Ethics Institutions

World Vision, recovering from gay policy shift, tries to shore up its evangelical base

Leith Anderson is president of the National Association of Evangelicals and former senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn.

(RNS) World Vision tested evangelical boundaries three months ago when it announced it would allow its employees to be in same-sex marriages. The policy was short-lived; the relief group reversed it within 48 hours after supporters threatened to pull donations.

In the past, World Vision has requested that it be known as a Christian humanitarian organization, not necessarily an evangelical one, because many on staff are not from an evangelical background. But now, in the wake of the controversy, the board of the $1 billion relief group appears to be steering the ship in a more evangelical direction in an attempt to shore up the base of its support.

Most telling: World Vision is asking board members to formally affirm a statement that marriage is between a man and a woman. And new appointments to the World Vision board include big names from the evangelical community.

Jacquelline Fuller, director of corporate giving at Google, and John Park, another Google employee, left the board after the dust-up. Three other board members rotated off due to term limits. Rich Stearns remains as president, despite some initial chatter that he could be fired for the controversy.

Leith Anderson is president of the National Association of Evangelicals and senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Leith Anderson is president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

The Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Jerry White, president emeritus of the Christian ministry Navigators, have both agreed to join the board. The new board chair is Joan Singleton, vice president of Milton Hershey School, who replaced James F. Bere Jr.

World Vision was founded in 1950 by Bob Pierce, who also founded Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse and helped spur evangelicals to social action. Employees must be members of a local church, affirm a statement of faith and/or affirm the Apostles’ Creed and sign a conduct policy that includes abstinence outside of marriage.

World Vision has always had an evangelical donor base, but many Americans did not know it was a religious organization — much like many people don’t realize that the Salvation Army is actually a church. World Vision’s best-known program allows donors to sponsor an individual child overseas for a monthly fee, with letters and photos of those kids sent to supporters.

The March dust-up over gay employees moved a divisive cultural issue to the forefront of the evangelical community, forcing both the organization and evangelicals to decide where the boundaries fell on same-sex marriage.

“I think they were a little premature, knowing where most evangelicals were on the issue,” said the Rev. Richard Cizik, who was forced to resign in 2008 by the National Association of Evangelicals after he told NPR he accepted same-sex civil unions. “They not only retreated, but now they’re establishing their bona fides.”

Since enacting and then reversing a policy allowing its employees to be in same-sex marriages, World Vision has lost about 10,000 of its child sponsors.

Creative commons image by Angel Moreno

Since enacting and then reversing a policy allowing its employees to be in same-sex marriages, World Vision has lost about 10,000 of its child sponsors.

Since the policy change and reversal, the organization has lost about 10,000 of its child sponsors, or 1 percent of its donor base. Sponsors pay $35 a month, so the loss could add up to around $4.2 million annually.

There has been a drop in growth rate, but not a decline in overall donations, according to World Vision spokesman Steve Panton. Cash donations are up 1 percent compared with the same period last year, but less than the 3 percent World Vision had projected.

“We are watching our expenditures closely, but have not cut budgets for the rest of the year,” Panton said in an email. “While we don’t disclose the exact makeup of our donor base, it is fair to say that the overwhelming majority of our individual donors in the U.S. are evangelical Christians.”

The organization works with several hundred corporations, and “less than a handful” dropped their partnerships, though Panton declined to give specifics.

World Vision is a powerhouse in international aid and American giving circles, wrote Joy Portella, president of the nonprofit consulting group Minerva Strategies, in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. World Vision is among the top 20 organizations that raise the most from private support, according to The Chronicle’s Philanthropy 400 rankings.

World Vision is the second-largest organization in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, behind just the Salvation Army. In 2013, World Vision received nearly $179 million in grants of food and cash from the U.S. government and other agencies, according to its financial statements.

As a parachurch organization — independent of any one church’s or denomination’s oversight — World Vision is different from a group such as Catholic Relief Services, which is controlled by the doctrine and rules laid out from the Roman Catholic Church.

“World Vision has Christians and non-Christians within their donor base. All of that came to a head over the gay marriage debacle,” Portella said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they are retroactively finding themselves an evangelical organization. They’re not going to gain anyone’s trust in waffling in their image and brand.”

The dust-up created additional confusion for the organization’s international affiliates, even though the policy applied only to U.S. employees. International World Vision entities, including those in Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, clarified that they are separate entities with separate policies that follow local nondiscrimination employment law.

Other World Vision affiliates, meanwhile, took steps to clarify that they weren’t bound by the World Vision proposed policy, which could be seen as unbiblical in parts of Asia, Africa or South America.

The long-term impact of World Vision’s decision could take time to assess, since some donors forgave the aborted policy change and continued sponsorship. But it’s not the first nonprofit to face pushback and an abrupt about-face.

In 2012, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation cut funding to Planned Parenthood over concerns about abortion but later reversed its decision after many supporters balked. As a result, Komen lost about $77 million in contributions, sponsorships and race entry fees (about 22 percent) between 2012 and 2013, according to recently released financial statements.

