Bloggers witness World Vision’s good work

Several terrific bloggers I follow are visiting Sri Lanka this week with World Vision, an evangelical relief and development NGO that does important work all over the world.

Among the writers I follow on this trip are: Tony Jones (Theoblogy), Joy Bennett (Joy in This Journey), Matthew Paul Turner (Jesus Needs New PR), Darrell Dow (Stuff Fundies Like), and Shawn Smucker (“Shawn Smucker“).

World Vision sponsors trips like this as a way to highlight the good work they’re doing. So the obvious next question is: Are they doing good work?

In World Vision’s case, the answer is yes. I’ve known and worked with dozens of World Vision folks over the years and I’ve long been impressed with the agency’s effectiveness and integrity.

I could have said that I’ve been impressed by their dedication and commitment — that’s also true. But, to be frank, dedication and commitment aren’t nearly as important as effectiveness and integrity. A charity that seeks my support won’t get it simply be assuring me that they have the best of intentions. I want to know that what they’re doing works. I want to see results.*

And World Vision is a professional operation. They’ve gotten really good at this change-the-world stuff. They get results and actually change the world.

A good example of that can be seen in the celebration the visiting bloggers attended yesterday in a place called Willuwa. World Vision is leaving the village. They’re done there. The work they did will continue, but it will, from now on, be performed by local leaders trained and empowered to address local needs and local concerns in local ways.

Tony Jones explains:

World Vision has a 15-year limit on how long it will work in an Area Development Project. Thus, from day one in an area, the staff is challenged to partner with local organizations, to teach skills, and to prepare for the hand-off a decade-and-a-half hence.

… In Willuwa, World Vision arrived 15 years ago. They’ve worked with the schools, raised water towers, built roads, and increased health and sanitation.

For example, in 1997, 42 percent of homes had water-sealed latrines. Now 87 percent do. In 1997, 40 percent of children were underweight. Now 16 percent are. In 1997, there were 0 eco-friendly gardens. Today, there are over 2,000.

Those results Tony cites are tangible, meaningful changes. But the biggest change is the people of Willuwa have now been empowered to continue that trajectory and to control their own economic development.

World Vision’s 15-year rule is part of its structure and its philosophy. And it’s an example of how their philosophy has been built into their structure to ensure that good intentions become actual results.

That’s part of what I mean by “integrity.” That also refers, of course, to financial accountability and low overhead,** and World Vision is good on that score. But it’s more than just that. There’s more to being effective and honest than simply not being a skimmer, a scammer or a pocket-liner.

One World Vision old-timer told me a story from back in the day when the agency commissioned a study to measure the effectiveness of its fundraising materials. The study showed that one type of visual, far and away, was most effective for enticing would-be donors to contribute. More than any other kind of image, this one made Americans respond — more people contributed, and they contributed more. This image showed an older white male surrounded by visibly impoverished, needy, dark-skinned children. The consultants who conducted the study said World Vision could raise more money — a lot more money, they said — by employing that kind of image.

As my friend tells the story, World Vision not only refused this suggestion, but set out to avoid any use of that kind of image. In their view, the cost was too high. Images that reinforce notions of paternalistic benevolence and the white-man’s burden were the antithesis of how they understood their mission. You can’t empower the poor and defend their dignity by raising money with images that undermine those very ideals.

And but so, the point here being, I like World Vision.

It is, of course, a sectarian agency. It’s a bunch of Christians doing what they do because of their Christian faith. But — as Darrell Dow’s description of that celebration in Willuwa illustrates — the agency’s work itself is not sectarian.

“World Vision does not proselytize,” Matthew Paul Turner writes. It “respects, values and seeks to help” anyone in need:

There are no secret agendas. World Vision seeks to live out God’s love without expectations, to offer love, help, aid, and hope to whoever needs it, regardless of their creed, religion, or lifestyle.

They do good work. And they do it well.

Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Not that a demand for tangible results is always a prerequisite for getting my support. In the past I’ve donated to things like Wes Jackson’s Land Institute. Jackson is a bit of a mad scientist whose dream is the development of perennial agriculture. No revolutionary breakthroughs yet in his quest for an edible prairie, but the Land Institute gets my support, to quote Graham Chapman, because of “the enormous possibilities should he succeed.”

