crisis

Nonprofit crisis management: What we learned from Susan G. Komen Foundation

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I want to diverge a bit from sustainability to talk about an important case in nonprofit public relations. This morning I talked with a New York Times reporter about the Susan G. Komen crisis that unfolded earlier this year. As I was preparing for the interview, I was piecing together the timeline since the initial announcement by Planned Parenthood that Komen would no longer fund its cancer screening services. It is fascinating to me that after the crisis, corporate partners continued to support the organization, even increase their association with the organization, clearly indicating that Komen is a good cause marketing partner. But, the advocates and fundraisers at the local affiliates are seeing a significant drop off in funding for their Race for the Cure, a primary source of income for the local affiliates.

So, why the disparity? Why are corporate partners still onboard with the organization but local supporter are not?

Here’s what I think. No one anticipated that Komen would make a politically motivated decision with its funding (let’s set aside the debate over whether it was truly politically motivated, and let perception be reality). So it caught the public, supporters, and partners by surprise. When Komen reversed its decision, the public moved on pretty quickly, but local fundraisers, advocates, and supporters felt betrayed by the decision. Pink still sells products, because the investment is low. I can buy a pink product for the same price as another, so why not let some of the money go to a good cause. But, raising money for a charity or making a donation requires a higher level of involvement. Supporters of the local affiliates have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the nonprofit. Some feel that Komen’s decision revealed a political motivation, and they feel betrayed.

Add to that the unique circumstances in this crisis. The issue that Komen engaged was outside of its mission, and for some women, that issue is more critical than breast cancer research. So, while some past supporters may continue to feel good about giving to Komen to support cancer research, others feel good about NOT giving to Komen and thereby taking  a pro-choice stand. Komen has created a dilemma for some groups, forcing them to choose between two important issues. Fighting breast cancer is a cause that brings people together, but abortion is a cause that polarizes them, and Komen introduced a source of conflict into its organization when it made the ill-fated decision.

So where did Komen go wrong in its public relations? Here are five key missteps.

  • First, decision makers didn’t vet the idea broadly. Had they consulted with a PR agency (I believe Ogilvy was on retainer but was not told about the decision before it became public) they would have been advised to take a different approach to the issue. I’ve read that the board did ask senior management to project consequences that may result from the decision. Based on their research, management recommended Komen continue funding Planned Parenthood, but the board disregarded the recommendation (the issues with nonprofit boards is a topic all its own).
  • Second, they didn’t own the story when it came out. They let Planned Parenthood own it.
  • Third, they didn’t respond with full disclosure. If they had revealed their dilemma with pro-life supporters, the public may have been more receptive (it would have been most effective to talk about the dilemma publicly before the decision was made).
  • Fourth, they didn’t engage with the media and publics quickly. Instead employees issued generic statements and deleted posts from the Facebook page.
  • And, finally, they didn’t clean house quickly. The significant personnel changes that we’ve seen over the past few months should have happened right away in February.

What can we learn from the case? Nonprofits (or any organizations) must be transparent in their communication about decisions, especially highly contentious ones. The board should have known that the public would view the Planned Parenthood decision through a political lens. Either they missed it, or they misjudged it by thinking the public would be forgiving because of the good work they have done. It’s possible that they thought the story would never surface, but that, too, was naive.

The second lesson is this: engage with your stakeholders. The backlash that Komen is feeling right now comes from local supporters and fundraisers. If they had engaged with the affiliates before the decision, the outcome may have been better. I see Komen making much more effort to bring affiliates into the conversation now and even put the spotlight on the impact in local markets.

Will Komen’s reputation be completely restored? As long as abortion is a hotly debated issue, it may be difficult for the nonprofit to restore the relationship with a portion of its base. However, I see Komen trying to refocus on the outcomes of its research investments and the impact of its local affiliates, and that’s where the nonprofit needs to be focused right now. This will help restore its reputation.