Oh no! It’s another week and two more major nonprofit organizations are in the news, for less than an ideal reason. The big news is the result of a controversial decision by one of the organizations.
On January 31, 2012, the Associated Press broke the news that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation is halting future funding for virtually all Planned Parenthood affiliates. The report states, “Komen spokeswoman Leslie Aun said the cutoff results from the charity’s newly adopted criteria barring grants to organizations that are under investigation by local, state or federal authorities. According to Komen, this applies to Planned Parenthood because it’s the focus of an inquiry launched by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., seeking to determine whether public money was improperly spent on abortions.”
Komen did not issue a formal statement explaining the decision before the news media got hold of the story. Komen senior staff initially rejected interview requests after the story broke; it took until February 2 for Nancy Brinker, Komen’s Founder, to sit down for a major television interview. Also, it took until February 2 for Komen to post a formal statement (in the form of a video) on its website.
Komen did not get out ahead of this story. It did not immediately respond to the story. Instead, Komen sat quietly while people expressed their anger and speculated about the decision on Facebook, Twitter, blog sites, and in the mainstream media.
Once Komen senior staff finally responded to the firestorm, they made matters worse by contradicting, without explanation, their spokesperson’s comment to the Associated Press. A Washington Post article found, “It’s now less clear why Planned Parenthood lost the Komen funding. Komen had initially told the Associated Press that Planned Parenthood could not receive funding because it was under government investigation. But today, in no uncertain terms, Thompson [Komen’s President] indicated that the decision actually had very little to do with an ongoing congressional probe.”
Komen clearly has a major communications problem. Regardless of where you stand on the abortion issue, the facts speak for themselves:
- Komen did not proactively handle the situation by releasing the news itself. Had it done so, it could have more easily controlled the message.
- Komen did not react quickly once the story became public. This allowed the controversy to fester and public frustration to build. Had Komen responded swiftly, it might have been able to ease the minds of a huge number of people around the country who are concerned that the move by Komen could negatively impact the health of thousands of women.
- Komen did not get its story straight. It’s spokesperson gave one reason for the decision while the senior staff gave a completely different reason. The inconsistency encourages mistrust on the part of the public. It suggests that, at best, Komen staff are confused and/or sloppy. Or, at worst, it suggests that someone at Komen is not telling the truth. If Komen spoke with one, consistent, honest message, it could have engendered public trust rather than doing just the opposite.
For a comprehensive analysis of the Komen communications debacle, I encourage you to read the blog post from Kivi Leroux Miller at Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog. The post includes videotaped news interviews with Komen and Planned Parenthood senior officials, sample Tweets, and a screen shot of the Planned Parenthood email appeal in response to the Komen decision. By the way, Planned Parenthood has done a brilliant job capitalizing on the controversy; I just hope the email appeal is truthful.
While Komen most definitely has some communications issues, it may suffer from an even greater problem: integrity:
Possible Misinformation. Initially, Komen cited a questionable Congressional investigation as the reason why funding to Planned Parenthood would be cut. The Congressional probe appears to be a politically motivated grandstanding effort rather than a legitimate investigation. In any case, it is not an investigation being conducted by a law enforcement agency. Komen said its new policy does not permit it to give money to an organization under investigation. Well, does a politically motivated Congressional inquiry really qualify as a legitimate investigation? Assuming Komen thinks it does, shouldn’t people and organizations in our society be entitled to a presumption of innocence, particularly when lives quite literally might hang in the balance? The Komen money funded breast examinations, not abortions.
After seeing the controversy that the decision generated, Komen officials then came out with a different reason for the decision. Is this a matter of confusion or is someone not telling the truth? Is the new story just a smoke screen?
One of the things that makes the change in story seem a bit fishy is that Komen has had ties to the anti-abortion community and now has even stronger links. Brinker, Komen’s Founder, was a major contributor, along with her husband, to the Presidential campaign of George W. Bush; once he won, he appointed Nancy Brinker to a number of important positions in the administration. In April 2011, Komen hired anti-abortion advocate Karen Handel as its Senior Vice President of Public Policy; in her unsuccessful campaign for Governor of Georgia, she advocated the government defunding of Planned Parenthood. Many who think that Komen caved in to political pressure believe that it wouldn’t have taken too much coaxing to get anti-abortion-oriented officials to cut-off virtually all funding to Planned Parenthood.
For its part, Planned Parenthood clearly believes it was cut off for political reasons. Its email appeal says, “The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation has been pressured by right wing groups to stop supporting breast cancer screenings for poor women at Planned Parenthood health centers.”
Risking the Lives of Women. Planned Parenthood also asserts that the move by Komen “could have devastating consequences for women.” Last year, according to Planned Parenthood, it received $680,000 from Komen. Unless that money is regularly replaced from other sources, poor women may indeed suffer.
Mission Confusion. The Washington Post article quotes Brinker as saying, “We don’t do things because they’re popular. We do what we need to do to make progress in the field of breast cancer research. … We are singularly focused on that mission.” If research is the core mission, why doesn’t Komen invest all of its resources into research rather than education and examinations. Did Brinker misspeak? Was she misquoted? Or, does Komen have mission-drift issues? To be most successful, a nonprofit must have a clear, focused mission that is well articulated and supported by the organization itself before it can most effectively seek public support.
