February 08, 2012

Komen vs. Planned Parenthood Fallout Will Make Cancer Group Work Harder, Experts Say

The controversy surrounding the decision by Susan G. Komen for the Cure to withdraw grants to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the reversal of the unpopular policy last week, may have damaged the cancer group’s own fund-raising efforts while giving a boost to the reproductive-health organization. Planned Parenthood has reported more than $3-million in contributions since last week.

Fund-raising experts say that Komen will be in an uphill battle to repair relationships with its donors, both large and small, after the breast-cancer charity fumbled in an unusually slow response to the outrage that ensued after the policy change.

Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, is in a prime position to benefit from the goodwill generated toward it by the incident, and could use that to its advantage as it works to further spread awareness of its own mission and enlarge its network of donors even as it has become embroiled in the debate about abortion, experts says.

“Komen may have hurt the relationship with their donors very significantly,” says Dan Germain, director of Talisma Fundraising, a software company. “Their actions in the next six months will be critical in regaining the confidence and the trust from people who have supported them.”

Fighting a Backlash

The cancer group has the unenviable task of fighting the backlash it faced after it failed to anticipate and better respond to donors’ concerns about its decision to withdraw support.

Some of the negative perceptions of Komen may be irreversible, fundraisers say. Its affiliates worry that fewer people will participate in Komen’s popular “Race for the Cure” fund-raising events.

“I’ve already heard from a few people that they’re not going to do a 'Race for the Cure’ any longer,” says Sarah Durham, principal at Big Duck, a fund-raising and consulting firm in New York. “It’ll be interesting in 2012 how the numbers will play out for them.” (Komen has not responded to The Chronicle’s repeated inquiries about the current state of its fund-raising.)

The big question is whether there will be damage to the pink-ribbon movement, of which Komen has been a visible leader among breast-cancer groups in raising millions for research and awareness, Ms. Durham says. Komen, she says, needs to call all of its major donors immediately and talk directly about its actions. Ina Clark, vice president of development for the Ms. Foundation for Women, a social-justice group, says she would advise Komen’s fundraisers to “be clear in your communications to your donors and your prospective donors about what you’re all about, and what your values are.”

As of now, says Mr. Germain, the cancer charity has alienated potential donors on both sides of the abortion issue. “Had they stuck to their guns, they would have been in a stronger position to maybe bring in supporters who felt very strongly against Planned Parenthood,” he says.

Mr. Germain says Komen may have to consider letting donors earmark their gifts to support certain programs and not others—a method that could satisfy supporters. “It’s an approach that organizations can take to make sure they’re giving donors the appropriate venues of how their gifts are being used in order to mirror the donors’ value system,” he says.

'Such a Surprise’

Shawn Elmore, development director at Komen’s Phoenix affiliate, says the past few days have been a wake-up call to the organization. He’s spent most of his time answering phones and responding to e-mails from donors, who he says have been confused and misinformed. Many of them don’t know that affiliates are independent of Komen headquarters and operate separately, although 25 percent of the money Mr. Elmore’s group raises goes to the national organization.

Many donors have also asked whether the Phoenix affiliate supported Planned Parenthood with grants. Mr. Elmore says it had done so in the past, but not recently, since the charity has not applied for any of the grants in recent years.

Officials of the Komen affiliate say they learned in December there might be changes in the national organization’s grant-making process, but they didn’t know to what extent and had no idea such changes would affect only one charity.

“It was just such a surprise,” says Mr. Elmore, and “really disappointing” that the decision put Planned Parenthood in the crossfire. He says fundraisers in Komen affiliates across the country were “caught off guard.”

“We were completely unprepared,” he says. “We were very concerned about the political nature of how it looked. We don’t consider ourselves to be Rebublican or Democrat, pro-choice or pro-life.”

The affiliate responded to the policy change quickly by sending an e-mail blast to its 70,000 supporters, saying it was disappointed in the national office’s decision and was urging headquarters to reverse its original decision. After it did so, a second e-mail blast was sent, praising the headquarters for its move. The affiliate’s fund-raising staff also reached out personally to major donors. A small percentage of those who have made large gifts in the past indicated that they would no longer support the local group, Mr. Elmore says. Corporate sponsors, though, haven’t pulled out of Phoenix’s “Race for the Cure” in October. Mr. Elmore expects that participation in that event will drop.

“It definitely makes our job more difficult because of the sensitivity of the issue,” he Elmore says. “This is a political issue that unfortunately people feel very strongly for or against. It would have been easier if it had been something blasé.”

The Phoenix office plans to meet with representatives from the local Planned Parenthood affiliate this week to reinforce their relationship and clear up any misunderstanding.

Advice for Affiliates

Some former Komen fundraisers have been taken aback by the developments.

“If I were at the local [affiliate] today, I would be distancing myself from the national organization in terms of their politics, for sure,” says Beverly Savage, the executive director of Hudson County CASA, in Jersey City, N.J., who was a former director of development and external affairs for the North Jersey affiliate of Komen. “They really have egg on their face, and they’ve admitted it.”

When she was at Komen, she says, the local groups were granted a “fair degree of latitude” on which charities to support.

The timing of this misstep is “terrible,” Ms. Savage says. She knows that supporters of the North Jersey affiliate are preparing for their big “Race for the Cure” in May.

Ultimately, Komen “should stay out of politics,” she says. “That’s the No. 1 thing to do.”

As for Planned Parenthood, Ms. Savage says the organization should approach things very carefully and not escalate the situation. The says the group should be “very grateful of the outpouring of support” in response to the incident, and should send heartfelt thank-you’s and make personal visits to new donors.

“I think Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg should get a visit,” Ms. Savage says. Before Komen’s policy reversal last week, the mayor of New York City, a longtime supporter of the reproductive-health charity, pledged to match donations to Planned Parenthood of up to $250,000.

'Making a Sharp Point’

Other fund-raising experts agree that a measured fund-raising approach is the right tactic for Planned Parenthood at this time. The group needs to to remain relevant to its grass-roots supporters and pursue any of the new donors who have contributed millions of dollars to its cause, they say.

“Keep on doing what you’re doing,” Ms. Clark, of Ms. Foundation for Women, advises Planned Parenthood. But, like Ms. Savage, she warns that the group should not overplay its hand: “Don’t ever seem like you’re trying to turn a difficult situation into a great one, opportunistically.”

Planned Parenthood has done a lot of smart things already, says Michael Rosen, president of ML Innovations, a fund-raising consultancy. It’s “raised a lot of money at a very short period of time. They’ve been reasonably diplomatic about it, while still making a sharp point.”

Planned Parenthood, though, needs to continue to “remind people that Planned Parenthood is not synonymous with an abortion clinic,” Mr. Rosen says. “They’re being caught up with the abortion debate here. They need to keep reminding people the issue is breast examinations for low-income women.”