Komen and the Dangers of Corporate-Funded Causes

Breast-cancer charity Susan G. Komen’s decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood–an organization that provides subsidized breast cancer exams for lower-income women–leaves me scratching my head.

Komen claims to be withholding funds because of new criteria barring it from providing grants to organizations that are under investigation by local, state or federal authorities. In and of itself, that is odd. What is stranger, however, is the 2011 hiring of Karen Handel–who was openly anti-Planned Parenthood–to the position of Senior Vice President of Public Policy for the organization. And, adding to an already questionable management decision, Komen put her in the position to establish their foundation’s policy.

They must have had a reason for hiring her. I can’t imagine what it was, though.

However, the organization has been confronted with anti-abortion pressure before, but not given in. So why cave now? What’s different beyond change in management?

The likely answer: money.

Susan G. Komen is funded, as you probably know, through numerous relationships with consumer brand companies. Come October we are swathed in pink thanks to Komen’s partnerships with Coca Cola (its “Minute Maid Pink Lemonade”), Yoplait (“Save Lids Save Lives”) and dozens of other companies making everything from pink hand tools (who doesn’t love a powder pink power drill?) to Tory Burch puffer jackets. Their sponsors are multinational corporations who have tied in with Komen to show affinity with women—the primary purchasers of their products.

I suspect that not only anti-abortion factions, but also corporate sponsors, pressured Komen. Nothing causes a business to stop in its tracks faster than the fear of a) losing money, and b) bad publicity. It is not that anti-choicers have so much influence on Komen; it’s that they can have so much influence on Komen’s sponsors.

As I write in my forthcoming book, Compassion, Inc.: How Corporate America Blurs the Line Between What We Buy, Who We Are and Those We Help (University of California Press, April), corporate funding of social causes via product purchases has been increasing at a disquieting rate. Called cause marketing, cause-related marketing or sometimes “corporate social responsibility,” these campaigns allow corporations to back social issues from women’s health to education to sustainability.

While these campaigns can do good, there are also considerable downsides to using the consumer marketplace to fund nonprofits. Beyond making people feel that purchasing say, a pink product, can replace a direct donation, the wider concern is the impact on the system of nonprofit funding. For example, if a campaign does not work to drive sales, the corporate sponsor can drop one non-profit for another that might be more beneficial to its bottom line. Conversely, any negative press connected to a corporation can reflect badly on the charity and hurt its donations. Perhaps most disturbing is that corporations support “female friendly” non-controversial causes like education, poverty and homelessness, and health (heart health in the form of red dresses and breast cancer in the form of pink ribbons) while eschewing controversial ones (Planned Parenthood) or ones that can’t be made visually appealing (like Alzheimer’s disease). In this instance, corporations may have become concerned about Komen’s connection to Planned Parenthood. Anti-choicers have grown increasingly savvy in using online petitions and social media to warn corporations away from reproductive-rights causes.

Thankfully, social media works both ways. You, too, can tell corporate sponsors that you will pull your business if they support Komen’s decision. You can go to Credo and sign the petition. You can tweet and retweet support for funding of Planned Parenthood under the hashtags #standwithPP and #occupythecure. I assure you corporate sponsors will get the message.

In the end, this snafu should be filed under “unintended consequences” because Joan Walsh of Salon.com got it right: Komen has fundamentally hurt their brand—the heart and soul of their business. This might not be a brand mistake on the magnitude of New Coke—particularly if they reverse their decision—but it isn’t too far from it given the current activity on Twitter about Komen. If they don’t reverse course, I suspect there will a whole lot fewer Yoplait lids licked next fall.


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Support Planned Parenthood and double your dollars’ impact: The Ms. Foundation has announced that for all donations they receive up to $20,000, they will send a matching amount to Planned Parenthood’s Breast Cancer Screening funds. You can give here.

 Photo from Flickr user WeNews under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Such a schism between Komen and PPFA splits asunder the very body of women all over America. A woman’s breast health cannot be separated from her reproductive health. Both organizations were created by women, for women. As sisters in body, we share the tears and the victories together. Now we grieve as Komen defies its founding edict – abandoning their sisters in need.

    Don’t mistake Komen’s decision as mere policy. We, as sisters in body and politics, are under attack. We must ask, “What forces are at work that could tear two sister organizations apart? How could any woman paid by Komen turn her back on another?” Perhaps such a woman has not yet kissed the cheeks of cancer. She does not know the fear of the word “cancer” said to a mother who has no medical insurance. She does not know a dying mother’s fear that her daughter will forget her smiling eyes. Planned Parenthood was a saving grace for such a woman in need.

