Protecting a Nonprofit from Online Defamation

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It’s hard to overstate the importance of reputation to a nonprofit. Donors want to feel good about the organizations they give to. Volunteers prefer to work for organizations they trust and can talk about with enthusiasm. And because the nonprofit world can be competitive, an organization’s ability to fulfill its mission can be undermined if its reputation is tarnished relative to another nonprofit operating in the same space.

Defending the organization’s reputation online should be a core part of any modern nonprofit’s brand management strategy. Social media can be a powerful tool for reaching stakeholders, but it can also become a source of problems. One serious problem a nonprofit can face is damaging lies and misinformation posted online by people who wish to sully the nonprofit’s reputation.

A nonprofit’s first line of defense against damaging attacks online is a well-crafted and thoughtfully applied social media policy. Every nonprofit that will have an online presence needs to appoint someone to be responsible for monitoring not only the organization’s official pages (its website, Facebook page, etc.) but also other online channels that could cause the organization harm. A monitoring process needs to be systematic and continuous—a damaging lie should not be allowed to fester for two weeks on a platform where important constituents will encounter it.

In some situations a nonprofit may need to do more to protect itself from online slander. That could include sending cease and desist letters to the offending person, and in extreme cases might involve filing a lawsuit. A lawsuit for defamation in California can be based on published (libel) or oral (slander) statements of fact that are false, unprivileged, damaging, and made by a defendant in a manner that is at least negligent. In some cases a plaintiff can bring a defamation suit without having to prove damages, such as if the defendant incorrectly claims that the plaintiff committed a crime. In other cases, the nonprofit may need to develop evidence that shows how the untrue statements made online damaged its reputation and therefore its broader business prospects. See Cal. Civ. Code §§ 44-48.

The object of a defamation lawsuit, whether it is threatened or actually filed in court, is often to force the defendant to remove the offending language and desist from making untrue statements in the future. If the organization has been especially harmed, seeking money damages may also be appropriate. For example, if the nonprofit determines that libelous social media posts have been coordinated by an employee of a rival nonprofit it may be appropriate to require the responsible party to compensate the nonprofit for its lost fundraising opportunities.

The Church Law Center of California helps secular and religious nonprofits craft effective governance strategies to control risk. If your organization has questions about how to best manage its online reputation call us today at (949) 892-1221 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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