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APRIL 28, 2012 11:16AM

Komen and the Elephant in the Room

Rate: 8 Flag

 In light of today's (4/28/12) article on Komen in the New York Times, which talks about their reduced support and still tarnished image, I wanted to repost my article about them from February. Why? What I highlighted then is being highlighted in today's writing by Natasha Singer. "Founder's Syndrome", is what they are finally talking about in the New York Times, and that is critical. Someone is finally speaking even more publically than I did here on Open Salon about that damn elephant in the room. My experience with non profits tells me that this is a very serious and real syndrome, often accompanied with incestuous leadership, it is a deadly combination for most non profits. Changes must be made for the survival of the non profit. It looks like Ms. Brinker is taking some good advice from a non profit consultant, possibly much like myself. Sometimes you must speak truth to power.  More of her family members are being replaced, which is a good thing, not to dimish their qualifications in anyway, but it is better to have fresh, unconnected people equally or better skilled at the helm. Ms. Brinker, this means you too. (Republican's like those Elephants don't they?)

You can read the times article here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/28/us/with-komen-image-hurt-support-for-affiliates-lags.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120428 

 

"Karen Handel was only the visible problem with Komen, they need to re think their expenditures, and how they have commercialized breast cancer to raise funds for their over inflated administration. Additionally I smell incestuous leadership as I have now heard that Brinker's board is filled with family members and others that she can control. If this is not founders syndrome at it's most heinous, I am not sure what is. Brinker should step down and they need to cleanse the board as well. If this organization truly serves it mission, it must be above reproach. I am sure that Susan herself would want it that way...." (me on Facebook) 

 

The problem with the  Susan G. Komen non profit is that it has tangled itself up in politics, which is a negative thing to do when you are supposed to be non partisan, and serving women's interests regardless of their political, moral and spiritual beliefs. You are serving them by researching and hoping to find a cure for the disease that they have in common. That is what you say and that is why you take their money.

 

The problem with Komen is that it is being run on a business model, not a non profit service model. Many things have come out during these last few days that point to that. The danger with the business model is the protection of its reach and influence and its profit. The unreasonable in the non profit world is the normal in the business world. You need good business practices to protect the integrity of a non profit. You need good accounting and fiduciary capacity, you need to be accountable and have excellent practices for how your non profit achieves its mission. You must follow all the practices with respect to government reporting, hiring and firing and in an important twist, there must be transparency.

For all of Komen's issues, there did seem to be a layer of transparency. As one donor proclaimed, "if they had been paying attention, they would have stopped donating long ago".  That is just it, it was all out there if you wanted to find it. All of the reporting of how the money that was donated was spent, how the protection of the word "cure" took on unbelievable character, ( that of a giant protecting it's realm) and how their board was structured. No one was bothering to exam all of that because they were well marketed to, well convinced that the cause was being served and no one suspected the lobbying efforts of its team included squashing innovative cancer research as it might have gone against major pharmaceutical  donors interests.

Komen was more of a business than a non profit. They took the model too far. It was being run like a family business. You have your relatives give you a hand. You bring in your son if you are Nancy Brinker. You take a huge salary long with great travel benefits as the figure head of the organization. This is how you make your living, even though you have your own money. You invite all your friends that you get a long with to run the company with you, it is apparently a mostly Texas board with all sorts of like minded political thinkers. You have lobbyist and legal council that protect your interests to an extreme degree, also protecting some donor interests at the same time. The big donor interests.

This kind of situation takes place not just at Komen, but at churches, schools, and other non profits. I call it incestuous leadership and founders syndrome. Incestuous is when you surround yourself with family, friends and others who you can control. As long as you are delivering on your mission, no one seems to care or notice. It is a very bad practice to surround yourself with yes man, ask any fallen dictator.

 As for my very favorite phrase, founder's syndrome, this can be much more complicated and excessive, the two are a very bad mix. You dream up a great concept, plan, idea, etc. Just like an inventor you seek to patent your invention so that no one can steal it. You protect it in it's infancy, and lets face it, you have a measure of success, you keep building it. Somehow the more success you have and the more grateful adoring donors, it becomes harder to see the forest through the trees. In business, you have the right to build and own your own company, that lives and dies with your direction. In a non profit,not so much. You built, they came and used it, others including the users donated to help build it and keep it going. If you make a bad decision, all those people being served suffer, it is not just a financial loss and you shutter up the business, it is a loss for all those you served and that depend on whatever your mission was. Yes, it can be over come, but often at great loss and risk to the very people you were hoping to serve. The mission of a non profit is much more sacred than the mission of a business for profit.

