Susan G. Komen – A Bad Charity Long Before Their Planned Parenthood PR Nightmare

Susan G. Komen for the Cure was once the Queen of all breast cancer charities. Sadly, she suffered a great fall. And all the Queen’s supporters and all the Queen’s donors can’t put her back together again. In an unfortunate turn, Komen failed all of us by forgetting the first rule of charity: benevolence. Starting several years ago, Komen transformed into a political entity, succumbing to anti-choice group demands and other unkind acts, betraying the very essence of its proclaimed charitable mission.

Shortly after pulling its funding for Planned Parenthood in early 2012, igniting a backlash that was both unexpected and overwhelming, Komen retained the public relations firm, Penn Schoen Berland (which, in all likelihood, is being paid by your donations) to determine if an apology was necessary to you and me, the donating public, who had believed Komen was a charity working on a cure for breast cancer. We did believe, didn’t we? At least until it all unraveled. PSB sent out questionnaires to determine how much damage had been done and what Komen needed to do to make things ‘right.’ (Or ‘left,’ as this author likes to wordplay.)

The 20-minute questionnaire first asks a series of questions to determine how favorably people feel about Komen now and how likely they are to donate to it, as compared to the American Cancer Society, Planned Parenthood and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. […]

Perhaps most interestingly, one section of the Komen survey asks participants whether they feel that the organization still owes them an apology, and then lists a series of potential apologies to test whether or not they are effective. The options range from deeply apologetic to defensive and deflective of blame. “We made mistakes, but political elements on the right and left have sought to use our missteps to advance their own political agenda,” one potential apology reads.

While Komen continued to proclaim that defunding Planned Parenthood was “a routine change,” the truth surfaced and Komen’s Vice President of Public Affairs, Karen Handel, resigned during the fallout. Her agenda regarding Planned Parenthood was apparent to those who had worked alongside her during her run for governor of Georgia and remained her primary focus upon being hired by Komen in April of 2011.

But the teapot was at a roiling boil by the time top officials threatened to jump ship at Komen if something wasn’t done to reverse Komen’s decision to pull grant monies from Planned Parenthood and others. As the news about Planned Parenthood became known, Komen’s site crashed as protest after protest was posted. Social media was ablaze with threats by millions of women to take their money to other charitable organizations who were willing to fund Planned Parenthood. When all was exposed, it became apparent that Komen had become more than a charity fighting breast cancer issues, but a charity run amok with unfettered uncharitable-like power grabs and strange corporate bedfellows playing supporting roles in the funding of Komen.

So where are things now with the once-great charity? Let’s reconstruct a timeline to put it in perspective:


In 2010, according to the Harris Interactive Polls, Komen was ranked as the second most trusted nonprofit in America. Susan G. Komen for the Cure was a fund-raising giant on the charity scene, envied by many and emulated by a few hundred Mom and Pop charities (Kites for a Cure, Par for The Cure, Surfing for a Cure and Cupcakes for a Cure, as well as many others). Rather than demonstrating their charitable heart, Komen had another mission: take down anyone who dared use “for the cure” in their name and destroy them by filing trademark lawsuits until these small organizations were crushed under the weight of Komen. And where did Komen get the money to hunt down these little charities? You, me and our donations make three. Or a million. According to Komen’s own financial statements, the costs of these lawsuits added up to almost a million dollars a year.

“It happened to my family,” said Roxanne Donovan, whose sister runs Kites for a Cure, a family kite-flying event that raises money for lung cancer research. “They came after us ferociously with a big law firm. They said they own ‘cure’ in a name and we had to stop using it, even though we were raising money for an entirely different cause.”

Sue Prom, who started a small dog sledding fundraiser for breast cancer called “Mush for the Cure” in Grand Marais, Minn., said she was shocked to hear from Komen’s lawyers this summer asking that she change the name of her event or face legal proceedings.

During this same time period, research studies started surfacing showing links between bisphenol A (BSA) and breast cancer. Komen was questioned repeatedly about their position on the possible cancer connections and Komen released a statement on their website declaring:

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical found in some plastics and some coatings on metals. Concerns about BPA have centered on its use in plastic and metal food and beverage containers. Small amounts of BPA from the containers can get into the foods and beverages inside. As a result, we can be exposed to low levels of BPA. Ever since BPA was first used in food and beverage containers, the low levels of BPA exposure were deemed safe. And, these low levels of exposure still appear to be safe for adults. (Emphasis added.)

