Hijacking the Mission

There is little I can add to the heated discussion about the Komen Foundation’s decision to withdraw funding for breast examinations done by Planned Parenthood. If the reports are accurate, the decision reflects the fact that the Foundation is currently controlled by political conservatives hostile to Planned Parenthood, and that hostility trumped concerns for women’s health. (Or in the alternative–according to this blogger–the organization has never been a bona fide charity, in which case you can skip the rest of this post.)

Those of us who have been supportive of both Komen and Planned Parenthood can obviously decide how this recent decision will affect our individual giving decisions. Whether one likes or dislikes Planned Parenthood, however, this widely publicized episode should serve as a cautionary tale for all nonprofit and voluntary ventures.

Nonprofit organizations are “mission driven.” They have been created to fill a perceived civic need: perhaps it’s environmental advocacy,  or protection of civil liberties, or helping the poor, or–as in this case–raising money for research into the causes of a particular disease in order to find a cure. Those who teach nonprofit management–as we do at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs–repeatedly emphasize the importance of fidelity to the organizational mission, and the unfortunate consequences of so-called “mission creep.”

Mission creep usually occurs as a result of dependence on a large funding source; rather than risk losing the money, the organization adapts itself to the wishes of the funder, which may not be entirely consistent with the original mission. But that isn’t the only way a nonprofit organization can lose its way, as this controversy demonstrates.

The Komen Foundation is supposed to be about curing breast cancer. Period. That is its mission, the reason for its very existence. Fidelity to that mission requires a singular focus, and a refusal to become embroiled in political or ideological issues that can detract from the mission and diminish public support.

Anyone who understands the function of nonprofit organizations and their place in civil society could have predicted the firestorm that has erupted. There is no upside to this debacle. The Foundation may continue to exist, but the (self-inflicted) damage will be long-lasting.

By allowing ideologues to hijack its mission, Komen has hurt itself, and–far more consequentially–set back the “race” for the cure.


  1. Just wondering why it’s necessary to even have a non-profit whose mission is to fund research to cure breast cancer. Seems like that ought to be a governmental mission–since it would benefit the population as a whole, just like roads and bridges and lighthouses.

    It’s unfortunate that SBK Foundation stepped on this land mine (perhaps, arguably, after locating it and uncovering it). Even if they reverse themselves, the damage to their reputation as the leader in the movement has been done. Now they will be seen as just another political group–that will turn off potential donors. (I note that the Foundation also announced it is not funding any organizations with ties to stem cell research, which is another change in their funding efforts.)

  2. Bill Wilson :
    Just wondering why it’s necessary to even have a non-profit whose mission is to fund research to cure breast cancer. Seems like that ought to be a governmental mission–since it would benefit the population as a whole, just like roads and bridges and lighthouses. …)

    While medical research is a legitimate and important pursuit for our government, contributing toward the common good and facilitating the pursuit of happiness of its people, in this political climate where all causes, purposes, considerations, motivations and ideals are secondary to the (apparently) more important work of spewing hatred and disgust toward the other party and its members/goals/agendas, and to bring to a screeching halt any actions/efforts to pass or enforce laws and policies that will improve the lives of ALL Americans, as opposed to a select few, I fear that putting primary responsibility to fund and conduct any meaningful medical research in the hands of government seems like a certain way to make meaningful breakthroughs into fighting illness and disease terribly unlikely, if not impossible. All the political system needs is one more thing to go on a crusade against so as to prevent any chance of meaningful and substantial improvement in the lives of its constituents. Any cause so addressed will only become another political can to be kicked around in some congressional back alley. Call me pessimistic if you will, but do you REALLY want our health and well-being to rest upon a hateful, ineffective and capricious Congress approving funds for “this” but not “that” until the majority party changes so they can start the kicking a new can around? I certainly don’t.
    We NEED independent organizations fiercely committed to a rifle-focused mission in order to drive private funding for independent research. That is where SBKF formerly operated. By caving to the religio-political conservative agenda, I am afraid that SBKF has only prostituted itself.

  3. Seems as though the noon news says that the Susan B. Komen Foundation has had a sudden change of heart! Ya think?

  4. Mark–you’re right. I think I was considering the general theory of the notion, not the political Jerry Springer show commonly known as the United States Congress. I was expressing the idealist thought while you reminded me of the very pragmatic problems with the idealist thought.

Comments are closed.