The Real Moment Komen Tripped Up


Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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71 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    You know what no one’s talking about? Breast cancer.

    I’ve been told we have enough awareness of breast cancer.Report

  2. Avatar Will Truman says:

    I have to disagree with you entirely on this one. As everyone talks about Komen and this whole debacle, we’re still talking about breast cancer. I think I’ve heard the word “breast cancer” more in the last couple days than in the last several weeks.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      I think that’s right. Women’s health issues generally are the focus of all the discussion. So if anything, I think it’s increasing awareness not only of those issues, but about the availability of services consistent with those issues and funding groups who promote access to women’s health care services.


    • Avatar greginak says:

      However there has not be a lot of discussions of stuff like warning signs, what tests people should do ( especially aimed at young and poor women who have less knowledge) and what makes someone high risk. The words are being used but not a lot of education.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      There’s the object of the sentence, the subject of the sentence… and then there’s the adjectives and adverbs.

      Sentences containing Komen used to have Komen as the subject, and breast cancer as the object, and efficacy or ethics as the adjectives or adverbs.

      Whatever the other words were, it was “Komen (does this) for breast cancer awareness.”

      The “this” could be good or bad.

      Now, the sentences have Komen as the subject, and politics as the object, and breast cancer (if it’s in there) as a side note.

      Now it’s “Komen is (taking a stand against PP!/kowtowing to the Religious Right!)”  The “breast cancer” part is all adjectives about Komen.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Greg & Patrick,

      I don’t really agree. Articles have also talked about what PP does for Komen (early screenings), which is one of the integral parts of the whole thing.

      The real test is how Komen is covered in the future, which is an unknown. If a paragraph is soaked up every time talking about this incident and not something more worthwhile, then it would be a net negative as far as awareness goes.

      Right now, though, I think we’re in positive territory.


  3. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Was Komen providing grants to PP for breast cancer screenings specifically, or just handing them money to do whatever they wanted with?

    If the money was specifically earmarked for screenings/BC education, etc.  Then I don’t see how they lost sight of the mission.  If it was free money, then I can.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      My understanding is that the funds were to be used for breast screenings for low income, uninsured women.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        That’s my understanding as well, though earmarking to an entity with funding control can be problematic. Your money goes where it’s supposed to go, but frees up other money to go elsewhere.Report

        • Avatar North says:

          Well yes, money is fungible. That’s why it’s money.Report

        • Avatar Fnord says:

          How is this different than any other grant they could make?

          Even if they offered free breast cancer screenings directly to low-income women, that means that those women have more money to spend on other things. OMG THEY MIGHT BUY CIGARETTES WITH THAT MONEY KOMEN SUPPORTS SMOKING.Report

          • Avatar Fnord says:

            That’s not to say that you can’t consider the marginal effect of a grant, in that even an earmarked grant can be freeing up funds from something that the grantee would be doing anyway. But, you know, that’s not what they did.Report

            • Avatar Will Truman says:

              I wrote the below comment before reading this one.

              We don’t know if that’s what PP did or not. We don’t know what the budgets would have looked like without those grants in any specific year. Especially since overall funding doesn’t remain constant.Report

              • Avatar Fnord says:

                I meant that’s not what Komen did.

                Komen didn’t look at PP and decide that they’d provide the screenings anyway, and so the marginal benefit (to their core goal) of providing the screenings was minimal.  They don’t even claim they did that.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          The difference is in what the mission of the organization that they are giving grants to. Planned Parenthood does abortions. It’s not all they do, but it’s an important part of their operations. So you know whatever they give to PP can and likely will be used to certain ends.

          My wife and I have sort of been on the opposite side of this. We were invited to a fundraiser for a local pregnancy center to get an ultrasound machine. That would increase ultrasound availability for expectant mothers, which is good! Of course, we go to this fundraiser and find out what the pregnancy center really is. This group did a lot of good things, though, helping young mothers (after they’ve given birth) out with counselling, supplies, and so on.

          Now, we could have donated money for the counselling and supplies, but that might have just freed up money towards lobbying the state legislature for abstinence-only education, support for a Personhood Amendment, and a bunch of other things that ran contrary to what we would have wanted. That this group was involved in both made a difference, even if we were to earmark our money for things we would approve of.Report

          • Avatar Fnord says:

            Except that, as per the original post, Komen taking a position on the abortion debate for EITHER SIDE is outside their core mission. You declined to donate to the “pregnancy center” because you oppose the pro-life message of the pregnancy center. But your family is not a 501(c)(3) organization.

