Vision Problems: 6 causes of World Vision’s PR debacle

World Vision, the giant international Christian relief and development organization, made two announcements last week. I was shocked and disappointed by both. The nature of my alarm was somewhat different than what I’m reading among my friends who share my evangelical Christian faith, and among others who have reacted to the announcements.

World Vision announced on March 24 through an exclusive interview with Christianity Today that it had amended its personnel policy to allow the hiring of gay Christians who were in legal same sex marriages. They did this, World Vision president Richard Stearns said, not to establish a theological position on homosexuality or same sex marriage, but to be reflective of some Christian denominations that had shifted to more permissive positions on homosexuality.

Two days later, through the same publication, Stearns announced that the organization had totally reversed its decision after virulent backlash from evangelical leaders.

I headed World Vision U.S.’s public relations department for nearly five years, leaving in 1983, and have been a management and public relations consultant for 36 years, primarily in the evangelical sector. I haven’t provided public relations counsel to World Vision for three decades, but from my perspective as a WV alumnus and a PR practitioner, I see World Vision’s handling of this self-made crisis as a public relations debacle of stunning proportions.

This has nothing to do with my own view on the interface of Christian teaching and sexual orientation and practice. There is plenty to say about this, but I am not most qualified to present the varied theological positions. I have worked through enough public relations crises, however, to have an opinion on potential causes for this mishandling of very public statements by a strong and important organization. I see at least six:

  1. Detached Retina. World Vision totally lost view of its core mission and the potential of endangering the aid it provides for millions of people around the world, when it decided to publicize its personnel policy change. There was no reason for a public announcement of a change in its hiring practice or to clarify its position on the accepted conduct of its employees. It did so, it appears, to establish a leadership position among Christian organizations on an issue not central to its mission around the world. Whether you support its (short lived) decision to hire gay Christians or its reversal, World Vision was—Don Quixote like—tilting at windmills where it should not have been.


  1. Presbyopia. With age, many of us lose our ability to see things close up. Called presbyopia, it’s a good word for WV’s vision problem–not seeing those closest to it, the core of evangelical Christians that have and still do constitute an overwhelming portion of its support. It is nearly unbelievable that Stearns and WV leaders were surprised by the storm of protest to its first decision by Christian leaders and the thousands of child sponsors that revoked support within 48 hours. There clearly were not adequate discussions or research with the customer base. Stearns admitted this when he announced the reversal: “We did inadequate consultation with our supporters. If I could have a do-over on one thing, I would have done much more consultation with Christian leaders.” But by hearing from supporters and leaders only after the first decision, it left World Vision looking not like a wise industry leader that consults its constituents before making important decisions, but as a weak leadership team that caved when criticized.


  1. Double Vision: World Vision wisely does not take sides on theological issues such as baptism, charismatic expression, divorce and remarriage, or eschatology, which it leaves to the churches. But World Vision is and is known as an evangelical institution and part of the universal Church. As such it draws lines, which it was clear about in its statements this week, requiring that employees be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. It was unfocused thinking to put an issue of stunning social importance in the lap of the church while taking a position that was contrary to a very high percentage of the very churches whose members support the organization. Additionally, Christian institutions (not just churches) must define truth not by keeping everyone happy, but through biblical study, revelation, and conviction.


  1. Mistaken Identity: In making its case for a personnel policy change, World Vision said it allowed the organization “to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage”—giving state-legalized same-sex marriage the same standing as the marriage of man and a woman. To identify moral clarity through appeal to state law is a perilous move, one that—of course—held little sway with those who believe homosexual conduct is contrary to scripture and legal sanction of same-sex marriage an abomination. The decision appeared to be cleared by legal counsel but not Christian counsel.


  1. Distorted Selfie. What is the distinct character of a Christian organization? It’s defined by beliefs, mission, and shared Christian values. Trust is broken when an organization violates these values that it shares with its recipients, its customers/donors, its partners, and its own history. It will take years for World Vision to rebuild that trust.


