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Musical Chairs At Komen, Brinker Stays And Goes

By Mark Hrywna - September 4, 2012

A media firestorm regarding pink powerhouse Susan G. Komen for the Cure defunding of Planned Parenthood, and its eventual reversal, started this past February and put the organization in the spotlight for reasons unrelated to its usual marketing prowess.

Over the course of the year, at least six executives at the national headquarters left, in addition to turnover at the local affiliate level. It culminated with last month’s announcement of several more key departures.

But, founder, CEO and organizational lightning rod Nancy Brinker won’t be one of those leaving. She’s stepping down as CEO but will still be with the organization as chair of the board’s executive committee, focusing on revenue creation, strategy and global growth after a replacement is found, hopefully by year’s end. The organization has declined to discuss her compensation in the new role.

The announcement of Brinker’s eventual change in status, Komen President Liz Thompson leaving sometime this month and two board members stepping down was unrelated to the Planned Parenthood controversy, claimed Andrea Rader, direc­tor of marketing communications at Komen for the Cure. With all of the negative publicity and the number of special event participants plummeting, the question is whether the organization can recover to its previous levels. Last year, Susan G. Komen for the Cure amassed total revenue of $350 million, including almost $90 million from fundraising events such as its Walk for the Cure in numerous cities around the United States.

Whether it’s former boosters shunning the charity for initially defunding Planned Parenthood or new critics who don’t believe Komen should support an organization that supports family planning is difficult to determine. The bottom line is not hard to discern: Several affiliates around the nation have reported decreased participation in and fundraising during this year’s walks for the cure.

It’s not uncommon for organizations of Komen’s size to see their image bruised in recent years, even impacting fundraising and their relationships with constituents, according to Sevil Miyhandar, corporate vice president and managing director at CCS Fundraising in New York City. For-profits aren’t immune, either. “Every major brand has probably had something like this,” she said. Donors and leadership have to take the long view and take the opportunity to galvanize their supporters and get back to basics, she added.

There have been nonprofits with a rich history that have been around a lot longer than recent events, said Miyhandar. There will be some supporters and donors who will feel alienated for the longer term. But in most cases, they do come back to fold. But she said it’s vital for Komen to remember that constituents give because of mission. “Buckle down on mission, be positive and able to succeed,” she said, while also warning Komen not to “gloss over” the challenges the organizations faces, which likely will impact fundraising.

Observers noted multiple nonprofit-related controversies during the past few decades. How long it might take for Komen to rebound remains to be seen, but in some instances, the other nonprofits are still dealing with the sins of the past.

“For some reason — who knows why — the American people are forgiving. The average person, if given a good, rational reason to support an organization again — feels leadership is credible, has integrity — I think they will return,” said Miyhandar. Of course, the economy of the recent past might also play a role in any potential organizational comeback.

Easing of the earlier controversies might have been helped in that social media was not where it is today. “It wasn’t quite the Facebook era yet. This may be a case of, in this day and age of information sharing and social media, the impact and strategy might have to be different now,” said Miyhandar. There’s a groundswell now possible through social media that can build momentum and snowball out of control. “I’m not sure anyone else has experienced that,” she said. “Time will tell how you manage a crisis in a social media era.”

There usually isn’t a recovery without some turnover in these situations, according to Tom Raffa, president and founder, Raffa, P.C., a consulting, accounting and technology firm in Washington, D.C. “The quick reaction to these things is to take some good positive steps. That always helps. In our sector, you’ve got to be an open book,” he said.

“In a nonprofit’s life, there’s a whole cycle documented around founders of nonprofits. At some point, there’s always an event, whether a catastrophic event in a person’s life or in an institution’s life, that usually has this transition, less than just someone retiring,” Raffa said.

Recovery can be difficult and when a founder retires, the successor typically lasts only a year or two. “It’s always this interim period,” Raffa said.

Whether Komen can come back from the hits it took this year might depend on the role Brinker will play at the organization. As founder, Brinker could be effective as a fundraiser, as opposed to making critical decisions, said Raffa, who disclosed that he counts a local Planned Parenthood affiliate among his client list.

Miyhandar agreed that it’s not unusual for a founder to move out of a role. Founders sometimes take on more of a spokesperson or external role and less of an executive role, which can be healthy for organizations, she said.

