Nancy Brinker, the Susan G. Komen founder and CEO, is keeping her job. Or at least, that’s what Komen board member John Rafaelli is saying following the breast cancer nonprofit’s decision Friday to amend its policies that would have prevented it from funding the women’s health organization Planned Parenthood. The controversy swelled in recent days and provoked backlash from donors, Komen affiliates and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And Brinker (a former ambassador to Hungary) has come under fire for her handling of the crisis. “Nancy was not trying to mislead anyone,” Rafaelli told The Plum Line’s Greg Sargent. He said her job was safe, and that the board “unequivocally” stood behind her.
If she’s going to stay in the job, however, she might want to brush up on her crisis communications skills a little. What transpired in recent days revealed an organization jumping from one rationale to the next in explaining its contentious decision to cut future funding of Planned Parenthood. Even if, as Komen has maintained, politics was not the reason for the original decision, the bungling of its message falls squarely on the shoulders of its leaders and their advisers.
The confusion started after a spokeswoman, Leslie Aun, told the Associated Press in a story posted Tuesday that the primary factor in the decision was a new rule adopted by Komen that stops grants to organizations under investigation. (Planned Parenthood is the subject of a probe into its financing by Republican Congressman Cliff Stearns.) Then on Wednesday, the foundation issued a statement that did not directly mention this rule, but offered a different explanation. “We made the decision to implement stronger performance criteria for our grantees to minimize duplication and free up dollars for direct services to help vulnerable women,” the statement read.
It also alluded to “more stringent eligibility standards to safeguard donor dollars” and emphasized that its decisions were not about politics. Also on Wednesday, the nonprofit posted a video of Brinker making a similar statement, offering up vague explanations that did not specifically address the initial rationale.
And yet, in another story published Wednesday, board member Rafaelli told The New York Times that the decision to cut off money to most of Planned Parenthood’s affiliates was made because of the fear that Stearns’ probe could hurt Komen’s credibility with donors. Then on Thursday, Brinker and Komen President Elizabeth Thompson spoke with reporters, saying that the decision “doesn’t really have anything to do with” the probe, and that it actually has to do with wanting to fund organizations that actually provide mammograms to women, rather than providing mammogram referrals.
Finally, Komen’s announcement on Friday, which seems to amount to a reversal of its decision, says that well—actually—it did have something to do with the probe. “Our original desire was to fulfill our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation,” the statement reads. “We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political.”
What’s confounding about the way Brinker and her team have handled the controversy is that they had to have known the decision would cause an uproar. Planned Parenthood has become one of the most politicized (and vilified, among pro-life groups) organizations in this country. This is widely known—and certainly very well known by an organization that has on its leadership team a CEO with strong Republican ties and a former gubernatorial candidate who has said she doesn’t support Planned Parenthood. Whether or not their politics swayed the decision, they had to have sensed that it would be controversial enough to require getting their communication strategy straight ahead of time. And they should not have been surprised by the response.
Komen’s leadership seems to hope that with this revision of its funding criteria, the issue will simply go away. “We urge everyone who has participated in this conversation across the country over the last few days to help us move past this issue,” the statement reads. Its move on Friday will help. But there are still enough unanswered questions—whether or not Planned Parenthood will actually receive future funding, why the statement didn’t address its second reason about direct mammogram services—that it’s not likely to disappear yet.
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