Monday, February 27, 2012

Reflections on the Susan Komen Saga: Lessons for Nonprofits

Like so many others, I've been glued to the computer screen following the ups and downs of the Susan Komen saga. To recap, the controversy centers on the decision by Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation to cut its support for Planned Parenthood's breast screening exams for low-income folks.

Komen spokespeople stated that the decision was based on a new rule prohibiting funding for any group under government investigation. Yet news reports established that other groups being investigated were not defunded and that the decision was driven by anti-abortion stances from board and staff members. The foundation ultimately reversed itself after massive public outcry, most of it fueled through social media sources.

Like the United Way scandals of the mid-1980's, this story will reverberate for years and be the catalyst for even more public scrutiny of nonprofits. It also raises many thought-provoking questions:

  • How can nonprofits assure ethical decision-making? Numerous official statements from Komen invoked the word "mission," with the emphasis on breast cancer research alone. Here's the actual mission statement: The mission of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation is to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease by advanced research, education, screening, and treatment. Ethical decision-making starts with meticulous attention to mission. According to Mollie Williams, a Komen official who resigned in protest, "I believe it would be a mistake for any organization to bow to political pressure and compromise its mission." I agree wholeheartedly.
  • What is the role of the board in policy making?  It is the board's legal responsibility to further the work of a nonprofit as stated in its mission, provide prudent management for long-term sustainability, represent their constituency effectively, and supervise the work of the executive staff. Board members from Komen with personal anti-abortion stances - or driven by fears that Komen would lose support of key anti-abortion donors - not only ignored their mission and failed to oversee staff properly; they chose to give priority to their own political opinions over the welfare and needs of their clients.
  • How can charitable organizations communicate effectively when things go wrong? Komen officials hemmed, hawed, dodged questions - and effectively lied about what happened. But, particularly in this age of intense public scrutiny through social media, this just won't work. The very best thing to do when mistakes are made is to immediately acknowledge your errors, apologize, and present a plan to move forward in a positive manner.

Here's my favorite take on the situation (with a shout-out to Jesse Taylor, who posted it on the Huff Post): "From now on, going on a two-day bender and then trying to make it up to everyone after will be called pulling a Komen." And the moral of this story is - know your mission and be true to it, maintain prudent board oversight of policy and staff, and don't pull a Komen.