4 Things to know about Non-profits, or Why World Vision’s Change is not about you

After having worked in a variety of roles at various non-profits (both Christian and non-religious), I’ve noticed some misconceptions most of us seem to have about non-profits, including ones to which I sometimes fall prey. Also, and let’s be clear about this, I am very clearly writing this post in the context of the World Vision controversy. If you are unaware, World Vision formally announced that it, as a parachurch organization, was deferring the decision about hiring gay World Vision Logoand lesbian individuals who were married to the churches. For those unaware, employees of World Vision must be endorsed by a church. Some churches marry gay and lesbian couples, others oppose such an act on biblical grounds. World Vision works with both types of churches. They expressly state that they are not theological, but are focused on action. [Complete disclosure, my reading of the bible is that Christian marriage is between a man and a woman] Still, there some common traits of non-profits of which we need to be reminded that are certainly pertinent in this situation.

Update: Just yesterday, World Vision reversed its position and now has stated expressly that it will not hire gay or lesbian individuals.

1. Non-Profits and Charities are Not-For Profit

Really this should go without saying. I mean, it’s right there in the name. Ok, so we know this in theory. Yet often times our actions don’t match up. If it is not-for-profit then that means there are no shareholders, there is no owner. If a non-profit does really well, no one pockets the extra money. All funds raised go into the work of the non-profit.

This is important when we look at World Vision in light of the recent events. Without using the term, many evangelicals engaged in what can only be described as a boycott. They began stop payments on pledged donations, they urged others to do the same, etc. Here’s the problem with that: there is no CEO feeling the pinch. There were no board of directors who were upset by a loss in profits. Instead, without really meaning to do so I’m sure, they were putting the pinch on kids. World Vision does amazing work with impoverished children around the world. Again, I don’t think any one thought of their actions in this way, but the fact is, that people were using children to make a political point (or possibly a religious one) against someone else.

As a certain Ethicist noted a few centuries ago, it is always immoral to use another person as a means only and never as an end in themselves. Why? Because people, all people, are inherently valuable. Kant is also not the first person to make this claim; the bible precedes him by quite a bit. That’s what it means to be in the image of God. That’s the primary argument that James gives in his epistle that’s in the bible: don’t think you can speak ill of someone and then turn around and praise God because those people are made in the image of God. You can’t worship God without regard for other people. All people are integral to your worship regardless of how you feel about them. (James 3:9-10, loosely and wildly paraphrased).

Picture of Immanuel Kant looking wryly at the viewer.
You Called? — Immanuel Kant

In general boycotts are a perfectly acceptable way to indicate dissatisfaction with the policies of a company. After all you’re going to hit them where it hurts: by going after their bottom lines and pocket books. Sometimes they work, other times they won’t (ask Disney how the SBC boycott worked out). But when you are dealing with a non-profit, especially one whose central mission you do not oppose, things get a little bit more complicated. Here a boycott sends a very different message, especially when that central mission is help and aid to children. You’re going to hit them where it hurts: by going after…the children?

That can’t be right. I don’t think anyone thought of the issue on those terms. People who called for a boycott looked at the issue and saw what they perceived to be another step in the gradual erosion of biblical authority and genuine followers of God. This was not motivated out of homophobia, nor would these individuals necessarily stop supporting other charities that help children. However, it does send a very clear message: we will do whatever it takes to make our theological point and our voices heard. Anything. Even holding children hostage.