** Low overhead cost is often rightly emphasized as an indicator of responsible charity, but it shouldn’t be an absolute standard. Context and mission matter. Some efforts — including many forms of one-on-one direct care for those who require it — are intrinsically labor-intensive. The people providing that care deserve to be paid a decent wage. If those wages are measured as “overhead,” the overhead costs will be higher because they need to be higher.

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  • Hexep
  • Dan

    I used to donate to World Vision until I found out that they do not accept non-Christian volunteers. They’re happy to take my money but they won’t accept me as a volunteer (I’m agnostic)? No thanks.

  • Joshua

    I’d like to second the notion that aid to communities in poverty is a moral imperative that needs to be done wisely and carefully to succeed.

    My impression when I looked into their activities was similar. They seem to be aimed at empowering the communities to be able to solve their problems independently, building up long-lasting infrastructure like water supplies or sewerage rather than slapping a band-aid over a problem and moving on. (Which may also be a strategy for some situations, like acute disaster relief, but I’d argue not for poverty in general.)

    I have also seen occasions when they’ve said, well, the kid’s village doesn’t need us any more, they’re OK now, here’s another kid. This feels good.

    I’m glad to see my impression independently supported by Fred.

  • andy b

    World Vision has an explicit anti-gay hiring policy –

    I’m not a big fan of that.

  • Joshua

    Well that does suck.

  • Dan Audy

    If you are looking for a different charitable organization that is non-discriminatory in nature I can’t suggest Child Haven enough.  Their primary focus is on providing care for and education for orphaned children and ‘orphaned’ elderly who in turn help provide local cultural heritage to the children.  However along the way they help locals launch businesses (most their major projects involve training low skill workers on the building techniques and then paying them to do the work providing enough capital for them to take on further projects) and funding development and production of useful inventions (the ‘soya-cow’ which produces extremely low cost soy milk, bio-toilets which convert waste into methane for cooking and safe fertilizer, a machine that can produce extremely low-cost sanitary napkins out of agricultural waste).  While Fred and Bonnie Cappuccino who founded it are Unitarians (Fred was a Unitarian Minister for many years) the primary guiding principals are based on Gandhi’s teaching and emphasize having locals provide cultural and religious education appropriate to each of their locales.

  • Münchner Kindl

    A completly non-religious organization that also helps children is PLAN international. Their approach is to bring together “foster” children in third world countries with foster parents in first-world (donor) countries – because one of their aims is to promote understanding between cultures, the children serve as “ambassadors”, providing a specific focal point for the donors: instead of just giving 30 Euros a month, you can now say “Little Jane in Malawi can go to school because of my money” and write letters to Jane about what her life is like.

    Though Jane doesn’t get the money cash in hand; there are several foster children per village, selected amongst all children as to represent, and the money for those children is distributed by a community council based on what they (and not the first worlders) think is most important.

    Because the children are the focal point, they get a voice on this council and are encouraged (with things like clubs) to speak up and assert their rights. Plus the knowledge that somebody half a world away cares enough about you to write letters and give money often has a huge boost on self-esteem for children who are otherwise low on the community hierarchy.

    I am surprised about what Fred says that World Vision shunned a certain kind of ad – that’s what they were accused of for years here, for using unsettling pictures of starving children to put emotional pressure on people. (A sharp contrast is for example an ad by SOS children’s village, where they show a smiling child and move backward to show her being picked up from the street).

  • Ouri Maler

    I’ve been donating to World Vision for a while. To be honest, I wasn’t aware they were sectarian until now.

  • J_

    No. Fuck World Vision. They get MY. TAX. DOLLARS.

    And yet I can never work for them:

    Fuck World Vision. And fuck you for liking them, Fred.

  • J_

    Hmm. Funny. While I was rooting around at Christianity Today, I found this particular uproarious PDF:

    Do you Christians also use material, somatic, and verbal components for exorcism? Or did you take the appropriate Metamagic Feats to be able to cast it without any of those?

  • J_

    This is the story with all ‘liberal’ religious people and organizations, isn’t it? There was that British theologian guy who died a while back. What was his name? Anyway, Fred had worked with him and was all praise-y about him. Well, I went to the library and read his books and, wouldn’t you know it?, capital-H Homophobe. *Literally* repeated the gay-men-need-to-wear-diapers-to-keep-their-poop-from-falling-out libel (maybe we should christen that the ‘feces libel’ against gays to go along with the blood libel against Jews; Christians and Mohemmadans are good at this, aren’t they? Right up there with NOT keeping their hands off children).

