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Today the power and decisions of an organization’s top leadership are more apparent than ever. Susan G. Komen has been stumbling since the ill-fated decision to end its partnership with Planned Parenthood. Komen’s leadership responded quickly to the public’s and their supporters’ criticism by restoring their partnership days later, but the organization has not looked the same since. Recently, Komen’s president Liz Thompson announced that she will be stepping down in September but she leaves the organization with its long-term health in jeopardy; in some cases fundraising is down 20 to 30%, and as numbers for fall fundraising events come in, that figure may grow.
Susan G. Komen’s misstep is a loss for the entire nonprofit sector. Last year Komen was one of the most respected and well-known nonprofit brands, and served as a model for many organizations to aspire toward. Even for students of public relations crises, few predicted that Komen’s actions would prove to be this difficult to overcome. Like many others, I hope to see Susan G. Komen regain its form and come out of these events as a stronger organization, but the mistakes made earlier this year provide an excellent learning opportunity.
Although the dust is far from settled on this story, I have been struck by how another organization has handled a similar public relations crisis. When Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy strongly voiced his support of traditional marriage, the company received heavy public criticism, along with a wave of support and record sales. Whether or not you agree with Chick-Fil-A, the company has done surprisingly well in the wake of this event, and on a macro-level it has alighted on something that could benefit groups like Susan G. Komen and the nonprofit sector as a whole.
While the two organizations do not exactly make for a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, it is true that leadership from both groups made controversial decisions, and each base of constituents responded very differently.
Komen’s controversy was more than the initial decision to end its partnership with Planned Parenthood, but the subsequent decision to restore funding. Any fans it gained in ending the partnership were quickly lost in the reversal. And the fans it initially lost have been apprehensive about coming back to Komen as quickly.
In light of Komen’s inconsistencies in this matter, Chick-Fil-A has benefited because of its consistencies. No matter your stance on the issue, its leaders speak with conviction and they have built and integrated their values into the organization at every level. In some ways, Cathy’s statements are not surprising at all, because they affirm many of values the company has prided itself on.
Every organization should have core issues for which they show exceptional consistency and fidelity. Moreover, any big move your organization plans should be well vetted and safeguarded against the need for a quick reversal.
Know Your Constituents
Komen proved to be out of touch with of some of its key constituents and donors. In talking with a close friend, we both asked the question “How could you not know that your constituents would react this way?” For example, Chick-Fil-A knew that by and large the relationships it had built with constituents from various church communities would support them through this crisis. In this way, Chick-Fil-A proved to know its base very well, and acted consistently with its values.
Komen should have better gauged its base before making this particular move. Similarly, if you are the leader of a nonprofit, take a page from the for-profit sector and spend time conducting focus groups, meeting with donors, and rigorously evaluating your programs to ensure you know those who are touched by your organization better than anyone else.
Obviously, the best way to handle a public relations crisis is to avoid it. Both organizations I profiled lost something through their missteps, but the nature of each crisis and how they responded in the wake of public scrutiny has clearly shaped their paths moving forward. Reflecting on the lessons learned from both organizations, it’s striking how similar situations have created such differing outcomes. It may seem ironic to learn something from Chick-Fil-A’s crisis, but amidst heavy criticism, Chick-Fil-A has demonstrated the value of consistency and knowing one’s base.
Lars Ward is a graduate student in the Lodestar Center's Master of Nonprofit Studies program at Arizona State University. Lars currently works for the ASU Lodestar Center as a Research Aid, helping manage the AzGates platform, a free grant resourcing tool for Arizona nonprofits. He also interns with the development department at the National Kidney Foundation of Arizona.
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