Last week’s about-face by World Vision over the issue of same-sex marriage got attention around the country and revealed the tremendous damage organizations can inflict upon themselves with poor decision making and communication planning.
The public debacle got its start when the U.S. branch of the global aid organization announced that it would change its policy and for the first time hire people who are in same-sex marriages. Less than 48 hours later, World Vision reversed that decision, a move that spawned a great deal of media coverage.
World Vision is a powerhouse in international aid and American giving circles. The organization has an annual budget of $1-billion and operates in nearly 100 countries. Its staff of 1,100 works to fulfill its mission to help people “reach their full potential by tacking the causes of poverty and injustice.” World Vision is among the 20 organizations that raise the most from private support, according to The Chronicle’s Philanthropy 400 rankings.
Many of the organization’s donors are religious, but not all. World Vision receives $179-million in support from the U.S. government. In addition, its popular child-sponsorship program has appeal among religious and nonreligious donors alike.
But World Vision is an unabashedly Christian organization. Its website lists Christianity as the organization’s No. 1 value, above even commitment to the poor. Its U.S. employees must sign an oath of Christian faith and adhere to rules in an employee-conduct manual that includes principles such as marital fidelity and abstinence outside of marriage.
Richard Stearns, president of the organization, offered nuances when he explained the organization’s initial decision to stop defining marriage as between a man and a woman. “This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage,” Mr. Stearns told Christianity Today. “This is simply a decision about whether or not you are eligible for employment at World Vision U.S.”
He stressed that the board had prayed about and discussed the decision for years.
While World Vision may have considered its decision to be thoughtful and appropriate, many conservative Christians did not see it that way. Evangelical leader Franklin Graham—who leads his own international aid group Samaritan’s Purse—characterized the decision as “supporting sin and sinful behavior.” Trevin Wax of the Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources bemoaned in his blog that “children are the ones who suffer when organizations like World Vision, under the guise of neutrality, adopt policies that enshrine a false definition of marriage.”
A torrent of angry responses inundated the organization, and Stearns estimates that supporters canceled nearly 5,000 child sponsorships.
Just two days later, Mr. Stearns and World Vision’s board chair issued a stunning reversal, saying that the organization would revert to its policy of recognizing only marriage between a man and a woman. The initial decision was described as “a mistake” that left leadership “brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends.”
Putting aside the substance of the highly polarizing issue of gay marriage, the World Vision debacle is a marketing and communication blunder of the highest order. Mr. Stearns has admitted that the organization did many things wrong, but it’s important for all nonprofits to figure out how they can avoid getting into this kind of situation.
First, there is no such thing as a “minor donor issue,” even if it seems unrelated to an organization’s mission. This is particularly true for faith-based organizations grappling with sensitive social topics like gay marriage. It appears World Vision did not do enough to gauge the reactions of many longtime supporters and the prominent Christian leaders who influence them. Doing this most certainly would have illuminated the groundswell of opposition to its proposed policy change. It also could have equipped World Vision with answers to critics if they had chosen to stick by their original decision.
Second, the World Vision debacle underscores the absolute necessity of contingency planning. The most shocking thing about last week’s events is that World Vision—an organization with sophisticated donor relations and communication teams—seems to have been caught completely off-guard. Organizations hoping to fare better with potentially divisive policy changes should anticipate the range of responses and have plans for how to tell people about a policy shift, focusing first on the influential supporters who might be willing to champion the shift. Such plans must address how to deal with vocal and vociferous opposition firmly and respectfully.
Last, every change brings opportunities and challenges. How could a shift in policy be used to appeal to new donors whose support might compensate for the loss of others? In this case, many fence-sitting supporters publicly rallied around World Vision’s original pronouncement, saying they would start to support the group, but their voices were drowned out by the cries of angry existing donors.
Most important for World Vision was the loss of public confidence in its image. At the conclusion of the 48-hour whiplash, a range of audiences—aid watchers, Evangelicals, secular child sponsors—were left wondering: What is World Vision? What does it really stand for?
Building a strong brand is difficult for any organization, but groups like World Vision need to contend with an added dimension of brand that I will call “the faith factor.” Religion can be advantageous as a unifying principle and an aspect of donor appeal. Eighty percent of Americans are religiously affiliated, and they tend to give more to charities, particularly religiously affiliated ones. Yet World Vision and other religious “big brands” like the Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity also enjoy significant support from secular audiences whose views may be out of step with those of the organizations’ Christian base.
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 blowback?
For now, World Vision has decided to stick with its traditional Christian base, but the decision seems to have been desperate rather than thoughtful. Other groups can and should do better.
Joy Portella is the president of Minerva Strategies, a communications consultancy that works with international nonprofits and foundations. She worked for five years as the director of communications at the aid organization Mercy Corps.