Has Ego Trumped Your Mission? Lessons in Transparency from the Komen Foundation Fiasco

Posted 02.06.2012

As you’ve no doubt read, the Komen Foundation – the people behind the pink ribbons to fight breast cancer – found themselves at the center of controversy last week after they decided to pull funding for breast cancer screenings from Planned Parenthood. The basis for the decision, according to Komen officials: They no longer wanted to give money to  organizations that were “under investigation.”  The only Komen grantee that met that criterion was Planned Parenthood, which is the subject of a non-criminal investigation by a member of Congress.

When an outcry on social media ensued, the traditional media quickly picked up the story.  Many of the corporate partners of Komen started expressing their reservations.  Two days later, the leadership of Komen tried to clarify their position by saying it was not their intention to target Planned Parenthood and that the funding would be restored.  (The whole story is recapped in this article from The New York Times.)

Regardless of how you feel about Planned Parenthood,  it’s clear that the Komen Foundation hadn’t fully prepared for the era when transparency has moved from buzzword to reality. Social media has a way of  making quick work of leaders who put their ego games ahead of their organizations’ missions. Komen officials’ mistakes offer a warning to other leaders who think they are immune to  such lightning-fast takedowns.

You know you’re headed for trouble when:

  •  You start splitting verbal hairs.  By coming up with a policy to defund organizations under investigation, the Komen board knew whom they were targeting.  When they reversed the defunding decision they said they meant to focus on organizations that were under criminal investigation.  By splitting verbal hairs they lost credibility with their core supporters and parties on both sides of the Planned Parenthood debate.  If you find yourself working overtime on crafting the nuanced language of your statements, that’s a sign you’re headed for trouble.
  •  Your organization becomes bigger than the cause.  Over the years, I’ve supported a lot of friends participating in Komen fundraising events but I never really looked at the Komen Foundation’s website.  I did when preparing this post.  Maybe it was the overwhelming pinkness of the site or all of the fundraising and marketing going on throughout the site, but I felt like I was being sold a product called the Komen Foundation rather than reading about an organization trying to cure breast cancer.   Perhaps the lesson is that leaders should pay attention to what they’re promoting.  If more of your attention is on the organization than the mission, that could be a sign you’re headed for trouble.
  •  Your leaders become bigger than the organization.  Given that the Susan G. Komen Foundation was started by the sister of a breast cancer victim, I understand that the founder and CEO, Nancy G. Brinker, would be featured prominently on their website.  No problem with that, but when I read her bio on the site, I kind of went, “Hmmm.”  It begins with the statement, “Nancy G. Brinker is regarded as the leader of the global breast cancer movement,” and goes on to mention her ambassadorship, her New York Times bestselling book and at least 10 awards she’s won.  I applaud all that she has accomplished but is that really the point?   When leaders are bigger than the organizations they lead, that’s usually a sign of trouble ahead.