For that, you’d certainly make sure that you’re using a secure connection and also I would recommend including a notice to people in terms of what it is that you’re doing to protect their information and what sort of level of security that they can expect. Or if their data’s being shared with other organizations, just by them using your website, then that’s information that you have as well.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Now this also goes in with the fundraising. What kinds of considerations are there for the social media fundraising? I know we have to watch out for donor privacy rights, but what else do we have to think about?
Kate Redman: I’ll come back to it again and again when it comes to social media. It’s the same rules that apply to the organization if it weren’t social media. So for fundraising, you have to think about all the same things that a 501c3 organization would think about. If you were fundraising in person instead of through social media, you just have the additional land if it being so easy to be able to talk to people in so many different places. And that simplicates solicitation and charitable trust asset registrations. Each state has a different process for registering for that state if you want to solicit charitable contributions from residents of that state. Unfortunately, that can be very cumbersome for nonprofits to comply with and there isn’t a standard national system. I often recommend the clients, but if they have a website where they’re soliciting information or soliciting donations – sorry, I’ll start that sentence over. I often advise clients that if they have a website that of course is available to people who live in all 50 states but they haven’t registered to solicit donations from people in all 50 states, that they might consider putting a disclaimer that they’re soliciting donations from people in maybe Michigan and Florida and Ohio and if the donor is a resident of a different state, they should contact the nonprofit for more information before they make a donation. There’s also any time you’re a non profit and you’re asking for donations, you want to be careful about the scope what you’re asking for and whether it’s a restricted or an unrestricted donation and you want to send the donor acknowledgement that’s consistent with that scope of that solicitation. We already touched on donor privacy and donor rights, but of course that’s also very important and something you might want to consider to make available on your website for people that are looking at your website to consider donating. If you’re using professional fundraisers, at least in the state of Michigan, you have to register with the state to be able to raise money using professional fundraisers which basically means people that you’re compensating to help you fundraise and that’s true in most of the state. Also, of course fundraising. And finally, a big use of social media for nonprofits that has been growing rapidly is donation crowdfunding and you just want to make sure if your state has any special registrations that apply for raising money through the nation crowdfunding that you’ve complied with those as well.
Vicki Voisin: Tell me about crowdfunding. What is that?
Kate Redman: Crowdfunding is really just the idea that you’re raising money from a group of people to support your idea. We hear a lot about it lately, but to a 501c3, that just sounds a lot like fundraising that you’ve been doing for years, which is true.
Vicki Voisin: Right.
Kate Redman: There’s donation crowdfunding and the growth of social media and these web platforms has made it so easy to ask for money from a large group of people to support a project. We’re also seeing growing use of what’s called investment crowdfunding where you’re not just asking for a donation but you’re actually asking people to give you money that you’re going to pay back. And if a non profit has a project where they’re going to be generating funds from the project and would be able to pay money back, they also can use investment crowdfunding. They would just have to follow the appropriate legal registrations. Definitely talk to an attorney before you undertake investment crowdfunding because you get into security laws which are notoriously tricky.
Vicki Voisin: Well, thanks for telling me about that because I wasn’t really sure what crowdfunding entailed. Kate, do you have any more tips for nonprofit organizations when it comes to the use of social media by their employees and their board members and even their volunteers?
Kate Redman: Well, we talked about some of them, but I think it’s really important to think both of who is authorized to post on behalf of your organization and also how your employees and your volunteers and your board members might be using their personal accounts to post about your organization and to make sure that you set expectations and rules around both of those. Because you want to really make sure that whoever is speaking on behalf of your organization is speaking in the way that you want them to to further your mission in compliance with any policies that you might have.
Vicki Voisin: Kate, let me interrupt you for just a minute, but I’m assuming that we’re talking about social media and including posts on Facebook, on Twitter and LinkedIn and things like that that people also have to be very careful about
Kate Redman: Absolutely. And whether it’s you’re retweeting something or you’re liking it on Facebook or just in general, if you’re endorsing or sharing information that somebody else generated on the organization’s platform, you can be viewed as being responsible for that information. So it’s really important to make sure that anything that you’re liking or retweeting is consistent with your organizational limits. So 501c3s are not permitted to endorse specific political candidates so you want to be careful that you never endorse substance that even if you didn’t generate the content, you’re liking somebody else’s content and or sharing content that would endorse a political candidate. If you’re linking to a website from your social media, make sure you understand the content of that website and what it is that you’re endorsing. Again, it’s the same old rule, if you wouldn’t do it in real life, don’t do it on social media. And if you wouldn’t send out a newsletter sharing an article from another organization, then don’t link to it on your website either.
Vicki Voisin: Kate, thank you for being with me today. This has been really enlightening, I appreciate your information that you provided. It’s been a great refresher for me and I know that paralegals who are working in nonprofits are certainly going to benefit. So I very much appreciate your taking your time. How can our listeners get in touch with you if they wish to do that?
Kate Redman: I encourage them to feel free to call me at (231) 946-0044 or email me at Kate@ENVLaw.com – that’s the first three letters of EnvironmentalLaw.com. And I would also add, I do do social media policy workshops for nonprofits to make it more cost affordable. I will combine 4 or 5 different nonprofits and work through them as a cohort to develop a social media policy and that way they can kind of learn from each other and also end up with a policy at a more affordable rate than if I was working with them individually.
Vicki Voisin: Perfect. Thanks again, Kate. We’re going to another short break now. Don’t go away because when I come back, I’ll have news and career tips for you.
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Vicki Voisin: Welcome back to the Paralegal Voice. This is the time in the show where I offer you some tips for your career and I also give you some announcements. One thing that I have going on is that I’ll be speaking to the California Alliance of Paralegal Associations, also known as CAPA. That’s going to happen on February the 10th. They have a new leadership academy that’s called Growing Our Association Leaders, or GOAL, and I’m really excited to be a part of their presentation. I’ll be talking about leaders of today, innovators of tomorrow, and vision mission recruiting and maintaining your A team, so it’s really going to be a good thing. For your career tip, always remember that where you work – and it doesn’t matter if it’s a law firm, a corporation, you’re working for a non profit – ask if there is a policy. And when you’re given that, make sure that you study it carefully, that you follow it to the letter. And be especially careful about personal use of social media. A good rule is to use work electronics for work, do your personal communications on your own equipment, and always be aware that the federal rules of civil procedure do allow for discovery of your personal electronics if they are necessary for the discovery in a particular case – that would be rule 26B. So be sure that you’re very careful and that when they ask you to sign their social media policy, that you know exactly what you’re signing and ask questions when you need to. Always be conscious, always use common sense, and don’t do anything on social media that you wouldn’t want your boss to see or wouldn’t want your mother to see. That’s a good common sense rule. That’s all the time we have today for the Paralegal Voice. If you have questions about today’s show, please email them to me at Vicki@ParalegalMentor.com. I’d love to hear from you and I like your suggestions for future shows. Also, don’t forget to check out my blog, ParalegalMentor.com/blog and the resources available on my website, ParalegalMentor.com. All of these have been designed them to help you move your career in the right direction, and that direction is always forward. This is Vicki Voisin, thanking you for listening to the Paralegal Voice, and reminding you to always make your paralegal voice heard.
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