Critics say having founder Nancy Brinker step down as CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure may not be enough to restore faith in the breast cancer charity, which has struggled to regain its footing since its controversial and short-lived attempt in January to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.
In a shake-up of the organization's top management, Brinker says she will give up her role as CEO but take a new job as chairwoman of the executive committee. The departure of Komen President Liz Thompson, and two board members, Brenda Lauderback and Linda Law, also were announced Wednesday.
Longtime supporters had complained that Komen was politicizing cancer screenings, which Planned Parenthood provides, along with other services. Many called for Brinker, who founded the charity in honor of her sister, who died from breast cancer at age 36, to step down.
Breast cancer survivor Brenda Coffee says she wonders whether Brinker will "still be pulling the strings from behind the curtain." Coffee, a past Komen volunteer, adds, "I hope I'm wrong, but I'm not sure Komen gets it."
Barbara Brenner, a longtime critic, says she also doubts that someone who spent so long at the helm will ever really leave.
"Brinker will still be running the board executive committee, which leaves her in charge, whatever her title," says Brenner, former executive director of Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco-based advocacy group. "Knowing when to leave is also leadership. Brinker hasn't shown that leadership yet."
"Komen needs to assure us this is real change," says Eve Ellis, a former board member at Komen's New York affiliate. "This is an organization that has suffered under her watch."
Ellis notes that the Planned Parenthood controversy has scared off donors, not only from Komen, but from other breast cancer charities. "Donors to other breast cancer organizations are requesting reassurances that they are not accepting money from Komen."
In a statement, Brinker defended her leadership. "Our mission is clear and consistent, and will never change, regardless of the controversy earlier this year," Brinker said. "We are doing everything in our power to ensure that women have access to quality cancer care and the support that they need, as we seek answers through cutting-edge research."
Mark Pilon, executive director of Komen's Los Angeles affiliate, says the moves at the top are part of the natural changes that occur in any organization. He says Brinker is "so dedicated to this mission and what we do. She will do whatever is the best thing for the organization."
Pilon came on to head the affiliate in March, a month after Komen decided to stop funding Planned Parenthood. Los Angeles is one of the seven affiliates in California, all of which opposed Komen's decision.
Komen said new internal rules prohibited it from funding organizations under investigation. Planned Parenthood was being investigated by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who was investigating whether Planned Parenthood was using federal dollars to fund abortions. Days later, after a public outcry, Komen reversed its decision, restoring the grants.
Across the USA, participation and fundraising at Komen's trademarked Race for the Cure events have fallen sharply.
Pilon says the Los Angeles event in March was the first after the controversy and the affiliate had about 6,000 walkers and runners, 1,000 fewer than it normally saw. Seattle's race, which took place in June, raised $500,000 less than last year, and attendance was down 40%.
Today, though, Pilon says, the dust has mostly settled. "It really is just about people asking for clarity," he says. "Now people hardly bring it up. It's fizzled."
Komen's "brand," which Brinker worked so hard to build into a marketing powerhouse, has suffered, Ellis says.
A recent Harris Interactive poll found that Komen, which had long been ranked in first or second place in terms of its "brand equity," fell to 56 out of 79 brands surveyed after the Planned Parenthood debacle.
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