Steve Klingaman

Steve Klingaman
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
January 01
Steve Klingaman is a nonprofit development consultant and nonfiction writer specializing in personal finance and public policy. His music reviews can be found at

Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 9, 2012 8:27AM

Komen’s Nancy Brinker Should Explain or Step Down

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nancy brinker 

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.


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In all of these discussions, we need to take the personal initiative to follow the money. I saw a comment yesterday on a friend's FB status that contained the salaries of Komen executives. I Googled "Komen 2011 tax returns" and was shocked at the amount of money that goes to those at the top of a "charitable" organization. Most everything in America is about money first. When one looks a little closer one realizes that any BIG entity has greedy feeders who skim off much more than they deserve, while other people are hungry, struggling and suffering! I can remember a time when charitable meant doing something out of the goodness of your heart, the major reward being the fact that you helped someone else!
This is not about popularity. The issue is: does the organization actually do what it says it does. If the answer is no, then the institution's integrity is compromised, which, as I pointed out, is highly detrimental to an organization whose primary mission is to raise funds from the public.
For me the question here is when a donor chooses to fund SGK don't they do so knowing that a portion of the money goes to Planned Parenthood? If that is the case why question where the funds are going after the fact, and instead donate to an organization whose beliefs match your own. There is something very dishonest in giving to an organization whose associations have long been known, and thinking now that you've given money they should change their whole dynamic in support of your views. What about those who were there all along, who knew exactly where their donations were going, and were happy to give them? Does their political point of view now have to take a back seat to some Johnny-come-lately supporters, with an ax to grind?
Desnee, exactly, and Karen Handel wielded that axe. Accountability for that course of action accrues to the top leadership when the matter is serious and material to the stewardship of the organization. Politics is policy. Donors should understand the real basis of such a serious change in policy. Merely having a "rogue VP" resign doesn't cut it.
Great summary, Steve. And I think we do need to give the Komen folks credit for keeping their eye on the prize for so long as they walked the minefield of ideologically-committed donors.

But for me this is another instance where right wing conservatism cannot come right out and say what it is doing, and why, but must go sneaking around in the dark, giving non-denial denials and inventing non-investigating investigations to accomplish its ideological agendas -- which in this case means forcing breast cancer prevention and cure to take a back seat to anti-abortion militancy.

It is amazing too that right wing conservatives think it is just as "political" for liberals to enlist Planned Parenthood in the fight against cancer knowing how conservatives consider the organization to be "unclean" as it is for Komen to undermine the fight against cancer by de-funding an ally because 3% of its services are abortion. A mind is a terrible thing to waste once an ideology takes hold.
Steve I think I would like to see her Explain and Step Down, or she can not do the former but definitely do the latter. Nothing burns me more than disingenuous person.
Yes, she should apologize. For questioning for a nanomoment the absolute right of her privately funded charity to contribute to whom it pleases.

This post is collectivist parasitism at its most virulent.
Ah, Gordon. Yes, Komen has the right to distribute its funds as it sees fit. It does not have the right to LIE about its reasons, it does not have the right to keep on getting the same support once it changes its mission.

Is that so hard to understand? Why do people think their 'rights' are violated when they have to face the consequences for their actions? Most people learn that little lesson as toddlers.
Ah, Gordon, good to hear from you again. Anything less than "collective parasitism" from you and I would have felt I failed to get it right.
Gordon every post should have comic relief in the comments the responses to your remark have given me mine. Thank you kind sir.
What does misquoting my comment make you feel, Steve? More right?
Well done, Steve! Yours is a voice of reason in a world gone mad. Just sayin'.
Desnee: Indeed, our good old friend Gordon always provides good comic relief. It’s even funnier when he refers to people as objects in those comments (and blog posts). Furthermore, it’s actually quite pathetic when the person who makes these comments is the author of “So You Think You Know English:…
No idea what you're talking about, Nanuck (of the North?), but thanks for the plug.
Well said.

This is not about popularity. The issue is: does the organization actually do what it says it does.

Exactly! If the organization's mission is about women's health, they should not be taking committed funding away from one of the most vital organizations providing women's health care.
Cancer is a disease; therefore, any organization fighting it is unquestionably devoted to health. Pregnancy is not a disease; therefore, an organization like PP which devotes substantial resources to pregnancy termination is not devoted to health, but rather to indulging careless, irresponsible, and self-indulgent women who don't have the brains to figure out ways and means of letting a life live while still relieving themselves of the chores of parenting.

