Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

February 13, 2012

Komen stains its brand

By Todd Cohen

Komen for the Cure blew it.

Since it was formed in 1982, the charity has raised money through its Race for the Cure and invested over $1.9 billion to fight breast cancer, in the process building one of the most successful and trusted brands in the charitable marketplace.

But in just one week it now has managed to tarnish its well-deserved reputation and to script, unwittingly, two case studies for nonprofits about how not to behave.

Its bungling of the controversy over its funding of Planned Parenthood has shown nonprofits what not to do, both when faced with pressure from financial supporters and others to change their programs and policies, and when faced with a public-relations crisis.

What happened?

Triggering an explosion of criticism was Komen’s decision to end much of its funding to Planned Parenthood, a decision that became public two weeks ago and that Komen reversed a few days later in the throes of continuing after-shocks of anger and criticism from donors.

Under a policy it set last year not to fund groups under investigation, Komen reportedly was cutting most of its funding of Planned Parenthood because that organization, which provides family-planning and abortion services, was under investigation by a member of Congress.

But Karen Handel, an abortion opponent who joined Komen last year and resigned Feb. 7 as senior vice president for policy after Komen had reversed its decision not to fund Planned Parenthood, said in her resignation letter that talks about changing the relationship with Planned Parenthood began before she joined Komen.

Prompting those internal discussions was pressure from abortion foes, said Handel, a former Republican candidate for governor of Georgia who during her 2010 campaign called for ending government funding for Planning Parenthood.

In her resignation statement, Handel was up front in acknowledging her own role in Komen’s initial decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, and said she still believed the initial decision was “the best one for Komen’s future and the women we serve.”

Komen’s response

In their public statements about the controversy, however, other Komen officials have been less than candid or clear about the reasons for the organization’s initial decision on Planned Parenthood or for its quick about-face on the issue.

When the controversy began two weeks ago, Komen attributed its initial decision on Planned Parenthood to its new policy not to fund groups under investigation.

Then, before Komen reversed that decision, its president, Elizabeth Thompson, said the move was not related to the congressional probe, one focused on whether Planned Parenthood had illegally used federal funds to pay for abortions.

Nancy Brinker, Komen’s founder and CEO, said at the same time that the organization wanted to fund groups that provide direct services for breast health, such as mammograms.

Later, after Komen reversed its decision on Planned Parenthood, Brinker in a statement accepting Handel’s resignation characterized Komen as a nonpartisan group dedicated to finding a cure for and eradicating breast cancer.

All that dissembling sounded like the lawyerly and ludicrous parsing of words by then-President Bill Clinton in his response to investigators’ questions about whether he had had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinksy: “It depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

Komen board members and senior executives also reportedly did not expect the public firestorm ignited by their decision to cut funding for Planned Parenthood.

What was Komen thinking?

Komen has been a bright star in the charitable world: Brinker founded the organization 30 years ago after promising her sister, Susan G. Komen, who was dying from cancer, that she would do everything she could to fight the disease.

Komen’s races, held in cities and towns throughout the U.S. and abroad, are testaments to the power of a deeply human cause to mobilize and build a community of passionate and committed donors and advocates.

Komen’s signature pink ribbons have become a universally-recognized and beloved brand, and the organization has created a model in its effective and innovative use of social media and marketing.

Komen ought to have known what to expect when it plowed head-first into the toxic politics of abortion, and how to control the damage as soon as its ill-conceived political maneuver backfired.

Sadly, and possibly because of its success, Komen seems to have figured it could do no wrong.

But it messed up, badly, apparently falling prey to a common fear among nonprofits that they will lose their funding if they do not bow to funders and other groups that aggressively push their agendas – of whatever ideological or policy stripe.

Many nonprofits fail to see that changing their stripes to get a grant or curry favor with a funder or other powerful group betrays the trust and loyalty they have worked long and hard to build among their donors.

And despite the damaging fallout from the seemingly endless parade of crises that have tainted the nonprofit, political and business sectors in recent years, nonprofits like Komen still seem to believe they can hide their opportunistic pandering, and their mistakes, from their donors, the media and the public.

The fallout

Was playing politics with abortion worth the anger and sense of betrayal Komen unleashed among its donors?

It certainly did not seem to hurt Planned Parenthood, which last year received less than $700,000 from Komen, a small fraction of the $93 million in grants Komen made.

Within days of the initial news that Komen was cutting its funding, Planned Parenthood more than made up the cuts through an outpouring of giving, including a pledge of $250,000 from Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City.

The controversy also has prompted questions from critics in the philanthropic and research communities over Komen’s scientific approach to some issues and how it spends the money it raises, according to Reuters.

Based on a Reuters analysis of Komen’s financial statements, while the total dollars of Komen’s research grants have grown steadily, they have not kept pace with the surge in donations it has received.

In recent years, Reuters reports, Komen has cut by nearly half the share of fundraising dollars it spends on grants to scientists studying the causes of breast cancer and trying to find effective new treatments.

What’s next?

In the face of the stink it has stirred up, it still is not clear why Komen tried to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.

The move may have reflected opposition to abortion on the part of Komen’s leaders, or it might have been an effort to appease abortion foes and protect its financial support.

Whatever its motivation, Komen has diverted attention from its mission, hurt its good name, and strained the trust of many of its donors.

Charities like Komen are only as successful as the confidence and good will they earn and keep with their donors and grantees.

Whether Komen can help remove the stain from its brand, and protect its fundraising from serious erosion, now lies in its own hands and those of its donors.

A first step Komen should take to help heal its wounded brand is to come clean on exactly what it did, and why, as well as where it is headed.

It needs to be clear and specific, not vague and evasive.

Komen needs to reassure its donors it is committed to its mission of fighting and eradicating breast cancer, a deeply personal issue that inspires people to work together.

And it needs to make sure, and make clear, that its mission and its focus do not involve the politics of abortion, also a deeply personal issue but one that divides people and drives those who disagree on the issue to demonize one another.

Playing abortion politics is a bad strategy for finding a cure for breast cancer.


  • At 5:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hopefully this debacle will call for more accountability and oversight from donors to keep an eye on what charities do with their money.

    There is a documentary film airing on public television called 'Haiti: Where Did the Money Go?' that highlights the discrepancy between the funds donated to charities and the on the ground relief received by those in need.

    Hopefully, the media will continue to call attention to charity accountability & people will begin to take action.

  • At 4:46 PM, Anonymous Stephanie said…

    "Charities like Komen are only as successful as the confidence and good will they earn and keep with their donors and grantees." Yes, as you said, other nonprofit employees can learn from this unfortunate situation. Big lessons from PR people to Board members.

  • At 4:37 PM, Blogger HLMP said…

    Great post. You've done great research and pulled together a number of the pieces I was wondering about from a philanthropic perspective. Thanks so much.


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