            Komen has given a grant to, eg, the Mississippi State Department of Health ( The Mississippi State Department of Health does many things, most of which are not related to breast cancer or even cancer in general. The ethical obligation for Komen to avoid getting involved in abortion-related activities is no different from their obligation to avoid getting involved in any other activity not related to breast cancer. So is it a problem that Komen gave a grant (earmarked for breast-cancer work) to the Mississippi State Department of Health?Report

            • Avatar Will Truman says:

              I wasn’t defending Komen’s choice total. Merely, I was just pointing to the erroneousness of the “but the money is going to screening and not abortion.”

              It’s not that simple, whether we’re talking about Planned Parenthood or the Mississippi State Department of Health. If the MSDH were doing something that an organization objected to, they would have reason to consider not giving them money at all – even earmarked for things that they do agree with.Report

              • Avatar Fnord says:

                Right, except the Komen is ethically forbidden from objecting to abortion, just as they are ethically forbidden from supporting it.

                If Komen didn’t want to get involved with a tobacco company, even for core mission fundraising, that would be reasonable. Smoking is a risk factor for breast cancer, so opposing smoking is related to their core mission.

                Opposing abortion is not.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                I don’t disagree with this. That’s why I am not defending what Komen’s decision. I’m just talking about fungibility and why, if Komen did want to take a stance on abortion, cutting off PP could make sense even if their money was not (directly) going to abortion services.

                I’m making a rather limited point.Report

              • Avatar Fnord says:

                Ahh. Sorry for misunderstanding.Report

      • Avatar North says:

         Yes that’s my understanding as well. Which, I’m sorry to say, seems to cut your point off at the ankles(forgive me, my Tod). If Komen was contributing this money to Planned Parenthood for breast screenings for low income uninsured women then that act, it seems to me, is in furtherance of Komen’s raison d’etre.

        Ending that contribution to PP, then, becomes in a best case scenario a very lame and unproductive move: it doesn’t help with breast cancer and the reason given (PP is under yet another investigation by various pro-life congresscritters) was laughably lame even before the media unearthed the various smoking gun memos that suggest that abortion concerns were the reason for ending the association; worst case scenario, of course, is that it was moral crusading utterly divorced from their purported mission goal; helping with breast cancer.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:


          You’re going to have to explain this to me, North.

          Komen gives menu to PP for breast screenings (core mission); then Komen takes away funding for political reasons involving abortion (not core mission); then they have a very, very bad PR problem.

          This cuts the legs out from under me with my post…. how, exactly?Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            Because in the OP you said that Komen giving money to PP isn’t consistent with their mission:

            “Komen tripped up when they began to make operational decisions that had nothing to do with their core mission.”


            • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

              Yep, that’s my words all right. You want to point out where I said Komen strayed from their core mission by initially funding the breast screenings at Planned Parenthood? Cause I know I’ve never thought that, and I’m reasonably sure I ever wrote that.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Apologies, then Tod. Maybe you could clear it up for me. What operational decisions that had nothing to do with their core mission were you referring to then? I just re-read it and can’t think of anything other than funding PP in the first place.

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                Then let’s just call it a “me being clear thing,” and I’ll try again:

                The moment the Komen board tripped itself up, the moment that led to all of the headaches to follow, wasn’t actually the pulling of the funds from PP.  It was the moment they said, “Hey! You know what? We should (secretly or otherwise) be the champions of X!” – where X is not related to their core mission.   This was the point of my post.

                In this instance, X was anti-abortion, and it was that decision – the decision to have their focus be about something that had nothing to do with breast cancer – that led to all their future face plants – including the pulling of funds from PP.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Fair enough. Apologies for not understanding what you were driving at. For some reason I thought you were arguing the other way around, that Komen giving money to PP constituted a potential violation of trust wrt the donors and opened them up to the possibility of future litigation.

                You’re arguing something else. Sorry about that Tod.Report

              • I made the same misreading Stillwater did.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                Forgive me, my Tod, I made the very same misreading of your words as Stillwater and Pierre did. I assumed your assertion was that Komen errer when they began working with PP in any capacity. If that were your arguement then acknowledging that what Komen did with PP was in keeping with their core arguement would cut that arguement off at the ankles. Since that wasn’t your position your arguements ankles remain sound and whole.

                Also under this interpretation I quite solidly agree with you.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              Actually, not to be too picky about it (again, sorry) but I think given what you wrote upthread, you’re argument ought to have gone the other way: that defunding PP was inconsistent with their core mission.Report

    • Avatar Mary says:

      My thoughts exactly. It was my understanding the money was for screening and education specifically.Report

  4. Avatar John Cole says:

    John Cole doesn’t care what Komen does now; in his mind they have spit on a sacred liberal cow and he will boycott them until his hopefully-not-from-breast-cancer dying day. (Surprise!)