That may sound harsh, but that’s basically what happened. It may not have even been your intention, but lack of clear intention does not make the action that much better. World Vision changed not because they agreed or disagreed with anyone. They changed initially because they thought they could work better if they widened the pool of applicants and let churches handle the theological issues (which they totally should). They switched back out of concern for the fate of the children. Not you. Not anyone else in comfortable middle-class America. The children. They paid a ransom to hostage takers. And it was wrong of us to take hostages. Nothing justifies that. This doesn’t mean you have to be happy about the decision, it doesn’t mean you have to keep supporting them indefinitely, but the manner in which the fallout took place was just unambiguously, morally wrong. You aren’t going after the people who work there because…

2. Non-Profit Employees aren’t in it for the Money

People work at non-profits because they believe in the non-profit. Very few individuals (though I’m sure there are some) work at non-profits because it’s the only job they can get. There are other reasons to work: a sense of calling, intangible benefits (like flexible schedules, nice people to work with), and the feeling that you are making an impact, not just doing things for a paycheck. I work at a non-profit (a college) and could certainly make more at a for-profit, but I choose not to do so. Why? I really believe that what I do makes a positive impact in other people’s lives and I like being able to see my family. I don’t make more money or get a bonus if I somehow generate extra revenue. In the unlikely scenario that I did (somehow) generate extra revenue, that money would be put right back into the mission of the college. Most people who work at non-profits aren’t really greedy, we’re not doing it for Pennies, Nickels and Dimesfame, or acceptance, or anything else. We believe we are making a positive and lasting impact, usually in people’s lives. That’s why we do what we do.

3. Non-Profits do not have Customers

We don’t. The customer may always be right, but we don’t have customers. If you pay something, whether a donation or tuition, or whatever, that does not entitle you, necessarily, to a product or a service. Now, in general, tuition will get you a seat in the classroom and provide the opportunity to improve your knowledge or skill set (and if successful in doing so to get a degree), but you don’t buy knowledge or skills or credentials. You still earn them. We provide the setting for it. The same applies to a charity. Sure you may receive a nice letter, a picture, a statement of where the funds went. At certain charities (not World Vision as far as I know), top donors get special perks like meetings with famous people or fancy dinners. These are not things you have bought. They are part of a strategy to keep you engaged, to be sure, but they are not items to purchase. The overwhelming majority of the money you send to a (reputable) charity goes to support it’s mission. In the case of World Vision, it goes to children. It does not go to gay propaganda, it does not go to anyone’s salary, it goes to children. To cut off funding so abruptly displays a consumerist mentality at best, and callousness or genuine disdain and disregard at worst.

This is not to say that we don’t value those with whom we work. Of course we do. I want every student I meet to succeed, to excel in classes, to graduate quickly with his or her degree, and to find a fulfilling and great career. I love that kind of thing. But no, you don’t buy your college credits, and no, you don’t buy a right to decide how the HR works. (Sidenote: Please don’t ask to “escalate” a call with me. I don’t work at a call center, and I do want to find a workable solution to any problem you may be having.)

4. A Non-Profits Goals are not necessarily your Goals

This follows on from the previous, but is a common misconception. The fact that you give money to a non-profit, in whatever form it takes, does not give you the right to dictate the mission of that non-profit. If you want to do that sort of thing, you are free to start your own. There are other voices besides yours, and not every voice is equal in this. Someone who has studied poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa for twenty years has a stronger voice than me and my friends do when it comes to making policy decisions for a charity that deals with global poverty. That’s true, even if me and my friends each give ten times more to the organization than the lone researcher. That’s also how it should be. I’m not a customer. I’m a donor in that scenario. I agree to donate because I trust that others know better than me about the central mission of the organization. Also, they know how to achieve that central mission better than I do. If something is a peripheral or minor issue, I should probably leave well enough alone. Once it starts to affect the core mission and goal of the organization, or that goal begins to drastically change, then I may need to pull back (preferably slowly) from donations. But I accept, going in, that I do not control how an organization is run, no matter how much money I give to it.


But what do you think? Do you believe non-profits should be run more like a corporation? Do you think some are already run too much like corporations?

Also, if you are able, consider donating to either World Vision (they will never get some of their donors back), or a similar organization with less controversy around it, like Compassion International.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are entirely my own and in no way reflect the position of any of my past or present employers or other individuals who work there. Second disclaimer: Not everything I’ve said here applies to politically based non-profits, they are a whole different beast


10 thoughts on “4 Things to know about Non-profits, or Why World Vision’s Change is not about you”

  1. Although I agree with your sentiment that World Vision’s motivations are not the same motivations as a for profit corporation like Wal-Mart, legally non-profits are structured exactly the same as for profits and in most cases, large non-profits are indistinct from their for-profit counterparts. Your statements may be true for World Vision or non-profits that you have worked with but could not be applied to non-profits generally.

