Susan G. Komen, March of Dimes, and Corruption by Branding

[Update, February 3, 2012: The Komen Foundation reversed its decision. That's of course the right decision; the question now is if they will publicly explain how they came to make such an obvious mistake, and why they dishonestly denied the influence of politics in making the decision.]

If by chance you read this blog but live under a rock, earlier this week the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc., cut all grant funding for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc. For some reason the Susan G. Komen Foundation claims the decision wasn’t political even though, of course, it was. This isn’t even an abortion issue, because Planned Parenthood spends the vast majority of its funds providing non-abortion services, like the 750,000 breast cancer screenings they provide every year, including at steeply discounted rates for lower income women.

It was politics, pure and simple, and the astonishing part is that the Susan G. Komen folks seemed totally unprepared for the backlash. Just search Twitter for what people are writing to @komenforthecure. The whole scene is reminiscent of the March of Dimes / KV Pharmaceuticals / Makena fiasco from March of 2011, in which another well-respected charitable organization lost its way, got involved with the wrong sort of people, and ended up making a wildly irresponsible choice diametrically opposed to the claimed mission of the organization.

It’s the second big debacle for Susan G. Komen Foundation in this young decade — in late 2010 and early 2011, the Foundation came under fire for its aggressive stance in protecting its trademarked phrase “race for the cure” (listed in the US Trademark database as “organizing and conducting foot races to raise money for breast cancer research and local community breast health awareness programs”) against small groups like, for example, “kites for a cure,” which flew kites to raise money to treat lung cancer. Komen hasn’t sued them, exactly, but it has filed oppositions with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, which all the same compels the smaller organization to hire lawyers and deal with the issue. As Luke MacDowall wrote in an extensive law journal note on the trademark issues involved, ”[t]his case presents the perfect example of a situation where one probably has a responsibility not to enforce one’s rights” because enforcement of Komen’s trademark does little to reduce confusion among the public while causing substantial damage to other organizations with worthy and compatible missions.

The Komen Foundation eventually backed down — as they should have in the first place given how, as best I can tell, they lost the only fight they ever continued to its conclusion, with the American Cancer Society prevailing on its use of “cars for a cure,” 2001 TTAB LEXIS 455 (Trademark Trial & App. Bd. June 13, 2001) — but the core problem remained.

As Gayle Sulik explained in discussing the fall of the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations (NABCO) and the simultaneous rise of the Komen foundation,

This is not to suggest that Komen played a direct role in the closing of NABCO, or that NABCO should have acted differently. The point is that decision upon decision, action upon action, organizations shape the climate in which other organizations operate. NABCO refused to perpetuate itself by catering to fundraising interests at the same time that Komen was ramping up its cause-marketing and corporate partnerships. Three years later, Komen solidified its brand with a name change and new logo, and in the current year the organization has garnered more corporate partnerships than ever. The financial incentives have taken on a life of their own. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be quibbling over trademarks and pink buckets of fried chicken.

That, to me, is what really ties the Susan G. Komen Foundation and March of Dimes debacles together, and makes me worry for the future of large charitable non-profits. We live in an age of marketing and branding, in which — rightly or wrongly — presentation is considered equally if not even more important than substance. It is easy to see how someone within the walls of the Komen Foundation justifies moving a small part of the budget from breast cancer research to more outreach for pink lights on buildings everyone associates with the foundation — it’s all for a good cause, right?

At some point, though, when marketing is given priority over substance, the mission — “to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease by advancing research, education, screening, and treatment” — will be lost in service of the branding. I’m sure within the walls of the Komen Foundation they assured themselves they wanted to “avoid controversy” by backing away from Planned Parenthood, notwithstanding Planned Parenthood being one of the driving organizations for the “education, screening, and treatment” of breast cancer.

They seem convinced of the rightness of their decision, and so will now reap what they sow, like the March of Dimes has. The two organizations are unfortunately too corrupted by their own need to sustain their fundraising to see the forest for the trees, and may die slowly from illegitimacy if they don’t reestablish a public commitment to their missions. We can only hope that future organizations, including the successors to the Komen Foundation and March of Dimes, will learn from their cautionary tales.

Tweet Like Email LinkedIn
  • MB

    I’d be interested to know if Komen did an analysis of their donors before offending people who support women’s rights by cutting ties with Planned Parenthood. I’m familiar with research suggesting that Christians, whom I assume are more likely to be anti-abortion and more in favor of Komen’s decision, do not give to charities as much as many of us would think they do (even after controlling for variables that affect ability to give). They may donate to their churches, but not to non-religious organizations that directly help others. The studies that come to mind are focused on charitable giving to the poor, but I suspect it would be similar for donations to research and medical screenings. So, Komen really may have shot itself in the foot when it decided to show it’s uneven support for women’s health.

    I remain appalled by the March of Dimes’ collusion with KV Pharmaceuticals a year ago. Last year was the first year we didn’t have a family team in the MOD walk and we won’t have one this year either. It truly felt like the MOD had sold us out, and I think their president should have stepped down over that fiasco.

  • http://www.litigationandtrial.com/ Max Kennerly

    (My apologies for the delayed approval — Disqus told me it had approved your comment.)

    You’re right that many non-profits have excessive administrative overhead, but so do many churches and their foundations. I think MB’s point wasn’t really to critique the management of churches, but to point out that a donation to a church itself may end up providing direct service, but by and large it’s a contribution to the church itself, not the direct service.