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Joanne Fritz

Do You Know Who Your Nonprofit Is Sleeping With? Komen's Outing

By February 6, 2012

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I've never seen a reversal as fast as the one Susan G. Komen for the Cure made last week.

In a head-spinning set of moves, Komen, which was outed on Tuesday for cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, 1) thought they could get by with a canned video that said a new policy about grantees who were under "investigation" was behind their defunding, 2) changed its story to something about "pass-throughs" on Thursday, and 3) changed its mind and apologized to supporters and critics on Friday.

Meanwhile Planned Parenthood raised several million dollars in three days and scored a Superbowl like PR coup.

What this entire incident underscored for me is that nonprofits still don't get crisis management, and how careful donors have to be to make sure that their money is going to organizations that truly match their personal, religious, moral, and political beliefs.

Looking under the covers to see who else is bedding down with our favorite nonprofit through political ties, funding, or favorite ideologies is just something that we all must now do.

It really doesn't matter which side you're is on with the Komen situation -- what you found out about the breast cancer fundraising operation could scare you off.

If you're Republican and/or pro-life, you found out that Komen has been funding Planned Parenthood for years. If you are pro-choice and/or Democratic, you learned that Komen has a strong political favoritism going on. Founder and CEO Nancy Brinker is a long-time and politically active Republican, and the organization recently hired a pro-life Republican to be its public policy director.

As Gail Collins so wittily explained in her recent New York Times column, The Politics of Absolutely Everything, the raucous downhill race to the Republican presidential nomination has pretty much politicized just about anything you can think of. And it's only going to get worse!

That politicization is political-party blind. Republicans and Democrats will be doing it, not to mention their subgroups and super PACs.

Public outings of nonprofit mischief seem to come every few months lately. Just consider the Three Cups of Tea controversy, the Jerry Sandusky, Second Mile, Penn State revelations, and the very recent admission by the Sierra Club that it took millions from the natural gas industry while talking up the safety of that fuel over coal.

Was it ever this hard for donors to pick charities that use their money well, don't go off the deep end of ideology, and that avoid conflicts of interest or even outright crimes?

I don't know. Maybe, despite the seeming prevalence of nonprofits gone wrong, we do find out about these things sooner than we used to, regulations have gotten stronger, and donors are smarter. I do know that donors have to be careful to:

  • Dig a little deeper. Who are the founders? Who is on the board? Are there conflicts of interest?
  • Stay alert to breaking news that involves our causes. Is the mission of your favorite nonprofit slipping? Do the programs, funding and mission still match?
  • Question the PR palaver from any cause and the rankings of industry groups based on limited surveys (just see how Komen has ranked as one of the most trusted charities and the survey about what it does for the economy).
  • Think twice before purchasing products spruced up with cause marketing. Make sure the charity and the company are ones you really want to support. There are loads of terrific cause-marketing programs to choose from, so choose mindfully.
  • Be aware of hate speech dressed up as a cause (see how an outfit called OneMillionMoms, an anti-gay group, attacked JC Penney for hiring Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson).

Unfortunately, finding out who our nonprofits sleep with is just what we have to do to make sure our causes match our own visions, wherever we might fall on the political spectrum.

What do you do to check out causes before you donate? How is your nonprofit making it easier for donors to know who you are and what you stand for?

More about the Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy:

Photo: Getty Images

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February 6, 2012 at 10:14 am
(1) Allison Fine says:

This is great, Joanne, thanks. I think one of the most disturbing things about the Komen brouhaha (I LOVE that word!) is that they had appeared to be apolitical. It was the sense of betrayal on the part of the foot soldiers, those women who had run and walked for them for years that the org had a secret political agenda that fueled the outrage.

As Jay Rosen rightly tweeted yesterday, PR damage control isn’t what they needed, but better, more transparent and honest management.

February 6, 2012 at 12:03 pm
(2) nonprofit says:

Thanks for commenting, Allison! I loved your post about Komen and the great FB page you put up. I couldn’t agree more about transparency and it seems to get harder, not easier, for the average donor to know what’s behind the curtain.

February 6, 2012 at 12:11 pm
(3) Amy Eisenstein says:

Joanne – As a donor, I’m glad to know when organizations have alternative political agendas, so I can made educated giving decisions. I will never again be giving to Komen and will continue to support Planned Parenthood, as I have for many years.

As a fundraiser, I feel incredibly said about incidents like these because they hurt all nonprofit organizations. Many donors become more cautious and reluctant to make donations in general and this makes a nonprofit’s job of fundraising that much more difficult. Hopefully donors will continue to give to good organizations and take time and effort required to investigate the organizations they love.

My opinion is that Komen won’t ever recover from the damage done. Unfortunately, they infused politics where it didn’t belong. What will suffer is women’s health care.

February 6, 2012 at 1:13 pm
(4) nonprofit says:

Thanks Amy! Yes, I have doubts about Komen’s recovery too. They have been able to weather some big boo-boos in recent years, but this really cuts to trust…can they be trusted? It’s hard to believe that such a well endowed org could be so lacking in PR savvy.

February 7, 2012 at 7:25 am
(5) Pamela Grow says:

Excellent commentary, as always, Joanne.

I tend to agree with Amy. I don’t know that Komen will ever recover. This incident seemed to me the final straw in an organization that has increasingly strayed from mission, beginning with the ill-fated KFC partnership, and anything remotely resembling a donor-centric partnership. If they’ve demonstrated anything in the past several years, it is that they are fully self-serving.

February 7, 2012 at 11:24 am
(6) Ruth Sparks says:

Thanks, Joanne for a great lesson in sticking to your Mission!! I’m amazed that my donations for a Cancer Cure didn’t go to research. OK–maybe total focus of funding disbursement doesn’t happen in most non-profits but wasn’t Komen way “off-base” to include funding Planned Parenthood ?? “Focus on your Mission” is the message here!! Forget the nebulous political implications!!

February 7, 2012 at 12:35 pm
(7) nonprofit says:

Thank you both, Pamela and Ruth, for singling out mission as the most important element here. Donors “buy” a nonprofit based on its mission first and trust that that mission will stay pretty much the same. I saw one commentator make the point that donors don’t actually have voting rights with their nonprofits, but they do deserve truth in advertising. If that goes missing, then I think donors can and should vote with their feet.

February 8, 2012 at 1:50 am
(8) Mike says:

what really bothers me about the whole situation is that the investigation is a political ploy! the SGF should have realized this and said we’re still going to fund PP for breast cancer screening

February 9, 2012 at 11:41 am
(9) Jane says:

It was a wake-up call for me. I had no idea Komen was so much a business and so little a charity. This learning situation has been instructive for me in that I will investigate BEFORE i give or even participate. My philanthropic dollars are also about MY integrity.

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