A friend of mine emailed a few days ago to ask me for my take on the whole Susan G. Komen situation. (I think Karen Handel’s resignation had not yet happened when he wrote.) I wrote him back and gave it to him, bcc’ing another friend who had asked a similar question. The other friend suggested that the email might make a good summary of the case as a blog post. So, if you can stand another Komen post, I’ve copied the email below, with a couple of redactions to preserve my friends’ anonymity.
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I don’t know that I have an organized, synthesized “take” on Komen yet, but I have a bunch of observations which, taken together and combined with my background in investigative reporting on nonprofits gone bad, lead me to a tentative conclusion … [snip]
— Karen Handel, the ousted VP, ran for governor of Georgia on a strong pro-life platform that was explicitly anti-Planned Parenthood. (She lost in the GOP primary to someone who was even more anti-abortion than she, which is a neat trick in the GOP these days.) Given her relative lack of PR/marketing background … I think it’s reasonable to surmise that she was hired for the position of VP for Public Policy for her political views and connections in the pro-life movement.
— However, in her resignation letter, she maintained that the board had been troubled even before she got there about Komen’s relationship with Planned Parenthood because of pressure and criticism from those who oppose abortion. I wouldn’t believe the woman if she said the sky was blue without looking out a window first, but that actually strikes me as plausible, for reasons I’ll elaborate on farther down. It further strikes me as plausible that the board hired Handel, if not specifically to manage cutting off PP, then at least to serve as an ambassador to the anti-abortion community.
— CEO Nancy Brinker raised a ton of money for Bush 43 and was given an ambassadorship in return. Absent any other information about her, that fact alone suggests that even if she herself was not anti-abortion, she was very comfortable with those who were and very comfortable with very wealthy people. Not to generalize too broadly, but particularly in the past decade we’ve seen a number of instances in which very wealthy people (see: Romney, Mitt) demonstrate an utter lack of awareness of what it’s like to be poor or even working-class in this country. That demographic is a huge part of PP’s client base, and both on issues related to PP and economic issues in general, that demographic is damned tired of being disrespected (see: OWS [Occupy Wall Street] and the 99% movement).
— Again, assuming that what Handel says about the board is true, it is likely that the board itself was largely, if not unanimously, in favor of cutting off Planned Parenthood in hopes of getting the anti-abortion movement off its back, if not actually receiving more donations from members of that movement.
— Now, here’s why I think Handel’s account of the board’s position is plausible. There are two important things to note about the anti-abortion Right [with respect to] Planned Parenthood: 1) Many of them believe, in the absence of scientific evidence, that abortion causes breast cancer or makes it more likely. This is not true; a ton of disinterested research has found no link whatever, but in many cases in this movement, you’re dealing with people who are pretty anti-science in general. So we’re talking here about people who believe, to a significant degree, that PP is in the business of, in effect, knowingly giving women breast cancer. 2) Many of the anti-abortion folks sincerely believe and/or cynically claim that abortion is just about all Planned Parenthood does (it’s actually about 3%), and many of THOSE folks believe and/or cynically claim that that service is highly profitable, that PP is in it for the money. And all the documentation in the world won’t change their minds. You can Google this example: Just in the past few days an anti-abortion state legislator in Louisiana was taken in by a fake news article on The Onion in which Planned Parenthood announced it was building an Abortionplex to perform as many abortions as quickly as possible. [Link added to this post — Lex]
— Do I believe the Komen folks thought to that extreme? With the possible exception of Handel, no, but I do think a milder version of that world view, and their general lack of empathy for the poor and working class, blinded the Komen staff and board to the likelihood of backlash when they cut off money to PP that was used not for abortions but for breast-cancer exams and referrals. If you take Komen’s stated mission at face value, such a move is inexplicable. They were so seriously out of touch that they were unaware, for example, that for decades a fair number of lower-income people have relied on PP for primary medical care in general, not just birth control or abortion. ([Redacted], then just out of college and working a low-paying, crummy-benefits job, was one of them.) And they certainly appeared unaware that not a few women had had their breast cancers detected early — and, thus, their lives arguably saved — through a Planned Parenthood breast exam. And Brinker’s YouTube video [link added to this post — Lex] after [the PP cut became news and prompted the backlash] demonstrated just how out of touch she, at least, was and how illogical and inconsistent Komen’s stated motivations were. It was almost Palin-esque in its word-saladness. [Redacted] I cringed as I watched it: She did enormous damage to her brand in just a few minutes, which leads me to think she either got no coaching on what she was going to say and how she was going to say it (and visually, the rich person’s library backdrop also didn’t help), or she figured “I’ve got this” and blew off offers of help.