 I once worked with a woman who was one of two founders of a non profit. The work that the this non profit did was important and as it evolved it was having positive impact on the community and it was serving many people. I learned in an odd way that the person who originally was also a founder, was "bumped out" by the woman I knew as the founder. This woman was completely out of the picture and the history of the organization by the time I was under contract. I observed the woman at the helm. I noticed some leadership failures and then I noticed some real, stark character flaws. She said something to me one day that completely changed my mind about continuing to help her with the organization. She was gone not too long after that. Part due to my observations and recommendations to the board. There had been many problems but no one of her "yes" people on the board seemed to take action. Then when she brought on what she presumed would be another "yes" person, who was very wealthy and connected, she found someone strong enough to work against her and acutally put her out. Yes. Put her out, and while the organization struggled, it was brief and it survived and excelled. 

I am not saying that Nancy Brinker is a terrible woman. I think she is a smart business person who has done some good things with her drive and ambition for the cause. It might be time for her to step down or step back and let someone else lead her organzation into a new era.

If there is still a mission and I think there is, that might be necessary. Changing from awareness to more research, including looking at environmental factors might be the most sane way out of the mission debacle. The other important strategy is to abandon politicial influence of either party, and focus strictly on the mission, which is science. Any lobbying should be done with that thought in mind. Nancy Brinker' s son needs a new job, outside of the Komen organization. All of the current board members need to retire to perhaps rolls in an auxiliary for the organization or out of the organization. 

The mission needs to peel away some of it rapid commercialism and pare down to a more streamlined entity both administratively and ideologically. That is the only key to their survival.

I bow to the fact that these are apparently all powerful, wealthy conservative Republicans we are talking about and they would no more do what I suggest, especially as their perceived successes, but how this all ends up remains to be seen and I always suggest a pro active approach. The first thing they have done right is get rid of Karen Handel. The crisp statement by Nancy Brinker told me she sees the writing on the wall and is now waking up to major damage control. For whatever it is worth, that was a good step, although I would have done it when I reversed the decision regarding the funding of Planned Parenthood. Karen, uneducated and an idealogue just wore out her intellectual welcome, but like Palin and Bachmann, someone in their conservative nest will feather with them again.

My last words are to the donors of this organization. Don't be too hard on yourself. If you thought you were doing something good, perhaps you were if only for yourself. That is okay. Now that you know the ropes a bit better, remember to carefully investigate anything involving financial commitment before you buy into the entity. Try to be less emotional about any giving you might do. Know who gets your money and what they plan on doing with it. That includes any transaction where heart strings get attached.

Be suspect of gross commercialization. Always expect to be thanked for your donation, whether inkind or in cash. The nature of a  non profit is how it gets its money to do its mission. There are plenty out there that do steller work, above board and people sincerely depend on. Don't get suckered by someone waving a pink ribbon. Pink ribbons do not cure cancer and cancer is the issue. 

 Copyright 2012 by SheilaTGTG55

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If you are interested in Komen, non profit leadership and administration, this post is for you. If you are involved with a non profit you will appreciate what I have written here and what is now being said about leadership at Komen. It is important to understand how this all took place. I hit the nail on the head for this one. My experience in non profit leadership has helped me identify problems like this before and their solutions.
Even a better fread now. Rated.
I've worked with non-profits in the arts and theater, most doing PR and press... and I've never been paid a dime. In 1990, I spent six months full-time to work with a non-profit Greens organization to get the Green Party of California on the ballot. If I'd been paid for my donated time that billing would have come to around $50,000... never turned in a receipt for gas, food, travel, expenses of any kind. I did fund raising events for Obama in 2008 and sent all the checks directly to the campaign. My out of pocket expenses exceeded $300.

Over the last twenty years my time and expenses exceed $60,000 but nobody ever offered me a job. To me that's what non-profit is supposed to be about and it is the reason I have never given a dime to the likes of AARP or the Alzheimer's Foundation. I hate people who make careers out of conning other people into "giving for the cause."
excellent piece, sheila. i was involved with two large professional nonprofits for decades. your take on management problems and inbreeding and personalities is spot on. komen's situation is awful and more needs to be done to rescue an org that has a good mission but has become badly damaged by its own hand(s).
I haven't been posting on OS because I'm dealing with my baby sister's recent diagnosis of a severe type of breast cancer. I'm getting first hand experience from the front lines. Too bad we can't keep these organizations focused on the real issues. They all seem to eventually become obsessed with their own existence instead of the lives of those they pretend to represent. I've always wondered why we are marching for cures instead of prevention. Cancer is mostly a manmade disease that offers many opportunities for making profit from the side effects of other profit making ventures. In that scenario, where is the incentive to cure? All those people supposedly working for a cure would be unemployed. I live for that day!
Jon: Thanks for reading.

