Organizational narcissism, World Vision, your ministry, and donor response

On the day that the faith-based charity giant World Vision (US) announced it had shifted its employment policies in the direction of same-sex marriage, the blogging team over at the Agitator (a daily must-read for me) posted an article titled “The Narcissistic Nonprofit.”  The two events had nothing to do with each other. But in my mind, they were a pair.

excaping_from_cubicle_pc2_3786If ever there was an apt label for World Vision’s public announcement of the policy change, it is “narcissistic” – an attitude defined in the Agitator piece as devoid of concern for donor aspirations and/or assumptions. Referencing yet another blog, Tom and Roger, the Agitator guys, remind that

your donor wants to make a difference, they want to make change, they want to improve the lot of others, they believe they can, they’d like to join others in making a difference, and they’d like to be recognized for making a difference. Fundamentally, the donor is looking to meet their need, not yours.

So excuse me for jumping on the “bash World Vision bandwagon.” President Rich Sterns’ assumption that at least the majority of donors would swallow whole the organization’s “very persuasive series of reasons” for doing what they did, is just too good an object lesson to let pass.

Forget the issue at the heart of the World Vision announcement. For fundraisers, CEOs, and ministry boards, the real teachable moment here is what happens when organizational leaders lose touch with their support base.

As has been talked almost to death over the past week, the naiveté, or worse, the arrogance of the World Vision board and senior leadership is startling. In a news release, Sterns expressed belief that the organization wouldn’t lose supporters over the change. “We’re hoping that they [donors] understand that what we’ve done is focused on church unity and our mission. . . We feel positive about what we’ve done. Our motives are pure” (emphasis is mine).

Missing is any reference to what donors had to say. It didn’t take long, however, for constituents to weigh in on the matter. In just two days’ time, World Vision reversed course as hundreds (some sources say thousands) of child sponsors cancelled their monthly contributions.

The World Vision tribe has spoken – loud and clear – and what they’ve said is exactly what they would have said had Sterns et. al. taken time to check in with constituents before going public with a potentially controversial announcement. Specifically, not everyone saw the policy shift as a win for Christian unity (as billed by Sterns). A few phone calls to long time child supporters testing organizational assumptions could have saved World Vision from a public shaming.

Unfortunately, organizational narcissism (notice the highlighted words in the quote above) got in the way. Now World Vision leadership faces the arduous tasks of rebuilding donor trust and the organization’s public image.


Lest smaller fish watching the World Vision debacle from their corner of the nonprofit pond assume they’re off the hook, think again. It’s not just mega-charities that suffer from organizational narcissism.  An inward focus is as much a problem among minnows as it is for whales. Across the whole of the nonprofit sector, there’s a lot more talking at, than listening to constituents.

As Thom Jeavons and I wrote In Growing Givers’ Hearts: Treating Fundraising as Ministry,

Donors are rarely encouraged to provide feedback on how giving has changed their hearts, and so most fundraisers do not know how donors perceive their work, at least not in this regard. Along with happy stories of God’s blessing in individual lives, organizational leaders who seek to hear what donors have to say about the messages and methods used by the organization should be prepared for stories that are not so joyous. The fact is that both types of tales are helpful in assessing how the organization is doing. In short, it’s not enough simply to state that donor relations should be a high priority. Fundraisers, CEOs, and board members need to back up their words with action.

And if they don’t, donors will take actions of their own, but likely not in the direction hoped. This is the lesson from World Vision to us all. Don’t let organizational narcissism keep you for learning.

For more on the topic of donor communications, see: 

Worldview, theology, and the way we ask

Explaining a change in plans to campaign donors



  1. Rebekah I really like what you’ve written about the organizational thinking or lack thereof in this example. I’m interested as well in the artwork with a person who dug a hole and has their head in it. I guess that represents an embarrassed person digging a hole to hide in. At first I did not get it, then I saw the stacks of paper and declining trend line. Staying in touch with the support base requires a strategy and intentionality. To do so says we not only value that input but we need it to move forward. It will be interesting to watch this continue to unfold in the future.

    • Sorry that the illustration wasn’t immediately obvious in its meaning. I was trying to convey the head in the sand stance of many nonprofit leaders. It’s hard to know what the constituency is up to if we’re not looking — as you so rightly note.


  1. […] did not come from a change of heart until after the heat was turned up.) This does appear to be a symptom of some narcissism on the part of the board and president. Static always comes from friction. To not even have assumed there would be criticism is barely […]

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