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Andrea Newell headshot

Susan G. Komen Puts Politics Before Purpose, then Backsteps

Update: Susan G. Komen responds to outcry from supporters and reinstates funding to Planned Parenthood.

On January 31, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation (SGK) pulled its grant funding from Planned Parenthood ending a partnership spanning several years and sparking a firestorm of controversy and backlash. With one murky policy decision as its defense, SGK did irreparable harm to its reputation.

Nonprofit consultant Kivi Leroux Miller wrote an excellent postmortem of the death of SGK's brand popularity in The Accidental Rebranding of Komen for the Cure, but the consequences go far beyond that. This move must have been in the works for months, yet SGK did not make a cohesive announcement and did not even seem prepared to defend their decision, as evidenced by their prolonged silence during which the social media universe foamed at the mouth. To not anticipate what effect this move would have on the organization is: at best, naïve; at worst, to be completely ignorant of the current political climate in this country, and at the very worst, to be indifferent to the potential damage to the organization while in pursuit of a political agenda.

The LA Times reported that the decision was predicated on a policy change that prohibited SGK from funding an organization that was under investigation. No stated proof that Planned Parenthood was committing any infractions, or its handling of SGK funds had changed - just an SGK policy shift. To claim that this change has nothing to do with politics when it impacts the single-most politically divisive issue in our country and deals yet another funding blow to our largest abortion provider, is stretching credulity.

  • In April 2011, SGK hired Karen Handel as VP of Public Policy. Handel ran for governor of Georgia specifically on the platform that she would make it her mission to defund Planned Parenthood. Hiring someone like that sends a pretty clear message about your future plans.

  • In September 2011, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) launched an investigation into Planned Parenthood.

  • At some point after that, SGK instituted a new policy against funding any organization under investigation.

  • In January 2012, SGK announced that it will pull future grant funding from Planned Parenthood.

Prior to this, Miller points out, SGK enjoyed the extremely unique position of advocating for women's health, but not having to declare sides in the abortion issue, effectively appealing to all women regardless of their political beliefs. Now, without warning, SGK jumps into the fray with a sucker punch to Planned Parenthood and a TKO to its own brand, tarnishing its corporate sponsors by association and threatening the very life of its donation stream. Regardless of anyone's political beliefs, this was an extremely stupid move as an organization. I agree with Miller that this is a decision from which there is no way to recover their previous neutral ground.

By drawing this line in the political arena, SGK has irrevocably alienated a large part of their donor pool. On this particular issue, people have very long memories. It's a lose-lose at this point. Reversing themselves alienates one side, staying the course alienates the other. There is no way to know what percentage of donors are pro-life or pro-choice, but Miller reported that by her count, Twitter comments on February 1st ran roughly 80 to 1 against SGK.

During this period, SGK's silence on Twitter was noticeable. SGK did post the policy justification on their Facebook page mid-morning, but did not respond to individual comments. In fact, it spent time deleting anti-Komen feedback. SGK clearly learned nothing from Chapstick's social media disaster. The more you try to control the conversation by not responding and deleting negative comments, the more you fan the flames.

For an organization that claims to care about women, SGK made this series of decisions without seeming to realize or care about the serious ripple effect this will have on women who depend on both organizations. Women who go to Planned Parenthood for health services (of which 97 percent are not abortion-related) will be affected by closings caused by less funding, and women who have pinned their hopes on funding from SGK to help find a cure for breast cancer will see that funding decline not only due to donor backlash, but many unhappy corporate sponsors who will think twice about aligning themselves with SGK now. Just ask Energizer how happy they are that they sponsored SGK this week.

Unluckily, the Energizer sponsorship was the last Facebook update on the SGK page before this move, driving angry commenters to Energizer's Facebook page to complain and threaten a boycott of its products. Corporate sponsors know that it just happened to be Energizer this time, but it could have been any corporate sponsor bearing the brunt of this decision.

When for-profit businesses stumble in marketing or community efforts, they face unpopularity and a decline in profits as consumers punish them with their wallets. When a nonprofit stumbles, or in this case, falls flat on its organizational face from a ten-story building, and donors punish it with their wallets, it can have real-world consequences on people's health and lives.

Most people realize that businesses will sometimes flounder with respect to social responsibility in the pursuit of profits. But when a high-profile nonprofit organization that has declared a mission for good decides that satisfying a political agenda - at the expense of the organization's history, reputation and ability to do future good - is more important than staying true to its stated purpose, it hurts everyone.

[*update] Late in the evening of February 1st, SGK posted a rebuttal video on their Facebook page. In it, SGK founder and CEO Nancy Brinker states that its grant process was under review as early as 2010 (pre-Handel), and Planned Parenthood was not the only entity affected (although she does not name any others). She does not specifically dispute that their actions were politically motivated, but simply says they were "mischaracterized."

She also states that all grants currently in effect will remain so. Does that mean that if Planned Parenthood is cleared during its investigation, that SGK will grant it funding next year? Doubtful. Brinker is careful to use language about adhering to the highest standards, continually revising grant requirements, and providing funds to actual service providers (allowing room to claim that PP isn't a service provider by their now-stricter standards).

It is a carefully worded message, but it begs the question - why didn't SGK make this oh-so-moving announcement in the first place instead of going radio silent for the entire day? Planned Parenthood shows no sign that they were aware of any policy shift before it happened. If SGK was concerned about "no interruption of services" why didn't we hear about how these two partners worked together to implement this shift to make it seamless? Why wasn't Planned Parenthood given a chance to conform to these new policies in order to continue to receive funding?

Even some Komen local affiliates support the idea that SGK has lost sight of its mission. In an article posted late on February 1st, the LA Times reported that Ann Hogan, president of the board of directors for Susan G. Komen for the Cure Connecticut, told that publication that she learned of [the decision] earlier this winter and was very surprised.

"We didn't have input," she said.

Last year, Komen Connecticut gave out more than $1 million to state organizations battling breast cancer, including $38,000 to Planned Parenthood of Southern New England to support clinical breast exams, mammograms and outreach through June 30 of this year, Hogan said.

"We have a great relationship with Planned Parenthood," she said. "We value our grantees. We need them to do our work. Everything we're doing here should be about our mission."

image credit: cawoodgallery via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)


Andrea Newell headshotAndrea Newell

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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