    I mourn for the women at Komen who caved to such inhumane politics. I suspect that many at Komen secretly fear their fate as an organization. I believe that most are good women who want to do the right thing, knowing that they hold the fate of other women in their hands. Each woman will have to die knowing that she either fought for other women, or sold them out. My prayers are with my sisters at Komen. You are going to need them

  2. Yes, the Susan G. Komen Foundation has done a tremendous amount of good over the years, but c’mon, I’ve thought for a while that the organization is “tired” and now that’s become very obvious. Isn’t it time to support another breast-cancer charity that’s capable of doing just as much, if not more, without compromising social and political values — compromises that ultimately hurt women?

  3. The Komen Foundation is not just cutting their support from Planned Parenthood, they are cutting their support for women being able to make choices for their bodies in the face of a disease that does not allow them any choice. The patriarchal forces at hand have worked so hard to divide women over the years and they’ve done a pretty good job, especially with this news of one organization working for women’s health stabbing another in the back. If the Komen Foundation seriously cares about women’s health, they can’t just decide to placate funders who are anti-women by pulling money from women who need screenings. If this holds, they are showing who has their allegiance. To defund Planned Parenthood is to take health care from poor women without insurance. They might as well have a monitor in every clinic that sticks their head in at every manual exam and says, ‘not on my dime will you see if she has cancer.’ If they think this is all about abortion, they’re wrong. It’s about turning women back into property and killing us off slowly due to our dwindling healthcare options.

  4. Komen defunded because their policies restrict them from funding organizations that are under federal investigation; PP is being investigated for aiding and abetting human sex trafficking.

  5. Some good thoughts, but unless there’s evidence that certain sponsors threatened to drop partnerships over Komen’s support of Planned Parenthood, I’m not sure I believe that’s what happened here. Komen’s been funding PP for a while and it seems like their sponsorships have been expanding all that time. Consider the possibility that the VP of public policy really believes that abortion is murder– she’s allowed to have that opinion (and Komen is allowed to pick whatever programs it wants to fund). But if they’re dropping PP for reasons of conscience, then the foundation is obligated to say so so that donors will know if the foundation matches their own ethics. Komen also has an obligation to fund the programs donors believe they were supporting– it’s inexcusable for them to drop PP without first finding an alternative to provide mammograms to low-income women, but not a word from Komen on where their donors’ money will go instead. And if they really did drop funding because PP is under congressional investigation, well, Bank of America is under investigation, they need to step up and say they won’t take B of A checks!

  6. I agree with the PI position below, except that I stopped giving to Planned Parenthood because cancer screenings don’t help panda bears. In fact speaking literally, cancer screenings harm panda bears. If Planned Parenthood reverts to being a purely contraceptive organization, without health related diversions, then I will be able to resume my support. Separate internal funding streams at Planned Parenthood would solve this problem, so that Komen could give purely to cancer screenings while I could give purely to contraception, but as far as I know Planned Parenthood operates from a general fund, which makes this kind of specified giving difficult, especially when doing volunteer work, like office cleanup, as opposed to cash gifts.
    -Alan Ditmore

  7. Great piece – thank you!

  8. If Komen doesn’t want to fund contraception, fine. But that’s not a reason to entirely pull funding from a worthy organization!

  9. So in their statement back to the public and media, the Komen organization stated:
    “Starting this afternoon, we will have calls with our network and key supporters to refocus our attention on our mission and get back to doing our work. We ask for the public’s understanding and patience as we gather our Komen affiliates from around the country to determine how to move forward in the best interests of the women and people we serve.”

    I find it very interesting that they feel the need to even mention that they are going to get back to focusing on womens’ needs. Shouldn’t they already be doing so? Doesn’t the basis of their organization reflect this already? I would have guessed so, but apparently not so much. I guess it takes phone calls and man hours spent on calling their affiliate network to get them back to the group’s mission. I think that the moment you have to state that you feel your group needs to spend effort and time in getting their own network to get back on their mission track, then you also need to spend time reassessing the way your organization operates. Most non-profits or charity organizations do not need to spend extra man hours getting their affiliates to be on the same page as the group’s mission. If an org cannot keep its own member affiliates on the same page, then it seems reasonably understandable to me that the organization also has problems connecting with their targeted beneficiaries as well as making sure that their message gets across as it should.

  10. Well we can simply stick by Planned Parenthood and merely support other nonprofits for breast cancer: http://greatnonprofits.org/campaigns/view/breast-cancer

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