Lessons from a Giant’s Mis-step

This blog is about stewardship and is not the appropriate place for me or others to weigh in on Planned Parenthood’s myriad of services.  Let’s keep the discussion to the Komen decision.

It’s not very often that the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure gets it wrong.  But it sure happened a few weeks ago.

For years, Komen has financially supported the breast cancer screenings done at Planned Parenthood.  Planned Parenthood affiliates have received about $680,000 per year from the foundation and provided about 170,000 clinical breast exams and 6,400 mammogram referrals through those funds, mainly to low-income and minority women.

But Planned Parenthood is known for providing other services, and with Komen organization now if full crisis spin mode the exact basis of Komen’s decision to discontinue mammogram funding cannot be known, but it presumably was because of the political pressure in these other areas.

The public responded quickly and definitively to the news.   While the decision was made in December, it was announced January 31.   Gifts to support Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer efforts poured in, with more than $3 million being given in just a few days.  A Cleveland City Councilman threatened to bar Komen from having its annual Race for the Cure in the city.  Women across the country were objecting to the decision.  By February 3 Komen changed its mind and its leaders were in full crisis-management mode.  Problem solved?  Not necessarily.  There were members of the Komen team who were invested in the need for this decision.  Some of those have left.

For decades, the Foundation has been the flagship for raising money for testing, treating and researching for breast cancer.  It boasts mind-boggling numbers not just in dollars raised, but the number of people, nearly all of them women, who advocate and raise money for the cause.  Last summer my wife was one of thousands who walked (okay walked, then hobbled) 60 miles in three days to raise money for the cause.

What Komen failed to realize was the cause wasn’t Komen.  The cause was breast cancer. Komen was merely a vehicle (and a very effective vehicle) for individuals to give money to fight this disease.

For three days Komen became, in the minds of many, less about helping people and more about politics, power, and agendas.  So donors side-stepped Komen and gave their money to another organization in the same fight, an organization that provided screenings to poor women.  In fact in less than a week, Planned Parenthood received more than four times what it received from the Komen Foundation.

I am grateful that our churches never, ever become less about helping people and more about politics, power and agendas.

That was sarcastic, by the way.

There was a time in our history when the only social services that were happening were because of the church.  Flat Rock and Berea Children’s Homes were both founded by individual churches who saw a need and met that need.  Many of our agencies across the country have similar histories.

But over the years we have delegated helping people to the experts, and our churches have become more focused on worship and serving our members.

As I talk and train stewardship leaders I keep telling them that they need to get back to helping people.  I love the fact that we have great agencies that do a wonderful job with their work.   But at the local church level we need to make sure that we are still about this work. 

If you have been part of my generosity workshops you know that the desire to support the institution of the church is waning, that our people want to know that their dollars are being used to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, reach out to those in need.  The good news is that most of our churches are still doing that, but we need to remind our members.

Because just as Komen thought they, not cancer, was the cause, we need to remember that people, not our institutions, are the cause our members want to support.

While I believe in learning from our mistakes, it’s a lot less painful to learn from someone else’s.  Let’s understand the lesson we can learn from the folks at the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure.

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