“World Vision could have a very strong evangelical base that is forgiving,” Portella said. “While it was a big deal in the philanthropic and religious news world, it wasn’t as big a deal where everybody knew what was going on. I could see a certain segment of the population not being clued in. They kind of got lucky.”


About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.


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  • “Most telling: World Vision is asking board members to formally affirm a statement that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

    Shamed into submission by the gatekeepers. Sad, but unsurprising.


  • I support World Vision’s position that marriage should be between one man and one woman. Thank you, “World Vision” for taking that stand. I believe that is the teaching of God’s Word.

  • What stand?

    They caved into pressure from those who thought their views of gays employed by the charity were more important than contributing to help starving children.

    More evidence that Christian morality is just a euphemism for “might makes right”

  • It’s hypocritical that when Mozilla hired Brandon Eich, they bashed gay rights activists for protesting Mozilla and complained about free speech. Yet the Religious Right bigots had no problem boycotting World Vision when they tried supporting gays. As usual, the Religious Right believes only they have the right have to do something but they don’t believe liberals and gays have the same protest rights.

  • World Vision is NOT the only org to support children. Sorry that our shifting to others who put Christ first ruins an easy opportunity to bash His followers.

  • Whatever works to soothe your guilty conscience. The fact that you found the charity’s employment policy more important than the lives directly affected by its work, on it’s receiving end,shows the conditional side to your compassion. Towing an ideological line was more important than their good works.

    Your version of Christ lacks anything admirable. It’s rather petty and small minded. If you think it’s so important, so be it. Just don’t expect me to take you seriously the next time you talk about the Christian spirit of charity. Obviously to you, it has a lot of strings attached.

  • Ugh, evangelicals are so hateful and intolerant. No wonder people are leaving this awful church.

  • Larry…Ones Christian spirit of charity (as you put it) has nothing to do with ones thoughts on the issue of same-sex marriage and what World Vision is now doing as disseminated by this article.

    You seem to care more about the issue of same-sex marriage, what World Vision has done revolving around that issue and slamming folks because they don’t see things the same way you do!

    Reading Comprehension is becoming an art and a chore for those who read these comments…because many don’t say exactly what they mean and some end up slamming folks for things that they seem not to understand.

    Let me put this in as clear a way as possible . . . One can easily see that World Vision is clearly a Christian Organization, if one reads their Core Values! I could not find their latest Policy for employees…but from what I did read, I think it is safe to assume their Core Values apply to the employees too. Also, as the Core Values are worded, I could easily see those from almost any Christian denomination becoming a member of World Vision. As to their position on same-sex marriage…the Bible is the authority for this Organization. Any position taken on any issue, if one has substantial Biblical chapter & verse to stand on, one can be assured they stand on sure footing in the eyes of the Board of World Vision!

    That being said…same-sex marriage, homosexuality, promiscuity and consensual sex out of wedlock…is all considered sin!

  • Yes – kudos for not loving all of God’s creations!

    That is God’s Word – to love thy neighbor as long as they are of a certain orientation.

    Oh, wait…..

    Yeah, I’m pretty sure God wants to us to all love each other and not to spread, foster, and encourage hate.

  • i have sponsored a child for many years and frowned on its decision to accept gay marriage thank goodness Christian’s stood up! GOD is our Leader and his word RULES! Gay marriage is wrong according to scripture stop trying to pressure us into accepting the world view. May the lord JESUS word continue to spread till his coming AMEN

  • Well the World Vision is doing a great job standing on the Word of God. If you support same sex relationships and marriages, then you are not following God’s Word, you’re going against it. We do not like or support what the sinners do (and that goes for all sins,) but the Bible clearly tells us to love everyone, even enough to try to convert them. If any Pastor of a church or minister, preacher or teacher wants to support same sex relationships or marriages, needs to say that they will not follow God any more, get out of the church, make a new bible, and follow another god. Sadly for them, there is no other god, but the God I know will not support their sinful ways, and will be in danger of hell fire.

  • does disciplining your child or telling them bullying or stealing is wrong mean you don’t love your child? its ignorant and silly for people to compare christians holding to biblical values as being unloving to people who live in sin, whether homosexuality, idolatry or any other sin. we hold onto God’s standard for us and for all people because we in fact do love them.

  • So shameful that they talk about how these employees:

    “be members of a local church, affirm a statement of faith and/or affirm the Apostles’ Creed and sign a conduct policy that includes abstinence outside of marriage.”

    What faith is that they’re talking about? Surely not the faith of the Bible. Abstinence outside of marriage? We’re talking about homosexuality in the marriage here. You don’t even have to venture outside of the “marriage” to commit sins here.


    A Christian organization claiming to uphold the gospel, but it’s all lies. They don’t even live up to the faith they preach, and expect their testimony to change people.

    Who are you to carry the message to people that they need to be saved from their sins, when you yourself are living in hypocrisy and contrary to the Word you claim to live by?

    And to point the blame on believers who withdraw their support because they have discerned this to be against God’s Word and their values and…