jmac: I worked as a volunteer for years first, then sat on a couple of boards. I continued to get hands on experience and was hired first with contracts and then on staff. All my experience tells me that some non profits are very unprofessional on many levels. Some like Komen are politically corrupted, due to unprofessional hiring policies and probably donor influence. All this can be a disillusioning experience.
femme: Thank you for your comment. People don't like to hear what I have to say sometimes about their non profit's situations but usually when they get over their defensiveness, they seem to be able to make enough corrections to continue to function. Most of the time that can and does involve a change in internal leadership or the elimination of some board members whose influence can be crippling. When attempts are made to bring in balance with strategic planning and successful leadership, progress can be made, as you have likely observed in your experience. You and I concur that Komen has a long way to go yet and it may not see that just yet, but they may over time.
SpiritManSF: I think you are very correct. I hope that your sister does well with her treatment. Your support and the support of her loved ones can make all the difference in her recovery. That support is so much more important than what any organization like Komen can give, especially now with their reputation askew. We see them as exploiting all these women now, rather then offering them support and kinship, and help in finding a cure. It is an important lesson, especially for those who have been emotional donors.
Difficult dilemma for me wanting to support women I love who asked me to make a small contribution when they walk, but opposed morally to what the organization is doing.
Amy: If you explain to the women why you don't want to donate to Komen, and how you will honor them by donating to a cancer charity you feel more supportive of, it should be no harm done. The biggest part of donor habits are sometimes based in peer pressure, not perhaps where they should be placed, understanding the legitimate operations of the charity you are being asked to donate to. Just a thought. Don't mind me, wanders off.. to borrow a phrase from Tink....
Dance: Good business practices help a non profit, profit driven business practices that lose sight of mission, ethics and honesty do not.

Most people who are serious about their non profits do adhere to a code of ethics, especially those involved in fund development. The Association of Fundraising Professionals helps fund development professionals see the perimeters of how to raise money ethically. Often it is the fund development professional that must go against the board and the CEO of the non profit to bring their strategies and thought processes in line with the established ethics out there regarding how to fund raise and whom to develop for funding and why.

The main difference in business practices applied in the non profit sector is the issue of transparency. It is up to the donor to do due diligence and see how the organization is being run and that information, including all their financials should be readily available for public scrutiny. Part of this transparency is what gets muddled when business people with their own ideas and practices take hold in a board or leadership capacity at a non profit and their voice, is heard through their donation dollars and social capital. This is the tricky wire which must be walked. Making mission and transparency paramount helps keep these donors and leaders on the non profit page rather then the business page. The accounting practices and leadership models found in a well run business do nothing but help a non profit that is built on mission alone. So it is a tight rope if you will and someone strong in development or leadership, the director, or CEO of the organization must have the understanding.
Looking back at my comment I feel compelled to make an addendum: When I said, "I hate people who..." I'm not talking about folks who get paid to do fund raising for non-profits or even perform other necessary work... I'm talking about CEO's and "consultants" who pull down a half million a year with another $100K in expense accounts... that goes double for Presidents and other executives of State Universities and private colleges."

Maybe hate is too strong a word... disgust is more appropriate.
jmac: I understand some of your frustration. I was never paid for my board service, in fact, it cost me money to do that and to "volunteer". Since I have worked primarily with low budget non profits, social services, etc. my salary has never been what I think you are thinking of. As consultant I have given much more away than I have been paid for in the interest of helping people fund their groups, organize them properly and solve serious problems. I understand your frustration with huge entities which share the title of non profit though they speak a completely different language than most of the ones I have served or been involved with.

Hate is a strong word. It makes sense to say it sometimes. I don't know all your experience and frustration but I can say that you probably don't hate the people, you probably hate what they do, what they seem to get away with. There are very few people I actually say I hate, but I know that for sure I hate what they have done. Sometimes we just don't understand, sometimes there is no understanding. I have found that most wrong doing has been based in greed, inflated by a presumed sense of power.
I worked a few years (office support) for a small non-profit founded by hippies. It was interesting...

As with most things, the world would be a much different place if people could manage to behave 'properly'.
Myriad: So completely true!
I should have seen this Komen!
Algis!!!! YES!!!!!