The Susan G. Komen Foundation’s recent public relations disaster should sound a cautionary note for anyone in the fundraising and donor relations business. The announcement that Planned Parenthood would be disqualified from further Komen grant funding because it was “under investigation” – a violation of new rules the Foundation had put in place for its grantees – clearly touched a nerve among not only the Foundation's donors, but a substantial number of its own affiliates as well.
Reaction was swift and loud, reverberating across the news spectrum. Social media played a particularly important role in publicizing and challenging Komen’s decision. The Foundation seemed blindsided by both the volume of negative response and its emotional intensity.
However one may feel about the issues at play in the Komen Foundation’s policy decision, and its sudden reversal in the face of criticism, there is little doubt that this episode will have longer-term consequences for Komen’s fundraising efforts.
The blogosphere has been particularly harsh – “Not another dime of my money will go to Komen, which has now shown its true colors” is a common refrain. And the Foundation’s suggestion that there were “other reasons” for disqualifying Planned Parenthood for further Komen grants in the future didn’t placate anyone.
From a fundraising perspective, there are two critical takeaways:
1) Fail to understand your donors at your own peril; and
2) Don’t forget that social media can be a double-edged sword.
Clearly, the Komen Foundation had not anticipated the outcry from people who had been its loyal donors and event participants for years – people for whom the fight against breast cancer is completely outside of politics, but who also see this fight in the context of larger issues related to health equity for women. They care about access to healthcare for poor women, and part of the reason they supported Komen was because it funded Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screening and referral services for those women.
Ironically, using the same social media tools that Komen has cultivated so effectively for fundraising purposes, these disgruntled donors communicated -- far and wide -- their displeasure with the Foundation’s decision.
And using the identical networking tools, Planned Parenthood had one of its best fundraising weeks ever. Actually, Komen also had a pretty good week, thanks to some counter-backlash giving. But political polarization around an emotionally charged, non-political issue in women’s health may just exacerbate Komen’s fundraising challenges.
The Komen Foundation’s most urgent priority now is restoring the trust of its donors. How it addresses that stewardship challenge could have enormous potential impact on the success of its fundraising and event-marketing in the future.