“Founders play a really important role in the growth and maturing of organizations,” she said. “People give to people, obviously. People give to founders. They are inspired by them.” At a certain point, an organization does benefit from having new executive leadership and a different perspective, Miyhandar said. Typically for large or­ganizations, especially national organizations, leadership transitions provide a great opportunity for fundraising, she said. Brinker “has this passion about her own personal story, the credibility of being there from the beginning to where it is today, to be able to articulate with candor and project the strategy going forward,” said Miyhandar. “It’s critical that individuals who have been closest to the organization, their constituents, hear from her. This is an opportunity to do that and re-articulate the fundamentals and be able to shape and grasp the story,” she said.

Brinker founded the charity in 1982 after her sister, Susan G. Komen, succumbed to breast cancer.

For Joe Waters, the founder has her place but it should not be a prominent one or a role that influences decision-making at Komen. It’s hard to be a powerful brand after being portrayed badly by media and supporters because of a misstep, said Waters, who runs SelfishGiving.org, a blog focused on cause marketing, co-authored Cause Marketing for Dummies.

The good thing about an organization like Komen “is they have a lot of credibility in the bank with people — they’ve made a big withdrawal but they still have a lot,” he said. The challenge for Komen, according to Waters, will be that there are many other options for people interested in breast cancer philanthropy. For example, Waters pointed to a recent partnership between a five-hour energy drink company and the Avon Women’s Foundation to create a pink bottle to benefit the organization. “I don’t know their history, whether they supported Komen or not, but it’s such a big partnership that could be lucrative for the cancer agency. It’s interesting that they chose Avon and not Komen,” he said.

Most telling will be this fall, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October when many of Komen’s most prominent partnerships take place, Waters said.

Changing guard

Two board members, Brenda Lauderback and Linda Law, who have served since 2008 and 2009, respectively, stepped down in the latest evolution and a search has begun to replace them. Their terms had expired but they remained on the board, Rader said, adding that a second affiliate representative will be appointed to the board at the September meeting. Board members typically serve in two-year terms.

Thompson told the board this past April that she was thinking of leaving but the board asked her to “stay through the worst of the controversy,” said Rader. After the affiliate leadership conference in July, Thompson “came away feeling like the organization was in a very good place,” and affiliates were strong, she said. “Affiliates are at a place where they’re ready to move past this, to get done what needs to get done in their community,” she said, adding that since Komen was preparing the announcement about Thomson’s resignation that it would also announce Brinker’s transition.

The NonProfit Times had called on Brinker to resign in a Feb. 13 online editorial.

Brinker will step down as CEO to focus on fundraising and global work – “two things she loves to do,” said Rader. “We’ve made a lot of progress in that in just the last few years and it’s set the stage of the next phase of Komen’s work, strategic plan and vision going forward,” Rader said. “This is a natural progression from her day-to-day role,” she said. Asked whether Brinker will retain the nearly $420,000 annual compensation package in her new role, Rader said that likely will be determined by the board at a later date.

Komen had previously announced plans to add a second affiliate network representative to the Board of Directors in September; a process for nominating replacements for Law and Lauderback has begun. The two resignations leaves three current vacancies on the 10-member board, one of which will be filled by the second affiliate rep. Among the seven current board members are two lifetime board members – Brinker and Linda Custard – both of whom have been on the board since 1982. Robert Taylor also had been a founding board member but retired in 2010 before returning in March to take over as board chair from Dr. LaSalle Leffall, who stepped down as chair but retained his board membership.

Thompson joined Komen in 2008, leading its research and scientific programs and became president in 2010. Brinker was asked by the board in 2009 to assume the CEO role.

Asked whether Brinker considered leaving the organization entirely as some have suggested, Rader said: “I can’t really speak to people who say Nancy ought to do this or do that. The facts are, she’s done more for breast cancer in the last 30 years than anyone else. In 30 years, there’s no question that she’s advanced this cause almost exponentially. To step away, that’s a matter of speculation.”

Brinker was appointed as CEO in December 2009, two weeks after the resignation of Komen’s previous president and CEO, Hala Moddelmog. Whether the board will appoint one person as president and CEO – as Moddelmog was – or continue to split the two positions remains to be seen. Rader said that decision will depend on the person they find but the search will start for two individuals. The organization hopes to have the search completed by the end of the year or early in 2013. Discussions about hiring a chief operating officer started last year, and that search has been ongoing for several months, said Rader. NPT

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