  1. Myopia. While I do not know World Vision’s current leaders well enough to discern how much they have been influenced by the political and social environment in Seattle and the state of Washington, the blind spot demonstrated this week suggests there has been an impact. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand the first decision. I’m afraid World Vision could not see beyond the Cascades, their eyes focused—if even unintentionally–on local preferences, politics, and the social environment in their home state, and not seeing national and international positions in the evangelical community that came surging into their view when they publicized their short-lived new personnel policy.

The sad part of such public relations mishandling is that an organization emerges with its reputation severely damaged. In this case, those in the heart and the right of the evangelical community have been given ammunition to doubt the orthodoxy of World Vision and its leaders. The bleeding was stopped but the scar will be unsightly for some time. Then with a reversal, those who support a stronger embrace of homosexuals by the church felt betrayed by a World Vision that – it appears to them—capitulated under the strong arm of fundamentalism.

I think of the president of World Vision when I was part of the team, esteemed evangelical leader Ted W. Engstrom, who passed away a couple of years ago. I can see TWE writing memos in heaven on the dangers of compromise, but also on the mismanagement of the public trust.

May World Vision draw from his wisdom and example of clear leadership.

Jim Jewell





Posted in Christianity, Church and State, Communications, Culture, Ethics, Evangelicals, Homosexual Issues, International aid, Jim Jewell, Leaders, Nonprofit organizations, Public relations | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Choosing Gelato, and the Value of Values

In a simple visit to a gelato shop this weekend, I—knowingly or unknowingly—made valuegelato statements about risk taking, friendship, childhood joy, keeping promises, and childhood diligence. While we all can recognize that the overtly important choices of life are based on values, the everyday choices of life are also informed by our priorities and values. We know what we value because we spend our money, our energy, and our time on these things.

The same is true in business, including the sector that consumes a good deal of my attention: nonprofit business.  Read more about choosing gelato and the value of values.  

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“Your young men shall see visions”: the importance of nonprofit vision

Vision“If there is no vision,” a 1599 version of Proverbs 29:18 reads, “the people decay.” Without a vision, missions can stagnate or waste away. A vision is an answer to the question: “What can and should we accomplish?”

My post on the NPOutlook blog looks at the importance of a vision statement to guide and energize actions from the present forward.  We’ve looked at many organizational vision statements.  Some are great; many are terrible.  Take a look; for now, we’ll let you decide.

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Trust Me

Trust has been in decline for many years.  I wrote about the decline in public trust trustin 2010, and just now on the NPOutlook Blog.  With charities trying to recover–like so many others–from the economic carnage of the last five years, regaining donor trust has never been more important.  In a corporate setting, it gets tricky:

 To many leaders, trust sounds like soft and cuddly business jargon. Treated seriously, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Trust is not a soft virtue. Gaining and keeping trust is tough, gritty, engaged, in-your-face work. Listening hard. Making difficult choices. Fortitude, sacrifice, sweat and tears are often required to make and to deliver on promises and to be unfailingly truthful.

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7 reasons nonprofit organizations falter and fail

Why do some charities thrive and others struggle and fail.  I’ve been heavily involved in organizations that have done both, and I have some ideas about why even the best intentioned leaders often see their nonprofits decline into virtual irrelevance.  In a post on the NPOutlook Blog I’ve explored 7 reasons for nonprofit failure:Nonprofit 3

1. Empty Optimism

2. Values Vacuum

3. Competitive Blinders

4. Iced Innovation

5. Mission Creep

6. Lone Ranger

7. Data Dearth

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7 disciplines of highly effective charities

I have spent all of my career working for or with nonprofit organizations, primarily Christian groups. I’ve made a recent job move, to work with a management consultancy called The Valcort Grop, which specializes in diagnosing organizational health and providing solutions that lead to growth and impact.  I’m directing the nonprofit practice, which is a nice continuation of my life work.  TVG-Logo

I’ve been analyzing the current state of American charities, which have of course been struggling as a result of the economic hole we’ve all been in.  Unfortunately, many of them aren’t poised to bounce back as the economy flickers to life.  I’ve outlined 7 disciplines that we can see in successful charities, here.  

