World Vision joins the cadre of organizations to plunge into the pool of social issues and discover it holds hot, unforgiving water.
The $1 billion charity, which is affiliated with evangelical Christianity and provides humanitarian aid, decided to standardize its policies by allowing celibate gay singles and legally married gay couples to work for the organization.
World Vision President Richard Stearns said the decision was consistent with its practice on other socially divisive issues such as divorce, remarriage, baptism and female priests. It wasn't intended, Stearns said, to endorse homosexuality or gay marriage.
"Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues," he told Christianity Today. "It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage."
News of the policy change prompted a not-unexpected uproar in evangelical religious circles. Critics charged that World Vision had betrayed its Christian principles. More significantly, many donors said they would stop giving money to the charity.
The backlash caused Stearns to reverse course within 48 hours and issue an apology in which he asked for forgiveness.
A World Vision statement said, "The board acknowledged it made a mistake and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman."
The charity joins groups such as Boy Scouts of America that have found themselves ensnared in the culture war over homosexuality. World Vision's attempt to treat everyone equally under its employment policies succumbed to a bow wave of opposition from those who believe homosexuality is a sin and undermines the sanctity of marriage. The Boy Scouts chose to be on the side of history that moved beyond condemnation of homosexuality. World Vision retreated to the other side of history.
Both will face fallout. A new scouting organization has sprouted in the wake of the Boy Scouts decision. It is less clear whether there will be any immediate fallout from World Vision's decision, though surveys suggest many young adults are refusing to associate with organizations that discriminate against gay people.
Social issues constitute the world that most nonprofits inhabit, so it is natural that they address them. However, the World Vision example demonstrates they do so at their peril if they alienate their constituents. That suggests nonprofit executives and boards should make decisions with full knowledge of the consequences, then stick with them. The Boy Scouts weighed its choices, made a decision and is living with its consequences.
World Vision trotted out change, then slunk back to the doghouse when the heat grew too intense. It couldn't have been surprised by the reaction; it was just ill-prepared.