The Michigan-based HIV/AIDS Resource Center (HARC) waded into the shallow end of social media a few years by experimenting with a Facebook group and Twitter account. Today, the organization thrives across multiple social media channels, with an organized team of staff members generating content and guided by a formalized written policy. The story behind that evolution provides a closer look at the issues small nonprofits face and serves as an example for other organizations to follow when looking to create and maintain a strong, clear policy for social media use.

To help residents of surrounding Michigan counties living with a positive diagnosis of the HIVS virus or AIDS, the HIV/AIDS Resource Center in Ypsilanti, Michigan, provides education and direct services and works to prevent the virus from spreading. Executive Director Jimena Loveluck has served as HARC’s Executive Director for more than 11 years, overseeing a fulltime staff of 16—mostly public health workers trained in HIV/AIDS education—but the impetus for a more aggressive approach to social media came in 2010, when Meico Whitlock, a Master’s of Science in Information candidate at the University of Michigan’s iSchool, began an internship at the organization.

Tasked with evaluating a social networking project to encourage people living in neighboring counties to be tested for HIV, Whitlock recognized that staff enthusiasm and subject-matter expertise could translate to compelling content—but someone would need to train the staff. HARC had a special events coordinator and an active board Marketing and Development Committee, but no dedicated communications staffer to oversee the social media presence. He could provide the training, but knowing his internship at HARC was finite, Loveluck wanted to develop a means of continuing the guidance after he left.

To that end, she created HARC’s official Social Media Guidebook, billed “as a resource for HARC staff, volunteers and interns that will assist with maintaining the  organization’s social media presence in an innovative, yet responsible, manner.” The guidebook covered all the different aspects of social media usage staff might need to know to ensure continued, productive success, removing some of the risk and uncertainty and paving a clear path for employees to follow.

Who Talks and Who Listens: Author and Audience

Among the first concerns Loveluck addressed was to identify who would be responsible for generating content, and who the audience would be. So as not to overburden any individual, she formed a volunteer social media team and tapped especially enthusiastic employees to serve on the five-person committee. Each member generates content for Facebook and Twitter in two-week shifts, and the committee meets monthly to check in and share ideas about which content seemed to appeal to followers.

As for audience, Whitlock’s project originally focused on the possibility of using social media for outreach to high-risk demographics unlikely to know their HIV status—specifically, young African-American and Latino men who have sex with other men—but he quickly discovered that most of the organization’s followers were actually young women who supported its mission. HARC decided to refocus on, as stated in the guidebook, communicating “with current and potential volunteers, donors, clients and other community members.”

Staff had already been practicing such outreach on personal pages. The organization recognized the need to strengthen that effort and focus it through “HARC-specific accounts and an internal social media team of staff members specifically trained to interact with audiences through a variety of social media tools.”

Removing Technical and Content Barriers

Loveluck emphasized that the technical barrier should be set low. For those staffers not already using social media, the guidebook gives instructions for signing up for Facebook and Twitter accounts, step-by-step explanations of how each site works, and describes the advantages and drawbacks of each. For instance, its Facebook section describes the differences between individual profiles, groups and pages, and notes that “the Fan page is HARC’s preferred format.”

Team members use HootSuite, a tool that helps manage multiple logins. Recognizing that the HootSuite dashboard, or homepage, “can be a bit overwhelming for a new user,” the guidebook offers a clear explanation of how the tool can be used to schedule and manage posts and tweets.

Once the basics were covered, Loveluck found herself facing many of the same challenges as leaders of other small nonprofits—among them, how to ensure that HARC’s posts are consistent, representative of its mission, and sufficiently frequent despite being coordinated by multiple staff members. She also wanted the policy to address what types of posts were appropriate, and lay out rules for dealing with negative or inaccurate comments from followers.

HARC’s guidebook suggests team members post a minimum of five times a week. At least one post should be a news story related to HIV/AIDS and MSM sexual health. One should be related either to HARC event promotion, HIV/AIDS awareness events in the community or the organization’s accomplishments and successes such as new grants, partnerships and donations. And one post should be “interactive,” sharing a little-known fact or asking a question to generate responses.

