Komenâ€™s Nancy Brinker Should Explain or Step Down
It’s time for Nancy Brinker to speak plainly.
As long as Susan G. Komen for the Cure has funded Planned Parenthood, it has walked a tightrope between pro-choice and anti-abortion donors. For years, according to Komen insiders, faith-based challenges would arise and subside. As an organization that grew from a core mission to address the issue of breast cancer into a marketing machine, this was a serious problem. It’s a question of balance between mission and marketing. If you are a faith-based charity, you don’t hit up atheists for donations. If, on the other hand, your mission becomes that of raising money for the cause, and granting a good bit of it to other nonprofit organizations, then you have to pay more attention to how your mission strikes your potential donor. That is to say, you become political.
Nancy Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen For the Cure, has long enjoyed a halo as a nonprofit sector leader with a stellar reputation. She was seen not only as a consummate fundraiser, a leader who would wear the headdress for the cause, but also as a leader of unimpeachable personal integrity. That state of grace, sadly, has collapsed under credible suspicions of a significant breach of mission and ethics.
As a powerful article by HuffPost’s Amanda Terkel pointed out, Brinker’s 2010 memoir “Promise Me” stated an unequivocal commitment to mission in the face of the potential to lose ideologically-based donations. Curves, the exercise company long associated with right-wing ideology, threatened to withhold funding if Komen did not defund Planned Parenthood. Brinker characterized her response as follows:
When you donate to a local SGK affiliate or support a walker in a Race for the Cure, 75 percent of that money stays right there in your neighborhood to serve local women. We don't spend money building Susan G. Komen Breast-Cancer-R-Us facilities; we get the most bang for our buck by funding services that can be offered through existing local infrastructure. The grants in question supplied breast health counseling, screening, and treatments to rural women, poor women, Native American women, many women of color who were underserved -- if served at all -- in areas where Planned Parenthood facilities were often the only infrastructure available. Though it meant losing corporate money from Curves, we were not about to turn our backs on these women. Somehow this position translated to the utterly false assertion that SGK funds abortions.
As controversy swirled, several pro-life advocates, including Catholic bishops and Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association, sprang to our defense. Unfortunately, the false assertion has persisted for years, hopping around the blogosphere like a poisonous frog to this day, frequently coupled with the ridiculous old wives' tale that abortion causes breast cancer. [...]
I was sad to lose the corporate support of Curves, and I have the utmost respect for its founder's religious convictions -- as I do for all people of every faith -- but we remain focused on our mission. [315-16]
These sentiments reflect nonprofit leadership in action. They are rendered all the more difficult when cash is on the line. This statement of principle makes the recent saga of changing grant guidelines, false statements of motivation, flip-flopping, and milquetoast public apology all the more unfathomable.
Let’s stipulate a few facts: New-ish senior VP Karen Handel introduced a strategy of accentuating threats to public funding by anti-abortion forces including the Catholic Church. She attempted to extricate Komen’s commitment to Planned Parenthood by introducing new grant regulations that disqualified organizations under “government investigation.” She sold Komen leadership on the notion that a politically motivated inquiry into Planned Parenthood funding led by Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-Fla) met the definition of “government investigation.” Let's stipulate one more thing: Stearns' inquiry is not, by definition, a formal government investigation. Not by a long shot.
I think we can stop right here. Nancy Brinker is possessed of no plausible deniability that she did not know of the shenanigans Karen Handel was up to. Handel’s crusade to defund Planned Parenthood, as revealed by the anonymous insider source to HuffPost, was common knowledge to all Komen leadership, including the board. For Brinker to allow such a patent mischaracterization of a House political circus as a bonafide government investigation is more than an error. It is a political calculation that is unethical on its face.
Brinker knew the political ropes far to well to ignore the obvious, the glaring misuse of the opportunity created by Ms. Handel to finally rid Komen of Planned Parenthood once and for all.
An insider at Komen is on the record with damning accusations. Statements reported by HuffPost include that Handel said, “If we say it’s just about investigations, we can defund Planned Parenthood and no one can blame us for being political.”
HuffPost has reviewed internal documents that back up this allegation. There is an ethos about leadership responsibility that includes the phrase “knew or should have known,” and this was Brinker’s watch.
Not so long ago a member of a national organization’s board of directors stated, in dismissing its CEO, that a certain action was "totally against the culture, the thoughts of the organization." The board member elaborated, "We determined that so much had been happening that literally had become a distraction to the organization, she was probably not in a position to really lead forward." These statements were made by NPR Board Chairman Dave Edwards following the dismissal of CEO Vivian Shiller in the wake of the scandal over comments made by Ron Schiller, NPR’s vice president of development in the video sting orchestrated by conservative activist James O'Keefe.
For Shiller this was the second strike, following the Juan Williams debacle, and in her case that was enough; she was out. She was out for less than stellar performance and judgment in handling difficult circumstances. She was not fired, however, for intentional breech of mission and of ethics; that’s what we’re dealing with in the subterfuge involved in Komen’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood. Yet this is Brinker’s “first strike.” That’s why she should be given the opportunity to explain her actions, or lack thereof, and the entire internal nexus of the decision and its reversal.
Brinker’s memoir excerpt makes the Planned Parenthood mishagoss even more pathetic because her statement that Komen is not in the business of creating “Breast-Cancer-R-Us facilities” as a defense of its mission flies in the face of Komen’s attempted backtracking with the assertions that the real reason PP was defunded was because it did not have its own cancer screening infrastructure but instead accomplished the goal by referral. She knew. She had to know. This is the same deal.
Sometimes simple apologies don’t cut it. This is one of those times. Susan G. Komen For the Cure has created deep, indelible doubts in the minds of its donors and cause-related marketing partners. The entire leadership of the organization, beginning with Nancy Brinker, needs to address those doubts in detail, and accept accountability for ethical breaches, or live with the consequences. Those consequences would seem to include the perception that The Susan G. Komen For the Cure is a charity tainted by political ideology and subterfuge. Such a perception will make it impossible for the organization to thrive as a marketing machine for an umimpeachable cause.