Susan G. Komen Apologizes: Hoisted on Its Own Pink Ribbon?

The most powerful breast-cancer charity organization in the U.S. forgot about one of its special-interest groups: breast cancer survivors and their families

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Riccardo S. Savi / Getty Images

Participants join Susan G. Komen's Race for the Cure in Washington, D.C, on June 4, 2011

Now that the most eminent breast-cancer charity group in the nation has apologized for its decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood, it’s worth looking at what went wrong. The backlash was not just grassroots and viral but reached the most senior levels. All seven California affiliates of Komen opposed the decision, and Dr. Kathy Plesser, a member of Komen’s scientific advisory board, threatened to resign if the group did not reverse it.

One obvious mistake: it changed its story. The group first issued a statement saying it was defunding Planned Parenthood because it was under investigation, but later Komen CEO and founder Nancy Brinker went on MSNBC to tell Andrea Mitchell (who herself was recently treated for breast cancer) that it was because Planned Parenthood’s screening program was inefficient — which would have been a perfectly valid reason were it not obvious that Brinker was covering up for the previous, more thinly veiled explanation. (Mitchell was not convinced by it either.)

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But what is more surprising from a strategic perspective is how much Komen underestimated its own power base. According to John D. Raffaelli, a Komen board member and Washington lobbyist, the organization’s leadership had become worried that its ties to Planned Parenthood would alienate pro-life donors and thought that cutting off the relatively tiny $700,000 grant would be the most politically expedient way to get rid of that potential problem. But in the process, it angered and alienated a much larger and perhaps more committed group: the army of breast-cancer survivors and family members who wear pink ribbons and turn out for Race for the Cure and raise money and who have helped turn Komen into the powerhouse that it is. This group not only cuts across political lines, but it has always been vocal, in-your-face and incredibly persistent — sometimes to the point of being annoying. How do you think breast cancer got to be the most visible and well-funded cause out there? And wouldn’t the leadership at Susan G. Komen be the people to know this better than anyone else, having harnessed it to great success for the past 20 years?

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Now that Komen has alienated its own core supporters, it has a much bigger problem on its hands than a small grant for mammograms given to a women’s health organization. (It’s also worth noting that the amount of patient services Planned Parenthood devotes to cancer screening and prevention outstrips abortion 5 to 1.) Komen has done a lot of great work, but despite the apology, its future is still in jeopardy, all because it ignored its most important constituents. I don’t know how many people there are who have been affected by breast cancer — though I bet Komen does — but take that group and add in pro-choice supporters, and you’ve no doubt got a much larger contingent than the ardent pro-lifers whose anger Komen had originally feared. Its biggest mistake, it seems, was one of math. Yes, Komen needs a new director of p.r., and possibly even a new CEO, but it also needs a new demographer in its research department.

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