So, your nonprofit organization has started an online forum for its
volunteers, so that these volunteers can talk about various issues
relating to their service and to help each other. Or, your executive
director is posting her own monthly blog to the organization’s web site.

Whatever the interactive forum, eventually, you are going to be faced
with a discussion that includes criticisms of your organization. It may
be about your organization’s new logo or mission statement. Or about
the lack of parking. Or about the volunteer orientation being too long.
It may be substantial questions regarding your organization’s business
practices and lack of transparency. Online criticism of your
organization, even by its own supporters, is inevitable.

How a nonprofit organization handles online criticism is going to speak
volumes about that organization, for weeks, months, and maybe even
years to come. There’s no way to avoid it, but there are ways to
address criticism that can actually help an organization to be
perceived as even more trustworthy and worth supporting. To be
successful with online activities, a nonprofit organization MUST be
able to honestly and openly deal with online criticism, particularly
from supporters and participants. Otherwise, the organization puts
itself in a position to lose the trust of supporters and clients, and
even generate negative publicity — and, once lost, trust and
credibility can be extremely difficult to win back.

Before staff panics at the idea of supporters not being so supportive,
or the organization removes its online forum altogether, withdraws its
participation from someone else’s forum or gets defensive, remember:
being perceived as allowing such discussions reflects very
positively on a nonprofit organization. By contrast, the aforementioned
alternative responses will be perceived as negative, and will probably
do more to hurt the organization’s reputation and credibility than help

  • You must address the criticisms directly and promptly. If you
    cannot respond immediately, then at least immediately acknowledge that
    the complaint has been read by the organization and a response is
    coming promptly . A week or more is not prompt in online community conversations.

  • Also, it’s very important to realize that, no matter what you say, your organization’s actions are going to speak much louder than its words. Examples:

    • If you say a response is coming promptly, then it had better come
      promptly. Again, a week or more is not prompt in online community

    • Don’t just say you welcome criticism — allow critical
      messages to be posted to your discussion group or comments board on
      your blog, so long as such criticisms don’t use inflammatory language,
      encourage criminal behavior, are filled with obvious inaccuracies,
      include confidential information, aren’t verbatim posts from the same
      person over and over again, etc. (and if you ban such a person, say so
      to the group, so they know such action has been taken, and WHY).

    • Walk the talk:
      If you state that your organization engages in activities to recruit a
      diverse representation of staff and volunteers, it had better be
      engaging in actions that back up that statement, obviously and clearly.
      If you claim to be a “green” organization, make sure a television crew
      walking through or around your office would see activities that
      demonstrate this.

    • Don’t just say your organization is transparent and
      consults with membership — show it, in activities that make this
      quality obvious. In fact, showing it is more important than saying it.

    • Posting a response or two and then asking the
      debate/discussion to stop will result in people perceiving your
      organization as not open to criticism, and will result in even more of

    In other words, what you do is going to be more powerful than what you say.

  • Contrary to a widely-held belief and frequently-made
    suggestion, you do not disarm criticism by thanking someone for their
    feedback in the opening statement of a response; it’s been done so
    often that most people see it as the beginning of a “canned” statement.
    Save the compliment for somewhere else in your response — and say it
    only if you can demonstrate that you truly mean it. Volunteers and
    clients are much more inclined to trust someone who shows respect for
    them and for what they say. There are a number of ways that you can
    give a real indication that you are “hearing” the complaints: ask the
    critic(s), “What do you think would make this situation better?” or
    “How do you feel this situation could be improved?”. Also, assure
    critics that their criticisms and suggestions will be represented to
    the leadership at your organization, and that they will receive an
    update regarding the leadership’s reaction. If the criticism is going
    to result in a change or action of any kind, or a staff meeting to
    discuss further action, say so! Offer as many details as possible.
    Also, If it is appropriate, you could even ask a critic to take part in
    a staff meeting, or create an online forum specifically to address the criticism.

  • If anything in a criticism is accurate, acknowledge it.
    That doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with the person. For instance,
    “You are correct: our organization does not address environmental
    problems. I understand that such is a very important, even critical
    issue, but our nonprofit has chosen to focus on preventing the abuse of
    children, and here’s why…” Even better: can you think about the
    criticism from the person’s point of view, and therefore, even agree
    with some of it? That’s a powerful way to turn a critic into a

    Is the critic actually doing you a favor by offering you
    feedback that may not have been discovered otherwise, when damage was
    done to your organization’s reputation and credibility? Again,
    acknowledging a real problem is a powerful way to turn a critic into a

    If the complaint is legitimate — for instance, that the organization’s
    past annual reports aren’t on the organization’s web site, get them up
    ASAP, and offer an apology for not having done so earlier. Don’t try to
    defend or excuse your original decision not to. Take the lumps with
    grace and honesty.

  • Some excuses can make a situation even worse, even if
    they are true, and should be avoided, as they are perceived as red
    flags for incompetence or mismanagement. Excuses to avoid regarding
    complaints include:

    • “we didn’t have enough money”
    • “we didn’t have enough staff”
    • “we didn’t have enough time”
    • “we’re an all-volunteer organization”
    • “our computer system wasn’t working properly”
    • “so-and-so was on vacation at that time”

    Instead, take responsibility. If the critic is pointing out
    something your organization should have done, but didn’t, for whatever
    reason, accept the criticism. Consider offering a straightforward and
    sincere apology, and details on how the problem will be addressed.

  • You may need to ask for clarification or more information
    before you respond to criticism, and that’s fine; it will probably be
    perceived by those watching the online conversation as a very positive
    step on your part. But don’t say, “I don’t understand why you are asking these questions” — every question is legitimate, and should be treated as such.