    I may have used more colorful language, but I said basically  the same thing you did, and somehow you are holding it up as the BOTH SIDES DO IT counterbalance for the nuts at the NRO:

    Personally, I don’t care if it appears Komen is backing down- I still intend to boycott anything related to Komen, because them backing down doesn’t make them any less a political organization staffed with fringe right-wing lunatics, nor does it change any of the information I have learned this week about how Komen is a terrible organization that donates very little while acting as a marketing shill for major corporations:

    I’ll keep donating to Planned Parenthood and other organizations that manage to do some good with the money (Ed at G&T has some solid suggestions), rather than spend 70% of it lavishing a half million dollars on the CEO and other expenses (self promotion, mainly) while spending only 30% on actual breast cancer related issues.

    You’ll also notice that I actually was talking about breast cancer there, as well as explicitly endorsing your statement that “I’m betting that – to use a round number – no one donated money to them to help out either the Pro-Life or the Pro-Choice cause. I’m pretty sure they donated to fund breast cancer research.”

    To hell with Planned Parenthood, we need a nationwide campaign to bolster RIF.



    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Good points all, and apologies for not reading the post carefully enough.  This is one of those areas where blogging falls short of real life, and I can’t buy you a round.

      And seconded on RIF.Report

      • Avatar joey jo jo says:

        i read this as you saying that you hoped to slide the high broderism by everyone but you got caught out and it won’t stop you from doing it in the future.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      What I fail to understand in your Low Broderism of boycotting Komen is how you fail to reconcile Komen’s policy on avoiding controversy with their retraction.  Don’t you see why Komen backed away from PPFA?   Don’t you see how Komen doesn’t want to end up the targets of the Live Action maniacs or the assorted state’s attorneys?    If Komen was named in a suit like Planned Parenthood v Casey, who’s going to pay their legal fees?

      Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
      Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
      But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
      Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
      I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
      I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
      And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
      And in short, I was afraid.

      When it’s my head brought in upon the platter, I’m afraid, too.   Please consider your rationale for boycotting Komen.   They were afraid.   They were afraid because they felt nobody was standing up for them.    Now that people have risen up to defend them, men like Bloomberg, you’re going to abandon Komen for fearfully compromising their principles.   We Liberals are a rum bunch:  we eat our own.Report

  5. Avatar John Cole says:

    And by the way, your comments plugin is truly outstanding.  I love how I can just copy and paste and the hyperlinks show up.

    Very, very smooth and functional.  I daresay elegant.Report

  6. I think you make a good point, Tod. When I first heard about this matter, my initial thought was, ‘well, either way, they’ve screwed themselves.’Report

  7. Avatar dhex says:

    one quibble: as anyone who’s read the chronicle of philanthropy knows, most larger non-profs are top-heavy and not particularly efficient. komen is, sadly, not too unique in this regard, and have always had the rep as a branding engine that sometimes gives money to other causes.

    while this will hurt them in the short-term, in the longer term the pink ribbon is ubiquitous enough to survive. i think a lot of people are severely overestimating the public’s sharing of their disgust.

    pp will continue to chug along, buoyed by this recent bonanza in disguise.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      “while this will hurt them in the short-term, in the longer term the pink ribbon is ubiquitous enough to survive. i think a lot of people are severely overestimating the public’s sharing of their disgust.”

      I actually think this is true; but as I said, they’re still going to take it in the shorts in the short term.Report

  8. Avatar Steve S. says:

    Repeating something I said elsewhere, and noting some parallels with the discussion about Paterno and Penn State, I personally started souring on Komen many months ago when I found out what jerks they were being about trademarks, to the point of hassling small charities over seemingly trivial violations.  It seems from my armchair that the bigger they get the more they’re about the brand rather than the cause.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      I’ve been around nonprofits a while.   Sorta raised in that context.   When one nonprofit has a highly recognized symbol it always seems to attract a horde of grifters.  The worst charities of this sort are pretending to Help Our Wounded Troops, who need plenty of help God wot, but these wannabes are just ripping off the donors.

      The US military takes a very dim view of the use of their uniforms in advertisements.   Komen has a high profile item which they trademarked for the reasons stated above.