So, trying hard not to generalize too much in the absence of a recording device in the Komen headquarters, I think what we have is an organization:
- that was generally pro-life to begin with and that hired a public-policy person who was rabidly so and, further, that the organization either didn’t know or didn’t care how rabidly anti-science, and anti-PP, this constituency is.
- that apparently knew little and cared less how its grantee used the money it was given, even though that money use was directly consonant with Komen’s stated mission.
- called “Komen for the Cure” though it actually spends less than 20% of its massive budget on cure research and almost 40% more on “education,” which is about one part actual education to four parts corporate marketing. (That fact is available to anyone who looks at their [IRS Form] 990s, of course, and some Komen critics have been pointing it out for years. But it went viral in the wake of the PP decision, and so a lot of people who had supported Komen only learned it for the first time last week.)
- that pays its CEO and top staffers a lot more than what most lay people think is appropriate for nonprofit executives even at big, national organizations (Brinker alone gets ~$460K). For good or ill, that’s actually not all that out of line for such organizations, but to the lay person, it looks grossly inappropriate.
- whose stated reasons for the cut were both implausible (e.g., they say no money to groups “under investigation,” but they’re cutting $680K from PP, which is the subject of a politically motivated congressional witch hunt, but not $7.5M from Penn State, which is under a very real criminal investigation because of the Sandusky case?) and inconsistent (the stories changed wildly within just a few days)
I think you can put that picture into the dictionary next to the definition of “perfect storm.”
Now, good for Komen that Handel is gone. But if the organization is serious about its mission, then Brinker and any board member who supported this move need to be gone, too. They clearly are out of touch with the people they claim to serve and clearly are out of touch with their own organization’s mission. If the organization is to survive — and I would argue that it shouldn’t, necessarily — it must be governed and run by people who are dedicated to the apolitical position of working for women’s health in general and a cure for breast cancer in particular, period. Sure, Brinker was Komen’s sister, yadda-yadda, but the organization was no longer hers the instant it got charitable tax-exempt status and began soliciting other people’s money. At that point in the life of any nonprofit, the organization becomes a mission that is bigger than any one person. ([Name redacted] forgot that at [the nonprofit he led, with which both I and the recipient of the email have worked], and both he and [that nonprofit] have paid an enormous price as a result.)
And I don’t think this is over.
For one thing, the Komen documentary released last week [“Pink Ribbons, Inc.” — title and link added to this post — Lex], which makes many of these same points, is going to have a much bigger audience now than it would have originally. [Link added to this post — Lex] I’m old enough to remember how “meh” everyone was about the release of “The China Syndrome” in 1979 — until Three Mile Island happened a couple of weeks later. I don’t think the documentary will be that kind of hit, but I would imagine that many people who might have been won back by Handel’s resignation will see it and decide to forget Komen permanently.
For another, for good or ill, I think that the political Left, which got Obama elected and then has been disappointed by him over and over, smells blood. They’ve gotten a big win for the first time in a long time, and I think, for good or ill, that they want more. And that’s a problem, because Komen’s corporate sponsors are, pretty much to a company, in the consumer-products business and thus vulnerable to Internet-driven boycotts, letter-writing campaigns and other such actions. Microsoft and Apple are too big and too irreplaceable to care, but Yoplait yogurt? They’re screwed. And the pink ribbons on those products cut both ways: They now make it very easy for anyone interested to know what NOT to buy. If those partners pull their support, Komen is dead.
The big season for Komen races is still a couple of months off, so it’ll be interesting to see how participation is affected. I’m guessing it’ll fall at least 50% across the board, and in some politically blue areas, it’ll be 80%.
Bottom line: Whether Komen survives or not, Nancy Brinker and Karen Handel are going into a marketing textbook soon, and not in a good way.