Whither Now, Komen, Part Three (Politics, Komen and Planned Parenthood)

As okie mentioned in a comment on Part Two, Karen Handel resigned from Komen yesterday.

This was the statement issued at the time:

Statement from Susan G. Komen Founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker

“Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s mission is the same today as it was the day of its founding: to find a cure and eradicate breast cancer.

“We owe no less to our partners, supporters and, above all, the millions of people who have been and continue to be impacted by this life-threatening disease. We have made mistakes in how we have handled recent decisions and take full accountability for what has resulted, but we cannot take our eye off the ball when it comes to our mission. To do this effectively, we must learn from what we’ve done right, what we’ve done wrong and achieve our goal for the millions of women who rely on us. The stakes are simply too high and providing hope for a cure must drive our efforts.

“Today I accepted the resignation of Karen Handel, who has served as Senior Vice President for Policy since April 2011.  I have known Karen for many years, and we both share a common commitment to our organization’s lifelong mission, which must always remain our sole focus. I wish her the best in future endeavors.”

I hope that Nancy realizes that this is not going to quiet the firestorm, especially since Handel lashed out at dissenters in both her letter of resignation

“I am deeply disappointed by the gross mischaracterizations of the strategy, its rationale, and my involvement in it,” Handel’s resignation letter read. “I openly acknowledge my role in the matter and continue to believe our decision was the best one for Komen’s future and the women we serve.”

and in at least one interview she gave afterwards

Handel first denied that the decision had been in any way related to the political controversy, and was quick to blame Planned Parenthood for politicizing the debate.

“The mission was always foremost in everyone’s mind:  the mission and the women that we serve,” Handel said. “The only group that has made this issue political has been Planned Parenthood.”

But when asked later about her role in the decision, Handel appeared to admit that the group had long been under pressure from anti-abortion advocates.

“It’s no secret that Komen and other organizations that were funding Planned Parenthood had been under pressure for some years, long before my time,” Handel said, later adding, “Komen was doing its level best to move to neutral ground — and I will say, I was asked to look at options for doing that.”

But when asked whether the funding-cut push was her idea, as was contended in a Huffington Postinterview that cited internal emails, Handel sidestepped the question.

“I’m saying that this was long an issue for Komen, dealing with the controversies of Planned Parenthood,” she responded.

In addition, our Affiliate’s Executive Director wrote an opinion piece that was scheduled to be published in our local newspaper today (don’t know if it made it in yet as I haven’t seen the paper):

Susan G. Komen for the Cure found itself caught in a media storm this week. In short, a decision made by the head office regarding Planned Parenthood’s eligibility for grant funding was reversed.

Across the country, Komen affiliates felt the fallout. The Salt Lake City office received calls, Facebook posts and emails. Most expressed outrage at Komen’s move to pull funding from Planned Parenthood. When the decision was reversed, we had some angry feedback then too. Meanwhile, it was clear that many of the comments came from people who had little or no idea of what we do, who we are, or how we spend our money. So let me take the opportunity to clarify what Komen represents here in Utah.

First, we are small. We have two full-time and one part-time paid staff. But, with a corps of passionate volunteers, we raise a lot of money, thanks mainly to the 16,000 or more people who join us every year in the Komen Salt Lake City Race for the Cure.

Second, 75 percent of our net funds stay in our local community. We granted $735,000 in 2011 to Utah nonprofits. We fund mammograms performed by Intermountain Healthcare for the uninsured or underinsured. And we support breast health education and other programs, like a van service organized by a small group in Price to ensure that women can travel safely (and free of charge) to Provo for mammography, chemo, or radiation. Our grantees are listed on our local web site, www.komenslc.org. They also include groups that serve minority populations. One of our goals is to increase the mammography rate. Utah ranks second to lowest in the entire nation for screening. We want to change that ranking.

Third, 25 percent of our funds go to Komen headquarters–not for overhead, but for research projects selected at the national level to avoid duplication and ensure impact. Frequently, the funds that we send to Komen HQ for research come back to Utah. For example, Huntsman Cancer Institute is currently working on a project to learn how to isolate breast tumors and prevent them from spreading because that’s when cancer may lead to death. This research is occurring thanks to a $180,000 Komen national grant.