    But yeah: You’re really all awesome at being nearly 51 or even 55 percent as liberal as any given actually liberal person. Bravo. I clap for you the slowest of claps.

  • J_

    Now it comes back to me: John Stott. The feces libel is in “Issues Facing Christians Today”:

    …and repeated in modified form some of the other random books I pulled off the shelf nearby.

    But yeah, y’know keep lecturing me about how I need to learn more about religion before I reject it, religious people. Because I’ll go to the stacks, I honestly will. And I am *never* disappointed by what I find.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’m doubting many of the Christians here perform exorcisms at all, much less believe in their necessity. Though I could be wrong.

  • J_

    Mmm. All picked non-Divine Power source classes, did you? That can be risky. Warlord and Bard have some good healing abilities, but if you’re just going to totally forgo Cleric and Paladin, it’s going to be rough going at times.

  • AnonymousSam

    Have you ever stopped to ponder that “Christianity” is only the family tree from which over 38,000 denominations derive, and the word “Christian” is so vague as to say almost nothing about what they actually believe except that it has something to do with a guy who was titled the Christ (whose name isn’t even always the same from one denomination to another)?

    When you say “Christians = THIS, LOL! ASSHOLES!”, you look like a royal idiot. Just saying. As a non-Christian. Pantheist actually. Hi.

  • J_

    Oh and while I’ve got you: Which line in the bible did you rely on the find out exorcisms were useless? Was it Haitians 21:12 “And after 1800 or so, once the sciences of medicine and psychology develop a bit, the smarter among you should quietly abandon this practice which, I the Lord of Hosts, must sheepishly admit I just am just handing down to you here in the Iron Age as a total placebo”?

  • AnonymousSam

    I’m just going to quote myself here.

    When you say “Christians = THIS, LOL! ASSHOLES!”, you look like a royal idiot. Just saying. As a non-Christian. Pantheist actually. Hi.

    The only thing worse than a bandwagon fallacy is its opposite, the “everyone is on a bandwagon except me” fallacy. It’s fucking stupid. Cut it out.

  • J_

    Yes, I have thought about that. My conclusion is that the ‘diversity’ of beliefs among Christians is exceedingly small. It didn’t take me long after abandoning Judaism to notice that the same stink I always smelled around the rebs also seemed to waft around the priests, ministers and imams I talked to. Which is why I usually resort to ‘religious folk’ instead of bothering to itemize all the supposedly ‘different’ flavors of Crazy and Dumb on this planet. It’s just different constipated, bearded shills selling retrograde nullity.

  • Carstonio

     Don’t kill me with sheep for saying that J has a legitimate point buried in all the assholery. Fred’s obituary for John Stott last year didn’t mention the man’s homophobia, and the issue came up in the comments. Anyone who reads Fred damn well knows that he’s no homophobe, and his silence on Stott’s hatred shouldn’t be construed as an endorsement, but still I would have liked Fred to have addressed the issue at the time. (I probably skipped over that post the first time because it dealt in the purely theological.)

  • AnonymousSam

    Fred occasionally says and does things that get quibbles from many of us (myself included on a recent thread regarding atheism). No one said he was perfect. In fact, I would call him exceedingly human, but at least conscious of that fact.

    Flat out admitting to painting all religions with the same brush and having no intention of participating with good faith, however, goes right up there with the Internet Atheist (TM) / r/Atheist bullshit we were talking about in that thread.

  • Joshua

    I’m guessing J_ is probably the same old troll J that I was enjoying not reading anymore.

    So, congratulations, J, on writing in grammatically correct sentences now. Well done. You’re growing up so fast.

  • Wow.

    By definition, a Christian believes that Jesus Christ is the only son of God. World Vision believes one can be a good person, a moral person — even a religious person — without believing this. But World Vision believes that one cannot be a Christian unless one can confess, as the Apostle Peter did in Matthew 16:16 (NIV), “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

    Well, how big of them.  They think one can be religious without being Christian.  How generous of them.  How kind.

