Whither Now, Komen, Part One

The last four days, starting with the Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation’s announcement on Tuesday that they were defunding the grants to Planned Parenthood, and culminating in their announcement yesterday that they were reversing that decision will undoubtedly become a case study for public affairs and marketing students for years to come.  In one fell swoop, the Komen Foundation removed itself from the pantheon of highly respected and highly influential (who else could get the NFL to adopt pink uniforms and the White House to bathe itself in pink light for a month?) charitable fundraisers and plunged into—in many eyes—the role of craven political player.  How did it come to this?  And what did/do the ground troops, all of us thousands of Komen volunteers, think about it?  And when did Michigoose become so dramatic???  In this first post (this is turning into a multi-part series) I’ll tell you what I know from direct knowledge (conference calls and group e-mails between Komen HQ in Dallas and the Affiliates that I participated in), second-hand knowledge from sources I trust (conversations with members of our Affiliate’s Board of Directors or other Race Directors around the country), and informed supposition, based on my years of experience working with Komen specifically and a couple of other volunteer organizations for comparison purposes.

First, a little background to give you context: I’m assuming that you are all at least peripherally familiar with Komen.  It is one of the great success stories of grass-roots organization and fund raising (come to think of it, it’s a really, really fine example of community organization—but I’m going to try to stay away from politics for the most part for this post)—in the beginning (1982) it truly was a 100% volunteer organization, growing out of Nancy Brinker’s dream for honoring her sister’s memory and bringing breast cancer out of the shadows and into the bright light of day.  You have to remember, it really was a whole different world back then when discussing breast cancer—Betty Ford announcing in 1974 that she had had a mastectomy was major news because nobody wanted to talk about “those” parts of a woman’s body in public.  In fact, for the first several years of its existence most media outlets wouldn’t let the Race for the Cure advertise itself as a “breast cancer” charity. . . all of which is a little hard to believe today.

Through a lot of hard work, networking, traveling and speaking anywhere and everywhere that she could, Nancy Brinker spread the concept of using a road race (and many of them early on were women-only events, which was also a radical idea) to raise money to fight a disease.  She also was very astute and realized that creating an easily-recognizable logo and slogan to create a “brand” would facilitate the fundraising and raise awareness of the cause.  Initially each Race was a separate entity and, since it was an all-volunteer organization, it was a little hit-and-miss about some things like how soon funds raised at a given Race made it to HQ in Dallas, how grantees were selected, how much money a given grantee received, etc..  Around about 2000 the Komen foundation had grown large enough—and now with a permanent HQ and staff in Dallas trying to get a better handle on things—that they requested an audit to find out what the money flow actually looked like, and one of the recommendations that grew out of that audit was that instead of being a central HQ overseeing a bunch of Races (which had also grown by this time to include things like Bowl for the Cure, Raft for the Cure, Golf for the Cure. . . you get the picture) they re-organize into Affiliates overseen by Boards of Directors at the local level in order to tighten things up.  In concept this was exactly the right thing to do—the local Affiliates decide what events work best for raising money in their area (for example, next weekend is our Romp to Stomp Out Breast Cancer—a snowshoe event sponsored by Tubbs with Komen’s blessing—but the Hawaii affiliate probably couldn’t pull a similar event off) and the local Boards do (among other things) the selection of grantees which will do the most good for their area.  Our grantees in SLC tend to skew toward the Native American and Hispanic populations, because they’re more underserved than the urban white population, remote/isolated populations (which may or may not overlap with the previous two), and the Huntsman Cancer Institute (full disclosure: the reason I was recruited to the UU was to work at HCI; I was there until 2004) because it’s the premier cancer research institute in the Intermountain West.

I said that “in concept” this was exactly what needed to be done, because almost immediately after reorganization we discovered what the 800-pound gorilla in the room was: Nancy Brinker—and, by extension, Komen HQ—is a micromanager par excellence, and an autocratic one at that.  To some extent that’s completely understandable; the foundation is named after her sister, she built it from the ground up, and she has been wildly successful at making it the premier fundraising entity (at least when it comes to a health issue) in the world.  But when you’re running an organization as large and diverse as the Komen movement has become (there are 120 Affiliates worldwide, about 110  118 of them are here in the US  Edit by Michi: Affiliate numbers corrected) you just can’t do it that way; you have to trust that your various Affiliates know their area and its needs better than you do.  Also along the way, Nancy became a highly influential person, courted by politicians and wealthy philanthropists alike (fundraising at that level is a very incestuous world from what I can tell) and now exists in a bit of a bubble.  Those two factors—micromanaging and now being (to coin a phrase) part of the 1%–are what I think led to this week’s debacle.

