Addendum to Monday’s article about World Vision and organizational narcissism

An opinion piece in the March 31 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy confirms that Generous Matters isn’t alone in labeling the faith-based NGO giant World Vision (US) as out of touch with the bulk (or at least the most vocal) of its constituent base. Nor is it just me who sees in the World Vision debacle many lessons for the whole of the nonprofit community — faith-based and otherwise. (If you missed my earlier article, you can find it here.)

Chronicle writer Joy Portella points to three learnings she’s pulled from the rubble. These are:

  • There is no such thing as a “minor donor issue,” even if it seems unrelated to an organization’s mission — and especially for faith-based nonprofits.
  • The World Vision debacle underscores the importance of contingency planning.
  • Every change brings challenges and opportunities.

I encourage you to read the Chronicle piece, not because one more person needs to pile on World Vision, but to join in learning from the organization’s sad story. To paraphrase an old adage, there for the grace of God goes your organization or mine.

With church attendance in free-fall across North America, faith-based nonprofits (large and small) are increasingly the public face of faith. As Thom Jeavons and I wrote in Growing Givers’ Hearts: Treating Fundraising as Ministry, these days unchurched people (the now famous “nones”) are more likely to run into or at least be aware of the activities of parachurch organizations and movements than those of the typical congregation. The messages communicated by faith-based nonprofits — including through their fundraising activities — may be all the Good News most people hear.

When an organization that operates under the banner of faith stumbles, as has World Vision, the impact is far reaching. Donor hearts are hurt. Other ministries bear the brunt of even greater public cynicism about person’s of faith. Worse, the Gospel message can be drowned out by negative press.

In short, the “faith factor” is a double-edged sword and organizational leaders must take care in how they wield it. The Chronicle writer cautions:

As tensions increase between the views of secular society and some religions on issues such as gay marriage, organizations must make conscious determinations about where they stand. Is your organization first and foremost about a certain brand of faith? Or do you want to appeal to a diverse base of supporters to fulfill your mission? How do you communicate this critical decision to the audiences that matter to you and how do you prepare for potential blow-back?

How ministry leaders — CEOs, board members, and senior staff — answer these and other critical questions of our day says a great deal to those who are watching and listening. Often, in fact, much more than we intend.

More on World Vision from the Generous Matters archives:

 When fundraisers do the darndest things



  1. Christopher says:

    It’s clear that there was a lack of contingency planning and a lack of understanding of the donor culture of this organization. And i also wonder if we can take this faith-based double-edged sword analogy one step further and ask the question, when is the proper moment and method of making an extremely controversial decision that comes from a discerned prophetic truth? What would Elijah do? Or Elisha? Or Jeremiah? Or Isaiah? Or John the Baptist? Or Jesus of Nazareth? I am not a scholar of the prophetic traditions, but i don’t read about these truth-tellers resorting to donor relations arguments in their advice to rulers and the priesthood (although they do have a bit of a populist orientation that isn’t far off perhaps, but mostly as it relates to rulers-gone-astray).

    To bring this hypothetically more into context, when and how might a Christian creation-care organization (for example) have welcomed women and racial minorities before it was “popular with donors” and the legally mandated thing to do? Are faith-based nonprofits with divided constituencies around sexuality now just to hang on until the government compels them to be treat their employees equally? Should our fore-bearers have waited until their organizations were mandated to be racially and gender-integrated–just because their mission didn’t specifically address racial or gender equality?

    Criticizing World Vision is easy. Suggesting a way out that acknowledges the strands of truth in their unpopular decision (or in any other hypothetically controversial decision) ALONG WITH their donors’ personal investments is a far more prophetic act. I don’t think there are easy answers here. Moreso, i think the “answers” lie in the process, not the outcome.

  2. Thank you for weighing in on this timely case study in managing organizational change. Choosing the way of the prophet comes with a price, as the life experience of all those who you listed testify. If organizational leaders feel God is leading in a direction that has the possibility of alienating a significant swath of the constituency, they had better be prepared to weather the storm.

    I like your suggestion that the process is as important as the outcome. It will likely take longer to at least attempt to bring the constituency along when a tough issue is on the table, but to launch out without the support of folks who’ve invested in the ministry is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.

What's your take on this topic?

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