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Not for profit

Charity boards must get to grips with social media

Carol Rudge discusses why board-level understanding of social media allows its benefits to be unlocked


Every board member of a charity understands that good governance is a key part of their role. Social media is a game changer in the way charities operate, impacting donors, advocates, staff, volunteers and beneficiaries.  However, many board members and trustees are not digital natives, and may struggle to establish the risks and the questions they should be asking of the management team. Therefore as a board, setting a framework for governance requires gaining an understanding of what social media is and its capabilities.

Charities need a certain amount of freedom when using social media in order to benefit from its open, instantaneous qualities: guidelines should be simple and easy to remember if they are to be respected. Setting formalised governance over every aspect of its use, not just communications, will make social media more effective at what it does best. Of course, the board cannot become involved in every operational matter, but when they create a framework for governance, they have to understand what social media is and what it’s capable of achieving.

Are charities getting these guidelines in place? Our latest report, Growing communities: How charity leaders govern social media globally to thrive online, spoke with charity CEOs from Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, UK and USA, found that many at board level are struggling to establish the risks.

We found that for most charities, the communications team regulates social media activity with the help of information and communications technology (ICT) services. Few have specific governance guidelines or protocols in place for social media use and instead rely on general conduct and best practice guidelines.

Appointing a board member with interest and experience in social media, who can react quickly and communicate needs to the board, can spread understanding without involving the board in every operational problem. What management needs, at the very least, is a basic understanding and access to a trusted adviser on the subject.

Having that voice, that personality who can be reached and be seen to be available, can make the difference, as Richard Hawkes, chief executive officer of Scope UK pointed out: “It’s about making our leaders accessible and being transparent. Nowadays, people expect to be able to ask questions and to challenge. So it’s really important for us that people have that ability.”

Are charity leaders achieving this? As we found in the Grant Thornton Charity Governance Review 2014, of the top 100 UK charities, only 29 chief executives engaged in tweeting. The anecdotal evidence from our Growing Communities report would appear to support this in practice.

Although social networking isn’t a new concept, the technology enabling social media is different in terms of reach and accessibility. It is global, conversational and open. Governing its use is only possible through comprehending its differences to normal media. There is a risk involved that just can’t be managed in the traditional sense: boards need to know what can be controlled, and how.

Documented user policies are a good starting point. Approaching social media with preparation is essential to achieving a strong framework for use, giving better value for money and control over campaigns in real-time. As senior members of the organisation migrate to social media, they will have to engage with the toughest aspect of all: the balance that has to be struck between security and personality. Regular security checks, password changes, account reviews are all important, but charities must retain the personal touch both internally and externally. This reflects the culture of social media.

Carol Rudge is Partner and head of Not for Profit, Grant Thornton UK and Global leader – Not for Profit