      I’m of two minds about Komen.  Though they’re actually a fairly efficient charity, their percentage of administrative costs over total revenue is still too high.Report

      • Avatar Steve S. says:

        This is an example of what I’m talking about:  “For example, a five-year-old Minnesota group that runs an all-volunteer sled-dog cancer fundraiser billed as the ‘Mush for a Cure,’ recently received a letter from an attorney for Susan G. Komen for Cure telling it to stop using ‘for a cure’ in its name…Still some organizations can show they have a heart…The Heart association takes pains to go after for-profit makers of medical devices or companies promoting diet plans that imply its endorsement. But for nonprofits, Livingston says the group is much more ‘deferential.'”Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          I recently did some work for Red Cross of Los Angeles.   Red Cross is constantly having to protect its logo in court.   Red Cross of LA gives out little Red Cross magnetic lapel ornaments to celebrities.

          Trademark and copyright infringement is pretty serious business in the nonprofit sector.   Does everyone have to let everyone else glom their logo in the interests of Doing Good?Report

          • Avatar Steve S. says:

            I understand the need to protect a brand, but please note the example I cited; they aren’t just hassling “grifters”, they’re hassling established charities for using a string of words that is similar to “for the cure.”  Sorry, that’s just assholish behavior, and they know it’s assholish because they eased off once it hit the news.Report

      • Avatar Maxwell James says:

        BlaiseP – I enjoy many of your posts & often agree with them, albeit silently. But this is one area where I’d like to offer a differing opinion.

        Thanks largely to Charity Navigator & similar watchdogs, the public pressure most nonprofits face to reduce non-program costs is highly unfortunate. In many cases, it reduces their functioning capacity, especially when (as Tod suggests) they take on work that is not central to their mission just in order to get some more funding.

        It is possible to spend far too much on propping up the organization itself, and it’s possible Komen is an example of that, especially if their branding/marketing efforts are considered in that light. But more important is for charities to mind the importance of evaluation in measuring their social impact. Because if they’re not actually creating positive benefits to society, there’s no reason for them to exist in the first place. Yet evaluation is the very first thing nonprofits skimp on when trying to cut their non-program costs.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          I’ve been around nonprofits which operated in some of the remotest reaches of the planet and they can manage to keep overhead below 15%.   Nobody’s saying a nonprofit should stint on infrastructure.   But if you’re not able to get below 15%, you’re either too big or more likely, too small.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          That said, Komen pays its executives wildly above market rate.   Furthermore, the board should remove everyone:  they’ve broken the unwritten rule about political involvement.   My parents were missionaries and they weren’t involved politically in the host country.   I’ve been doing charity work for 20 years and I don’t get politically involved.   Nancy Brinker should have gotten out of the CEO chair after doing a stint for Bush43.    She knew better and the board knew better.Report

        • Avatar wardsmith says:

          Because if they’re not actually creating positive benefits to society, there’s no reason for them to exist in the first place

          Unfortunately Maxwell, this is the fact of life for the majority of today’s charities. Worse these entities grow to have a life of their own, like corporations but with less vision (if such a thing is possible). That’s why the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has a sunset clause. Like Blaise I’ve done consulting work for charities, especially computer work and they generally haven’t liked what I’ve had to tell them.

          The ideal evaluator is not the charity itself but some outside entity that could rate them on a scale. I’m thinking something like Morningstar (not their mutual fund star system but the software fund managers buy to evaluate stocks).Report

  9. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    FYI, Komen spends about 20-25% of their money on research. The biggest single category of spending they have is “education,” at about 35-40%. I haven’t been able to find out exactly what that means.

    Now, education and screenings are important–fancy new treatments don’t do any good if no one is getting them in time–but research is not where most of their money goes.Report

  10. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    This whole kerfuffle would serve well as a literal textbook example of the ethical complexities and difficulties of participating in interrelated organizations.  And the reactions from people on all sides have been very fascinating sociologically.Report

  11. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    And when you run a 501(c)(3) corporation and you lose track of your core mission due to competing bright, shiny objects, bad things tend to follow.

    You’d be amazed at how many different sorts of organizations this rule applies to.Report

  12. Avatar Mike says:

    Left out from this discussion is the reason that Komen originally cut the PP funding in the first place, that PP was under investigation and it was a violation of their bylaws to fund organizations under investigation until the investigation is resolved.  I suppose you could argue there was an ulterior motive to that, although I’ve not seen that argument made yet, but  it seems like Komen was trying to do the right thing.

    For an organization that has had nothing but good press throughout it’s existence, this jihad against them must have been quite a new wrinkle for their PR department.Report

    • Avatar Liberty60 says:

      You missed this piece by Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic in which his sources say the rule was adopted with the specific goal of defunding PP?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        The more that comes out, the stinkier this gets, Liberty.   I said upstream that Komen was fearful.  Now that “investigation” business looks like nothing but a bad excuse.   We can only hope Komen removes the entire leadership and starts over.

