My opinion about the World Vision same-sex marriage controversy this week

I’m not really into politics and controversy, and I generally work really hard to avoid having – or, at least, voicing – a strong opinion about issues that get people all-riled-up. I try to spend more energy trying to figure out how to invest in people, celebrate diversity, and learn from others, than trying to figure out what said people should be doing. I try to do the right thing myself, but know I get it wrong all the time, so I find it more interesting to just get to know people.

So I feel like I may be wading into a pile of mud trying to write a post about the recent World Vision decision and reversing-of-decision. In case you missed it, click here for an article that summarises this week pretty well. Or, just read the following very-brief summary of events:

  1. Monday: World Vision USA (note: USA – not World Vision International!) announces that they will no longer not hire people who are in same-sex marriages. My interpretation of their statement is that they weren’t coming out for or against same-sex marriages, but they were saying that their staffs’ churches should be the ones to have an opinion on the matter. And they were not changing their policy of hiring Christians, nor a pile of other moral policies that they have.
  2. Monday-Wednesday: Lots of American evangelical leaders speak out, condemning World Vision USA’s decision.
  3. Monday-Wednesday: Some unknown number of ordinary American evangelicals call World Vision to cancel their child sponsorship commitments, saying they can’t support an organisation that supports same-sex marriage.
  4. Wednesday: World Vision USA reverses Monday’s decision and it’s back to status-quo. Except now they have managed to make everyone their enemy. The conservatives won’t forget that they wanted to change the policy. The liberals won’t forget that they didn’t stick to their commitment.

But, as someone who has worked on and off with World Vision for several years, who has some great friends who work there, and who frequently interacts with big NGOs like World Vision on the ‘implementation’ end rather than on the ‘fundraising’ end, I have some thoughts, so I will dare to share them here:

  • First and foremost, I am keenly aware that this entire controversy is about World Vision US. The World Vision offices that I’m familiar with don’t really have much to say on this issue, one way or another. Or other such ‘controversial’ issues, for that matter. So this controversy is largely about what is happening in World Vision’s USA offices, and possibly a few international posts that maintain close ties to the U.S.
  • Second, all NGOs have to be responsive to their donors. We call it a “dual consistency” (or at least one of my former employers calls it that). A development NGO has a mission to serve the poorest of the poor, a responsibility to do that in an appropriate, strategic and culturally-sensitive manner, and accountability to the ones providing the resources with which to do it. Most of the largest NGOs are accountable to big-government-donors who underwrite projects with budgets of up to multiples of millions. Those donors have all kinds of standards and requirements that they hold NGOs to! We mostly don’t mind because (a) they give a lot of money, and (b) we agree with their standards. World Vision is unusual in that, while it does have some big government donors, it has chosen to fundraise primarily with local Christians around the world through its sponsorship programme. This means that World Vision has put itself in an awkward position of reporting to millions of individuals who probably don’t know much about development work. It’s an awkward position to be in, but it’s also kind of cool, because it means that all those individual sponsors have the opportunity to learn about other cultures and to follow some exciting developments in other countries. And it’s worth noting that this controversy is about World Vision’s hiring policy, not their policy of who they choose to provide assistance to in their programmes, something about which lots of other donors have rules.
  • Third, having worked in NGO offices during seasons of controversy and massive change, I can guarantee you: it is no fun. It’s a highly charged, politicised atmosphere, with lots of meetings behind closed doors as people try to make decisions in a way that won’t fuel unnecessary gossip – but it never works because everyone outside those doors is speculating anyway. Everyone is tense, waiting, and inevitably starting to wonder if their job is on the line or if the entire organisation is going to shut down – i.e. imagining the worst.

So, in short, to anyone reading this who thinks Monday’s decision was horrid, and to anyone reading this who thinks Wednesday’s decision was even worse, I guess what I’d like to say is, give World Vision a break. First, remember that this only applies to one of many, many World Vision offices (granted, their biggest office, but still). And second, keep in mind that things must be pretty miserable in their office right now and they’re no doubt working really hard to figure out how to respond to their various consistuencies.

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