This is what happened.  In 2010 Komen hired a new Senior VP for Public Policy, Karen Handel.  While, to the best of my knowledge Nancy Brinker falls into the anti-abortion camp, Komen has always had a neutral stance toward political issues and particularly hot-button ones like abortion both because (as a non-profit) it has to and it’s just good common sense when you’re in the business of raising money to not choose sides.  Ms Handel has an extensive background working as a volunteer in various roles with Komen, some private sector background work experience, but the majority of her work experience has been in the political sector, staffing for Republicans (she was Marilyn Quayle’s Deputy Chief of Staff when Mrs Quayle decided to make breast cancer awareness one of her platform issues) and then running for and holding office in her own right.  Her most recent campaign, which she lost and led to her joining Komen HQ, was for Governor of Georgia and she was a vocal opponent of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research (although that, to me, just sounds like standard Republican candidate boilerplate).  Nonetheless, Komen had just hired a fairly prominent politician who was on record as being strongly anti-abortion into a position that responsible for directing policy for the Komen Foundation. . . and she made no bones about the fact that she wanted Komen and Planned Parenthood to part ways.  The grants that Komen made to Planned Parenthood are a tiny amount of what Komen does—remember, only 19 Affiliates (out of more than 100) had given grants to PP this grant cycle—and the grants are largely not even money, but credits for use at the Komen Store to buy things like those laminated cards that you can hang in the shower to help you do a breast self-exam correctly.  But the fact that PP was granted anything was anathema to her, and she was bound and determined to put a stop to it so she developed the policy denying grants to entities that were under investigation.

The policy was announced to the Affiliates in December—after the grants had already been awarded—and there was immediate blowback from the field.  Komen HQ was warned, repeatedly and without mincing any words, that this was a bad idea on many fronts but the biggest two were that (1) the grants would have to be defunded, which would undoubtedly make the news on the local level at least, and (2) this would be seen as a political statement.  We warned them!  Headquarters stuck in their heels, however, and basically told the Affiliates to sit down and shut up because they knew best, so after a month’s worth of conversation which became more and more one-sided Komen made their announcement on Tuesday.  This is where Nancy’s bubble comes in to play—she honestly seems to have not understood what this would sound like, how it would be perceived, and what the backlash was going to be like.  On a conference call on Wednesday she couldn’t fathom where the Affiliates were coming from, because she’d been told that phone calls and e-mails were running two-to-one in favor of the new policy while we were telling her that they were running more along the lines of eight- or nine-to-one against the policy.  Even here in conservative little SLC it was eight-to-one against.  Then she compounded her error by going on TV to be interviewed by Andrea Mitchell on Thursday morning and couldn’t keep her story straight from one sentence to the next about what the decision was, how it had been made, and why the policy had been changed.  Thursday afternoon on a conference call all seven of the California Affiliates and the Denver Affiliate (Denver is the largest one—their Race draws 60,000+ participants every year) dropped a bomb: if HQ didn’t back off they were going to quit en masse.  This was the straw which turned into a major log which broke the camel’s back—that autocratic micromanagement had come home to roost.  With a vengeance.

So, on Friday, the retraction and apology.  Here we’ve received a grand total of two phone calls from people angry at Komen for going back, but the LA Affiliate has received a bomb threat.  Saturday Monday at 10:00 there will be a conference call between Komen HQ and our Affiliate Board of Directors (they’re calling each individual Affiliate now to try to mend bridges and figure out the way forward), so the drama continues to some extent.  (Edit by Michi: they talked yesterday.  Haven’t heard anything yet, but [from my point of view] there isn’t really anything to hear; I’ll keep you posted with anything I can)

Next up:  What I think the politics of the situation are now.

3 Responses

  1. I am sending you a link to an article you might be able to use later in the narrative. Great semi-inside stuff, here, ‘Goose.


  2. Thanks michi, I’ll have more to say later but am on my way out right now. One quick thought though is from some of the reading I’ve done there was a lot of pressure from, as well as threats of withholding funds from pro-life groups, which probably played into this decision in the first place. I wonder if they’ll ever recover. One of my thoughts also is there are quite a few women, especially what they like to call survivors, who haven’t completely bought into the whole marketing strategy Komen has employed but have gone along with it because of the positive effect on awareness, and this may be enough to distance some of those boots on the ground. There’s a whole different movement that’s trying to get under the skin of polluters, pharmaceutical companies and even surgeons and whatnot that may now be recruiting from the disillusioned ranks of Komen. We’ll see. Thanks for the inside view, very interesting.


  3. Thanks, Michi!

    This has been a long time coming. The anti-PP sentiment at SGK started back in 2004 or 2005. Anti-abortion groups have threatened to boycott local events and the companies that sponsor them for years because of the PP association. Those voices have become louder and louder within SBK.

    SBK’s cosmetics sponsors have distributed products containing ingredients linked to breast cancer, and the maker of a leading breast cancer drug also makes an estrogenic pesticide that’s so bad it’s banned in Europe. So abortion isn’t the only controversy that could have been targeted, but it’s the one with the most traction.

    It’s SBK HQ’s decision to do what it feels is appropriate, but it’s bizarre to me they handled it so roughshod. Especially since Ms. Handel is supposed to be such a whiz.


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