The decision by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation to stop providing funding to Planned Parenthood unleashed a firestorm of controversy so intense it threatened to completely bring down the organization. The foundation, which until last week had a gold-plated brand, seemed to throw itself upon the third rail of American politics: Abortion.
In the digital age, speed kills and information is power. Komen was on the losing end of both as negative information moved so fast that the organization’s brand unraveled completely overnight. The question now is whether Komen’s brand can be saved.
The Associated Press first reported news that Komen discontinued funding of breast cancer screening services to Planned Parenthood on Tuesday. The backlash was immediate and fierce. Komen’s website and Facebook page lit up with angry men and women vowing to never again contribute to the organization. Some supporters of Komen applauded the decision but they were overwhelmingly outnumbered. By Friday, Komen reversed its decision saying in a statement: “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.”
Whether intentional or not Komen instantly politicized its organization on one of the most controversial issues in America. A 2011 Gallop poll indicates 49% of Americans identify themselves as “pro-choice” while 45% say they are “pro-life” making it an extremely divisive issue. Komen is a fundraising organization, so the math alone makes the initial move suicidal. Why would any organization that depends on goodwill and getting people to write checks do anything to alienate half of the population?
Komen depends on both grassroots and corporate funding. Komen’s corporate sponsors include Bank of America, Lowes, American Airlines, Ford, and partners like the NFL which could not have been pleased with the suddenly ugly coverage of Komen’s action. Reversing its decision might have settled some corporate sponsors but it remains an open question among the grassroots. (Although, don’t be surprised if some sponsors drop Komen in the coming weeks).
Reaction from individual donors is mixed. Some of those who identify themselves as “pro-choice” are happy with the reversal, while others say they will forever remain skeptical of the organization and those who identify themselves as “pro-life” are now upset with Komen for flip-flopping. Nobody is completely happy.
Komen’s credibility problem, will take years to repair but it needs to get to work now to fix it. Komen’s grassroots strength will be tested as cities around the county begin hosting their local “Race for the Cure” events. Will the number of runners and walkers be down significantly this year putting Komen’s most powerful and visual fundraising effort at risk? Will “pro-life” advocates organize protests and boycotts at the various “Race for the Cure” events?
Restoring credibility will be a long process. Step one was to reverse its position and restore funding to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening. This step at least stopped the bleeding and may have saved Komen from the fate of a Lehman Brothers and Enron like collapse.
Step two – should be the resignation of Karen Handel, vice president for public policy who has publicly spoken out against Planned Parenthood and is considered the architect of the decision to pull the funds. As long as she remains part of Komen she will remain a lightning rod of distraction to the foundation’s efforts and mission. She shouldn’t last the week.
Step three – Komen Founder and CEO Nancy Brinker needs to work the phones and visit local chapters to make sure everyone gets back to focusing on the core mission, “to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find cures.” Brinker might not like everything she hears but it’s important for her to re-connect with the grassroots and shore up support.
Step four – Brinker & Co. must develop an aggressive strategy to again put the issue of breast cancer research front and center and avoid becoming the battleground for abortion. Possibly, “pro-life” forces will eye this as an opportunity to make a stand, which will only serve to further injure Komen and its important work. Refer to a fight a few years ago between Dominos Pizza owner and “pro-life” advocate Tom Monaghan versus the National Organization of Women, which organized a boycott of the pizza company. The Foundation, nor the overall cause, can be successful if people on either side of the abortion issue are withholding funds because of politics.
Step five – identify a non-polarizing spokesperson that can effectively deliver the Komen’s message. This person needs to have a sterling reputation and be able to bridge the gap and help donors refocus back to what is important: breast cancer education and screening.
Komen is at a crossroads and its future depends on the steps it takes in the immediate future. Komen, long known within the charitable world as being somewhat of a bully played a game of politics and lost badly. The reality is that the Foundation does incredibly important work and its efforts have led to worldwide education about the importance of breast cancer screenings and mammograms – we all need for that to succeed.