The Real Moment Komen Tripped Up
Earlier this week I met with a client who heads up a non-profit that serves a particular segment of the disenfranchised. She had concerns about some projects one of her organization’s divisions were starting, but couldn’t parse out whether or not those concerns were justified.
The division in question was taking advantage of the organization’s facilities to hold events, mini-concerts and create other kinds of partnerships on their own without approval of the Board. On the one hand, this Board – and my client – encourages initiative-taking and self-starters, and tends to prefer the begging for forgiveness afterward to the far more common apathy of “Hey, it’s not in my job description!” And – make no mistake about it – all of these new projects sounded pretty damn cool. But for reasons she couldn’t quite put her finger on, my client instinctually felt that something wasn’t right.
“Tell me,” I asked, “these new projects that the division are creating – in what way do they serve the people you are charged with serving?”
That question was the answer, of course. None of the new projects or partnerships started by this division were either directly helping those the organization was formed to serve, nor were they raising money for those direct services. In fact, if I had to boil it down, I’d say that these new projects were all started because they were really cool sounding, and the staff had the expertise and connections to make them happen. But they had nothing at all to do with serving that segment of the disenfranchised that was the very mission of the organization.
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.
Everyone, it seems, is up in arms about either Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s decision to strike funding from Planned Parenthood, or their subsequent decision not to strike that funding.
Elias has been talking about it over at Jubilee, including a post on an item that I am pretty sure (or at least hope) will turn out to be a hoax. Pat wrote one of those posts that make a writer say “Damn, I wish I’d written that!” about the weak-sauce public apology offered by Komen. The boys at National Review are furious at people who would dare object to the PP funds being stopped. (Surprise!) 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!)
And really, everyone who’s anyone is weighing in on either which version of Komen is Good or Evil, the poor PR machineries Komen has at its disposal, of what this means to “feminism” in general.
You know what no one’s talking about? Breast cancer.
The Board at Komen didn’t trip up when they decided to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. They didn’t trip up when they decided to refund it. They didn’t even trip up when they released an anger-everyone-in-the-room apology. No, none of those acts was Komen the act of tripping; they were just what it looks like after you’ve tripped when you fall flat on your face. Komen tripped up when they began to make operational decisions that had nothing to do with their core mission.
501(c)(3) organizations are given special legal and tax status in this country. A 501(c)(3) is, in fact, what is known as a “for-public-benefit corporation.” That distinction gives them a number of advantages in the marketplace, but it also gives then substantial responsibilities. They are not allowed corporate secrets in the way a for-profit company is allowed them; in fact, they are legally required to show you their financials and their board minutes if you request to see them. They are also required to make it so that all of their operations pertain to the specific core mission that the IRS approved.
So when you see people defend Komen because “it’s their money, they can do whatever they want with it” – well, it’s not that simple. Because it’s kind of their money, and it’s kind of not. They actually can’t spend it on whatever they want. They are required to spend it on those operations that directly or indirectly support the mission that people donated money to support. When non-profits take donations for Mission “A” but spend it supporting Missions “B” they actually get sued – usually by larger donors – for those contributions back. And herein lies the real problem for Komen:
I don’t have their financial records, but 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. Large donors may file suit against Komen for the return of some or all of their historical donations, and Komen might actually lose such a suit.
By putting themselves in the position they have, the Board of Komen has ensured that their name is no longer synonymous with breast cancer research. Instead, it’s deeply entangled with the vitriolic debate on abortion. And, as Pat alluded to, that’s going to be a pretty deep pit of quicksand from which to pull themselves out. Personally, I don’t know that they ever fully can. They are certainly going to take it in the shorts over time, even if they do survive. And the reason for that won’t be because they were the champion of the life of a fetus, and it won’t be because they were the champion of a women’s right to choose.
It’s because by trying to be either one, you can’t be the champion of fighting breast cancer.