February 24, 2012

Komen Fund's Attempt to Reassure Donors Stumbles, Experts Say

Susan G. Komen for the Cure is conducting a poll to learn more about the best ways to apologize for the furor it aroused a few weeks ago when it cut off support for Planned Parenthood, then reinstated it after sustaining days of protest from angry donors and others.

Nonprofit experts say the poll may well do the opposite of what Komen wants to do—soothe donor anger—and offers a lesson to other nonprofits on what not to do when it comes to managing an image problem.

The online survey asks people to rate the believability of an array of statements that are  are designed to appeal either to conservatives who believe that Komen is "letting left-wing liberals dictate its internal policies" or liberals who see the charity becoming "a punching bag of anti-choice Republicans."

Another set of statements offers different types of apologies from Komen and asks people to rate whether they ring true.

The problem: "The survey comes off as being a poll about what they should say," says Kivi Leroux Miller, president of the Nonprofit Marketing Guide. "Board and staff should already know this in their hearts. They shouldn't have to do a poll to figure out how to apologize."

What's more, she says, by letting people vote on whether the charity was a victim of liberal or conservative maneuvering, "it seems like they are putting out their messaging to the highest bidder, based on the polling."

If Komen officials wanted to refine their message, Ms. Miller says, they should have conducted small focus groups or telephone interviews with supporters instead of an online poll that was bound to be leaked to news outlets.

Another nonprofit-marketing expert, Nancy Schwartz, agrees. Face-to-face interviews or phone calls with supporters, she says, "would be an opportunity to listen [to donors] and re-engage support and loyalty. Those would have been secondary benefits."

Another problem that Ms. Schwartz sees with the survey: By characterizing Komen as kowtowing to right-wing conservatives or left-wing liberals, the survey is "repeating the worst criticism from the debacle and asking folks whether they feel that way," Ms. Schwartz says. "You never talk about the problem. Talk about the solution. But they are fanning the flame."

Both marketing experts urge other nonprofits to avoid following what Komen has done if they face a public-relation crisis. "This is a learning moment for nonprofits," Ms. Schwartz says.

The survey, adds Ms. Miller, "is probably good intention but really bad execution."