Here’s something that almost anyone from any side of the political spectrum can agree upon: the past week has been heinous for Susan G. Komen. And it has shown that the organization most known for its staunch (some, like me, would say steamrolling) support for finding a cure and raising awareness for a single type of cancer -- breast cancer -- above any other has a cancer all its own. It’s a cancer common to any group that has become bloated with a false sense of self-righteousness and one whose arrogance and hubris causes it to stray from its stated (if overzealous) mission and become embroiled in a politicized mess.
What I'm talking about, of course, is this week's announcement that Karen Handel, Susan G. Komen’s vice president of public policy, jumped before she was pushed. A speedy resignation with no severance package, Handel excised herself from the organization before mounting pressure within the group would have forced her imminent departure.
Her resignation caps a week of intense public backlash over Susan G. Komen's decision to first cut and then hurriedly restore about $680,000 in funding to Planned Parenthood, a provider of reproductive health services, including contraception and abortions.
In her resignation letter, which has been posted on Forbes, Handel goes to great lengths to explain how the situation got so out of control. Her defense? Komen is in the business of saving lives. Anything that distracts from that goal is a disservice -- thus the decision to pull funding and divorce itself from a controversial organization that might be spending money illegally, like funding abortions.
In October 2011, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I wrote about how the "pinking" of America was diluting the message of curing cancer and replacing it with corporate capitalism and too much consumption. I also took issue with Susan G.’s near-bullying tactics as they related to how the fundraising and marketing gargantuan has left smaller cancer-fighting organizations to fend for themselves, and how they aggressively muscle out any group that seeks to challenge breast cancer as the only cancer worth raising money for.
This latest misstep only adds to my great concern that Susan G. Komen, for all the good it has admittedly done for breast cancer awareness, has become a monopolistic and politically compromised organization. If she were alive today, I wonder what Susan Goodman Komen -- whom the organization gets its name from -- would think. After what must have been a grueling fight for her life, finding a cure and staying true to the organization's mission and goals would be more important to her then whether or not grant money was going to another group similarly charged with helping save the lives of young, often poor women -- an organization that happens to provide abortions.
Letters of resignation aside, let's not forget that Karen Handel is a former Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate, whose campaign promises included cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, and was Georgia's 26th Secretary of the State.
On Sunday, the Huffington Post reported that it had obtained an email exchange between Komen leadership confirming that Handel had the sole authority in crafting and implementing the Planned Parenthood policy.
Does this not have all the makings of a woman hell-bent on achieving a personal goal and using a behemoth organization which itself had become too politically connected, as cover to achieve her aims?
Yes -- the organization did reverse course in barely 72 hours, and restored the funds. It also made changes to its grant awarding guidelines that say only organizations under criminal investigation would be denied funding. But like a true cancer, this organizational one has already done much damage -- to those who truly believed in the structure of non-profits being “doers of good,” to those who held Komen as saviors of women, and to the brands who’ve invested heavily to be part of Komen’s shiny pink halo.
The upside to all this? Susan G. Komen’s misdeeds have opened up an enormous pathway for all the non-profits around the country, breast-cancer-related or not -- to start reclaiming their place in consumers’ hearts, minds and wallets.
And as for the PR advice, first administered by Ari Fleisher and now Ogilvy, all I can say is that it will take a lot more than some clever PR tactics and new positioning to rebuild this country’s trust in the Susan G. Komen brand and its “values.”