Opinion: Komen CEO and Founder Steps Down – A Way Crazy Deal

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Photo by Natalie Maynor

August 9, 2012; Source: U.S. News & World Report

The president of the board, Liz Thompson, and two board members at Susan G. Komen for the Cure are stepping down according to an organizational statement. Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker is also stepping out of the position of CEO and into a new position that still appears to contain a good deal of CEO type responsibilities—namely a “new management role focusing on revenue creation, strategy and global growth as chair of the Komen Board Executive Committee.”

A Komen spokeswoman said that these leadership changes were not related to the organization’s now-rescinded decision to discontinue funding for Planned Parenthood—a move that sparked a backlash of proportions rarely seen in the nonprofit sector. There is no “mea culpa” in all of this—just a lot of discrete reasons for each departure. But these are just more in a long line of those apparently fleeing from the Komen leadership team, including the resignation a few months ago of former Komen Vice President for Public Policy Karen Handel, who was largely viewed as the driving force behind the former Planned Parenthood decision.

We find the contention that these resignations were unrelated to the Planned Parenthood controversy just as unconvincing as Komen’s statement back then that they cut ties with Planned Parenthood because of a desire for more program focus, not the opposition to Planned Parenthood by abortion rights opponents. We would guess that most NPQ Newswire readers see through the Komen leadership ballet as we do, for a number of reasons. A couple of ours follow:

  • What? A founder whose leadership has alienated half the organization’s constituency steps “down” and directly into the chairmanship of the executive committee with sovereignty over such minor stuff as strategy and global growth? Well this is just so silly. I am confused. Are we supposed to believe that the organization wants to make up to its constituency by turning over a new leaf and starting anew and that it sincerely wants new leadership? Pshaw! Or are we supposed to believe that there is no pressure afoot to move Brinker aside? Pshaw!
  • As Jena McGraw writes in the Washington Post, “Here’s what I want to know: If the leadership shake-up has nothing to do with the controversy, what’s the rush? Why not wait until a new CEO (or at least a new president) has been found to announce two such high-level changes?” The whole narrative is so false sounding that it will simply reinforce the sense that the organization feels fine about the occasional cover-up and it will further alienate the Komen base, who may feel that the assumption behind such a bald-faced untruth is that they are all gofers.
  • Who wants an organization whose base no longer trusts it? Brinker expects us to believe that she, the foundation’s president and two board members just happen to decide to move on at the same time? That’s what Komen told its affiliates Wednesday, in a perfect example of the kind of forethought that got them into this mess. Lori Stahl, also in the Post, writes, “Many former supporters feel she has yet to address her mistakes, and the organization can’t really move on until she does.”

In the press release announcing the moves, Brinker said, “Our mission is clear and consistent, and will never change, regardless of the controversy earlier this year…We are doing everything in our power to ensure that women have access to quality cancer care and the support that they need, as we seek answers through cutting-edge research.” For the sake of the one in eight women who will develop breast cancer during their lifetimes, one hopes Komen succeeds, along with other cancer-fighting organizations, in finding the cure. But Komen also needs answers in the basics of nonprofit messaging and management, including being upfront with its constituents and supporters, and not feeding them decisions meant to present an image of an organization moving forward but failing to honestly and openly seek the answers its base wants and needs about how the Komen/Planned Parenthood debacle went down. –Ruth McCambridge

  • Judy Chen

    It will take more than these cosmetic moves to restore Komen’s deeply damaged reputation and compromised brand. Transparency, transparency, transparency.

  • Simone Joyaux

    What I actually find most interesting about the changes at Komen is the approach to an executive committee and the chair of the executive committee. Is this the executive committee of the board of directors? Is this the chair of the board, and hence chair of the executive committee? I suspect yes. And how disappointing – but so common! – is this inappropriate approach. The executive committee is a subset of the board. The executive committee does not run the board nor the organization. In the best/most effective organizations, the board chair (and chair of the executive committee)’has no more authority or responsibility than any other board member. And, as a governance expert, I’m on a worldwide mission to destroy all executive committees. See my article in NPQ on that topic.