Trademarks and donations from corporate donors had become more important than finding the cure to breast cancer.


Komen awarded researchers $55 million worth of grants in 2011. While standing firm on their position that there is no quantifiable link between BPA and breast cancer, Komen funded a research project that hypothesized the connection.

In the 2011 research portfolio, a small portion of Komen’s funding is going toward specific environmental exposures—including a $450,000 study on BPA by a Komen-funded researcher who hypothesizes that BPA “causes or accelerates breast cancer. … [Prior to 2011] Komen also decided to fund an approximately $1.25 million panel at the Institute of Medicine on environmental exposures, precisely because of such intense debate around the issue.

After repeatedly dismissing any link between BPA and breast cancer, Komen was queried by Mother Jones about any financial connections involving private companies using BPA in their products and Komen.

 BPA is found in all manner of consumer goods, from plastic water jugs to receipts to the liners of food cans. Critics have pointed out that Komen receives generous donations from private industries who use those same chemicals in their products, and who also downplay health concerns. Is that what’s driving Komen’s position on BPA? “Absolutely not,” said Katrina McGhee, Komen’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

In multiple interviews with Mother Jones, Komen executives were adamant that their sponsors have no effect on any of their policy decisions.

Komen’s chief scientific adviser, Dr. Eric Winer, responded to MJ’s further inquiries by stating: “If a woman is particularly worried about plastics, she can avoid plastics in her life.” MJ pointed out that this might not be as easy as it sounds. Large donations poured in from such sponsors as Coca Cola, General Mills, Georgia-Pacific (Koch) and 3-M (who has donated over $1 million since 2007 and is a member of the American Chemistry Council who regularly argues that BPA is safe). Komen’s President, Elizabeth Thompson, responded to questions regarding the ‘absolute’ nature of their press release on BPA by stating: “I can only say that we’ve spent hours. Hours and hours and hours looking at the wording.”

It must be noted that Komen was downplaying BPA’s links to cancer during the time they were receiving funding from pro-BPA pharma companies. They released no further statement in 2010 and made only a minor change in 2011 to note the continued medical and chemical studies linking BPA and breast cancer and other diseases. No mention was made about the connection to plastics or pesticides and no study was linked including a study published in late October 2011 by Pediatrics – The official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics analyzing the impact of a child’s early life and the connections between BPA and executive functions.

Mother Jones exposed the potential health risks:

A new study shows that girls who were exposed to chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) as fetuses are more highly prone to hyperactive, anxious, aggressive, and depressed behavior than boys of similar age. BPA, an estrogen-mimicking chemical used to harden plastic, is found in consumer products ranging widely from canned soups to baby bottles and grocery receipts.

Defunding grants to institutions that participated in stem cell research and continuing to ignore links between BPA and breast cancer had become more important than finding the cure to breast cancer.


We all know about the Planned Parenthood debacle. Millions of PP supporters stood up and shouted, “NO!” But while everyone was looking at Komen’s defunding of Planned Parenthood, another defunding was already in progress and flying under the radar: stem cell research.

According to Jezebel:

When Komen messed with Planned Parenthood, they messed with an organization with millions of vocal supporters tired of seeing the health care provider being politically stigmatized. But when Komen’s newly Karen Handel flavored muscle messed with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the University of Kansas, the US National Cancer Institute, the Society for Women’s Health Research, and Yale University, last fall the only people who noticed were the researchers who were no longer receiving the more than $12 million in funding Komen had provided.

LifeNews reported that Komen was taking a beating from pro-life groups demanding that they cease any stem cell funding. Prior to the decision to withdraw all grants, Komen was sending millions of dollars to embryonic stem cell research centers although carefully denoting that none of the funds actually given ‘directly’ supported embryonic stem cell research. During this period of time, donations from Komen totaling $3.75 million went to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, $4.5 million to the University of Kansas Medical Center, $1 million to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, $1 million to the Society for Women’s Health Research, and $600,000 to Yale University.

Karen Malec of the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer has spent time examining Komen’s 990 Forms for the IRS for 2010 and she found that Komen has active relationships with at least five research groups or educational facilities that engage in embryonic stem cell research, which requires the destruction of unborn children in their earliest days for stem cells that have yet to help any patients. Komen is careful in its documents to state that none of the funds directly support embryonic stem cell research, saying in its Group Return for 2010 under a section entitled “Grant Statement” that “While Komen affiliates do not fund research grants directly, a portion of the funds raised by every Komen affiliate (approximately 25%) go to support the research and training grants program at Komen’s International Headquarters.”

