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.