What Komen can (and should) teach us

It had to happen, I guess.

Six months after the epic brouhaha stirred up by Komen’s decision (and hasty reversal) to disqualify Planned Parenthood from its grants that fund breast exams, Komen’s top two execs are leaving.

Nancy Brinker, the founder and CEO of Komen, announced she’s surrendering her post. And president Liz Thompson handed in her resignation last month; she will walk away in September.

I’m not going to wade into the “she said, she said” of what happened. Plenty of others have done that, and ultimately, I don’t find it that interesting.

What I do find interesting is what nonprofits can learn from the whole mess. And here’s what occurs to me: Mistakes matter – in some cases a lot; but they also can present excellent opportunities.

Mistakes matter

Yes, Komen made a mistake. In accordance with my promise, I won’t get into the details of the “troubles.” But at the very least, the organization bungled the public-relations in dealing with the issue, and the tentacles of the whole mess reached far and wide:

Donations went down. Way down. In a post-recession environment, where fundraising is already tough, the unpleasantness only made it harder. Donations were off by as much as 30 percent at some affiliates.

People laced up their shoes and ran…away. Participation at Race for the Cure events around the country stumbled. The race in Washington D.C. was down by 10,000 participants, Indianapolis lost 11,000, Sacramento was off 7,000, and the list goes on.

Top talent abandoned ship(s). Some top execs resigned in protest, including the national organization’s top public-health official, the executive director of the Los Angeles affiliate, the CEO of the Oregon affiliate, and others.

Branding took a bruising. An annual Harris Interactive poll says Komen’s brand equity dove 21 percent this year – from a perennial first or second among nonprofits to the bottom third. That’s not good for cause marketing, a corporate/nonprofit symbiosis that Komen’s wholesome brand helped popularize. Partners now have some thinking to do.

But mistakes present opportunities, too

Change is healthy. Uncomfortable sometimes, but healthy. And few people (or organizations) like to have change thrust upon them. But once it happens, a smart organization will make the most of it:

Yuck, I stepped in change…Time for a new pair of shoes! Jump on the chance to regroup. Really. Crisis is a great motivator and rallying cry. Employees, partners and supporters are all more open to change when the earth has shifted beneath their feet. Refocus your mission, realign your processes to support it and march forth with renewed purpose, energy and experience.

Founder’s Syndrome is real…but transition is healthy. This afflicts thousands of nonprofits whose identities are wrapped up with those of their founders. (You know what I mean…the individuals whose passion and dedication launched a fantastic nonprofit, but who can’t realize the organization has outgrown their knowledge and expertise.) This is the perfect chance to bring in a new set of skills, one matched to the needs of the organization TODAY.

Affiliates are independent…so act like it. For network nonprofits like Komen (or YMCA or Habitat or Red Cross), a parent’s decisions and actions reflect on the kids. But affiliates are NOT the same as national organizations. Locals need to tell their own story and develop their own relationships with their own donors, volunteers and race participants. Laying that groundwork makes it easier to set the record straight when kin start acting up.

Mistakes don’t have to erase good works…unless you let them. Komen is a solid organization with deep reservoirs of goodwill. It brought breast cancer out of the shadows and into the limelight, and has raised almost $2 BILLION for breast cancer research, education and prevention over the past 30 years. And I’m pretty sure pink actually means breast cancer now. Most nonprofits have goodwill of their own – don’t let people forget it.

It may be small comfort to Komen, but the aftershocks from all of this can serve as a lesson for all of us – that even the gems of our nonprofit sector are only human, that we all need to be ready to react when change nudges us or clobbers us over the head, and that everyone can use a hand every now and then.

Has your organization had to navigate through unwanted change? If so, what words of wisdom can you share?


About Ret Boney

Curious. Strategic. Organized. Dedicated. Champion of nonprofits. Wife. Mom to middle schoolers.
This entry was posted in Communication, Culture, Marketing, Organizational Development and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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