Many women are alive today because of Komen funding. Twenty five years ago, the five-year survival rate for a woman diagnosed with breast cancer (when detected early) was 75 percent. Now it’s 98 percent. Progress is being made. That said, breast cancer remains a serious, life-threatening disease that affects one in eight women.

Regarding Planned Parenthood: Have we given them money in the past? Yes. Will we continue to do so? Yes, if their request is related to breast health, and if our independent panel of reviewers decide that their proposal is a priority, given other requests and funds available. Some may still feel that the very fact that we provide funds of any kind to Planned Parenthood constitutes tacit endorsement of their organization. It is not an endorsement of any kind. It is simply a response to a need in this community for breast health information or services.

In summary, the REAL Komen, the Komen that I know, respect and support, is the Komen in your backyard.

We continue to hope for a great turnout at the Race for the Cure this year as fellow Utahns show their trust and belief in us, and join us in the war against breast cancer.

Debbie Mintowt, Executive Director, Salt Lake City Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure

Over the weekend I heard from our Board’s President that all of the Affiliates that were on that particular conference call with Nancy Brinker and HQ staff flat-out stated that Karen Handel had to go, and at that time Nancy didn’t want to do that. . . so something happened between Saturday and yesterday.  Sooner or later I imagine I’ll hear what it was.  Although I have always known that she is a Republican and a conservative Christian religiously conservative woman,  up until now Nancy Brinker kept politics out of the Komen brand.  I don’t think that we’ll ever shove that genie back in to bottle, so from here on out we’re going to have to be hypervigilant about sponsors, grantees, honorary chairs–everything that is the public face of Komen, and that’s a shame, because both Komen and Planned Parenthood do good work.

Part four is in the works: women’s health, Planned Parenthood, and Komen.  I see that part two is up around 180 comments now.  If nothing else, I seem to be able to write posts that spark a lot of discussion.


EDIT:  Both Mark and Karla pointed out that Nancy Brinker is possibly Jewish rather than Christian; I don’t know why I’d always been led to believe that she’s Christian, but after looking into it I can’t find a citation one way or the other, so I edited it above.  I know from meeting her at Komen events and public information that she is a conservative and religious woman (who I admire greatly), so I’ve decided to go with those two descriptors.

Whither Now, Komen, Part Two

All politics are local, although if you’re a giant fundraising charity they’re also national and, in Komen’s case, even global (we have Affiliates in Germany and Italy [Komen also counts our Puerto Rico Affiliate as an “international” one, although they do have US passports there. . . just sayin’] and Races in The Bahamas, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Egypt, Georgia, Ghana, Greece, Israel and Tanzania).  As I stated in Part One, Komen started as a volunteer-driven, grass-roots fundraising effort that has mushroomed into a huge effort in which the fundraising and granting is still done at the local level using guidelines and marketing developed at the central headquarters.  So local politics has long been the deciding factor in some of our granting and the sponsorships that we seek for our events.  I was mistaken Tuesday evening when I said that the SLC Affiliate hasn’t given grants to Planned Parenthood in the past—for three or four years we granted them Komen credits to purchase educational materials from the Komen store, a win-win since it got the materials out there at essentially no cost to the grantees (PP wasn’t the only one who got grants that way) with the Komen branding on them.  We didn’t give them a grant last year and they didn’t apply for one in the current funding year.  We (those of us who had been thrust into the limelight through our association with Komen this last week) got a crash course on our grant funding history Wednesday evening.

    Local politics as seen through the eyes of the Race Director for the Komen SLC Race for the Cure:

