Skip to main content

All Nonprofits Are Hurt by the Culture Wars, Not Just Komen for the Cure

William A. Schambra

Executives at the breast-cancer fundraising behemoth Susan G. Komen for the Cure may have been hoping they had finally moved past last February’s controversy over their decision to cut, and then to restore, their grants to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. But a new book, Planned Bullyhood, from the former Komen vice president Karen Handel, is likely to stir things up again, with her detailed insider’s account of the debacle.

The book is a must-read for anyone wishing to learn how not to handle public-relations crises. But it also raises a larger question: Is it possible for nonprofit groups to “move to neutral ground,” as Ms. Handel suggested was Komen’s goal, in the increasingly politicized world of nonprofits?

Ms. Handel came to Komen in 2010 as vice president for policy after narrowly losing a Republican primary contest for the governorship of Georgia. Since Republicans had captured a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, she notes, Komen wisely sought a senior manager who could build bridges to the resurgent conservative movement in America—just as it had long maintained a stable of consultants with deep ties to liberal Democrats.

Given her political experience, Ms. Handel seemed ideal for the job. Surely, Ms. Handel believed, a spot at Susan G. Komen for the Cure would offer refuge from the ugly culture wars that had engulfed her candidacy. Komen was, after all, the nation’s largest group raising money for an indisputably noble cause, the battle against breast cancer. It had been founded by the Dallas socialite Nancy Brinker in 1982 to fulfill her promise to her sister Susan G. Komen that she would find a cure for the disease that had ended her life.

Komen claims to have raised some $2-billion for research and community programs through well-attended extravaganzas like the annual Race for the Cure. Its far-flung program of corporate sponsorships has slapped its trademark pink ribbon on everything from perfume to buckets of KFC fried chicken to Ford automobiles.

But Komen, too, was having difficulties with anti-abortion groups. Some of its 120 local affiliates were supporting women’s health services at clinics run by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Although Planned Parenthood describes itself as “America’s most trusted provider of reproductive health care,” it is better known in pro-life Catholic and conservative circles as the nation’s leading provider of abortions.

Komen had long defended its grants to Planned Parenthood against what Ms. Brinker described as the “utterly false assertion” that they paid for abortions. But Ms. Handel notes that those grants were fast becoming a serious drag on fundraising efforts, with some Catholic bishops calling on parishioners to stop working with Komen and conservative U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida withdrawing from participation in one of its fundraising galas.

At any rate, Ms. Handel insists, the grants amounting to a tiny percentage of Planned Parenthood’s annual billion-dollar budget were not likely to survive Komen’s push for more stringent grant-making standards, which would exclude supporting groups that were under investigation, banned from receiving government money, or couldn’t produce clear and measurable outcomes.

Komen was working with Planned Parenthood toward a quiet, amicable separation, Ms. Handel maintains, when the story suddenly hit the newspapers and blogs at the end of January. The firestorm of protest that greeted Komen’s decision—covertly engineered, she insists, by Planned Parenthood, its sympathizers within Komen, and its allies in the Democratic party—was so intense that it was reversed within 72 hours.

Ms. Handel found herself the scapegoat for a decision that, according to her account, had long been in the works with the full backing of Komen leadership. Although she resigned shortly thereafter, Komen has remained in turmoil since the about-face, with fundraising and participation in Komen events reportedly declining, additional top executives leaving their posts, and Ms. Brinker herself stepping down from the role of CEO, though remaining on the board of directors.

Komen may well survive its confrontation with Planned Parenthood, but it will still be marooned in the center of the minefield of cultural politics. By restoring Planned Parenthood’s eligibility for grants, of course, Komen remains suspect in conservative eyes.

But that restoration by no means solves its problems with the left. For the fact is that “the Planned Parenthood controversy is just the culmination of things that have been happening for a while,” according to Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons, Inc., Ms. King’s critique of “breast-cancer culture” became the basis of a widely acclaimed documentary just released in DVD.

Her book and others with titles like Pink Ribbon Blues and From Pink to Green accuse Komen of a broad range of grave offenses. The relentlessly upbeat stories of courageous survivorhood heard at Komen events—what Ms. King describes as the “tyranny of cheerfulness”—tend to suppress the feelings of anger and frustration so many cancer sufferers feel and could fuel a passionate political movement if properly harnessed.

Komen’s omnipresent pink ribbon represents the “infantilization of the female experience into something fashionable, cheerful, or sexy,” argues Anna Holmes in The Washington Post, reinforcing the conservative gender roles that feminism intended to dismantle.

But above all, Komen critics object to its coziness with corporate America. This blinds it, says an emerging “environmental breast-cancer movement,” to the larger, systemic flaws and inequities in American society that do so much to cause and perpetuate breast cancer.