    Non-profits are allowed to make profit, they are just required to re-invest those profits back into the non-profit. This can be done by giving employees bonuses, expanding operations, or giving more funds to existing operations. It should be noted that for-profit corporations are not required to pay their profits to shareholders (sometimes they do, more frequently they do not), rather a for-profit can also reinvest its profits in the same way a non-profit does. An example of a corporation reinvesting its profits rather than paying them out as a shareholder dividend can be seen in Apple.

    I would also disagree with the broad statement that employees of a non-profit aren’t in it for the money, especially at the officer (president/CEO) or board of director level. In any corporation (whether for-profit or non-profit) those who control the corporation (CEO and board) are separate from those who own the corporation (shareholders). This creates a conflict of interest for the managers to act in their own interests at the expense of the corporation. In theory, this conflict of interest is checked in a for-profit corporation by giving shareholders the right to “fire” the CEO or board members (it rarely works so easily in practice, for reasons I won’t go into here). There are no similar checks on the management of a non-profit corporation. An example of this conflict of interest run amok in a non-profit is the case of a president or CEO of a large hospital (almost all hospitals are structured as non-profits) making millions in annual compensation while the hospital harasses an impoverished, uninsured patient to pay an inflated bill for services.

    Although non-profits are not answerable to shareholders, that doesn’t mean that non-profits are not responsible to their investors. A non-profit is responsible to its investors to use the funds it received in the way it has promised to use those funds. For example, a university must credit the funds an alumnus pays for the stadium to the stadium, not the science lab no matter how much the university needs a science lab. Just as an investor who is unhappy with a corporation can “vote with his feet” by selling his shares, a donor who is unhappy with a non-profit may only have the option of making his displeasure known by withholding his investment. Whether it is moral for an investor to take such action is another question.

    1. Beth, I get that people have personal gains from a non profit but taking your line of reasoning, wouldn’t the hurt still pass down to the children? If someone was in the non profit business for their own profit, following your line of thinking, wouldn’t they then maintain their own salary first passing the hit onto their charity?


      1. My comment was more broadly referring to non-profits in general, not World Vision in particular. I’m not saying that all directors/officers of a non-profit act selfishly, but the structure of the non-profit gives directors/officers an incentive to act selfishly. This point relates to the broad assertion that employees of a non-profit aren’t in it for the money. While the employees of World Vision may not be in it for the money, we can’t say the same of all employees of a non-profit by virtue of the fact that they work for a non-profit.

        The example I use of a hospital illustrates this point. The majority of hospitals are structured as non-profits with a purpose of ensuring the health and welfare of the community in which it serves. The patients of a hospital and the community at large are the beneficiaries of the hospital (like the children that receive help from World Vision). Frequently when a hospital has excess funds, rather than reduce the amount it charges its patients, the hospital gives a large bonus to the CEO and other employees. This benefit to the employees of the non-profit is at the expense of the non-profits beneficiaries. If hospital employees were really interested in helping its patients, they could (among other things) use the excess funds to forgive a portion of the debts owed by indigent, uninsured patients rather than giving themselves big salaries and bonuses.

        1. I would agree that there has been a general (and lamentable) push toward corporatization of non-profits over the past 20-30 years (thanks 1980s). I would also agree that officers of some organizations, in particular Hospitals, and some large Universities (at least for presidents, athletic coaches, and deans of graduate business, law and medical schools) are about the same as officers for corporations. This is not the norm, however. Usually CEO’s and the like make substantially less than their counterparts at For-profit or commercial institutions. Although, I would point out that when I interned at a Baptist Medical Center, they did use a large portion of the profits to offset/forgive some patient debts and fund the social work department that worked with patients without any insurance (setting up payment plans, reduction in fees, or the aforementioned debt forgiveness). I don’t know how widespread similar practices are, but I know it’s not universal. So I would accept that as a valid critique, but would merely point out that most employees at non-profits, at least, are not in it for the money.