Focus on Money Instead of Health. Perhaps the greatest question mark about Komen concerns its commitment to dollars versus health. Planned Parenthood and others believe that the Komen cuts to Planned Parenthood could harm women in need of vital heath services. But, this is not the first dollars-versus-health controversy in which Komen has found itself. In 2010, Komen partnered with Kentucky Fried Chicken. For each pink bucket of chicken sold, 50 cents went to Komen. That partnership was eyebrow raising because fried foods are known to lead to health problems and obesity, which in turn raises the risk of breast cancer. Nancy Schwartz, a nonprofit marketer and host of the Getting Attention! blog, believes the Komen-KFC partnership damaged the relationship between Komen and its supporter because it:
Undermined its credibility. (It’s hard to believe they are focused on women’s health.)
Eroded its authenticity. (What does the organization stand for if they can’t see what’s wrong with this partnership?)
Alienated its supporters. (See the comments above from walkers and donors.)”
Komen also has a partnership with cookie and cake maker Pepperidge Farm. The seven-year relationship suffers from problems similar to the KFC partnership. Eating cookies can lead to obesity, increasing the risk of breast cancer. Cookies are also an inflammation inducing food; according to some leading nutritionists and doctors, inflammation in the body can lead to a multitude of health problems and increase risk of cancer. But, this year, Komen is guaranteed to get $75,000 from Pepperidge Farm, so the partnership continues.
In addition to its communication problems, I believe that Komen also has an integrity issue. There might be a real or perceived integrity problem. Either way, it’s a big problem.
I’m a big fan of the work Komen has done over the years. In my book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing, I even mention Komen in a very positive way. Unfortunately, Komen seems to be a bit lost these days. Judging from the interviews Komen has given so far as well as from its direct communications to the public, it appears that officials at Komen do not recognize that there even are communications and integrity problems. And, that might be the biggest problem of all.
That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?
UPDATE (February 3, 2012):
Today, Komen has issued a new statement on its website. In part, the statement reads, “We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political.” This action addresses one of the issues that I identified in my post. It is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the statement raises other questions: Did this policy impact the decision about funding Planned Parenthood? First, Komen said it did. Then, Komen said it did not. Now, Komen is acting like this was indeed part of the decision. Komen continues to be unclear on this point. Also, the latest statement is vague concerning the future funding for Planned Parenthood. Komen says that current grants will be paid; that’s nothing new. They say that Planned Parenthood can apply for future grants; but, that’s certainly not an assurance of future funding. If Komen wants to re-earn the public trust, it needs to address all of the issues clearly, honestly, comprehensively, and sooner rather than later.
UPDATE (February 7, 2012):
Karen Handel, Komen’s Senior Vice President of Public Affairs, has resigned. However, it remains unclear what her role has been in Komen’s decisions about Planned Parenthood and how those decisions have been communicated. Her reason for resigning is also unclear. However, Handel notes that she has declined Komen’s offer of a severance package, which some in the media speculate might have come with restrictions on Handel’s ability to discuss the matter. The report from The Washington Post contains a link to Handel’s resignation letter.
UPDATE (February 8, 2012):
Today, The Chronicle of Philanthropy published the article “Komen vs. Planned Parenthood Fallout Will Make Cancer Group Work Harder, Experts Say.” I was among the experts cited in the article which explores what both organizations have done and need to do as a result of the controversy.
UPDATE (February 19, 2012):
There has been much confusion in the media about Komen’s revised policies and what it means for the organization’s future relationship with Planned Parenthood. So, I emailed the Komen press office on February 7. Here is what I wrote:
“I understand that Komen has refined its policy regarding organizations that are under investigation. I further understand that this refinement of policy would now allow Planned Parenthood to apply for future funding. However, I also understand that Komen is no longer interested in funding pass-through charities, and it will instead only fund those charities that provide direct service. Komen officials have also stated that they consider Planned Parenthood to be a pass-through charity in large part. So, even though Planned Parenthood may apply for future funding, how likely is it that it will receive funding in the future if it applies for the same type of support it has requested in the past? If it is likely to receive future funding, how likely is it that that future funding will be at a similar level as in years past? Would current funding criteria make it more difficult for Planned Parenthood to get future funding for the same type of request they have made in the past? In short, I want to better understand what current Komen policy means for the future of the Komen/Planned Parenthood partnership since the mainstream media has portrayed the future relationship in contradictory ways.
“By way of introduction, I am the award-winning author of the book Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing. I am also the publisher of Michael Rosen Says, a popular blog about fundraising and nonprofit management.
“Thank you in advance for your time and assistance.”
It’s now February 19. Nearly two weeks have passed, and I have received no response from Komen. I haven’t received an answer to my questions. I haven’t even received a courtesy response stating they’re too busy to respond. While this obviously strikes me as non-responsive, it also seems a tad arrogant. Why isn’t Komen willing to answer these questions? Hmm.
I will resend my inquiry and let you know if I hear anything.
UPDATE (August 27, 2012):
Susan G. Komen for the Cure has announced that Nancy G. Brinker, the organization’s Founder and CEO, and Liz Thompson, the organization’s President, are stepping down. You can learn more by going to my post: “Special Report: Leadership Shake-up at Komen.”