Policy strategies and directives, HR policies, and best practices are challenging for organizations to hit the sweet spot every time. Like most things human, organizational culture and behaviour are difficult to manage, but policies are at least an attempt to standardize expectations in a workplace. And the larger an organization is, the more vulnerable it is to public opinion.
World Vision is a global Christian charity focused on economic development, child welfare, relief operations and poverty reduction in some of the poorer areas of the world. World Vision operates entirely from the goodwill and contributions of its members. People can sponsor a child in a developing country for $40 a month and receive pictures, updates, and cards from their sponsored child. They do other types of fundraising as well, including grants, receiving NGO financing in war-torn countries and working in refugee camps. In total, their operating budget is over $1 billion dollars annually.
Last week, they surprised many of their supporters-who are practicing evangelical Christians-by announcing that they would hire individuals who were in same-sex relationships. Gay marriage continues to be a flash point in America, and the back lash from supporters and some prominent Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham was immediate and harsh. Notwithstanding the legality of an organization discriminating against a distinct group, two days later World Vision retracted its decision to say that it was not moving in that direction saying in part “We have listened to you and want to say thank you and to humbly ask for your forgiveness.”
I wonder what World Vision was hoping for in making their initial stance. Perhaps the organization wanted to respond to employees who were asking for fair treatment. But whatever their motivation was, two things happened immediately – traditional evangelical supporters of World Vision who typically oppose gay marriage became very upset, and those who might not even have known what World Vision was, but care a great deal about gay marriage also became very upset at the situation.
Within one week, over 4,000 people cancelled their sponsorships of children, believing that by doing so they were sending a message to the leadership of World Vision that they did not agree in their about-face.
What could they have done to minimize some of this impact? Granted, they do good work around the world, they did make a mistake by making a decision that they weren’t really that committed to. That’s fine for smaller strategic decisions, but for culturally sensitive issues that would certainly be reacted to by their constituents, this was a no-win situation.
The response from World Vision on its social media platforms is zero. Besides press releases, a visit to World Vision’s Facebook page today reveals comments like “I am disappointed that World Vision caved in to bigotry and now refuses to hire married gays. I have been and currently am a sponsor of a child” and “So disappointed in the reversal. I’m really torn on how to respond.” These comments have been placed on regular World Vision posts – about sponsoring children or helping in Rwanda or whatever. The comments themselves get more comments, 50 plus “likes” and full discussions that have absolutely no response from WV itself.
My Advice to you World Vision:
1) Take care of your supporters so that you don’t lose any more. Respond to negative criticism on your website, blog, FB posts, and Twitter with personable, positive, and direct comments.
2) Publish more than a short apology for the reversal. Explain why you had the idea in the first place, and more importantly, why you changed your mind two days later. While you can’t make everyone happy, you need to at least try. Not everyone, including many Christians, believe as you do, and you undermine the intelligence of your supporters by ignoring the situation.
3) On Social Media, proclaim loudly your belief in the value of every human being regardless of their race, wealth or sexuality while at the same time (this is the tricky part) outline why your internal policies need to be what they are. I would not suggest taking an official stand on this (there is really no need, your mission is to eradicate poverty not win gay rights for the world), people who support children in poverty need to know that the organization they send money to is a compassionate one. This recent decision and subsequent reversal makes you seem like a cold-hearted hater against gays. Again, I’m not suggesting that one side or the other is “right” in this debate, but I am suggesting that for a world-wide organization as diverse as you are, stick to what you know – bringing support to the neediest and assure your public that you still are an organization who cares about people.
At the end of the day, the less World Vision responds to these very direct criticisms from its supporters, the more it proves itself as a less than trustworthy organization to handle the hard-earned dollars of the public. Because if it turns out that World Vision’s leadership actually doesn’t care about its employees, this double-standard will be what people remember, and the long-term health of its finances will suffer.