Be Careful Who You Piss Off

The Huffington Post reports that several officers of the Susan B. Komen Foundation have resigned in the wake of what can only be described as the debacle of that organization’s effort to defund Planned Parenthood.

When the Foundation decided to play abortion politics at the expense of poor women who depend upon Planned Parenthood for their annual breast exams, it set off a reaction of epic proportions–not to mention a level of scrutiny that the organization had formerly escaped. Questions were raised about the outsized executive salaries, the organization’s habit of suing other nonprofits that had the temerity to use the color pink or the term “cure” in their own efforts, and the percentage of overall funding that found its way to actual breast cancer research. According to the Huffington story, fundraising is down, morale is low, and management is in disarray.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from this exercise in self-destruction, but I think the most hopeful sign has little to do with the Komen Foundation and a lot to do with Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood has been the object of unremitting attack by the Right for many years now. Those of us who are older can remember when Planned Parenthood boards drew their members from civic leaders of both political parties; indeed, George H.W. Bush served on the national board until he decided to accept the nomination for Vice-President. The organization was not particularly controversial, because it was understood to be in the business of providing health care and family planning to women who needed those services but lacked the resources to access them.

The abortion wars and the rise of an extremist Right Wing willing to play dirty undermined the formerly widespread recognition of the importance of Planned Parenthood.

Despite the fact that abortion never exceeded 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services, despite the fact that no tax dollars were used for abortion services, and despite the fact that economic pressures made the organization’s provision of women’s health services more critically important than ever, Planned Parenthood’s reputation took a real hit–the result of unremitting attacks and dishonest characterizations.

The response to Komen’s clumsy effort to further de-legitimize Planned Parenthood may have marked a turning point.

When the “abortion wars” were seen as genuinely limited to the question of abortion, most women–even the most pro-choice among us–could recognize and respect the deep moral ambivalence many people feel about the issue. But recent political assaults have torn the mask off of much of the “pro-life” movement, displaying a profoundly anti-woman agenda. It is one thing to oppose abortion; it is quite another to attack women’s right to contraception and reproductive health as a violation of the religious prerogatives of those whose theologies subordinate women.

Women are waking up to the very real threat to our hard-won equal rights. In the process, we are recognizing the attacks on Planned Parenthood for what they really are–attacks on us.

Let’s hope that the people perpetrating those attacks–the Rick Santorum’s and the Eric Miller’s and their ilk–learn what the Komen Foundation has learned: be careful who you piss off. Because–as the saying goes–if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t NOBODY happy.


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.