When the Extremely Online World and Nonprofit World Collide


Wouldn't it be nice if nonprofits could just go to previous donors and say something like, "Hit me, baby, one more time" and have the donors pull out some more cash? That line from Britney Spears' debut single, which roared onto the scene in 1999, has been back in the public consciousness in recent months as the singer has been in the courts dealing with a strange conservatorship setup she's been involved in. (In short, after an involuntary psychiatric hold in 2008, Britney was subjected to a conservatorship helmed by her once-estranged father, who was given control of many aspects of her life, including her finances. Britney claims that the conservatorship did not work to promote her best interests.)

And now the Spears family is making some waves in the nonprofit world, as well.

In October, Britney's sister, Jamie Lynn Spears, announced that some of the proceeds from her upcoming book would be going to the mental health nonprofit This Is My Brave. The organization's mission is "to empower individuals to put their names and faces on their true stories of recovery from mental illness and addiction." Through its work, This Is My Brave seeks to destigmatize these issues.

Jamie Lynn felt the organization was a good match for her donation because her book allowed her to open up about her own mental health. She said in an Instagram post, "I know how scary it can be to share personal struggles, especially if you don’t feel you have the support or a safe space to do so" and that the organization is "doing amazing work to support and encourage people as they bravely share their experiences."

But the proposed donation didn't go as planned. NPR described the situation:

The group is active on social media, where supporters of Britney Spears—whose treatment under a 13-year conservatorship, and recent efforts to break free of it, have dominated headlines—were quick to condemn what they saw as hypocrisy.

Some fans believe Britney's sister did not do enough to support her under the long-running legal arrangement based on comments the pop star made in court and on social media.

News of the donation created a flood of online backlash. In response, This Is My Brave decided to decline the donation. Fortunately, some of the same individuals criticizing Jamie Lynn made their own donations to the organization.

GrantStation has talked about turning down donations in the past, in our articles "Just Say No . . . to Donations?" and "Nonprofits and the Quest for Clean Money." Those articles looked at donations made by the Sackler family (of Oxycontin fame) and then looked at the situation more broadly after Jeffrey Epstein's donations were in the news.

The Spears situation is similar in many ways (here is a person of some degree of fame with money to give), but also quite different. Jamie Lynn is not a public villain in the same vein as the Sacklers or Epstein. But her actions collided with a fan base that is "extremely online." That phrase rose to common use in the latter half of the 2010s and encompassed groups of people whose interests and interactions differed greatly from those of the mainstream public and their less esoteric media consumption. Sure, maybe you read the New York Times every day on the internet, but that doesn't qualify you as "extremely online." The cries of "Free Britney!" echoing through cyberspace may be something many of us are vaguely aware of, but learning the complete ins and outs of the story requires a certain amount of dedication: watching one or more of the several documentaries, visiting various sub-Reddits, and falling down numerous other clickholes. For those of us whose internet time mainly consists of work, a bit of social media, and a smattering of entertainment, it would be like waking up in Wonderland, but without a whimsical rabbit to guide us.

The mission of This Is My Brave requires the organization to have a broad online presence. Sharing their stories wouldn't have nearly the same reach or effect if they were doing it via placement in newspapers or through local radio spots. But because of their experience being online, they were uniquely prepared to address an online situation. As an organization, they were able to weigh the response to Jamie Lynn Spears' proposed donation and determine how to react accordingly. In this case, they ended up on the side of the online uproar.

Your organization also likely has some social media presence, and it has probably exposed you to new potential donors and other possibilities. But it also comes with the potential for negative exposure. You maybe misword a tweet or don't spend enough time mulling over the name of an event, and somehow things start to snowball. Sometimes, the precipitating event is something completely beyond your control, as with This Is My Brave.

Software Advice postulates three main ways that social media backlash can occur:

  • Misinformation: Factually incorrect information about your organization is spread over social media.
  • Misinterpretation: Something your organization has done is being interpreted in a different light than you intended.
  • Mistake: Some member of your organization has done something wrong, and that mistake has been noticed by a large number of people.

Much has been written across the nonprofit sphere about how to curate a powerful social media campaign. But what do you do when everything goes haywire?

The internet never forgets. As much as you might want to just put your head down and pretend nothing has happened, you will need to make some sort of response. If the outcry is loud enough to be brought to your attention, it's probably loud enough to linger on in the long memory of cyberspace. If people will read about the incident when they pop your organization's name into their favorite search engine, you want your response to also pop up. You need to do your best to control the narrative.

Honesty is the best policy. Your organization does good work and believes in your mission. Therefore, be honest about how the current situation developed and what you are doing to address the fallout. The sleuths on the internet have a way of figuring out misrepresentations and disingenuousness. So be transparent, because eventually, the truth will come out.

You can't please everyone. Rarely will you encounter a situation that is clearly black and white. Those organizations that were receiving money from the Sacklers were putting that money toward their missions; does that justify accepting the dollars from that particular source? The same potential was there with the Jamie Lynn Spears donation. Your organization will have to make some hard decisions and do what you think is right. But the side of right isn't always going to be the same as the loudest voices on the internet. The hive-mind isn't always correct.

Turn the negatives into positives. If you handle the response well, it can possibly enhance your organization's reputation. If you can show your openness and honesty about the situation, it can strengthen your bond with existing donors and clients, and maybe even bring new ones aboard. An important aspect toward achieving this result will be acting self-reflexively. Take a clear and honest assessment of the situation and note ways that your organization can improve. In the wake of any perceived attack, it's natural for humans to project any failings outward, but this is a chance for your organization to take the feedback, analyze it, and make improvements.

Learn from the past. Once you manage to weather one social media storm, the last thing you want to be saying is, "Oops, I did it again." If your organization made a mistake, put policies in place that will make it less likely to happen again. If the problem was the result of misinterpretation, try to enlist your staff and volunteers to keep an eye out for any potential problems, so that you can address them earlier next time, before the genie gets out of the bottle. If the backlash was the result of misinformation, the answer is a bit trickier. You'll need to put in effort to make sure the real information is out there and easy to find, and you will need to be prepared to act quickly if the misinformation starts to get amplified.

In our digital age, everything moves fast. You can go to bed one night and in the morning a controversy has already come to a full boil. Your organization might not find itself thrust into the national spotlight, but even local uproar can take its toll. But by keeping a clear head and responding quickly, you can work through any issues that arise before they become too toxic.

Social media can be a powerful tool for your organization. Don't let fear of online backlash hold you back from unleashing its potential.

Action steps you can take today
  • Review your social media policy. How many people look at a post before it goes live?
  • Read our previous coverage of organizations turning down donors.