  • If a complaint doesn’t present the whole story, then do
    so yourself, as quickly and thoroughly as possible. If a complaint is
    off-base, counter it with indisputable, dispassionate facts.
    And offer to supply any other facts that will clarify the situation,
    and ask the original critic if he or she has any questions or comments
    about the facts as you have offered them.

  • Be detailed about how a complaint is addressed. If a
    decision is made by the organization in response to the complaint, be
    detailed on how the decision took place and exactly who was involved in
    making the decision (by job title rather than name is okay). If it was
    not a democratic process, then say so. Not all decisions can be taken
    by such, but no matter how a decision is taken, an organization should
    be transparent if that decision, especially if it has resulted from a
    complaint by volunteers or other supporters.

  • Don’t post once or two responses and then ask for the
    debate to stop. A better strategy is to let the debate play out. If you
    respond to a criticism, and someone says, “that didn’t address my
    criticism”, then re-review the original post and respond again, and/or
    ask the person what would better address their concerns. If it takes answering each question or sentence individually, do so. Also, ask the entire
    community how they feel about the debate — are their own questions or
    concerns being addressed? As long as someone doesn’t meet the
    definition of a troll (see below), let the debate rage on. In the best
    of worlds, the community itself will bring the debate to a halt — and
    be your greatest “defenders.”

If you have already worked to create trust with those with those whom
you interact online, long before criticisms surface, through
transparent and honest information in past communications, you are
going to have a much better time dealing with online criticism; readers
will already trust you, and be ready to give you the benefit of the

Something to consider: is a complaint an indication of a greater
problem? Could there be a credibility gap among some supporters that
could spread to others if not addressed? Could online criticism be an
indication of a problem or perception among supporters you were not
previously aware of? It might be worth brainstorming with staff and
supporters onsite, in a special meeting, to find out if there is
something more to criticisms that might meet the eye.

Can online complaints go too far? Certainly, and your organization is
entirely inline to prohibit certain topics from discussion its own
forums, such as information about clients, internal documents, and
other confidential information, or to censor such information. You
would also be within your rights to censor foul language, and to ban
someone from your own forum for using such. Again, if you ban someone,
the group needs to know who and why.

When does someone move from being an angry person with legitimate
criticism to being a “troll” — a person who is arguing for the sole
purpose of derailing conversations and creating mistrust? When that
person consistently strays from facts, makes insulting personal
comments, posts the same information over and over again, and posts
messages obviously designed to annoy and antagonize other members and
engage them in a fruitless confrontation. But someone who is
disgruntled, suspicious and questioning is NOT automatically a troll —
be careful in dismissing someone as such, to avoid being seen as just
trying to shut down legitimate, although uncomfortable, conversation.

It’s fine to remind users of the forum rules, and what topics are
off-limits. It’s also a good idea for a staff member to occasionally
enter the conversation, to let participants know that staff are aware
of what’s being discussed, that you appreciate the feedback, and what
is happening as a result of the feedback. But don’t shut down a
negative conversation on your online discussion group.

What about when the criticisms are happening on someone else’s forum,
web site or blog? You can’t control what other people post on their own
online site, unless they violate the law. If the site allows online
discussion or has a comments board, you should engage in any of the
aforementioned activities on this other person’s site, and invite the
other forum’s participants to write you directly for further
information/clarification. If the site does not have a discussion forum
or comments board, you should write directly to the author with your
information/clarification. You may also consider posting information on
your own online forum in response, if you feel that the criticisms
could cause concerns among supporters.

How can you find out if online criticism is happening outside of your
own online fora? Ask your volunteers to be on the lookout for postings
about your organization on the online groups and blogs they frequent —
encourage them to pass on such information so your organization can be
more in tune with public opinion, NOT so you can shut down criticism.
Also, go to Google
or any other online directory system and search for your organization’s
name, or the name of your organization’s executive director. You may
find criticism or praise from a volunteer, donor, or client about your
organization that you will want to address. You should also check your
organization’s name on
Wikipedia, a free online
encyclopedia that is staffed by online volunteers. If your organization
is listed, is the listing accurate and complete? Is there a subject
listing that you feel should link to your organization’s web site? It’s
easy to edit listings yourself on the service, which are then verified
by wikipedia volunteers.

Online criticism is not always a bad thing
A short case study: the Henderson Humane Society
In March, the local government of Henderson County, Kentucky, received
information from a staff person at the Henderson Humane Society, which
operates the animal shelter there. This information documented horrific
conditions at the shelter, and gross mismanagement. Unfortunately, not
much changed, so the staff person then contacted the People for the
Ethical Treatment of Animals, which then launched an online campaign in
the Fall of 2005, and to a local television station, which produced a
story about the inhumane conditions at the shelter. It was the online
criticism and online activism, as well as the resulting local press
coverage and further public outrage, that at last prompted radical
changes at the shelter, and a vastly-improved organization. In April
2006, the local newspaper ran a glowing story about the changes at the
shelter. How the organization handled its initial criticism — by
ignoring it — lead to even more intense and public criticism,
including online with a major national advocacy organization, and a
great deal of public mistrust and loss of credibility. How it handled
the resulting more intense criticism, by accepting it fully, by firing
some staff members, by changing leadership and by addressing
complaints, has lead to a very different, and much better, organization
that’s on its way to restoring its credibility.

But what about an organized, pervasive online effort to discredit your
nonprofit organization, one that results in individuals, knowingly or
naively, spreading falsehoods, about your organization via various
online fora? A good example of this is the seemingly-grassroots
campaign to discredit the UN Population Fund
by a variety of right-wing activists. I’ve written to UNFPA directly to
see if they will share their strategies to counter such efforts, and
posted to various online fora to gather ideas from other organizations
— I’ll update this page as soon as I can pull together some concrete
good examples.