World Vision & The Winds of Change

A few weeks ago the interwebs almost broke under the weight of the great spectacle that World Vision USA displayed as they announced their internal decision to hire openly gay, married staff.  The hate-mongering from the conservative, evangelical community ensued and according to World Vision, several thousand child sponsorships were dropped in protest to this decision.

Within 48 hours, under social and financial pressure, World Vision announced the repeal of this decision, and tale between its legs, apologized for the pain that it had caused.  Now it was the progressive, liberal community that was outraged. Several thousand more child sponsorships were dropped from the opposite team.  The devastation reverberated through my Twitter feed with feelings of deep sadness and the sting of the Judas-kiss.

I admit, I was initially skeptical of the initial announcement because World Vision made it clear that the hiring policy was changing only for LGBT people who were married.  It was confusing to me, how they could draw that delineation considering the political landscape on this topic.  A majority of states still have not ratified legal marriage for LGBT people, so drawing this hard line seemed to still rule out many qualified and experienced people that could be hired by World Vision.

And then there was my own personal feelings of betrayal and broken-heartedness over the culture wars between left and right.  The punch in the gut of knowing that so much hate was generated by people who are called to love. Both sides used their own idea of love to bludgeon each other where it hurts the most. God and the idea of God got dragged to the town square and we all beat the shit out of him/her/it.

But then something strange happened.  After a few days of chaos and confusion, there was a brief calm and then the conversation changed.  Where once we were fighting about equality for all and equity amongst people with whom we disagree, now the conversation became about children.

Public Relations 101 says, "Change the conversation".  When controversy hits, and public identity is threatened, a PR campaign's whole purpose is to restore like-ability.  Changing the social conversation detracts from the details of the controversy.  If you can restore like-ability, you can get people to forget.

And that is just what World Vision did.  Before I knew it, once again, my Twitter feed was flooded with a new conversation. But instead of thoughtful, challenging posts about marriage equality there was now a flurry of activity to recover the money for the 10,000 kids that were dropped due to the debacle.

Popular bloggers, writers and journalists were invited to talk with Rich Stearns, President of World Vision, so they could hear from him directly about just what the hell happened.  For the most part, those writers went back to their computers and rallied around the children.  The predominant sentiment was that children should not be used as pawns to prove anyone's political, social or spiritual agenda and that children should not have to suffer hunger, disease and poverty because we Americans couldn't get our acts together.

Hear me say this: I absolutely agree that no child should go hungry because we Americans can't get our act together.  But that is not what is actually happening.  World Vision, in its PR genius, shifted the conversation from controversy over marriage equality to suffering children.  And while it may very well be true that child sponsorships were dropped, it does not necessarily mean that a specific child, or any children at all for that matter, will have to suffer.

Let me explain.

When you sponsor a child with World Vision your $35 a month does not go directly to that child. Instead, that money is funneled into a larger pool that helps fund what World Vision calls their Area Development Program [ADP].  So when you receive letters and photos and updates of your sponsor child it is simply an update from a specified child that lives in that particular ADP.  [To read more about the functionality of the World Vision ADP you can click this link.] While it might make you feel connected to that particular child, it is simply a strategy of World Vision to get the ADP funded.  No specific child is directly affected by your specific dollars.

I am not writing this post to critique the sponsorship model, although, there are inherently, many flaws in this strategy. I have sponsored several children throughout the years and have spent time in ADP's in Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Thailand and there are incredible strengths in this community development model.  Neither am I writing to call into question the HR processes of World Vision or their staff policies, procedures and benefits.

However, I do hope that this post does shed light on an entity in need of critical evaluation: us.

Our culture is steeped in privilege and no matter how much we would like to deny it, it is that very privilege that affords us the opportunity to sponsor children or build a well or volunteer in a homeless shelter.  Because of this privilege we are not prone to do the work of really trying to understand the systems that create and perpetuate poverty, discrimination and oppression.

Organizations like World Vision put in the hard work of research, education and boots-on-the-ground experience and then they ask us for financial help.  If they can make us feel something about the work they are doing then we are more likely to rally our dollars and influence to support the work.  That is why the child sponsorship model has been so wildly successful in the west.  Who among us does not feel something about a beautiful child who needs our help?!