        Bioethicists are now saying that Komen’s final change of heart may be too little, too late. Perhaps the only way Komen can have a chance of eventually regaining its pristine image, is to start by getting rid of its leadership and board – for they were the ones who clumsily landed the charity in its present undesirable spotlight. Otherwise, far from being the envy of charitable organizations, it may simply end up being just one of hundreds of charities in the USA asking people for donations.

        In 2010, Harris Interactive reported that Komen was the most valuable non-profit brand on the planet.Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

      There’s also the fact that they recently gave a 7 million dollar grant to Penn State…derp derp.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain says:

      It’s hard to argue that they were trying to do the right thing, given that three days after the furor hit, they decided that the correct interpretation of their bylaws was that they wouldn’t fund organizations under an active criminal investigation by law enforcement agencies, rather than being persecuted by some members of Congress.  They were either taking a political position, or they were incompetent.Report

      • Avatar Mike says:

        I hadn’t seen the Atlantic article, thanks.  But it still left Komen in a bad position.   Apparently, once you contribute to PP, you can never stop, or you will be attacked mercilessly in the press.  It looked like Komen may have been trying to avoid controversy by backing out of funding PP, but the act of doing that brought them their first bad press in… ever.

        It’s a warning to other nonprofits that a commitment to PP is a commitment forever.  Many charities may be looking to avoid that sort of controversy.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

          Apparently, once you contribute to PP, you can never stop, or you will be attacked mercilessly in the press.

          That’s not the lesson to be learned, here.  But I’m sure that’s what some people are taking away from the event.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          Philanthropy is an ocean, but it’s a small one.  Yes, people do stop contributing to charities and there’s no shame in stopping   Often, it’s petty bickering between people who should know better.   Boards of directors ought to sort this stuff out quietly and discreetly.

          Komen knew who they were hiring when they brought in someone like Karen Handel.  Curiously, Karen Handel has a history with the Log Cabin Republicans and now denies it, all the facts to the contrary.

          Though retired politicians have fronted successful charities, folks with any political life left in them should steer clear of charities.   Go to their events, stay out of their politics.   Excellent charities strive to avoid political statements and especially avoid favoritism.

          This is a warning, all right.   Karen Handel mismanaged this Stopping alluded to in the first paragraph.   Let me tell you how to do this right.

          There’s a concept in 501(c)(3) accounting called a Restricted Donation.   Nonprofit accounting is best described as little pots of donor money.   You can rob peter to pay paul from these little pots but eventually that money has be repaid to the pot from which it came.

          The one pot everyone in the charity dreams of most is General Donations, or Unrestricted Donations.   Nobody donates money specifically to pay executive salaries:  people donate to some Haiti Project or Save the Yeti Fund within the charity.   Restricted Donations.   Komen could have quietly changed the terms of its PP donation to specifically pay for breast cancer research and treatment.  Nobody would have cared.   That’s how intelligent donors operate.Report

  13. Avatar Brandon says:

    Politicizing donations and grants to nonprofits sets a BAD precedent, if you ask me.  I disagreed with the original Komen decision NOT to re-fund PP, but I also don’t like how many on the Left cried bloody murder at the thought.  It’s as if they thought PP had some kind of “god-given” or legal RIGHT to FREE MONEY from other nonprofits!

    Plus, this SHOULD give PP pause at the fact that- if what a lot of PP supporters are saying is true- their funding model is SO SCREWED up that if only a FEW large sources of money CUT THEM OFF, they could be f*cked.  Shouldn’t that make them rethink their funding structure and possibly ask for A VARIETY OF SMALLER FUNDING SOURCES, so one organization cutting them off wouldn’t risk their survival as a group?

    Why is THAT not also being discussed?  Is it RATIONAL to be in such a desperate position that you scream bloody murder at the thought of one or two BIG SOURCES cutting off funding, out of ALL the thousands or possibly 100s of thousands (or however many it is) of sources total?Report

  14. Avatar Brandon says:

    I mean, the ACORN situation- Congress cutting off a large portion of their funding and the organization being shut down- should’ve been WARNING ENOUGH to all nonprofits and interest groups out there.Report

  15. Avatar Brandon says:

    Nonprofits may LIKE the idea of not having to ask a bunch of sources for money by getting most of it from only a handful of sources, but it’s pretty risky in the end.  Going the extra mile to spread out funding seems well worth it.Report