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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Ethics of Social Media and Nonprofits

Slacktivism Charlie Brown

Slacktivism Charlie Brown

Joan Harrington

Photo credit: "Slacktivism Charlie Brown" - Elijah van der Giessen

Joan Harrington is the director of Social Sector Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

Think about the birthday fundraisers you find on Facebook. A well-intentioned individual asks his Facebook friends for birthday gifts of donations to your nonprofit. The person describes your work in his own words and provides your nonprofit’s name. The potential donors learn nothing about your organization other than the description provided by the fundraiser, which may not accurately capture what you do, and there is no link to your webpage. A well-run nonprofit would never approve this kind of fundraising within the organization.

This is only one example of the potential problems with social media in the nonprofit sector, which lead to the question: is social media actually helping nonprofits accomplish their missions?

Working to fulfill a nonprofit’s mission is not only a legal duty, it’s an ethical one. They’re granted tax-exempt status for the purpose of fulfilling their stated missions. This means that the public effectively subsidizes nonprofits, which are not required to pay most taxes. The public does so with the understanding that these organizations will maximize their contribution to the public good through fulfillment of their missions.

Donors and clients also have a stake in the fulfillment of nonprofit missions. By accepting donated funds, nonprofits make a commitment to use those funds for their mission. Clients and potential clients have an expectation that the organization will act based on their mission to provide services to those clients.

The vast majority of nonprofits use multiple forms of social media to raise money, find volunteers, or take some action on behalf of the organization, with the goal of advancing objectives. Is your social media program fulfilling your mission? Ask yourself three questions:

  1. Are you bringing in new donors or others who are taking action on your behalf, or are you engaging a community that already supports you without new results?
  2. Are you supporting “slacktivism?”
  3. Is your nonprofit’s image and reputation enhanced or at risk?

New donors or volunteers?

Are more people attending your events, donating, volunteering, or taking other action on behalf of your organization as a result of your social media activities? Or is the organization getting great public awareness but little action on its behalf?

Public awareness without action is generally not helpful to the mission. UNICEF Sweden captured this problem on a Facebook post in 2013. Their post read: “Like us on Facebook, and we will vaccinate zero children against polio.” The post went on to explain how to contribute to allow the purchase of vaccines.

Having your social media posts “liked” and shared does not accomplish your mission unless your mission includes education on issues. If you work in the area of providing affordable housing and people engage with your posts about the problem of homelessness, you may have made them more aware of the problem but you have not advanced your mission. Some education is necessary for new donors but your primary mission is to provide housing, not to educate people about homelessness.

To understand if social media is truly helping your mission, organizations need to measure and evaluate. Are there new donors, or is there other action taken on behalf of your organization because of your social media? Recognizing that measurement can be challenging based on the analytics provided by various platforms, measure where you can and be honest about where you cannot.


Public engagement on social media through views, likes, and shares, without taking real action spawned the term “slacktivism.” According to a definition from the United Nations, slacktivism is when people “support a cause by performing simple measures” but “are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change.” 

Other people’s engagement on social media may be inspiring but there is a question about whether it leads to any action that could arguably be furthering a nonprofit’s mission. It has been found that this type of engagement generally does not lead to significant engagement, such as contributing money.

In addition, there is a question of whether slacktivism creates an “inverse effect,” that is by taking action on social media, it relieves the individual of taking any real action. 

Nonprofits should think about using social media in ways that truly engage the user, that ask for more than simple measures.


Employees working on social media are the spokespeople for your organization and, without adequate training and controls, there may be inconsistent messaging, or even significant mistakes. Consider the tweet by the American Red Cross where an employee inadvertently posted a personal comment about beer and “#gettngslizzerd.”  The Red Cross acted quickly to correct this error and misrepresentation of the organization.

In addition, social media allows for information about your nonprofit to be shared, discussed, and sometimes modified. An unflattering comment may be made about your organization’s post without you having a chance to respond, or perhaps inadequate information about your nonprofit is provided, such as the Facebook birthday fundraiser example.

Social media has the potential to be an excellent tool to support a nonprofit’s mission. It requires a well-designed and staffed program, aligned with the organization’s programs, fundraising and communication, and, above all, social media needs to be evaluated for its true contribution to a nonprofit’s mission.

Sep 12, 2019

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