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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

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