News and analysis
August 16, 2012

Komen CEO’s Resignation Only Makes Critics Angrier

Jeff Malet/Newscom

Donations to Susan G. Komen for the Cure fundraising events declined steeply after the charity withdrew and then resumed grants to Planned Parenthood.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure may have hoped to halt a sharp drop in donations just ahead of its busy fall fundraising season, but instead it has made many disgruntled donors even angrier.

The breast-cancer charity made big leadership changes last week, including the announcement that its founder would leave her staff position. But local Komen leaders, as well as many donors, said they are even more upset now about the way the organization has responded to the controversy over its management.

That could spell more fundraising problems for Komen, which had already disappointed many loyal supporters by cutting off money to Planned Parenthood last winter and then upset others by reversing that decision a few days later.

Warning signs of what’s ahead for more than 80 fundraising events scheduled in September and October were made clear by the losses already sustained in the charity’s signature Race for the Cure events held in the spring. Contributions to 56 one-day races held by local affiliates so far this year have declined by 20 to 30 percent or more in many cases.

Perhaps more worrisome is that the charity’s lucrative three-day events have raised far less than they did a year ago. A July three-day walk in Boston last month suffered a 33 percent loss, to $3.2-million, while Cleveland’s three-day race this month raised $1.9-million, a 24-percent loss from last year’s event.

Petition for Ouster

The challenges facing Komen became more evident when the charity announced that its founder, Nancy Brinker, would step down as chief executive, along with two board members and the charity’s president, Liz Thompson.

Within days, an online petition was created to gather momentum to oust Ms. Brinker also from her board role as chair of the powerful executive committee. Among those who have signed: the feminist activist Gloria Steinem.

Critics say that contributions and Komen’s image are unlikely to recover as long as Ms. Brinker remains the face of the organization.

“She has given herself a promotion. It is beyond discouraging that she isn’t really stepping down,” said Eve Ellis, a financial adviser who started the online petition.

Ms. Ellis, a former board member of Komen’s New York affiliate who donated and helped raise $250,000, has quit giving to the charity over the Planned Parenthood flap.

Ms. Brinker “has refused to leave gracefully, and the affiliates are suffering,” said another former board member of the New York affiliate who asked that her name be withheld.

A breast-cancer survivor, she said she participated in New York’s Race for the Cure every year since it began in 1991 but withdrew her support this year. “They hoped this issue was quietly going away, but it hasn’t,” she said.

While Ms. Brinker declined to comment for this article, officials at Komen’s headquarters and some affiliates defended her decision to maintain a prominent board position.

Bonnie Olson, former executive director of Komen’s affiliate in Bonita Springs, Fla., said in an e-mail that the petition seeking Ms. Brinker’s departure was “unrealistic.” She added: “Many people in high-level leadership roles make decisions they regret and continue to be great leaders. Let’s not negate all the wonderful things she has accomplished.”

Andrea Rader, national communications director at Komen, said in an interview that “Nancy Brinker has done more for breast cancer than any other woman in the history of this movement.” Noting that Komen’s founder wants to be involved in strategic programs and the fundraising to support them, she said Ms. Brinker “will continue to have a role.”

Lifetime Trustees

Critics of Ms. Brinker said they find it especially irksome that the national headquarters allows some board members to serve for life but requires trustees at each of its 119 local affiliates to rotate off their boards after three consecutive two-year terms.

Both Ms. Brinker and Linda Custard, a full-time volunteer who serves on several other Dallas charity boards, are “lifetime members.” The same was true of Ms. Brinker’s late husband, Norman, a restaurant mogul who was on the board until his death in 2009.

While other trustees on Komen’s eight-member national board are generally expected to serve two two-year terms, “board membership may be extended if the board determines it is in the best interests of the organization,” said Ms. Rader.

Staff Departures

Komen has faced more than fundraising losses. Leaders of affiliates in New York and Oregon, along with senior executives at national headquarters, stepped down soon after the Planned Parenthood grants debate erupted.

And Komen has been beset by other troubles, such as a report this month in the British Medical Journal by two Dartmouth professors who argued that Komen uses misleading statistics to overstate the benefits of mammograms for women.

And no matter how much it wants to move the publicity spotlight away from the Planned Parenthood controversy, it will have trouble doing so next month when Karen Handel, Komen’s former vice president for public policy, who advocated cutting off the agency, releases a book about her experience.

The cover illustration of Planned Bullyhood: The Truth About the Planned Parenthood Funding Battle With Susan G. Komen for the Cure is a ripped and frayed pink ribbon, Komen’s symbol in the fight against breast cancer.

Founder’s Role

Experts on nonprofit management said they think the charity needs to find a way to ask Ms. Brinker to bow all the way out of her management role.

For charities like Komen that have reached maturity after 30 years, “founders are not essential,” said Mark Lipton, a New School management professor who coaches retiring founders and has started another program for their successors.

Ms. Brinker is likely to undermine Komen’s ability to hire the most qualified person to fill the job of its departing president and other key leaders who have left, he said.

“Seasoned leaders know that as long as the founder is still around, they will not have free rein to lead.”

Even so, Ms. Brinker appears to be “sinking her claws in deeper, and there is no indication she is going to step away when new leaders get hired,” said Mr. Lipton.

The responsibility for making sure that leaders do not hamper an organization’s progress, he said, “lies with the board.”

But many, if not most, of the remaining board members at Komen’s headquarters, Mr. Lipton said, appear to be long-term associates of Ms. Brinker’s rather than independently elected trustees.

Referring to the charity’s iconic color, he added: “Instead of seeing pink, they should be seeing orange blinking warning lights.”

Send an e-mail to Holly Hall.