Questions for Reflection
- How might you tell the story of your own organization?
- Where are the focal points highlighting the dynamic nature of religious identity in the programs and networks with which you engage?
by David P. King, PhD, Karen Lake Buttrey Director
Over the past seventy years, World Vision has grown from a small missionary agency to the largest Christian humanitarian organization in the world. It maintains 40,000 employees, offices in nearly one hundred countries, and an annual budget of over $2 billion. While founder Bob Pierce was an evangelist with street smarts, the most recent World Vision U.S. presidents move with ease between megachurches, the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies, and the corridors of Capitol Hill. Though the organization has remained decidedly Christian, it has earned the reputation of an elite international nongovernmental organization (NGO) managed efficiently by professional experts fluent in the language of both marketing and development working alongside secular and interreligious coalitions.
In God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism, I chronicle World Vision’s transformation from 1950 to the present as a lens through which to explore shifts within post-World War II American evangelicalism as well as the complexities of faith-based humanitarianism.
At one level, World Vision’s story takes us outside the narrow evangelical subculture often linked to domestic politics dictated by the Religious Right. Instead, among NGO leaders and broad-based donors, interactions and images abroad often led to evolving identities at home that expanded traditional narratives to make sense of the current explosion of evangelical interest in global social engagement. Alongside World Vision, other similar agencies such as Compassion International, Samaritan’s Purse, MAP International, and Food for the Poor are among the top 25 largest U.S. charities with annual budgets averaging over three-quarters of a billion dollars. While politics fill most news cycles, it is now the case that American evangelicals donate $12 to international missions, relief, and development for every $1 they spend on political causes. In highlighting other actors, we might see a different glimpse of religion and public life in contemporary America.
Yet beyond World Vision’s own story and their part in transforming a burgeoning field of Christian relief and development agencies, God’s Internationalists also addresses a broader question that affects so many faith-based organizations: how does religion actually function in religiously motivated organizations? Too often, many are content to label something as either religious or secular segregating the two into separate spheres with little common practice or purpose. Of course, religion and religious agencies are much too complex to be pigeon-holed.
On the other hand, more recently fields such as international development, foreign relations, and professional philanthropy have come to appreciate the role of religion as an asset and key cultural factor in local communities. Faith-based agencies are seen as fruitful dialogue partners in articulating notions of the common good, yet too often foundations or think tanks might merely use religion as an instrumental addition to its current agenda. If they already presume they know the solutions to diversity, equity, and inclusion or renewed civic engagement, then religious communities could be utilized without being fully engaged and taken seriously as dynamic and diverse communities.
What we know in practice is that religious identity is rarely static. For instance, throughout the history of World Vision, it was precisely the rearticulation of its religious identity through its theology as well as its operational practices, public rhetoric, and organizational structure that contributed in surprising ways to the evolving self-definition of the organization. The question then is not whether World Vision as a development organization is Christian, but how it is Christian. The religious identity of a faith-based organization is not distinct and isolated but often intertwined with the structural shifts the organization undergoes over time, the tensions it encounters from both internal and external pressures, and the practices and production of its work. The same general question applies for most faith-based organizations. Beyond generic labels - whether faith based or secular; Jewish or Muslim; Protestant or Catholic; Lutheran, Baptist, or Presbyterian - how does the religious identity of your organization guide your actual programs? On your website, what does the “about us” tab, brief history, or mission statement communicate to donors? What culture does that religious identity shape for staff, board, and grantees? And how has this identity evolved over time?
Telling the stories of our own organizations are vital. Setting them in broader contexts is equally important. God’s Internationalists seeks to serve as a first step, situating World Vision’s story in the broader context of faith-based international relief and development. But there is a need for multiple stories highlighting the past, present, and future networks within faith-based philanthropy.
by Melissa Spas, Managing Director of Education and Engagement
The question of religiosity and religious identity for human-serving nonprofit organizations is a perennial topic among leaders and donors alike. What constitutes a “faith-based” organization – is it the origin, the underlying values, or something tied to the substance of the mission? Should the religious connection be stated explicitly, or simply understood by merit of the organization’s work in the world? I’ve encountered a number of nonprofits who wanted to both honor their religious roots, and also avoid alienating clients or donors, and sometimes these aims come into some tension.
I am curious about whether traditions with greater emphasis on practice and action (orthopraxis) might impact an organization’s faith-based identity and branding differently, relative to those traditions where there is a greater emphasis on sharing doctrine or belief (orthodoxy). For example, Protestant Christianity’s emphasis on faith and doctrine might lead to a closer tie between Christian charity and explicitly evangelistic or confessional activity in nonprofit work, whereas the emphasis on the practice of mitzvot (commandments) in Judaism would lead toward less explicit ties between the religious motivation and the nonprofit’s work.
In thinking about the way in which a dynamic religious identity moves and changes, I remember that there are many expressions of faith, for organizations, the people who lead them, and for those who support their mission through giving and volunteering. For many donors, the motivation to give derives from their faith, but that might play out in many ways, regardless of whether the nonprofit has an explicitly religious mission or not. For example, I am happy to give to or volunteer with a nonprofit that is not explicitly religious when it is doing well the work of Matthew 25: 35-40…. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those who are in prison. To me it is in this action that I fulfill my faith’s requirements, only complicating the questions of what it means to be engaged in faith-based works of service or philanthropy.
World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism
by David P. King, PhD
We are excited to share David's new book with our Insights audience! God's Internationalists is the first comprehensive study of World Vision -- or any such religious humanitarian agency. Lake Institute readers will receive a 20% discount by using the promo code PP20 at checkout through Penn Press at the link below.
For our friends in the central Indiana region, Bishop Jennifer of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis has graciously opened the Summit on Faith & Giving to other denominations and congregations. Rev. Starsky Wilson is the keynote speaker and our staff will share Lake Institute content around fundraising in a religious context. You can join in for only $10!