    And damn, I don’t even think “religious” is an automatically-positive word…

    (And yes, the whole “you can be good and moral” thing is condescending asshattery, too.  But I’ve seen it approximately 8,647 times, so it’s old for me.)

  • AnonymousSam

    It sounds like tautological nonsense to me. Strip away the extraneous message of “You can be good without being Christian” and the remaining message is “You can only be a Christian if you believe in Christ.” Which… is an identity statement. You become a Christian by believing in Christ.

  •  Yeah, pretty sure this is the same ol’ J. Or maybe it’s a nom de plume used by a particular type of asshole.

  • I supported World Vision by participating in and organizing a couple of 30 Hour Famines in high school and college.  Then, I found out they have more conservative policies than I’m fond of (namely the homophobia, but I also don’t like the fact that they won’t accept non-Christians as volunteers)…and I don’t support them anymore.  In addition, they seem very unwilling to tackle a lot of the systemic problems that keep not just these individual people but entire countries and societies in poverty.

    Personally, my two favorite religiously-based but big tent social justice charities are Christian Aid in the UK ( ) and HOME ( ) in the U.S.  I believe Christian Aid accepts all volunteers and there certainly wasn’t any religious document I had to sign when I worked part-time for them in graduate school.  They also tackle a lot of the international issues that are considered very “liberal” here and that World Vision probably wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole – climate change, unfair trade imbalances, and corporations dodging taxes in developing countries.  H.O.M.E. was founded by two nuns in the 1970s who still run it and they accept absolutely anyone as a volunteer, as long as you’re willing to help.  It started as a crafting cooperative in rural Maine and expanded to include a lot of other needed services, including an alternative high school, a food bank, a land/housing trust, a number of homeless shelters / halfway houses, and after-school childcare.  I lived there for a month and they were some of the hardest-working, effective people I’ve ever met.

  • Not true, Dan. I’ll post next week on the Buddhist monk and Muslim imam whom I met, both of whom work here in Sri Lanka with WV.

  • I’ve asked about that. In practice, it is a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, which also sucks. But, there are out gay employees at WV headquarters, and no one hassles them.

  • They play their cards close to the vest almost everywhere in the world. The people we met knew WV was Christian (all the workers I’ve met here are Catholic), but, as you read in the post above, they do not proselytize.

  • Heh, and now there’s a WV ad here.  Lovely. 

    I was amused last week because an ad for Vertical Church kept appearing, and I was listening to that all week on the way to work.

  • Thank you for this spotlight on our trip, Fred. It has been particularly fascinating to me to watch how WV provides development and relief within a multi-faith context in which Christianity is the minority and in which they have to be very careful not to offend the dominant faith. We can learn a lot from this. I had the privilege of meeting with the monk and the imam with Tony yesterday, and was blown away by their attitudes toward one another. Such respect and unity among them. Truly inspiring. 

  • I like the two caveats you give at the end, Fred, addressing some oft-mentioned concerns. Thanks for mentioning the trip

  • andy b

     I don’t see how it can be considered a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy if employees are required to “sign a statement of faith and agree to a standard of conduct that limits sexuality to ‘a God-ordained covenant between a man and a woman.'” (from the article I linked to before)

  • lowtechcyclist

     “Well, how big of them.  They think one can be religious without being Christian.  How generous of them.  How kind.


    (And yes, the whole “you can be good and moral” thing is
    condescending asshattery, too.  But I’ve seen it approximately 8,647
    times, so it’s old for me.)”

    Well, that’s a hell of a lot less than I’ve seen it.  I’ve seen a hell of a lot more of its opposite: that if you aren’t a Christian, and the right sort of Christian at that (a RTC, in Fred’s nomenclature), you can’t be more than incidentally good and moral.

    It would be a big step forward for Christianity in America if such ‘condescension’ were the norm.  But the reason why WV is saying it is because it’s NOT the norm – they need to say it because it can’t be taken for granted that they believe anything nearly that reasonable.

    We don’t always need to accept people as they are, but we should meet them in the world as it is, rather than in an alternate universe in our heads.  Can’t we leave that trick for the Republicans?

  • Guest

    the most important thing is that organizations like WV are helping people around the globe …

  • Alex

    It disgusts me that WV has a homophobic policy of this kind.

    In 2010 I questioned them about their attitude to homosexuality and they denied that they were in any way homophobic.

    They are liars who are not to be trusted.