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With Facebook a Landlord, How Do Nonprofit Tenants Act Responsibly

Worldwide news media are reporting the ruling of Facebook's losing a challenge. Facebook had protested the Manhattan District Attorney's use of search warrants to obtain Facebook pages of hundreds of folks suspected of disability-claim fraud. The search warrants of 381 user accounts netted 134 indictments. Whereas these users had filed claims of disability, their activity on their pages belied their claims. Seems like claiming one's back is out and then posting a photo of that awesome golf shot can prove detrimental to a Facebook user.

While it might seem like common sense for District Attorney Vance to have requested the search warrant and to have received it, Facebook took umbrage at such a large swath of user accounts being targeted and argued that Fourth Amendment rights of unreasonable searches applied. If users understood their account could be raided and used against them, it might slack off the amount of users active on Facebook, which is why Facebook took a position on the digital raid. The court, however, agreed with the District Attorney's use of the search warrant and request of these files. It found the whole search plausible and reasonable. Furthermore, a judge wrote Facebook had no business being in the protest business of this affair, calling the site nothing more than a "digital landlord...for millions of tenant users."

Many nonprofits have built a social media campaign. According to a survey of 2135 nonprofits done for the Nonprofit Communication Trends 2014 report compiled by the Nonprofit Marketing Guide (, 95% of the nonprofits polled had a Facebook presence. Until now, many thought of Facebook as a place for press releases and storytelling. According to the new ruling, nonprofits must understand that their Facebook account is a digital location, an actual extension of their program beyond real-time extending into digital-mode. Rules, regulations, policies and procedures put into place for actual store-front locations might need to be applied to Facebook accounts. Being a digital social page does not grant one immunity from search warrants and indictments. It is just as real the risks on digital platforms as the risks that exist in the physical location of the nonprofit.

Trying to identify possible risks of an online presence, nonprofits must look at board, staff, clients and volunteer liabilities. Rights of privacy are paramount. Every photo and video clip needs to be vetted and proper disclosure and waivers signed. Does the volunteer understand a nonprofit might post photos of him/her lugging that plywood around? Will that photo come back to bite the volunteer...and if it does, can the volunteer hold the organization liable for damages that arise to him/her from the exposure? The cute child with the winsome grin...were all parties to guardianship agreeable to the child's face being used as your poster child? Are you placing the child in jeopardy by having a date and location somewhere visible on the photo?

Just as in the regular office space where there are rules against harassment, bullying and retaliation, an online presence has to have such rules, known to all and strictly enforced. Leaving up an inappropriate comment on a nonprofit's Facebook page can open it up to action. This includes comments about volunteers, staff, board members and clients. However, the responsibility goes much further. Third-parties mentioned in a story or in some blurb might not like what has been said, either. Author Peri Pakroo writes in the book "Starting and Building a Nonprofit: a practical guide" (Nolo, 2013, p. 141) how damage can come about if a nonprofit's "website contains false and damaging information about someone" for it opens up the nonprofit to a possible personal injury lawsuit. The aggrieved party could potentially claim compensation for injury "based on damage to reputation". Someone ought to be looking over carefully all content being posted.

Whoever is reviewing content being posted has to be on the lookout for another risk, namely plagiarism. Are those words culled from another site or another writer? Is that photo free stock or was royalty needed to be paid on it?

Any clause currently existing in policies and procedures relating to professional decorum, codes of conduct, ethics, conflict of interest -- each one of these must be tailored to encompass a nonprofit's website. Any insurance policy put into place to minimize risk of lawsuits to a nonprofit due to breach of these standards should be re-evaluated to make sure it, too, encompasses and covers the nonprofits' web presence.

Many nonprofits have found a web presence a welcome tool in expanding outreach to the public. Facebook is but one tool among the many used to broaden a nonprofit's reach. Nonprofit's must remember that just as the web presence broadens its reach outreach, it also opens up the nonprofit to in-reach. What a nonprofit hangs out in public ought to be run through a rigorous risk assessment to ensure that it never ends up harming the organization.

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