How World Vision Forgot Their Vision

How World Vision Forgot Their Vision

March 27, 2014 by

Oh, World Vision. What happened this week?

First they made a controversial policy change to allow the hiring of gay employees (who are abstinent or in same-sex marriages). Then they changed their mind. Meanwhile, the Internet exploded. Twice.

As I read through all the resulting reactions, I just want to lay down and cry. The world is rolling their eyes and moving on as the church argues over gay people. Again. Gay people themselves are being hurt and left behind. The world thinks the church is anti-gay, and we’re not helping correct that misperception.

What’s most depressing about this entire mess is that World Vision wasn’t making a stand for or against gay marriage, they were trying to opt out of the debate so they could focus on their mission—helping kids in poverty.

Except that’s not what happened.

In trying to focus on their big idea, World Vision forgot their big idea.

The Big Idea
I think World Vision tried to make a solid marketing decision here—clear away distraction and focus on their mission. They wanted to cast aside all the extra stuff and put their energy into helping kids in poverty.

“Our board felt we cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue,” World Vision President Richard Stearns told Christianity Today. “We’ve got to focus on our mission.”

World Vision has a clear, um, vision of who they are as an organization and they wanted to relentlessly focus on that. It’s a pillar of branding and a common attribute in many successful organizations. Figuring out what’s really important and diving deep on that one thing is part of what made Steve Jobs so successful.

Your church should have a singular purpose and mission you can rally around. (What’s your big idea? Justin Wise talks about a big idea in our recent interview.)

The Big Idea Is Lost
While World Vision’s initial goal might have been to keep the focus on kids in poverty, the entire roll out of this decision and their messaging about it didn’t follow through on that goal.

In trying to focus on their big idea, World Vision forgot their big idea.

They made a big announcement with an exclusive interview all about homosexuality. There was lots of talk about theology and practice, the authority of churches and the importance of unity.

There wasn’t much emphasis on the big idea (oh yeah, helping kids in poverty).

If you’re going to focus on what you’re all about, then do it. Don’t do an interview about your distractions when you’re trying to focus on your priority.

When your church finds its big idea and narrows in on it, don’t waste time apologizing about your now minimized priorities. Find a way to let those distractions fall away. World Vision Canada nicely sidestepped the issue by not enforcing a lifestyle code of conduct in the first place.

World Vision has found itself in a tough spot here, angering people on both sides of an issue they were trying to avoid. And in all the chatter about this issue I haven’t heard anybody talk about World Vision’s tagline: “Building a better world for children.” That’s the real failure here.

We Disagree
Christians are good at disagreeing. And the wonders of the Internet only magnify that problem. LGBT issues will continue to haunt the church and we have to find a different way through: “We needn’t race to our laptops with our hair on fire every time another Christian offends our personal sensibilities.”

But apparently the lesson from World Vision is that opting out of the debate is not an option. That’s heartbreaking for people who think their big idea doesn’t need to involve any particular stance on gay people.

What is an option? I don’t know. I do know that Andrew Marin is doing groundbreaking work in this area. We did a two-part interview with Marin about how churches can communicate about gay marriage. If you can wade through the heavy intellectual tone of his latest book, Our Last Option: How a New Approach to Civility Can Save the Public Square, Marin has some good ideas about overcoming these divides.

I do know that Richard Stearns was prophetic in his original interview: “It’s been heartbreaking to watch this issue rip through the church. It’s tearing churches apart, tearing denominations apart, tearing Christian colleges apart, and even tearing families apart.”

And now it’s tearing World Vision apart. Until Christians figure out how to disagree on this issue, the division is only going to get worse.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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3 Responses to “How World Vision Forgot Their Vision”

  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    March 27, 2014

    I’m expecting more will continue to come out from World Vision about this story. There simply has to be more to the story–I find it hard to believe an organization like World Vision would make a sudden announcement like this.

    Tony Jones has what might be that insight (from “unnamed sources at World Vision,” so take that for what it’s worth), that the announcement was a multi-year effort but their hand was forced by Christianity Today. In the comments, Tony adds more from his source, saying that the pressure on World Vision went well beyond 2,000 cancelled sponsorships and included major donors and partners: “Reversing their decision was the only choice the board had if they wanted us to be able to keep doing the work we do around the world. Children and communities are depending on us. We couldn’t die on this hill.”

    If that’s true, I think it’s a sad commentary on the unwillingness to disagree on a tangential issue.

    But whatever story comes out, I think in the end, from a communications perspective (cuz that’s our big idea!), this is about World Vision losing their vision. Maybe they were forced into it by a story breaking before they were ready, but however it went down they still failed to keep the focus on helping kids in poverty.

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  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    March 28, 2014

    I said more about this story will come out, and slowly, it is. Religion News Service did an interview with Rich Stearns yesterday. Here’s one encouraging part in terms of World Vision getting back to their vision, and recognizing the distraction of all of this:

    “I’ve made some mistakes and I have to live with that. But I think some of the emotion is about how we are so proud of what we stand for, we are so proud of what we’ve done, all the good work we do with refugee camps in Syria, rebuilding the Philippines after the typhoon and work in the Congo. All of those things have been taken off the table and out of the discussion because of the controversy around this recent decision. If I have any heartache, I hope and pray that it doesn’t impact the amazing staff and work we do around the world.”

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  • brad
    April 2, 2014

    We don’t get to pick what becomes externally important and controversial, but we do get to pick our own agenda. I strongly agree that staying on-message, and on-vision would have been the smart play here.

    The organisation would have lost the people who care principally about the issue, but are those people coming back because it (re?)reversed its policy? I doubt it. And it would have attracted people committed to the larger goal. In my circles, that was the buzz I was seeing, which of course then died rather quickly.

    Getting swept up into an opinion-hurricane is a bad idea for anything that isn’t a hill worth dying on.

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