The article begins:

In the last year, some two thirds of Americans responded to appeals from charities for support of projects to meet human needs, create new initiatives, advance faith, and reverse wrongs. Nonprofit organizations received $298 billion in donations and were supported by about 64.5 million volunteers.

Unfortunately, the support is fleeting. For every 100 new donors, American nonprofits lost 107. A new report concluded that for every $100 charities raised last year, $100 was lost as donors stopped giving or donated less. Even as the economy flickered to life and giving increased slightly, donor attrition has stagnated charitable progress.

The reasons are clear: Although people are moved to give to specific needs, impulse giving is thin commitment. The long-term loyalty of donors, volunteers and other partners is based on the trust of organizations and their people, the evidence of real change and impact, and the relationships that are developed as part of or after the donor transaction.

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“When you fast”: Reflections on a Daniel Fast

fruits and vegetablesFor many Christians, the call to fasting and prayer is a discipline for someone else in the faith. Especially the fasting part.  It certainly was for me.  I don’t recall any spiritual fasts during most of my life, nor do I remember a specific, direct call to fasting from the pulpit in the evangelical churches that I attended.

Now, my wife and I have found that God tends to speak into our lives during times of fasting and prayer, and we try to make it a regular discipline. Now we are not world-class fasters.  We haven’t done a 40-day fast. We haven’t done the serious 25-hour no-consumption-of-anything (not even water)  fast like observant Jews do on Yom Kippur and other times. We aren’t as regular in our fasting as we’d like to be, and we haven’t done a great job sustaining a weekly fast, although we’re trying once again to make it a new habit.

I’m reflecting on fasting not because I am a model, but because I want to highly recommend a discipline of fasting and praying as a way to force a measure of self-denial and to seek greater intimacy with God.  As Kevin Queen preached at 12 Stone Church 10/28/12 in a message titled When I’m Stuck: “I give up something I want (unlimited access to foods I like) for something I want more (intimacy with God).”

In recent years we have done three Daniel Fasts, two 10-day fasts and one 21-day fast. See my earlier post on one of those fasts. The Daniel Fast is not a starvation fast. Although it depends on your level of consumption of the foods you can eat, you will likely go through the fast without great hunger.  The Daniel Fast is about purposely depriving yourself of certain food groups.

If you are not familiar with the Daniel Fast, it approximates the diet of Daniel and his Jewish compatriots when they were brought to the royal court in Babylon (Daniel 1:12 and Daniel 10:2).  They were granted permission to eat a limited diet of foods:  fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.  Notably, they did not eat the meats, sweets, and alcohol from the King’s table. 

There are different modern versions of the Daniel Fast. Here’s a good Daniel Fast website and a book.

In our Daniel Fasts, in addition to eliminating any sweets, we drink only water, which cuts out coffee and effectively derails the route to any caffeine. We’re also diligent in cutting out any chemicals and preservatives, something we’re doing more and more of in our day-to-day lives.  (Although this is somewhat like a typical vegan diet, the elimination of sweets and caffeine makes it very different).

For me, coffee deprivation is the highest price of our Daniel Fast.  For my wife Debbie, the biggest price is chocolate deprivation.

Why fast?  In addition to the opportunity to refocus your relationship with God, there is the instruction from Jesus, when he said when you fast… (not if.)

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And this is Christmas


We relish the soft, airbrushed edges of our Christmases that blend the Middle Eastern night of magi and shepherds overseeing the birth of Jesus in peaceful Bethlehem with Currier & Ives snowscapes, carolers and family festivities.

Certainly the shattering of these pastoral Christmas scenes couldn’t be any more brutal than this year, with the national grieving of the massacre of children who were still navigating the move from nap time to school time. While there are frequently holiday stories that cut against the cultural and spiritual flow of the season, it is difficult to recall the reality of evil interrupting so abruptly the merriment and winter joy of Christmastime. 

For 26 families, the interruption of Christmas is, of course, secondary to the destruction of life as they have known it. We can only pray that the reality of a living Christ will be solace to the Christian families, and that God will use the new year to renew the hopes of all. 

