To hear Nancy Brinker tell it, the reason Susan G. Komen for the Cure cut off funding to Planned Parenthood was all business.
The founder and CEO of the breast cancer nonprofit said in a video posted to YouTube and its Web site Wednesday that politics played no role in the decision. “We have the highest responsibility to ensure that donor dollars make the biggest impact possible,” she said. And while Brinker does not address it in the video, other reports have said Komen chose to pull its funding because it has a policy not to donate money to organizations that are under investigation. Planned Parenthood, which provides women with everything from mammograms to pap smears to yes, abortions, has been subject to a probe about its use of federal funds following a report from a pro-life group called Americans United for Life.
Plenty have questioned Komen’s statement that politics doesn’t play a role in its decisions, noting the political ties of its leaders and other recent developments. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reports that one of Komen’s top officials has resigned from the organization over the decision, and that the rule against investigations was established only recently and for this purpose. At least one of Komen’s local affiliates are frustrated by the move. And the organization’s Facebook fans certainly aren’t buying it.
But for the sake of argument, at least, let’s take Komen at its word and assume the decision was about nothing but getting more for their donors’ dollars or following established organizational rules. If that’s truly the case, it gets at a classic quandary for leaders: Are there times when the rules should be bucked in order to prevent worse crises? When should a leader’s gut guide a decision away from established rules? And while efficiency is a noble goal, can it blind leaders to other pitfalls?
Let’s take the impact issue first. Brinker’s video implies that Komen’s dollars could go further if the money they have been giving Planned Parenthood went to other organizations instead. While there are vague references to “duplicative grants” and a desire to give money directly to providers, Brinker does not come out and say how Planned Parenthood falls short. She does not use specific examples to explain how other organizations or providers could do more with the $680,000 it gave Planned Parenthood last year. Doing so would have been much more persuasive.
Moreover, one wonders what tradeoffs might be in store for dumping Planned Parenthood and turning to more “efficient” providers. That money may go farther, but what if this controversy results in less money coming in to Komen in the first place? Donors who support Planned Parenthood could certainly choose to send their money elsewhere in the fight against breast cancer.
One thing Ms. Brinker does not mention in the video, notably, is the primary reason given earlier by a Komen spokeswoman for the foundation’s decision. The spokeswoman reportedly said the decision was the result of a new rule Komen adopted that prohibits grants to organizations being investigated by authorities.
I find it more than a little odd that Brinker does not mention the investigation in her video, or that being a reason Komen decided to cut their donations. But if it was indeed a factor, is it evenly applied? And should there be exceptions to the rule? The Planned Parenthood probe, launched by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), is clearly politically motivated.
Brinker and her leadership team had to have known the decision would be a controversial one, which is why the differing responses from the spokeswoman referencing the new rule on investigations and Brinker’s explanation in the video are so puzzling. Even if there are criteria about putting money to its best use, Komen’s leaders hopefully considered whether blindly following this policy could prompt greater controversies with bigger consequences than the relatively smaller risks of leaving the money in place. The guide for her—and any leader in her position—should always be what is best for the organization’s mission and what is best for the people she serves.
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