Encouraging them to “keep posts relevant and timely, pay attention to what other organizations are posting… and be sure to publicize upcoming events,” it recommends places to find good fodder for social media posts, including the health sections of news organizations and the social media channels of their peers. It also provides a virtual bibliography of helpful websites, which helps ensure more frequent posts.

Navigating the Rocky Areas: Legality and Confidentiality

The guidebook offers specific definitions about what content to post, and in what format. Cautioning against bad grammar, overuse of abbreviations and overly opinionated content, Loveluck included real-world examples of “good” and “bad” posts from other organizations’ social media platforms with the identifying details removed. Confidentiality issues are also a concern, since HARC provides health services to people living with a serious diagnosis. In a section on confidentiality and consent, the guidebook prohibits posts from identifying any clients without their written consent. (The mandatory consent form can also be found in the guidebook’s “Resources” section.)

To help the Social Media Team understand how best to leverage the platforms, HARC adapted Vanderbilt University’s comprehensive “Best Practices for a Successful Social Media Presence,” one of which stresses the importance of monitoring comments. The guidebook encourages staff to “understand that not all comments will be positive, and to respond to negative comments professionally and by providing any additional information that may help resolve the issue,” with the caveat that comments that include profanity or hate speech or that are clearly spam should be deleted outright.

Embellishing the best practices, Loveluck added a policy specific to HARC’s audience and mission. If someone posts something personal or private to one of the organization’s social media pages—for example, to ask if there’s a possibility that they contracted HIV/AIDS through their actions—she recommends that a staffer respond to try to take the exchange offline. Facebook or Twitter is not the place for a confidential conversation about a health issue, she said.

Loveluck consulted a lawyer for help with personnel and Human Resources-related social media concerns. He helped her write a separate policy to be included in HARC’s employee handbook—one that applies to all HARC staffers, not just the Social Media Team. The two policies complement each other. The former serves to inform and educate, the latter to ensure legal compliance. Addressing staffers’ personal social media use, it  dictates that employees need to remain in compliance with all organization policies when using social media, cautioning them not to “claim or imply that they speak for HARC when posting a personal opinion about HARC’s clients or services without prior approval.”

The policy even prohibits employees from linking a personal blog or social media site to the nonprofit’s website to help protect the confidentiality of the services provided, and explicitly states that employees’ personal social media accounts may be monitored for violation—even outside work hours.

Results and Rewards

Whitlock moved on to become the Communications Director for NASTAD, the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, but Loveluck reports that the plan worked—by establishing a Social Media Team and creating a policy to guide them, the organization’s “social media machine” is self-sufficient and sustainable. All the work that went into strategizing a thoughtful approach to social media and creating a policy has led to positive results.

There’s been minor turnover on the Social Media Team, but it’s always remained at full capacity, and the organization has been able to stick to a regular posting schedule. The guidelines have enabled the team to avoid any major controversies over posted content. HARC is even beginning to expand its reach by experimenting with new channels, like using uStream for online video training sessions.

The social media success has led to other successes, as well—recently, when a local bank ran a Facebook contest offering a hefty award to the nonprofit that could generate the most votes from its social media followers, HARC waged an enthusiastic campaign. Though it lost to a much larger organization by just 19 votes, HARC’s effort impressed the bank’s president enough that he personally decided to award a second top prize to HARC. Not only did the organization attract hundreds of new followers in just two months, it also won a cash prize that it used to buy a new HARC “outreach vehicle”—a conversion van that serves as a mobile unit to deliver services to rural communities.

The efforts to formalize and improve social media efforts has led directly to improved constituent interactions and more organizational confidence, and by creating such a loud and clear voice—and building an audience—the nonprofit has put itself into a position to not just participate in the conversation, but to lead it.

Thanks to TechSoup for providing the financial support for this article.