Fortunately, the foundation's change of position is really no big deal. Although to throw the liberal bloodhounds off the scent, they will not categorically delete PP from the possibility of being assisted, I think we can count on the foundation to mysteriously run out of funds just before PP comes up on the list for a grant.

The scandal has, indeed, been useful in educating foundation donors, many of whom have vowed to condition further contributions upon assurances that their funds will not go to PP.
Gordon, Rarely have I read a more ill-informed comment on Open Salon. It deserves to be enshrined here as a testament to what happens when people value ideology over fact-based analysis.
Terribly sorry, Steve. By all means let's stick to the facts.
Cancer is not a disease; pregnancy is. Adoption is illegal; abortion is a tonic for both mother and child. From here on in, Komen will donate increasing amounts to PP, and most Komen donors will insist that their contributions be donated exclusively to PP.

Do you have any idea just how far your arguments fly in the face of facts?
Not only does Gorgon have difficulties with using the word “that” rather than “who” to refer to a person or people, but he seems to be clueless about the meaning of the word “substantial.”

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word is defined as follows: of considerable importance, size, or worth. Synonyms include: ample, big, considerable, generous, and important.

Getting back to Gordon, he writes “…an organization like PP which devotes substantial resources to pregnancy termination…

Yet, pregnancy terminations account for only 3%* of the services provided by PP (it’s fair to assume that the resources match the services provided). Wow, if 3% is considered substantial, what word should we use to characterize the other 97% of the services (or resources), which primarily focus on the prevention and treatment of diseases that affect the lives of women?

*See What Planned Parenthood actually does, in one chart by WP’s Ezra Klein (published on Feb 2nd).

We can all agree with Steve that Gordon couldn’t even understand the facts even if they hit him right in the middle of the forehead!
Correction: We can all agree with Steve that Gordon couldn’t understand the facts even if they hit him right in the middle of the forehead!
You're a real piece of work, Kanuk.

Your view of the use of relative pronouns is completely undergraduate.

You deleted from your post the illiterate comment I ridiculed and then, to everyone's delight, closed comments on the entire thread.
I would have used the more accurate term sophomoric, but I prefer to think of it as old school.
An excellent presentation, Steve. I'd seen scattered remarks elsewhere that seemed to hint that there was an issue of this kind looming, but this is the first coherent piece I've seen that articulates the problem in what seems like proper fashion. It seemed to me impossible that Handel could have been happily hired given her views if the organization objected, or at least that as soon as she was lobbying internally whoever she was reporting to internally would have had to say “hey, that's not appreciated here.” But it was clear that was not happening.

By the way, like SpiritManSF in a comment above, I also looked at their tax forms (2009 is what I saw). I didn't read every line, but I did find the part about compensation because I was curious about claims of $5M salaries. Only around a tenth of that as it turns out. I guess I should feel relieved? But the thing that was nagging at me was that it's still a lot in absolute terms, and I'd heard several places (google: "nancy brinker" pro-life "major donor" for examples) that she gives to pro-Life causes and/or conservative politicians. Legal? Yeah, sure. But when you're being a high profile right-winger and then questions are raised about the right-wing activities of one of your underlings, it doesn't leave me with a feeling of confidence that the problem is gotten rid of just because one person is ousted. Handel was advocating tactics within the organization but was obviously not empowered to act on them—and yet these things happened, and so she must have had allies capable of building a consensus or a boss willing to smile in approval. And here we see reason to believe the latter. So we come back to that same question again from a different angle.
Kent, the whole chain of presumption you allude to is so compelling, and hews so closely to the ways we know things actually work in large corporate enterprises. Rogue operators are few and far between. It is a fact that Brinker achieved the status of Pioneer for bundling $100,000 in donations for George W. Bush. That is a pretty elite fundraising status that tends to connote an insider and true-believer status. The ultimate degree of her identification with and support of Bush's reproductive rights stands is unknown. It should be noted that President Obama conferred a Presidential Medal of Freedom on her. That attests to a moment in his drive for bipartisan recognition of community service, and to her previously existing halo. Where did she, and does she, ultimately stand today? That's what we would all like to know.