Three observations on the World Vision debacle
The Christian blogosphere has been buzzing around World Vision’s announcement that it would hire openly gay partnered Christians. You can read the Christianity Today story here. Within 48 hours–and some 2,000 cancelled sponsorships later–the board of World Vision announced that they had reversed the policy. Christianity Today covered it here.
It’s difficult to draw a lot of conclusions from the outside about how this change in policy was mishandled. It’s clear that the board’s deliberations, decision, and subsequent communication of that decision were flawed. Three leadership lessons stand out for me:
- An organization has to be clear about its identity. World Vision seems to be unclear about it’s identity. It has variously described itself as an “aid organization” and “parachurch ministry.” Fair or not, people (especially donors and, frankly, the law) expect differences between the two. I don’t think many evangelical Christians would have a problem with Oxfam hiring gay people in any capacity. The law, in addition, would bar Oxfam from discriminating. However, when an organization employs the moniker “Christian” and draws its donor base almost exclusively from evangelical Christians, it’s not a stretch for the average thinking person to recognize that there would be pushback on a decision like this. Call it homophobia. Call it defending traditional sexual ethics. In the end, Christians–and evangelicals especially–expect organizations they support to align with their own theology. This is reasonable. Internal confusion about the organization led to poor decision making that negatively affected the mission.
- Reversing course in the first 48 hours is a recipe for a disaster and low morale. If Richard Stearns had asked me, “what should I do?” I would have suggested delaying implementation until after a period of input from key stakeholders, especially donors. I don’t mean to seem cynical, but World Vision is as much about its donors as it is about those starving little kids on the postcards. Donors are the sine qua non of non-profit work: you can’t do it without them. If you want to make a major policy change (I know some will dispute whether that term fits here) take plenty of time to consult with donors. Boardrooms can be intensely isolated from the aggregate of people who fund the mission. Once you make a decision, however, it’s important not to reverse it instantly. This signals panic, lack of leadership, and impulsivity. Worse, it makes everyone angry. World Vision picked up a lot of new sponsorships after the policy change largely because of support in the progressive blogosphere. Reversing the decision created a lot of seriously miffed people. They started giving to support the organization in the midst of the crisis–the loss of other donors–but feel double-crossed. For those who didn’t support the change–even those who didn’t revoke their support–flip-flopping on this decision communicates that fundamental organizational values are decided by who shouts the loudest. Not a good message.
- If you do choose to reverse course, keep reasons to a minimum. Richard Stearns’ letter–presumably written by the board–was too long and was too diffuse in citing reasons for the reversal. When the change was announced, it was simply a policy alteration in a handbook. With Stearns’ letter it had become a quasi-theological treatise on essential matters of faith. That’s overkill and smacks of pandering to special interests. Better simply to communicate: “that many donors have told us that this policy change is at conflict with their core Christian beliefs. We’ve heard these concerns and have considered them, etc.”
Richard Stearns is a capable leader and the members of the Board are also capable people. It’s sad that–despite the immense talent present in that room–the decision was so poorly handled.