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Komen Stumbles, Recovers…Can the Damage be Undone?

By Susan Carey Dempsey on February 3, 2012No Comment
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Among members of the philanthropic, political and healthcare sectors, a loud snap was distinctly heard today, as the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation suffered a sharp case of whiplash. In a statement this morning, Komen rescinded its decision to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood for breast health programs – a decision whose announcement 48 hours earlier had unleashed a clamor of protest, rapid reaction and retaliation. Possibly the most prominent critic, who spoke with his fortune as well as his words, was NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who promptly pledged $250,000 in matching funds for donors to support Planned Parenthood and help replace the slashed funds, approximately $700,000. Another $100,000 challenge grant was announced this morning by Livestrong, the cancer-fighting organization founded by survivor Lance Armstrong.

In addition to these prominent funders, the Komen Foundation heard quick and sharp criticism from thousands of women, many of whom are the grassroots activists who have fueled Komen’s fundraising over the years with walks, pink ribbons, purchases and more. The strong and committed base that Komen has amassed through these activities has helped it garner numerous sponsors who are happy to get behind its important work, and equally happy to share in the rosy glow of such a positive brand. All of this makes it even more perplexing, given Komen’s acknowledged success and savvy, that it would have undertaken such a risky — and as it proved, potentially destructive — step.

While disagreement with the initial decision was certainly not universal, the overwhelming sentiment was an angry sense of betrayal — that a foundation dedicated to protecting women’s health should allow political pressure to dissuade it from supporting a long- established program that gives low-income, marginalized women breast screenings they could not access elsewhere.  And using the tools that have become ubiquitous in fundraising and activism – social media and publicity – the large community that has developed ties to Komen wasted no time in voicing their disapproval. From group emails among sisters and friends, to tweets by commentators in all walks from public health to politics to PR, to Facebook posting of links to encourage donors to meet the Bloomberg challenge, a rapidly growing wave of protest accompanied calls for action.

Whether the Komen decision was well thought out or not, its series of stumbles indicates it was unprepared for the reaction its announcement provoked. According to The New York Times, Komen board member and Washington lobbyist John Raffaeli said the foundation had hoped it was making a “quiet ending” to its relationship with Planned Parenthood. Raffaeli directed criticism at Planned Parenthood, in fact, for “using Komen’s decision to raise money.”

Nancy Brinker, who founded Susan G. Komen to fight breast cancer in memory of her sister, at first maintained the position that the decision reflected a tightening of grant-making procedures that were intended to make grantee organizations more accountable, but the indications that Planned Parenthood had been singled out mounted as the controversy escalated. Planned Parenthood has been a lightning rod for political controversy in recent years, and the arrival of political figures in Komen leadership – and the departure of Mollie Williams, managing director of community health programs – coinciding with the decision on Planned Parenthood, heightened concern that the underlying agenda was political.

The Susan G. Komen Foundation has built a world-class reputation for raising and channeling millions of dollars to the worthy cause of defeating breast cancer, and has created one of the top brands in this field. It may have taken its supporters’ loyalty for granted in venturing into this sea of controversy. I suspect it will need to look around carefully, once it swims back to shore, to see whether it has lost any of its longstanding friends and allies. Its statement today indicated that current funding would not be cut, leaving some to wonder what the future would bring. It would be a shame for Komen, or Planned Parenthood for that matter, to have to focus on such distractions in years ahead, rather than their vital missions of serving so many women.

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