Friday, February 3, 2012

Non-apologies and Non-answers Don't Help Non-profits

The well respected nonprofit Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation is now embroiled in a scandal of its own making. The reaction to the news that the foundation had decided to cut funding of $700,000 of grants to Planned Parenthood has generated a storm of front-page coverage, angry editorials, tweets and Facebook comments.

The organization, which has built up tremendous goodwill and strong brand recognition with its iconic pink ribbon, has a right to distribute its $93 million in grant money as it sees fit, consistent with its mission, fiduciary and legal responsibilities.  However, the foundation has clearly miscommunicated an apparent policy change with regard to Planned Parenthood.

Critics are claiming that the reason Komen cut grants to Planned Parenthood is due to politics -- specifically the desire to placate some anti-abortion donors who have been targeting Planned Parenthood, which provides breast-cancer screenings along with privately-funded services, which may include abortion.

In its attempt to explain the change in policy, the foundation issued a statement, followed up by a video by Komen founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker, that it continually measures the impact and that  the organization "has the highest responsibility" to make sure "these donor dollars make the biggest impact possible." 

At the end of the video, Brinker invokes the promise she made her sister, Susan G. Komen, in explaining the foundation's mission. She does a good job in articulating the passion she feels for the organization, its goals and its impact.

Unfortunately, though the video is intended to provide background on the organization's policy changes, Brinker never actually mentions Planned Parenthood by name. Nor, in stating the organization revamped its guidelines and policies in terms of grant-giving, does Brinker explain what new criteria Planned Parenthood and others organizations now must meet in order to continue to receive grants from the Komen foundation.

Ultimately, her explanation is neither an apology -- Brinker's a bit to defensive here -- nor a direct response to the questions people have.

And because she doesn't provide a true answer about its decision that impacted Planned Parenthood, Brinker has actually flamed the fires, enabling people to assume that the decision was motivated by anti-abortion politics that has spent the past year targeting Planned Parenthood, investigating it for possible misuse of government funding (which is kept separate from any abortion services Planned Parenthood provides).

The lesson here is that goodwill takes years to build up but can be damaged in a heartbeat if communications are mishandled.  I don't know if the Komen foundation will see long-term negative impact on its programs and fundraising -- just as I don't know if Planned Parenthood will see a long-term positive impact to its fundraising and its support.

But I do know this damage is self-inflicted, even if unintentional. Policy changes don't have to be scandals. But it shows, yet again, that in the social media age, organizations need to be more sensitive than ever to the impact of its decisions and to the way those decisions are communicated and responded to.

UPDATE: After this article was posted, the foundation actually reversed its decision,and did a better job of explaining its new policy:
Our original desire was to fulfill our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation.  We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair.
This information was not communicated well before -- which meant that the conflicting information coming from inside the organization and from former employees was getting significant play as people were trying to make sense of things.

That said, the tone of part of the response is more defensive than it might have been: "We have been distressed at the presumption that the changes made to our funding criteria were done for political reasons or to specifically penalize Planned Parenthood.  They were not."

At this point, the question remains: what long-term impact will this blunder have on this worthy organization. Let me know what you think.

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