According to the most recent information from LifeNews:

On November 30, 2011, Komen quietly added a new statement to its web site stating that it does not support embryonic stem cell research but supports the kinds that do not involve the destruction of human life.

“Komen supports research on the isolation, derivation, production, and testing of stem cells that are capable of producing all or almost all of the cell types of the developing body and may result in improved understanding of or treatments for breast cancer, but are derived without creating a human embryo or destroying a human embryo,” Komen says. “A priority in our research funding is to quickly find and deliver effective treatments, especially for the most lethal forms of breast cancer, while seeking effective preventive strategies, enhanced screening methodologies, and solutions to disparities in breast cancer outcomes for diverse women.”

All links to the above statement by Komen have currently been taken down and are unavailable online. However, a new statement has been uploaded and is available in PDF wherein Komen states:

Statement on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

While Susan G. Komen for the Cure does not conduct research, it does fund innovative research projects in leading institutions worldwide. Komen has a long history of funding groundbreaking research to fulfill its promise to save lives and end breast cancer forever. A recent review of our funded grants revealed that human embryonic stem cell tissue has not been used in breast cancer research funded by Komen.

Embryonic stem cells are currently considered to have the most potential for use in the regeneration of diseased or injured tissues. Whether embryonic stem cells will have a role or will be of value in the fight against breast cancer has not been clearly determined. To this point, embryonic stem cell research has not shown promise for application in breast cancer.

Contrary to circulating online reports, Komen has not “de-funded” any grantee based on human embryonic stem cell research conducted at their institution. Komen will continue to focus its research efforts on the most promising areas of science which have the greatest potential for breast cancer patients.

For more information on Komen’s research program, areas of focus, and a list of Komen funded research grants, visit

So, along with all of Komen’s other statements, we are to believe that the grants no longer provided to the universities discussed above have anything at all to do with pressure by anti-abortion groups. The decision to withdraw these grants was based solely upon Komen wanting to “focus.”

What have we learned? Keeping up the lies and hiring a PR firm was more important than finding a cure for breast cancer.

As 2012 evolved, their “focus” was on a public relations questionnaire. Is an apology necessary? Who cares? Komen is no longer on this author’s list of charities. They no longer fit the definition of a charity.


noun \?cher-?-t?, ?cha-r?-\


1: benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity

2a: generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering; also: aid given to those in need b: an institution engaged in relief of the poor c: public provision for the relief of the needy

3a: a gift for public benevolent purposes b: an institution (as a hospital) founded by such a gift

4: lenient judgment of others

Unfortunately, Komen would appear to have forgotten what charity is all about.

2013 Update:

Komen spent most of 2012 trying to repair the damage to their brand while attempting to salvage their donor rolls. SGK suffered an almost 20 percent decline in their October 2012 Race for the Cure fundraising as many donors looked for other cancer charities, like Avon’s Walk for Breast Cancer, to support. And while no one is certain that Komen’s skirmish with Planned Parenthood was the major reason for their topple from the throne they once sat upon, there is little doubt that this Queen took a great fall.

For 23 years, Harris Interactive has conducted corporate reputation and brand health research.

Susan G. Komen’s current brand equity score of 55.1 represents a 21% drop in brand equity over the prior year ? a historic drop in the study’s 23-year history, surpassed only by Fannie Mae in 2009.

Falling 54 spots, from second to 56th place, SGK found itself seeking redemption as Planned Parenthood put together a successful public relations campaign that recently received top honors from The PRWeek Awards, the ‘Oscars’ of the public relations industry. Camino Public Relations won top PR honors for their non-profit campaign on behalf of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, as PP “launched a new national breast health plan.”

When Susan G. Komen for the Cure notified Planned Parenthood last January that it was cutting all ties, it pitted a top women’s health charity against a leading women’s healthcare provider. Under the guidance of crisis PR agency Camino, Planned Parenthood relished this chance to truly educate the public on a vital topic. The effort highlighted the unmet needs of many patients by demonstrating the importance of safety net providers such as Planned Parenthood.

And while Komen continues to struggle for their charitable compass, some suggest that they need to put a new ‘face’ on their product.  Perhaps instead of a face-lift, Komen should be looking for a heart transplant.