22nd February, 2012

Lessons to learn from the Susan G. Komen Foundation debacle

Over in the US, our normally charitable American friends have suddenly become much less forgiving towards one of their big non-profits. 

The news that one of the most high profile breast cancer charities, The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (often referred to as simply Komen), would no longer be supporting 19 local Planned Parenthood affiliates was met with shock and a flurry of furious blogs, demonstrations and newspaper articles.  Facebook went into overdrive, and #SusanGKomen started trending like nobody’s business on Twitter.  The social media network mobilised and revolted, and Komen’s reputation sank beneath the muddy waters of the Internet.

So why the bru-ha-ha over the announcement?  Because of the context.  The Planned Parenthood centres supplied 170,000 clinical breast examinations and over 6,000 mammograms referrals to women from low-income backgrounds.  In a country that is struggling to sort out its health program, the news was received with outrage from all quarters.

So why did such a big name organisation cut nearly $680,000 worth of funding?  The Foundation claims it was due to a congressional investigation into whether the Planned Parenthood centres were using the Foundation’s money to fund abortions.  In Christian America, the ‘A-word’ is a political hot potato and can make or break both politicians and charities fortunes.

Going dark

But what is most telling is how Komen tacticians dealt with the outpouring on the social media sites to their decision. They ‘went dark’ for 24 hours, not responding in any way to the questions of ordinary people who had supported the charity for years.  

By refusing to respond, Komen broke one of the cardinal rules of strategic planning and managing PR fallout – be upfront.  When you make a fundamental game change like this, you need to tell people WHY you’re doing it. 

Then, if your decision still raises concern, you need to listen and then respond to your supporters. If you don’t, your supporters are only hearing one side of the argument, and the result can be a catastrophic loss of support for what is in effect a very worthy cause.

Valuable lessons

After three days of controversy, The Susan G. Komen Foundation announced that they would be dropping their plans to cut Planned Parenthood’s grant and “preserve their eligibility to protect future grants”; on the same day Karen Handel, the vice president of public policy at Komen (and a conservative Republican who unsuccessfully ran for Georgia governor in 2010) resigned.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood raised several million dollars in three days.

Fundraising organisations across the world can learn valuable lessons from this situation, especially in this age of instant online response forums like Facebook and Twitter.  These two platforms offer non-profits an opportunity to engage directly with supporters, and to hear their concerns about how their donations are spent, fundraising policies and major decisions.

Digital Marketing Consultant / ‘Geek in a Suit’, Roger Jones, has kindly allowed me to reproduce his Social Media policy to aid decision-making in response to user-generated content:

The impact of ignoring complaints on these platforms has left Komen battered and bruised, which in turn led to a reduction in their support from grass roots campaigners. To ensure continuing support in times of crisis, charities need to be transparent, up front and open and, most importantly, respond to the legitimate concerns of their followers in a timely fashion.  Otherwise they could suffer the same battering as the Susan G. Komen Foundation did – and in a situation like that nobody wins.


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    Great article. Sad to see yet another example of a company totally underestimating the power of social media. Agree that it’s all about being being honest – whether you’re a charity or a big corporate. In a crisis, how you handle your supporters’ or customers’ questions can be pivotal to whether the outcome is positive or negative.

    Lisa Bhanu on 22nd February, 2012 at 6:35 pm Reply

      Thanks Lisa. You’re right about the need for responses from companies & charities alike.

      Emma on 22nd February, 2012 at 6:49 pm

      I found a post by Kelleigh Nelson at GulagBound showing that Susan G. Komen tcronibutes to Planned Parenthood in qu . I have been a contributor to SGK for many, many years. I’m reminded of a lesson that I know

      Barbara on 10th March, 2012 at 10:44 pm
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