Just one problem: we don't typically ask any questions about how the work is done, who does the work, or whether or not the work is actually effective.  We just trust that it's good and we smile when we see the automatic draft payment on our monthly credit card statements. We post our letters and photos and drawings from our sponsor kids up on our fridge and call it a day.

Why don't we ask?  Why don't we want to know what is really happening?  Why don't we care enough to spend a little time and effort in investigating the practices of those we are employing to help others?

As I see well-meaning people rush to make up for the loss of child sponsorships, I can't help but wonder how many of these people understand how it actually works.  Sure, money was lost because of the controversy, but no children were directly affected by those dropped sponsorships.  World Vision has been a BILLION dollar organization, and while revenue has fluctuated in the past few years, it would be remiss to say that it is not financially lucrative.

In total, the dropped child sponsorships equated to about $350,000.  Which seems like a lot until you compare it to the overall operating budget. [To learn more about World Vision's Financials you can click this link.]  With one ask, Rich Stearns could get one private donor to stroke one check to make up the difference.  And while I cannot say for certain, I am hard pressed to believe that any child living in any ADP around the world will ever feel the sting of these dropped sponsorships.  I cannot imagine that World Vision will allow any ADP to lose precious resources due to its lack of foresight and planning around a controversial HR decision.  I imagine they will simply reallocate funds from one line item to another.

What happened here is troubling for many reasons.  World Vision simply did not consider the weight of their choices and the decision to go public with internal Human Resource policies.  In doing so, they are the ones that put sponsorships in jeopardy, not us.  It is they that cast the shadow of doubt and mistrust and it is responsible of us to question the internal process of how things work behind the scenes.  Everyone makes mistakes but when you are a non-profit organization of this size and scale, your mistakes can hurt more people.

Then there is the devastating fact that after making such a seismic mistake, World Vision changed the conversation and the justice issue of marriage equality and equitable employment practices for LGBT people has morphed into more acceptable topics like hungry children.  Instead of owning it and staying in the tension of what caused the rift in the first place, World Vision missed the opportunity to lead the rest of us through another layer of a very confusing and often horrifically painful conversation.  And we went right along with the plan to shift the conversation. We took World Vision's explanation of dropped child sponsorships, translated that to mean what we wanted it to mean and didn't question any of it.

World Vision had a unique opportunity to admit how critical this conversation actually is. They could have offered us tears of humility to admit that while they didn't have all the answers, the LGBT community and the hungry children of the world deserve that we give our deepest love and care towards matters in which we disagree.   That no one deserves to be objectified and turned into a lifeless pawn that proves why our agendas are better than theirs.  Be it a Gay Christian or a little girl from Zambia, they are our global brothers and sisters, our daughters and sons, our mothers and fathers.  They are people who are worthy of respect and their dignity should never, ever be subjugated to our inability to love one another in the face of painful disagreements. 

I want better for us!  

I want us to be better!

I thirst for a remnant of critical thinkers to rise up and forge new paths of dignified service, filled with compassion and overflowing with humility.  I hunger to be a part of a culture that participates in this critical thinking, where we challenge each other to thoughtfully evaluate how we help others. I know that we are out there, on the margins, perhaps with sour looks on our faces or even worse, weeping in the shadows.

But the wind is singing a new song and it sounds like a revolution being birthed in the hearts of those of us saying we want to do things better than we have.  Being discontent with how things have always been done is not cynicism. Standing up to unhealthy, undignified or unethical practices does not make us bitter or hateful people.  Asking tough questions and expecting truthful answers from the organizations we support does not make us angry or resentful people.

It makes us people of justice. It makes us people of wisdom. It makes us people of love.  


Click here for comments
April 21, 2014 at 12:37 PM ×

hey Rebecca, I wanted to comment on your Mar 25 blog about "Farewell to Evangelical Christianity". MAN!! you were able to convey and articulate everything i've been feeling and thinking so clearly, eloquently, and truthfully. THANK YOU!! Here is a glimpse of my own story. Please take a read. -Aaron

April 30, 2014 at 6:26 PM ×

Aaron - thank you so much for sharing your story with me! I read it and was very moved by your journey of pain and revelation. I can relate on many levels to the confusion and disillusionment. Would you do me a favor and send me your contact info via private message on Twitter? I have some questions I'd love to throw at you!

Thanks for your comment