The very companies that support Komen, especially large pharmaceutical firms, often have an immediate economic stake in specific cancer-treatment products, its detractors point out. Furthermore, many Komen corporate sponsors include carcinogenic ingredients in their products or spew them into our air and water, with low-income and minority neighborhoods most affected.

Any company that would “raise funds for breast cancer while diverting attention from the company’s potential hazards, such as producing chemicals or toxins that have been linked to the disease,” is engaged in “pinkwashing,” writes Gayle Sulik in Pink Ribbon Blues.

Ms. Sulik praises the San Francisco nonprofit Breast Cancer Action for developing a Think Before You Pink Toolkit to educate consumers about pinkwashing. The nonprofit challenges Komen’s focus on getting treatment for people who have cancer, insisting rather that we need to focus on prevention, which would put the burden “squarely where it belongs: on our society and regulatory systems.”

Government shouldn’t have to prove a product is carcinogenic to ban it, breast-cancer activists argue; corporations should have to prove that any conceivably carcinogenic product is entirely safe before it is permitted. Social justice demands such a sustained political challenge to the “Cancer Industrial Complex,” as the social critic Barbara Ehrenreich described it.

At the deepest level, according to Samantha King, Komen’s very reliance on private fundraising implicitly conveys the disturbing idea that charity is a “morally and economically viable means through which to respond to societal needs, in lieu of the state’s role in mitigating the social effects of capitalism.”

Given this far-reaching and sustained indictment, it’s no wonder Komen couldn’t quietly “move to neutral ground” in the culture wars by snipping its ties to Planned Parenthood.

There is no such neutral ground, Ms. Ehrenreich insists: “This kerfuffle with the Komen foundation really showed that they don’t represent a women’s health movement. You can’t depoliticize women’s health issues. You can’t just make a nice philanthropy around it.”

Ms. Handel seems to have concluded that as well: “Call it naïveté. Call it stupidity. Incompetence. Wishful thinking. But for our part, we were genuinely committed to avoiding a media firestorm for ourselves and for Planned Parenthood.” She suggests that Komen was naïvely bent on remaining a “nice philanthropy,” with no grasp of the progressive onslaught that a move against Planned Parenthood would trigger.

Over the years, Nancy Brinker has brushed off criticism as just so much “whining and kvetching,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “For all the naysayers who say we over-pink the world: We don’t have enough pink,” she insisted to the Dallas Morning News.

But it’s far too late now for breezy dismissals. Ms. Brinker is fighting to remain even tenuously attached to the foundation that bears her sister’s name. “There is one last step that can be taken to save the mighty Komen from running aground permanently,” argues the prominent bioethicist Art Caplan at “The entire executive leadership and board must resign.”

As with so many accounts of the Komen controversy, mine, too, has a personal angle. My wife, Sharon, remembers digging frantically for even the smallest shred of solid medical information about breast cancer as her beloved older sister lay dying of it in the early 1980s. She was deeply moved by a journal account of Nancy Brinker’s determination to raise awareness about and find a cure for the disease that had also taken her beloved older sister.

Although she is no fan of “pink culture,” Sharon has been a supporter of Komen ever since. She was grateful for the Komen-backed improvements in detection and treatment when she, like Nancy Brinker, was herself diagnosed with breast cancer. Along with thousands of other Komen supporters, she was dumbfounded by the disproportionate fury that greeted what appeared to be a minor (and quickly retracted) shift in Komen’s grant-making criteria.

Sharon and I now understand a bit more about the profound and longstanding political reservations many have about Komen’s approach. But we are left wondering where we would be today without its immense success at raising public awareness about breast cancer, to say nothing of $2-billion for research and treatment. It seems unlikely that anything of this magnitude could have been accomplished by anti-Komen activists, who seem more interested in corporate subjugation than in corporate sponsorship.

Although Komen has proven ill-equipped to defend itself, it is regrettable that the American charitable sector has become so intensely politicized that almost no prominent public voice has been raised on its behalf. The immediate victim of this may be Susan G. Komen for the Cure. But the ultimate victim may be American charity, which increasingly seems to have no place for organizations seeking “neutral ground” in the culture wars, where most American donors prefer to stand.

Related Articles

Carnegie’s Midnight Confession

William A. Schambra

Sometime this past Summer, Eric Isaacs, president of the Carnegie Institution for Science, issued a formal apology for his organization’s role in the ...

Continue Reading

The American Republic and the Authoritarian Challenge

Tod Lindberg

Since the 1789 adoption in Philadelphia of the Constitution that established the form of government of the United States of America, this country has ...

Continue Reading

Keeping the Republic

Tod Lindberg

Since the 1789 adoption in Philadelphia of the Constitution that established the form of government of the United States of America, this country has ...

Continue Reading