Nonprofit lessons from the Komen debacle

By Katy Snyder, JVA Consulting

Roughly 48 hours after Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced that it would defund Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer prevention programs at at least 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates, Komen has announced a total reversal to the policy. A statement released earlier today by the Komen Board of Directors and CEO Nancy G. Brinker, said,

We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women`s lives…We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants, while maintaining the ability of our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities.

While many had suspected that the initial decision to defund Planned Parenthood was initiated by Komen Vice President, Karen Handel, who has publicly stated her opposition to Planned Parenthood, Komen was adamant that that the defunding was because Planned Parenthood is under investigation by the federal government, and a new national-level Komen policy forbids funding organizations under investigation. In a video on its website (that has since been pulled), Komen also suggested that Planned Parenthood might not have been up to its grantmaking standards.

The reaction to the initial decision to withdraw funding caused a backlash that spanned sectors. We at JVA Consulting heard overwhelmingly from our clients that this decision would negatively affect women. To bring some new perspective to the issue, we thought we’d bring you the nonprofit view, and share with you some lessons that you can take away from this situation and insights from frontline nonprofit staffers.

Straying from your mission will alienate donors

The mission of Susan G. Komen for the Cure is to save lives and end breast cancer forever by empowering people, ensuring quality of care for all and energizing science to find the cures. But as many have pointed out, the decision to defund Planned Parenthood seemed to suggest a shift in mission from supporting all types of breast cancer prevention to supporting only certain types of breast cancer prevention organizations. While Komen has since reversed this decision, it seems (especially from the anger expressed by former donors and others commenting on both Komen’s and Planned Parenthood’s Facebook pages and websites) that irreparable harm has been done to the Komen brand.

Blogger Kivi Leroux Miller calls Komen’s decision to shift funding away from Planned Parenthood an “accidental rebranding” in that by defunding Planned Parenthood, Komen is “no longer a breast cancer charity, but a pro-life breast cancer charity.” Commented Brooke Fritz (before the decision was overturned), who recently lost her own mother to breast cancer, “I am both confused and disappointed in the actions taken by Komen. ‘A world without breast cancer’ is at the heart and core of the Komen mission, yet they have chosen to discontinue supporting a program that does just that. I struggle to understand a decision such as this one that, in my mind, is in direct opposition of the organization’s mission.”

On the flip side, some speculated that overturning the decision, as Komen did today, could create a backlash by those opposed to abortion. Mary Seawell, Board President, Denver Public Schools  said, “If Komen does the right thing by revisiting the grant decision and showing the VP the door it will cause a backlash by supporters on the right. The reaction will be seen as political as the initial decision.” It remains to be seen what the reaction will be from those who initially supported the defunding of Planned Parenthood—Komen had stated yesterday that its donations were up 100 percent since announcing the defunding on Wednesday. If anti-abortion donors revoke their funding in a similar fashion as those on the left have done, Komen could be left with few supporters on either side of the fence.

Lesson: clearly state your mission and don’t stray from it, or risk losing valuable donors. If your organization decides to make a directional shift, make sure that the change in mission warrants the possible loss in funding that it might trigger.

Which brings us to our next point.

Know your base

While Planned Parenthood has lost a large sum of money from Komen withdrawing support, the amount it has gained from direct donations from supporters who are outraged by the defunding has already surpassed what they initially lost from Komen. In fact, many women who have posted on Komen’s message board and Facebook page over the last few days have said they will take their donations to Komen and give them directly to Planned Parenthood instead. Planned Parenthood quickly set up a Breast Health Emergency fund, which, according to a press release, “will help ensure Komen Foundation’s decision doesn’t jeopardize any woman’s access to lifesaving screenings and services.” News reports yesterday said that 24 hours after Komen announced it was withdrawing funding, Planned Parenthood had received over $650,000 in donations from the emergency fund and an outpouring of online donations, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg added a $250,000 match, bringing that total to over $900,000.

And it is not just Planned Parenthood that worked to quickly shed a positive light on a bad situation—some of the Komen affiliates have done the same as well. The Komen Denver Affiliate quickly posted a blog saying that it would support Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (PPRM) for the next year. It also released a letter to the editor yesterday stating its opposition to Komen’s position, and today, a press release thanking Planned Parenthood supporters for voicing their opposition to Komen’s plan and helping to get the decision overturned. As Renee Beauregard of Commulinks of Colorado said, “In the case of Komen Denver and Komen Aspen, they obviously looked at the situation and took action to save their organizations in a very positive way.  They were effective leaders in their national network, which ended up being a win/win situation for them.” Other Komen affiliates across the country were similarly on the ball when it came to listening to their constituents and quickly acting in their interest.

Lesson: All publicity can be good publicity—at least when you know your base. While Planned Parenthood initially stood to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from Komen, it has gained a new base of energized and motivated donors who may have previously not been energized to donate. And both Planned Parenthood’s and Komen Denver Affiliate’s rapid responses show how swift reflexes can help a nonprofit quickly get on its feet. Planned Parenthood, judging from the number of Facebook comments, tweets and donations, also had an existing base that is energized and ready to go, helping the agency to respond efficiently. For Planned Parenthood and the Komen Denver Affiliate, this response has reinforced their brand as a committed partner to women in need, and demonstrated that they have their finger on the pulse of both donors and clients. Susan G. Komen, on the other hand, seemed to make its initial defunding decision with out the support of its base—its constituents, clients or affiliates—leading to a public relations crisis.

Know your funders

While there is an onus on funders to know their base, there is also an onus on nonprofits to know their funders. As Mariana Enríquez, a program evaluation consultant, says,  nonprofits need to do their own due diligence when applying for funding to make sure they are willing to do business with a funder. She says, “When you are a non-profit you are usually struggling to survive and don’t get picky with whatever moneys come your way. I think now many of these organizations should be more careful about ‘the strings attached’ and who really are their supporters as well as make sure their political agenda matches their belief system and mission.”

Bottom line:

While Planned Parenthood has worked to turn a very bad situation around, the fact remains that women who are most at-risk and in need of low-cost breast health services are the ones who have the most to lose from this debacle. Two organizations that were working for one goal—to fight breast cancer—now have a partnership that is in peril.

While Planned Parenthood has gained donors who will specifically fund them because of Komen’s decision, and it will likely recoup the $680,000 in Komen grants that it stood to lose, what about all of the donors Komen will lose? If Komen loses donors, breast cancer prevention loses money. The real losers? Women. It is my hope that Komen can repair the damage done, and, as the Komen Denver Affiliate said in a press release, quickly “refocus our attention on our mission and get back to doing our work to save lives in our community and end breast cancer forever.”

If you have other takeaways for the nonprofit sector, or simply want to tell us where you stand on this issue, do so by leaving a comment below.


This entry was posted in Accountability/transparency, Books and articles you want to read, Commentary, Foundation news, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Nonprofit lessons from the Komen debacle

  1. Geoffrey Bruce says:

    Any organization that allows bigotry to assume leadership, as in the case of Komen, is history as far as it’s thinking supporters are concerned. There are other cancer support charities which have better management and which one hopes don’t have proven bigots at the helm.
    Let Komen become an antidote in history, there will be much more worthy successors.

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