What Went Wrong at World Vision USA

The Christian subculture on the internet went into absolute hyperdrive this week when one of the world’s largest and most respected charities, World Vision USA, announced a meaningful change to their hiring policies. Today they reversed that decision and publicly asked forgiveness from their supporters and partners. This is a failure of leadership. That doesn’t mean I agreed with the original policy change or that I support the reversal. I’ll save those discussions for another forum. It means that leaders at the highest levels of board and staff somehow failed to anticipate the scale of reaction to an enormously politically charged announcement, and then lacked the conviction to stick with it when the backlash kicked in. The board meeting this week must have been a doozy! I can only hope that they, and we who are sitting on the sidelines cheering for our preferred outcomes, will learn a few simple but critical lessons from this fiasco. 1. Know your Network. For WVUSA to not expect a tidal response to this announcement is astonishing. There is no issue more polarizing in the United States Christian subculture right now than LGBTQ rights. There is just no excuse for not being prepared for the waves of criticism, and support, that came with the Monday’s news release. 2. Do your Homework. Wise leaders test big decisions with key stakeholders in confidence before making them public. This isn’t manipulation, its research. The reversal announcement makes it clear that they failed to properly consider the reactions of people and partners who are close to them and important to their success. Operating in a bubble on changes that will be perceived as significant by your donors and peers is foolish. 3. Stand your Ground. The tone of today’s release is entirely different from the earlier one. On Monday they presented a logical (if debatable) rationale for a policy change. Today they begged forgiveness. If the reasons for the initial decision were legitimate than they should either stay with that position or present further explanation for the revision today. It is possible to acknowledge a mistake with conviction, and it usually builds credibility. This looks more like backing down due to public pressure, which isn’t the best way to make any decision. Regaining their own authority is going to be difficult. 4. Face the Music. This will not simply blow over. People on all sides of this issue will not just quietly go back to their corners and let World Vision go on with the good work they do alleviating child poverty and suffering. Having kicked this hornet’s nest they are going to keep getting stung on several fronts. I can’t see any credible path forward that doesn’t involve a number of resignations/firings. Whoever failed to properly research, prepare for, and respond to this reaction has probably lost their ability to hold a leadership role moving forward. Board members and executive staff need to be held highly accountable and it is likely that some will have to go. 5. Regain your Focus. A firestorm like this doesn’t go away just because a decision has been revoked. Many people have been hurt, many more have taken offense (rightly or wrongly). It will take significant time to recover. The temptation will likely be to re-address this matter in the coming days, weeks, and months. Instead, I suggest they get back to the point. World Vision needs to be known for caring for the physical, educational, social, and spiritual needs of children all over the world. That must be the story if they have any hope of moving forward. It’s pretty easy to sit in my comfy chair and take shots at leaders with far more experience and impact than myself. My prayer is that their mistakes will be a great lesson for the rest of us.