Social Media and Online Marketing for Nonprofits: A Legal Perspective

Nonprofits have steadily increased their adoption of social media and other online engagement strategies.  The unifying objective? To convert some of the time individuals are already spending online into supporter loyalty, education, and action.

The online marketing strategies being used are quite diverse, including:

  • Facebook Promotions: “Like” our company page, and we will donate $X to charity; Visit our Facebook page, and vote for your favorite charity to receive $X.
  • Online Sweepstakes: Make a donation or take a simple quiz to show your knowledge on an important issue, then enter to win a prize.
  • Online Contests: Submit an entry (e.g., a T-shirt design; a proposal to solve a global epidemic) for a chance to win funding or a prize; winner selection may combine an expert panel with public voting.
  • Customized Online Fundraisers: Individuals or charities can create their own fundraising page on a third party crowdfunding site to raise funds.
  • Cause Gaming:  Play our game to help generate funds for charity.

Nonprofit marketing experts advise groups adopting social media and online marketing strategies to keep it simple, make it meaningful, and be selective to avoid taxing your limited resources. But what do the lawyers say?

Here are five legal considerations for charities to keep in mind as you consider adopting new internet-based strategies:

1.      Understand the structure and limitations of your chosen platform.  Each platform has its own set of rules that will affect your options, ranging from the ability to raise funds for a charitable cause (e.g., not via Kickstarter), to the voting mechanisms you can and cannot use (check out Facebook’s promotions guidelines).

2.      Make sure your promotion rules are clear and thorough. Think about worst case scenarios (e.g., fraud via automated voting) or unexpected situations (e.g., a tie in votes), and build in appropriate protections and procedures. The last thing you want is to have your creative efforts become the next nonprofit social media scandal.

3.      Consider the privacy issues triggered by your promotion. Many organizations and for-profits are using online engagement strategies to grow their database of contacts and convert first timers into regular supporters.  Make sure the rules for our promotion clearly address how personally identifiable information will be used, and if tied to your website’s privacy policy, make sure that policy is up to date as well.

4.      Analyze your fundraising regulatory compliance obligations. If your online promotion is helping to raise funds for a charitable cause, you and possibly any third party site you are using to raise funds could be subject to fundraising registration requirements in 40+ states. The Charleston Principles, a nonbinding set of guidelines adopted by state charity regulators in 2001, provide the most concrete guidance for charities and companies engaged in charitable fundraising activities to determine their state compliance obligations (although the regulatory community is actively re-examining those Principles – consider how much the world of internet-based fundraising has changed over the last 11 years!).

5.      Promotions laws still apply in cyberspace.  Whether you’re dealing with online raffles, contests, or sweepstakes, many of the federal, state and local rules still apply (although certain ones may not, such as sweepstakes rules embedded in the federal Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act), and complying with every jurisdiction’s laws can be a challenge.  And if you think the internet makes it a snap to take your promotion global, think again.  Some jurisdictions regulate promotions so strictly that many groups simply opt to make their promotions void in those locations.

With over a million nonprofits in the U.S. vying for funding and constituents to support their charitable mission, it has become imperative for organizations to find ways to stand out in the marketplace of ideas. With some thoughtful planning, though, charities can harness internet and social media platforms to multiply their impact and reach.

One comment on “Social Media and Online Marketing for Nonprofits: A Legal Perspective

  1. Excellent points Karen! I would add 1. Know Your Audience/donor base 2. Establish clear internal expectations and infrastructure to meet and measure each campaign or communication piece and 3. Make each one of good value so it counts

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