Nancy Brinker, founder, President, and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure (which I'm now required to characterize as "embattled") announced yesterday that after years at the helm of the breast cancer charity, she'd be stepping down from her role to focus more on "revenue creation." Two other board members resigned on the same day, and it's not clear who will replace Brinker as she works to convince more people to give her money for the cure.
The charity's had a disastrous year — at the very end of January, Komen announced that it would be cutting off its grants to Planned Parenthood, angering women's groups, politicians, and fueling a long-whispered theory that the organization cared more about its own image than it did about actual women's health. And in the days after the announcement, it was discovered that, thanks to some highly-placed Komen officials with ideologically extreme agendas, the grant cutoff wasn't procedural, but political. The charity couldn't get its story straight — it first claimed that Planned Parenthood grants had been discontinued because the family planning organization was under Congressional investigation, but when several people pointed out that Planned Parenthood gave money to plenty of organizations and institutions that were under investigation, Nancy Brinker took it upon herself to defend Komen's actions in a series of media appearances that only made her look like Lady Who Lunched who didn't need to fully explain herself to the millions of American women who didn't want to see women's health further politicized.
Planned Parenthood's funds were eventually restored by the charity, but not before several curiously political Komen stances and questionable practices were brought to light — why had the charity supported embryonic stem cell research in 2006, and disavowed it in 2011? Why did Nancy Brinker, wealthy thanks to a profitable divorce, still earn almost half a million dollars a year and live a lavish, charity-funded lifestyle? How beholden to right-wing political pressure was the organization? And why the hell were they partnering with the dictator of Uzbekistan's socialite pop singer daughter, whose fashion line uses child slave labor? And why did the perfume the charity sold contain carcinogens? And why did the organization refuse to condemn cancer-causing chemicals used by companies that gave them lots of money? And why did they spend so much time suing other, smaller charities?
Komen officials hoped its Hell Fortnight would end when former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and once and always anti-abortion zealot Karen Handel resigned her executive post at the charity, but public trust was already shaken and in the ensuing months, Komen's fundraising suffered and never recovered. The charity's signature fundraising event, Race for the Cure, lagged in nearly every market. Galas were canceled. Officials in chapters across the country resigned in disappointment. Many critics called for Nancy Brinker to resign if she valued the future of the charity, but there she was, hanging on.
What pushed Brinker over the edge and prompted her to hand the mess off to another, yet-to-be-named candidate wasn't specified by Brinker's sunny press release about the shake up ("I want to focus on Susan G. Komen's global mission and raising resources to bring our promise to women all around the world."), but I'd venture a guess it had something to do with vocal criticism from the scientific community of Komen's deceptive practices. In a piece published in the British Medical Journal last week, the directors of the Center for Medicine and the Media at Dartmouth Medical School wrote that Komen was flat-out lying to women about the benefits of mammograms (well, the paper used the words "misleading" and "false," which is a less confrontational way to say "lying"). According to Komen literature, 98% of women who detect breast cancer early survive versus the 23% who survive without early detection. One of the authors of the study told Bloomberg,
We think Komen can do a lot better by giving women the information they need to weigh the benefits and the harms. They aren't doing a good job. The ads are misleading and give false promises.
In addition to Brinker's resignation, two other members of the Board stepped down yesterday.
This debacle will one day make a great lesson in How Not to Handle a PR Snafu; even with Brinker's resignation, it may be too late for Komen to restore the cloying pink sheen to its reputation, though, as the damage has been done.