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Opinion: Social media could handcuff nonprofits

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Editor’s Note: This column was originally posted to the author’s Nonprofit Tech 2.0 blog,

No doubt, I absolutely believe in the power of the Internet and social media to foster social good and create social change. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that the rise of the social Web has created some very real and serious challenges for the nonprofit sector. Here are three to consider:

1. The 24/7 bad-news-is-breaking-news cycle.
All day, every day, the online masses are bombarded with terrible news. From famine in Africa to war in the Middle East to global economic collapse, people are increasingly overwhelmed by all the tweets, status updates, photos and videos of gloom, doom and despair. If it continues as it has, then I fear that many people will begin to check out and become numb to our calls to action. Two years ago, when I sent out urgent tweets or status updates, the online masses would respond instantly with concern and generosity. Today, there’s a deafening silence – not because people don’t care, but because the constant barrage of bad news is perpetuating the feeling that our problems are insurmountable and that people can’t make a positive impact.

What nonprofits can do about it: Share more success stories. People need to hear more good news. They need to feel hope. As the agents for social good, nonprofits are in a unique position to help reverse this trend of extreme negativity in the online collective consciousness. Even the most challenging issues have stories of success. If your nonprofit assists the poor, share a story of someone who finally secured employment or got a raise and can now feed the family and buy their kids new shoes for the school year. If your nonprofit works in disaster relief, share a story of survival. If your nonprofit works to protect the environment or animals, for every tragic loss of habitat or endangered species, share a story of conservation or progress. Of course, I am not suggesting nonprofits turn a blind eye to the problems of the world, but some more good news on the Internet definitely couldn’t hurt.

2. The rise of the Internet troll.
During the last few years, there has been an obvious rise in Internet trolls. Fueled by ego and discontent, these people rant, scream, complain, critique and hate for hours upon hours on blogs and social networking sites – usually anonymously or using a fake name. Even worse, misery loves company and where one troll finds an online home, many others follow and settle in. Internet trolling has become so widespread and ridiculous that I (and many others) stopped reading blog or Facebook status update comments, which defeats much of the purpose and the power of social media for social good.

What nonprofits can do about it: We can’t stop the trolls, but we can prevent them from infecting our online communities. Block, delete, ban, report and move on. There are plenty of other Web sites where they can spew their hate and negativity, but believe me – they are toxic and can easily destroy the good will and good vibe of the communities your nonprofit has spent years building for your cause. There’s a difference between disagreeing respectfully on issues, but Internet trolls have no respect for other people’s opinions. Engaging them just makes it worse.

3. Social media burnout.
In most cases, social media practitioners in the nonprofit sector spend their days living and breathing the 24/7 bad-news-is-breaking-news cycle, and if they work on controversial issues, Internet trolls are likely a daily occurrence. Those two factors alone can easily burn out the most committed and compassionate of nonprofit staff. When you add to that the constant multitasking required to implement social media campaigns well and the addictive nature of social media, burnout is a given. I struggle with it often.

What nonprofits can do about it: Make an effort to get away from your computer, tablet and/or smartphone! Seriously. In 2009, I identified 10 tips on how to deal with social media burnout – starting with “don’t update your organization’s profiles on the weekend” and ending with “make sure your work is appreciated by the higher ups in your organization.” Another I’d like to add now is to watch much less cable news. I am dreading the next 15 months of 2012 election coverage and its potential impact here in the United States. If it’s anything like the last three weeks of cable news coverage about the debt deal/crisis, I just don’t see how it will serve the social good.

Heather Mansfield is the owner of Diosa Communications, principal blogger at Nonprofit Tech 2.0 and author of “Social Media for Social Good: A How-To Guide for Nonprofits,” published last month by McGraw-Hill. She can be reached at[[In-content Ad]]


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