Red (or Pink) in the Face

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 10th, 2012 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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None of us likes having egg on our face. Susan G. Komen for the Cure is currently wearing it big time. As they attempt to regroup from a series of recent blunders, we can look at the Komen example and learn from it.

First mistake:  think very, very, very carefully before hiring someone who has recently run for, and lost, political office.  Or, for that matter, someone who is stepping down from political office.  Politics have never been for the weak-willed or mild- mannered.  And while there was a time when politics may truly have been about doing what was best for the whole—be that country, state, or local constituency—that is clearly no longer the case.  Today, politics is too often about personal agenda.  If you think for a moment that that personal agenda stops the second one loses a political race or steps down from office, then I have a bridge to sell you.  Unless truly ready to retire, travel the world, spend all of the time with grandchildren, politicians are always looking and angling for their next office.  This is never, ever a good match with the vast majority of nonprofits.  (For those of you unaware, Karen Handel, hired in April 2011 as Komen Vice-President for Public Policy had lost the Republican gubernatorial run-off election in Georgia in August 2010.  As of this writing, Handel has resigned under the pressure of the past week.)

Second mistake:  do not hire someone who has very publicly criticized, or, in this case, called for the cessation of funding to, a key partner in your work.  It seems ridiculous that there is a need to put that statement in writing, but clearly there is.  So, here it is.  Why would you want someone on staff, charged with helping to fulfill your organization’s mission, who damns a partner because s/he doesn’t like one of its program areas but it is doing a fabulous job of providing the service on which you have partnered?  And, going forward, how can you trust the judgment of the executive who would make such a hire?  Who would bring onto staff someone who has publicly vowed to bring down a partner organization?  If an executive can make an error of judgment of that magnitude, what other errors is that executive, and that organization, going to make?  Too risky to continue to invest in that organization!  (For those of you unaware, Karen Handel had as part of her political platform the cessation of funding to Planned Parenthood.  Yet that did not deter her being hired for her position at Komen, a position that has to report to the CEO.  In full disclosure mode, Komen’s CEO has strong ties to the Republican party, having served as ambassador to Hungary at the behest of George W. Bush and being a generous donor to the party, as well.)

Third mistake:  not thinking through, thoroughly and carefully, policies created to guide the organization’s work.  We create policies to introduce efficiency and equity into our operations and procedures.  With policies, we have a process to follow for those repeat situations, such as giving grants or accepting gifts or signing checks, so that with each instance we don’t have to start from scratch and figure out what to do.  Policies, however, work best when they are clear, precise and leave no room for figuring out at that moment what something means.  Komen’s grant giving guidelines, for example, said that any organization “under investigation” was ineligible to receive funds.  There were no adjectives qualifying that investigation.  So any investigation could disqualify an applicant: a federal investigation, a criminal investigation, an investigation by the IRS, an investigative reporter doing a story.  Lots of room for interpretation.  Does an investigation by a congressman who doesn’t like an organization constitute an investigation?  Apparently so, because it was Rep. Cliff Stearns’  (a Republican from Florida) investigation of his suspicions that Planned Parenthood was wrongfully using federal money to fund abortions that was the “investigation” that prompted Komen to make the decision to withdraw Planned Parenthood funding.   Had Komen’s board really thought through what its goal was with the policy and setting out the criteria of being under investigation—what kinds of investigation would throw up a red flag about the ability of an organization to use its funds as promised in the proposal, whether an investigation had to be based on hard evidence or just be a witch hung–the language of this policy would have been, and should have been, more precise, as all policy language should be, and the policy would have better served the organization.  It would not lend itself to manipulation by one staff member, as unnamed sources at Komen have said Handel did with the express goal of bringing down Planned Parenthood.  It would not have put Komen in the position in which it now finds itself.

Fourth Mistake:  not thinking through the consequences of a decision.  By all reports, Komen has been grappling with the funding of Planned Parenthood for some time.  Granted not all individuals interested in preventing and curing breast cancer are pro-choice; nor are they all anti-choice.  But what is well known, and supported by much evidence, is that people on both sides of the choice debate are very passionate, vocal and active.  They are not the type to sit back and let things pass them by. Thus, it should have been no surprise whatsoever to anyone that pro-choice Komen supporters would react swiftly by voicing their outrage, withdrawing funding, pouring funding into Planned Parenthood.  After all, Komen is a one-trick pony:  it is breast cancer, only breast cancer, and all the time breast cancer.

Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, is screening for breast, cervical and testicular cancer, contraception, pregnancy testing, comprehensive sexuality education, menopause treatment, testing for and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, and, oh yes, they do vasectomies, tubal ligations and abortions, predominantly for people at or below 150% of the federal poverty level.  Komen knows it is not the only game in town, or in the country.  It should have thought through the consequences of its decision, weighed the pros and cons, and made a decision.  The fact that it could so quickly—within 48 hours—reverse a decision that should have been thoroughly examined and discussed before being announced says Komen didn’t do the very thing it should have done.

And finally, number five (although most definitely not 5th in importance): Komen Foundation CEO Nancy Brinker is both the de facto leader of the Komen board, while her son and several close friends and political associates serve on the board.  How many worst practices are contained in this sentence?   A review of the Komen board reveals that Brinker has the likely votes to control board decisions at any given time, and that those votes are individuals personally loyal to her and of like political leanings.

As a consequence of these mistakes, Komen has lost credibility in many people’s eyes.  It has gone from being viewed by many as a rock solid nonprofit, whose ideas many have emulated, to an organization with questionable practices and very problematic thinking.  It has been accused by many of making a funding decision based on politics rather than mission and return on investment, playing favorites rather than being objective, brutal accusations for any organization to overcome.

To its credit, however, it has recognized some of its mistakes and is working to correct them  (or at least perceptions).  Or, was that, too, a political decision, with the possibility of another reversal coming down the road?


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