The very first thing that I noticed when I came on board as Assistant Race Director in 2000 was that there was virtually no involvement in the Race by the LDS Church, either participatory, volunteering, or contribution-wise.  Why?  That particular question has never been answered, although my suspicion is that it was a combination of things: 1) Any discussion of body parts associated with sexuality in any way, shape, or form is still strongly frowned upon.  I’ve met LDS medical students—both male and female—who literally couldn’t say the words “breast”, “vagina”, or “penis”.  And the dissection of the clitoris in the anatomy lab?  Wouldn’t happen unless there were non-LDS students working at that table.  To the best of my knowledge they all overcame their block about those things, but it is far more ingrained than I would have imagined if I hadn’t taught anatomy.  2) The LDS Church itself takes up huge chunks of its members’ time already; in addition to church on Sunday, Monday is Family Home Evening (just what it sounds like—an evening set aside solely for family activities), adults have Church callings to attend to, which can be anything and everything from being a Home Teacher (going into other members’ homes and teaching them doctrine and such) to being the Ward bishop or Stake (group of wards) president, to Boy Scout troops—the list is endless.  3) As is typical, our Race Committee and Affiliate Board is heavily dominated by women and we aren’t Church members.  Participation on all levels has gotten much better over the years (or my Race wouldn’t be up to 18,000 participants and over 600 volunteers on Race day alone), so I guess we’re gaining acceptance but that is the religious side to the local politics.

Then there is the politics of sponsorship on the local level.  Ford is, and has been, one of our National sponsors for as long as I’ve been involved with the Race, but the second thing I noticed early on was that we never got our Ford vehicles from the largest dealership in the state (Larry H. Miller) but, rather always from one of the smaller ones—why?  Especially since Larry Miller also owned the Jazz, and if he’d provided us with vehicles he would have been able to advertise that fact during their home games.  The I-kid-you-not answer?  See reason number 1 above.  After Larry passed away and his son took over the business we got our Fords from him that year.  Over the years our local sponsors have largely been businesses that either don’t have to depend on the Church for business success—and that we won’t offend large segments of the population if we partner with them—or that are actually owned by the Church and seen by it as a wise investment (canny business people, those Mormons!).  For instance, our media sponsor the last few years has been the TV station and newspaper that is owned by the Church.  In the same vein as sponsorship, as far as I’m concerned as Race Director, is the role of Honorary Chair (I’m lucky in that, as RD, I don’t have to worry about recruiting/retaining sponsors or Honorary Chairs—that is way higher than my pay grade)(I would be abysmal at that side of things, also).  We never had an actual politician as our Honorary Chair, although we’d approached many over the years, until the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake County agreed to do it in 2011 (non-election year and he’s term-limited, anyway).  Komen is seen here as quite dangerous and Leftie (all those women in charge of something can’t be good) so the Republicans won’t touch us with a ten-foot pole; I had my hopes when Huntsman was Governor, especially after he won re-election, but even he wouldn’t do it.

Which leads to the politics of perception and influence, and this is where the local becomes national, and the national local.  Komen is The Big Time.  I was moved from Assistant Race Director to Race Director in 2001 when our Affiliate was officially formed and the woman who had founded the SLC Race for the Cure became our first Board President; I didn’t have a clue what I was walking in to.  Salt Lake isn’t a terribly big place, when it comes right down to it, and Lisa—by starting the Race and then being its RD for five years—knew everybody.  Luckily, she was very, very good at doing what she did and she is far more politically astute than I am, so I had a solid foundation to build on; but I was shocked the first time I walked into a City Events meeting and said “Hi, I’m Michigoose, I’m the new Race Director for the Race for the Cure,” and everybody dropped what they were doing and focused on me.  As it happens, this (organizing and executing an event like this) is something that I am also very good at (thank you, US Army training) and I’ve been able to continue Lisa’s good work, but I was still fairly shocked again this year when—after telling the police at a meeting in November that my goal is to double the Race to 40,000 people by 2015—I’ve been able to sit down with the Fire Department Chief, a City Councilman, and the Mayor’s office in the past three months and have each of them ask me what they can do to help me.  Now, this is another win-win (if I can grow the Race to 40K participants that’s a lot of tourist dollars that will be coming in to the City), but I’m beginning to understand the political tightrope that charitable organizations walk when they become big enough to be influential.

I think that’s what Komen HQ forgot when they stepped into the minefield.  Because they are big and influential they’ve been acting unilaterally on a lot of things for a long time now without quite realizing the enemies they’d been making.  Several people, both here and in the “real” world have pointed out to me that anti-abortion groups have been threatening to protest at Races and withhold funds for a long time, but the plain fact of the matter is that those threats are largely toothless to Komen.  Protesting at a charitable Race?  That would be like, well, protesting at a funeral of a veteran and we’ve seen how much good that’s done the Westboro Church.  I’m not saying it hasn’t happened (I don’t know if it has or not, but none of the RDs that I talked to this week have ever seen it), but I don’t think it would further an anti-abortion group’s cause much to protest at a Komen event—although that may have changed now.  And the dollars that those groups would be able to raise are a mere drop in the bucket compared to what breast cancer survivors themselves are able to raise—our top fund raiser for at least the last two years is a woman who singlehandedly pulls in around $10,000 in donations for us on Race day through her support network.  And therein lies the rub, and why by letting themselves be yanked into the political arena Komen may have shot themselves in the foot.