  2. I appreciate the very practical, and factual, response by Beth. I also get the point made by Sarah that the children might well be hurt by the management of a non profit looking out for themselves. However, I think Beth addressed that rather well in paragraph three of her post. The fact is that non profits may do well at meeting their core mission or they may not–and be perfectly legal in either case. Ultimately, it is the hearts of those responsible for the non profit that determine their effectiveness at accomplishing their stated goals. I have observed several non profits that justified their large salaries and substantial perks for senior management as merely the price of keeping good people and enabling those good people to mingle with their wealthy and powerful donors. This has always seemed a cynical exercise in skimming off the top to me. The other justification that I hear is that the senior management’s salaries are appropriate when compared to private industry salaries for similar responsibilities–as if serving at a non profit was in any way the same as serving at a for-profit enterprise.

    I commend World Vision for the good work that they do. We have contributed our small monthly sum to them for nearly forty years and don’t regret a dime of it. Whether they accept homosexuals vetted by churches somewhere or not, they will continue to feed hungry children. Frankly, I don’t know how their management is structured or how that management is compensated. In my casual review of charities, I have noted that they are consistently ranked highly for their effectiveness in meeting their core mission. That’s really all that matters to me.

    There is much to be said about the current popular movement to accept, indeed, applaud, homosexual “lifestyles.” However, I don’t believe World Vision is the forum for that discussion. Perhaps our churches might consider addressing the issue in a loving, biblically-based manner?

    1. I really agree with your last comment. World Vision is a parachurch activist organization, and as such should not be a place for theological debates. That belongs in the churches. World Vision was trying to defer to the churches and it blew up in their faces.

  3. One thing to ask so that I can get the picture straight… World Vision, as a non-profit organization, is a ‘parachurch’ organization that made a stand against homosexuality and not hiring them? If so, then my agreement to their new stand is well based. A couple of things to think about.

    1. Because an organization is ‘not for profit’ does not signify that the founders and officers of that organization do not make money out of it. I can think of many ‘churches’ which are ‘not for profit’ but where the ‘name’ does not fit the bill. Someone’s making a whole lot of money out of ‘not for profit’ organizations.

    2. Because World Vision stands as a ‘parachurch’ organization, they cannot help but be theologically based. Otherwise, they would stand secularly without any ties to ‘churches’. Because they are tied to ‘churches’, they have already made themselves to be ‘theologically’ based otherwise, why not hire any person from any religion. To claim a loyalty to a religious belief assumes that you must have a theological stand of some type to said belief. You can’t say that you are involved in some type of ‘church’ related non-profit organization without having some type of theological stand of what the organization means by ‘church’.

    Because of this, I would applaud their ‘new’ stand. They have further defined what is a ‘church’ as an organization rather than taking on the ‘freedom of religion’ which would assume that they are affiliated with all religious organizations regardless of faith or ‘theological’ standing.

    1. 1) If someone who does not work for the organization makes money in connection with the work of a non-profit, that is a criminal offense and they can be subject to fines and the loss of non-profit status. I would argue that some churches and broadcasting organizations fall into this category, but it is difficult to bring such cases to court. World Vision does not fall into this category.

      2) World Vision’s original stance was that they would defer to churches. Those who worked for World Vision had to self-identify as evangelical and receive the endorsement of a church. Thus they deferred doctrinal positions to individual conscience and the local churches. As a Baptist, I applaud this. Such a position does not make it a free-for-all nor remove their parachurch status. If anything, it solidified it.

      Regardless of whether you think the current status of World Vision is the “right” one or not, the method that others used to get World Vision there was deplorable and highly unethical. The ends never, ever justifies the means. That’s primarily why I wrote this. Evangelicals who held children hostage (there can be no other name for it) should admit that the action was wrong. We are held to a higher standard.

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: