David King, Ph.D., Karen Lake Buttrey Director of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and assistant professor of philanthropic studies recently published a book about the global and religiously-affiliated humanitarian organization, World Vision. Here, King sits down with communications project manager Abby Rolland to discuss the book, the research behind it, and why King utilized an interdisciplinary approach to study World Vision over its 70-year history.
How did you become initially interested in studying World Vision?
DK: I was always interested in the global picture, especially when I lived overseas as an undergraduate.
In my research, I’m continuously thinking about how conversations around religious history as well as in philanthropic and nonprofit studies can include a more global context. The World Vision story, like many international NGOs, begins to look differently if you think about the exchange back and forth between recipients, donors, and staff on the ground overseas with donors here in the U.S.
You began studying World Vision for your doctoral dissertation. What did you learn about the organization and the people involved during that initial research phase?
DK: The first step was building trust with individuals involved with World Vision and explaining why I wanted to share their story.
Then, I had to find creative ways to access the history. Unlike a university, nonprofits—particularly those working in emergency frontline service—often focus on their current work rather than recording what they did and when they did it. Creating an archive is not front of mind.
As a result, I relied on interviews, meeting notes, personnel files, public media, and many other methods to unpack World Vision’s story.
After completing your dissertation, why did you decide to continue on and conduct more research on World Vision?
DK: Their story stands as illustrative of a larger story of humanitarian work. World Vision is the largest Christian humanitarian organization in the world, with 40,000 employees, so their footprint is large, which makes it an important organization to discuss.
In addition, they’ve experienced a great deal of change over time. They started as an evangelistic organization that evolved in a way that didn’t veer from that religious identity, but developed a broader and more holistic understanding of missions, humanitarianism, and faith-based relief and development work.
Where they had been and where they are now attracted me, and individuals’ reflections about their experiences allowed me to dive deeper and share their story with a broader audience.
About that change over time you mentioned – what’s a recent one?
DK: There’s been a stronger emphasis on advocacy work. In the past, they would have talked about their work as being apolitical, with a sole focus on relief missions and development work. Over time, they realized that you can’t do one without the other. When it comes to questions about advocacy, they have realized that sometimes their expertise forces them to speak out politically or prophetically on certain issues.
What was one of the most interesting or surprising things that you learned during your research?
DK: As someone who’s been trained as a historian, hearing stories from people who were present at places during important moments in history was very interesting.
For example, learning about World Vision’s experience in the late 1960s and 1970s in Vietnam and Cambodia opened my eyes to how politicized the nonprofit world was at that time, but also to the necessity of the roles these actors were playing in those spaces.
For instance, how did aid workers account for bombing raids by the U.S. armed forces that caused some of the issues they tried to solve? Aid workers found themselves on both sides of political divides, but still found common motivation to serve those that needed help.
What did you enjoy the most about writing the book, and what’s the most rewarding part about having it published?
DK: Putting the puzzle pieces together – finding the stories and threads to help shape the narrative was the most exciting part.
As for most rewarding, holding it in my hands and seeing it in print is exciting. Although more than that, I’m excited and honored to share the stories that people have entrusted to me. I hope that those stories will give a more full picture of what we mean we talk about philanthropy broadly.
Could you go more in-depth with that last point about expanding philanthropy?
DK: It’s not just about the Gates and Rockefellers of the world. An organization like World Vision was built around small, individuals donors who gave $5-$10 a month. They were intentionally committed, but not at the major donor level.
Now, as the organization has diversified and receives government grants and major and corporate donations, studying how philanthropy has changed is part of that story.
In addition, I hope to draw on conversations about religious identity, and change over time. I also want to highlight conversations about interreligious diversity, what do we mean when we say an organization is religious vs. secular, and how different and diverse types of nonprofits work together for shared mission.
I also hope to shine a light on the religiously-affiliated organizations that have long brought particular experiences, expertise, and scale to broad and important conversations about relief and development work.
What’s the importance of having a book that encompasses multiple disciplines and touches on different facets of philanthropy?
DK: The great gift of a field like philanthropic studies is that there is no automatic, singular home for research in this space. It can be challenging at times to define where a philanthropy book should fit within academic disciplines, but it’s exciting to consider that it invites in readers and conversation partners from a number of different disciplines. I hope that people engage in ongoing conversations in their own fields about how to do this work differently or better.
My ultimate hope is that as the book tells stories in a global context, it reshapes narratives in American religious history and shifts conversations to focus on a more transnational context.
Any future books in the works?
DK: Philip Goff, Ph.D., professor of American studies and executive director for the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, and I have an edited collection about religion and philanthropy in the U.S. that will be published next year with Indiana University Press. It’ll cover a variety of religions’ and religious actors’ engagement with philanthropy across time during the late 19th and 20th centuries.
We also hope to publish articles and a possible book about the National Study on Congregations’ Economic Practices findings in the future.
You can learn more about King’s book and World Vision on Patheos’s Anxious Bench blog.