Breast cancer is bigger than Komen, but Komen has tried to control the entire playing field.  They tried to trademark the pink ribbon, but as it turns out you can’t trademark a color (but they did trademark the new shape of the ribbon they use—so don’t try to use a running ribbon to raise money, even if it’s for breast cancer research!).  They sue everybody and anybody who uses the phrase “for the Cure”, but they play both sides of the coin by taking any and all funds raised at events using that phrase whenever offered.  They have basically acted like a bully (we’re talking purely about the national, HQ-level stuff here now); I can’t allow other Race Directors to hand out flyers for their races at my event—even if they’re charitable events that have nothing whatsoever to do with breast cancer—nor can I allow local vendors who haven’t paid enough money to become sponsors to hand out food, water, buttons, pink ribbons etc., etc., etc..  That has created an enormous amount of ill-will on the local level, although most folks are resigned to it when I explain the situation to them, and it opened the door a crack for Komen supporters to think that there may be other places to donate their money that will support the same cause without being so heavy-handed.

And then came this week’s debacle.  I know that Nancy Brinker is a Republican.  I know that Karen Handel is a Republican.  For many, many reasons Komen HQ is in Dallas, TX, and many (if not most) of the HQ staff are conservative Texas Christians (for the record, the wonderful woman who is our Affiliate’s contact person at HQ is as Leftie as lms and as graciously Southern as okie, so Komen is an Equal Opportunity Employer)(I only know that because she came to town to visit in December and she and I had a fantastic dinner together; I’ve always liked all of our Affiliate Representatives and have never before known any of their political leanings, but they’re small fish), and they’re living and working in a state where Planned Parenthood has long been under fire.   Mark sent me this link earlier, and it’s a sad and sobering story that gave me a lot of context for what happened in the last few days.  Why did they allow themselves to get sucked into politics, and abortion politics at that? I think it was a combination of a woman who has a great vision, but allowed herself to be caught up in the enormity of what she’s built (she’s been named a Goodwill Ambassador by President Obama, for heaven’s sake!), another woman with an agenda (Karen Handel) who was in the right place at the right time to implement it, and a surrounding political environment that is extraordinarily anti-Planned Parenthood.

So what are the politics going forward?  Darn good question; I’ve read opinions from the Right, center, and Left and none of them are very optimistic.  That last one is by a bioethicist, and I think his second paragraph sums it up well:

By even raising the possibility that they would pull the plug on the hundreds of thousands of dollars they give to Planned Parenthood to support breast cancer detection, they have lost the single-minded focus on finding a cure for a horrid disease that allowed them to become a charity giant envied by every other disease advocacy organization in the world. (Emphasis mine)

So I’m left with the fact that I’m very grateful that my Race isn’t until May, because by that time I’m hoping much of this will have blown over—I’ve already had to ensure all of those Powers That Be (Mayor’s office, City Council, Police and Fire Departments) that we aren’t, and never will be, a political advocacy event.  Thank heavens for prior relationships with them that were solid and trustworthy.  But this absolutely guarantees that I won’t be able to get any Republican support in the near future, because their ten-foot pole just became a one hundred-foot one thanks to the blunders in Dallas.  And I’m also right at the beginning of volunteer recruitment for folks to do the heavy lifting on Race day (yeah, those 600+ people who show up to help me out), and I’m positive that I’ve just been issued an enormous roadblock to that.  We haven’t lost any sponsors (yet) and, in fact, picked up a major one yesterday so I’m hoping that—just like with the Powers—our prior good record on the local level will overcome the national fallout.  That’s the political reality at the local level.

Next: Politics, Komen, and Planned Parenthood (and where I open the door to the dragon’s lair)

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.

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