Susan G. Komen Charity Does an About-Face

Breast Cancer Group Backs Off Move to Withhold Funds for Planned Parenthood

The breast-cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure, faced with harsh criticism from some supporters, has backtracked on a policy that would have cut off future funding to most Planned Parenthood affiliates. But the effects of the public spat, which has divided women’s-health supporters, will continue to be felt for a long time.

[see also: Komen CEO Nancy Brinker really Sad that everyone is Mad at her]

The two iconic organizations have been on the opposite ends of a social-media and political firestorm that erupted after Komen’s original decision became public Tuesday. Planned Parenthood blamed the move on pressure from antiabortion groups that have long targeted it as a prominent provider of the procedure. Swiftly, opponents in the abortion debate seized on the split—slamming Komen’s decision and funneling donations to Planned Parenthood, or lauding the move and pledging new support to the breast-cancer charity.

Komen struggled to quell a rebellion among some of its own affiliates—some of which had applied for an exemption to the policy that cut off funding—as well as boycotts targeting the corporate donors who have helped make its pink ribbon and road races ubiquitous.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America said it has almost $3 million in new donations, far more than the amount that Komen had been giving to its affiliates, which amounted to about $680,000 last year, mostly for breast exams and education programs. Planned Parenthood, with 79 local affiliates, operates clinics that offer reproductive and some other health services.

Komen has contended that the public debate was distorting its policy, which banned funding for organizations that were under government investigation. That category included Planned Parenthood, because of a probe by a Republican congressman involving management of federal funds.

On Friday, Komen said that in the future, organizations would be disqualified only if they are the subjects of “criminal and conclusive” investigations, not “political” ones.

The charity denied that it had made its original policy change for political reasons or to target Planned Parenthood. It said the reversal ensured that Planned Parenthood would be eligible to apply for future funding.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s president, Cecile Richards, said she would “take them at their word.” The new donations generated by the first Komen decision—which included a $250,000 matching grant from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg—will enable Planned Parenthood to “expand our breast-care work beyond our wildest dreams,” she said. The group has had more than 10,000 people contribute in recent days, she said. A spokeswoman said it has also gained almost 20,000 new Facebook supporters.

The reversal generated praise from Planned Parenthood supporters, but also doubts.

“I’m concerned that there’s no guarantee that they will continue funding in the future.…Until I see them actually sending money to Planned Parenthood, I’m going to be skeptical,” said Susan Messina, a professional fund-raiser and childbirth educator in Washington, D.C., who said she had previously sponsored participants in Komen’s Race for the Cure. “I think the true colors of the organization have been revealed in some disturbing ways.”

Planned Parenthood critics, many of whom had pledged new support for Komen in the wake of the promised cuts, expressed disappointment.

The president of Americans United for Life, a group opposed to abortion rights that helped trigger the congressional investigation, said that she was taking a “wait and see” attitude on Komen’s new stance.

“I’d like to have a little more clarification about what their move forward is,” said Charmaine Yoest. “I understand them wanting to get out from the pressure of this Mafia-style shakedown.”

Ms. Yoest said that she had signed up to run in the Komen race this year for the first time in a decade after learning of Komen’s initial decision. She said that she had already received calls from women who had signed up to run with her who now said that they wanted to get a refund.

The often-strident rhetoric on both sides of the issue, which spread rapidly through social-media channels, raised the question of whether Komen, a private charity, was caving in to political pressure in both its initial decision and when it backed off. The organization is made up of a Dallas-based headquarters and 122 local affiliates throughout the U.S., each with an independent leadership.

Komen affiliates in Connecticut and California had publicly aired their concerns about the initial decision. The Aspen, Colo., Komen affiliate asked for an exemption from the policy and was denied, and then advertised in local papers that it would defy the rule. “After a 17-year relationship with Planned Parenthood, we intended to continue that relationship,” said Marcia Goshorn, president of the Aspen affiliate. “We felt it was important that our voice is heard.”

Friday, in a call with affiliates, Komen’s national leadership aimed to soothe the unrest, apologizing, promising greater openness and saying it was responding to concerns from major stakeholders, affiliate leaders said. They said the board had “been up all night…contemplating what’s the right thing to do,” said Laura Farmer Sherman, executive director of the San Diego Komen affiliate, who was on the call.

Unlike corporations, which must respond primarily to shareholders, nonprofits face a challenge in honoring the wishes of a board, fulfilling the intent of a donor’s charitable gift and fulfilling the public mission of the organization.

“Once an organization exists in the public trust, they are answerable to many stakeholders,” said Marian Z. Stern, a philanthropy consultant and adjunct professor at New York University’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising.

Ms. Stern said that “donor intent” is among the highest priorities. Organizations are required legally, but also “morally and ethically,” to follow a donor’s wishes, she said. In the case of Komen, Ms. Stern believes that many donors, including small donors, felt that was an “issue of transparency” with the organization. When the organization “changed practice in a way that seemed oblique or inconsistent, donors were angry,” she said.

At the San Diego affiliate, Ms. Sherman said her group has already lost about $50,000 of around $300,000 in corporate pledges for this year from the initial decision, and another $150,000 is still under review, she said. She has gotten 683 emails on the Planned Parenthood issue, only four positive, she said.

A spokeswoman for the national Komen organization said Friday that it had no numbers on the effect of the recent events on donations.

On Thursday, the group said that it had seen a jump. The spokeswoman said it “recognized the importance of removing the perception that politics were involved in the changes we made in our grant making policy” and is “working with our affiliates from around the country to determine how to move forward.”


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