 There is much sadness in our world at any time of the year, and it is sharpened for those who are struggling with pain and suffering, with emptiness and loss, at Christmas. There are many more families grieving the loss of children, taken abruptly in the streets of Chicago or Detroit, or slowly in the pediatric wings of hospitals everywhere. There is seemingly endless unemployment and underemployment and the sickening grind of dwindling resources and diminishing dreams. There is the loss of love and the loss of ambition.

And if there is no joy in your personal world it is hard to appreciate choirs who are insisting that there is. 

For those of us who have the luxury of contemplating the plan of God in a time of obscene senselessness, rather than the stark barrenness of a child gone, we can look at the truth of the Christmas story instead of the stained glass images of our modern Christmas traditions for a better perspective. 

This was perhaps best captured by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Christian, who wrote two days after the Newtown massacre:

The only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.

That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.

The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.

In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.

The reality of the incarnation, the embodiment of God, in the very midst of brutality and violence, from the murdering of innocents in search of the Christ-child in Bethlehem to a crucifixion at a Jerusalem crossroads, sets the Kingdom of God squarely in the grisly realities of every age rather than the in the star lit glow of advent celebration.

And that is a truth that should not dampen the great celebration of O Holy Night, or even the secular enjoyment of winter fun and holiday gift exchange, but rather put all of it in divine perspective. The world of sadistic evil intertwined with breathtaking goodness is the world as we know it and has always been known.

As such, for it to be true that God is with us–the promise of Christmas–it must also be true that He is with us on days when evil prevails, as well as on days of joy and promise. He brings Relevance and Redemption to every space and time, and He has ever since His family fled the murderous designs of a jealous despot and became refugees in Egypt.

The good news is that it is the Desire of God that we have an infusion of joy that finds the depth of the greatest suffering.   

Joy to the World, the Lord is come.  Life triumphs over death.  Good triumphs over evil. It’s hard to see it from here.  And it was as hard to see it in Bethlehem when Jesus was born as it is today.  It is the real world God decided to save. This is Christmas.

–Jim Jewell


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Very funny (and truthy) 2012 editorial cartoons on politics, religion, life



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God with us. Christmas 2012

We watched a Christmas special recently that weaved a tale that would present the ‘real meaning of Christmas,’ which for that screenwriter was “caring for one another.” People of all faiths and traditions may tire of the commercialism that drives modern Christmas, and even regret the need to shop and travel and attend endless holiday events. They look for deeper meaning (but not too deep). It is valuable, in the modern view, to use Christmas to draw out charitable sentiments, peaceful notions, and reconciliation and neighborliness. Those are wonderful accomplishments, of course, but unfortunately thin and temporary contributions of the Christmas season. Even Christians attempt to build the meaning of a holy day by embellishing and dramatizing the story of Mary and Joseph and the events surrounding Jesus’s birth, to make it a more powerful narrative.

But even the Christmas story of Luke 2 is not the meaning of Christmas, as Charles Shultz (and Linus) suggested in the wonderful little Charlie Brown Christmas movie.

One of the names of Jesus carries the meaning of his arrival, of Christmas. He will be called Immanuel, the angels tells the shepherds. Immanuel is translated God With Us, but it means so much more than our best wishes that God will accompany someone and direct their lives. Immanuel means that in a move far more dramatic than a bright star or a visit by the magi, the God of eternity, the omniscient and omnipotent God, sparked a divine revolution that would end the alienation between God and his creation. The Christmas miracle is the dramatic move of the Trinity to give people for all time the chance to experience life beyond sin and a life of abundant hope. God the Father determined to change all of human history and to reconcile the human race with the Divine by having God the Son take the form and the life of a human; the human embryo was conceived by the God the Spirit, borne by a human woman, and born as a human baby.

At Christmas we celebrate the inspiration, the conception, and the birth of the God-Child. We celebrate an event that changed everything; an event that began a revolution that would include the life and teaching of an earthly Jesus; a ghastly, sin-bearing death; and the resurrection of his human life and redemption made possible for all life. Without Christmas, God cannot be with us, because of the alienation of our spoiled human race.

Immanuel makes possible our lives and our future promise, and the hope for all generations. Now that is a great story, worthy of celebration.

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