While money may make the world go ‘round, there is nothing more important than the reputation of an organization. Especially one like the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a breast cancer charity built upon donations from volunteer-organized events such as the Race for the Cure. When it comes to reputations, perception is reality. We’ve worked with businesses, non-profits and others protecting reputations for more than a dozen years and this much we know: a good reputation is one you never really have to defend.
Sadly, Komen has once again proved how little they understand this point. Back in 2012, Komen threw away an enormous amount of brand capital in a misguided attempt to sever ties with Planned Parenthood over the issue of abortion. Many questioned this decision because Planned Parenthood’s family planning services aside, they are also one of the leading providers of breast cancer screenings—particularly for poor women—in the nation. Komen created an unnecessary divisiveness among women and a horrendous backlash from the general public regarding their motives.
Now, Komen is embroiled in another controversy causing others to question their integrity, decision-making ability, honor and reputation. And they created it all by themselves.
Komen recently entered into a partnership with Baker Hughes, a Houston hydraulic fracking firm that pledged to sell 1,000 pink-painted drill bits and donate $100,000 to the organization. Here’s the problem: clinical research has shown a link between cancer and chemicals used in hydraulic fracking. These carcinogenic chemicals have caused increased cancer rates in areas of oil and gas development.
Komen claims this is much ado about nothing, stating in a recent report: “the evidence to this point does not establish a connection between fracking and breast cancer.” This harmful attempt at playing with perception brought an immediate condemnation from Breast Cancer Action, another cancer-fighting organization, while an online petition effort from Credo Action criticizing the deal gathered more than 70,000 signatures in a few days.
Regardless, one must ask, what is the quid pro quo (“something for something” in Latin) of all this? Well, Baker Hughes, a controversial organization, gets pink-washed for the goodness of its efforts. Komen gets the cash. The public and Komen’s core audience — the tireless volunteers and contributors who provide the bulk of the charity’s revenue — are left holding their noses when they think about doing anything with this duo in the future.
So, what’s the ROI on Komen’s deal to trade reputation for dollars? Their financials from the first full year after the Planned Parenthood debacle indicate a 22 percent decline in giving (about $40 million). Participation in their sponsored events continues to be down dramatically, with a number of long-time events being cancelled due to low turnout. And a great many dedicated participants in Komen events say they feel so betrayed they will never work with the charity again.
What’s more, crisis situations also feed upon themselves: in the wake of the Baker Hughes controversy news media took a closer look at Komen financial reports and discovered the foundation uses about 30 percent of its funds for administrative and payroll expenses—far more than the average charity.
It may be common sense that once a reputation is damaged it can be difficult and costly to repair. What Komen should have learned from the Planned Parenthood situation is that future decisions must be made with their core audience first in mind. As part of that they should have created mechanisms to ensure transparency and honesty in explaining the reasons for those decisions. Their perception was they knew better than anyone else—a dangerous proposition when your reputation is on the line. For $100,000, they have put the $250 million they raise annually at risk.
In the long run, Komen hasn’t learned the most important thing about managing a reputation: you have to show you care about others, especially those you serve and those who serve you. Empathy matters. Consideration counts. We really are all in this together—any charity that truly cares knows this by heart. In one moment, Komen didn’t care—except about the money—and now their reputation is in tatters.
By Darrell L. Browning