Tips for Nonprofits that Work on Controversial Topics

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Nonprofits have long been an important part of our society’s broad conversations about controversial subjects. Whenever passions run deep around a given topic, the people and organizations that hope to lead the discussion will face criticism of their own. Some social commentators argue that the civility of public discourse has declined in recent years, fueled at least in part by the rise of social media and attention-grabbing headlines. Here are a few ideas for nonprofits that are thinking about taking on controversial issues.

  • Define the organization’s position clearly and stick to it.

Every nonprofit needs a coherent mission statement that it will adhere to in everything it does. The mission statement should guide board members, employees and volunteers in all of their activities and decisions. Among other things, a mission statement can help an organization avoid mission creep. It helps donors know how their contributions will be spent. And it helps volunteers to stay passionate about their work, especially during difficult periods.

  • Manage social media engagement with care.

With controversy comes pressure from people with differing views. For every good faith argument, there may be a dozen bad faith attacks against the organization and its constituents. Having a clear plan for maintaining a consistent, professional approach to social media is important for maintaining an organization’s reputation and brand. If the organization’s social media presence will be managed by volunteers, they need to be held to a high standard of discourse. The organization also needs to have mechanisms in place for addressing problems like defamation, hacking, and other risks of working online.

  • Consider security risks.

Confronting controversial topics as an organization means, in part, understanding the opposition. These days it’s not enough to examine the strategies and tactics of other nonprofits that work in the same space. One also needs to consider the broader constituencies that are passionate about the topic. Some topics, like abortion or gun rights, can attract individuals who are willing to commit criminal acts of violence and vandalism in defense of their cause. Threats of any sort need to be taken seriously and potentially reported to law enforcement. The organization may also need to purchase additional insurance to protect its staff and property.

The Church Law Center of California counsels religious and secular nonprofits on matters of governance and risk management. We can help your organization prepare to confront challenging subjects in a way that protects it and its contributors from legal risks. Call us today at (949) 689-0437 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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