Calls Grow for Leader of Komen to Step Down

Nancy G. Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.Nancy G. Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. (Photo: kostia)

Calls for the resignation of Nancy G. Brinker, the founder and chief executive of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the breast cancer charity, grew Wednesday amid news that a second high-profile executive was leaving the group.

On Tuesday, Dr. Dara P. Richardson-Heron, the chief executive of Komen’s Greater New York City affiliate, said she had made a “personal decision” to resign effective April 27.

Katrina McGhee, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Komen’s national organization, said late last month that she planned to resign in May, also for personal reasons. Ms. McGhee oversees more than 200 corporate partnerships, 140 race events and more than $350 million in annual revenue at Komen. Leslie Aun, a Komen spokeswoman, said Ms. McGhee planned to consult for the group.

The resignations come after a national outcry over Komen’s decision earlier this year to eliminate most of its financing for breast cancer education and screening to Planned Parenthood, which runs women’s health clinics that also provide birth control and perform abortions. At the time, the national Komen organization said it had decided not to finance grant applications from organizations under government investigation. Although Planned Parenthood was not the subject of an investigation, a Republican congressman, Cliff Stearns of Florida, was looking into whether the group had spent public money on abortions.

After critics charged that Komen was politicizing women’s health by trying to distance itself from Planned Parenthood, the breast cancer charity rescinded its decision in February and Ms. Brinker apologized. Days later, Karen Handel, the group’s senior vice president for policy, who had become a lightning rod for criticism over the Planned Parenthood issue, resigned. But the controversy, stoked by heated comments on social media sites like Twitter, has turned off some longtime supporters, resulting in reduced fund-raising at some affiliates.

“You hate to see the organization slowly bleed away its staffing and its talent,” said Daniel Borochoff, the president of CharityWatch, a nonprofit organization that rates charities. Although Komen remains a leader in breast cancer fund-raising, he said, “they may very well need to get a new board and a new chief executive.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Komen’s board said it fully supported Ms. Brinker and the group’s leadership.

“We have complete confidence in the leadership of this organization, and in Susan G. Komen’s fundamental strength as an organization delivering research, community health programs, global outreach and advocacy for people facing breast cancer,” John D. Raffaelli, a Komen board member, said in a statement on behalf of the board.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, he added, “I don’t think anybody can question Nancy Brinker’s commitment to finding a cure for breast cancer.”

Even so, more than 1,000 people have signed an online petition on calling for Ms. Brinker’s resignation.

Ms. Brinker started the foundation in 1982 after her sister, Susan G. Komen, died of breast cancer. Over the subsequent decades, Ms. Brinker made Komen the world’s largest breast cancer charity. Along the way, she turned the breast cancer crusade into a pink marketing juggernaut on the community and corporate level. Komen’s sponsors include American Airlines, Bank of America and Yoplait. Nearly two million people have participated annually in about 150 Komen race events. In the year ended March 31, 2011, Komen raised about $420 million in cash and in-kind donations.

But the recent events have damaged good will for Komen, threatening the group’s ability to raise money from both corporate sponsors and the public, according to some analysts who study corporate leadership and ethics. Thomas Donaldson, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said that many people who once supported Komen because they identified themselves with women’s health causes may have felt betrayed because they felt the group had veered off course.

“With a charity, even the smallest excuse can tip the scales of a donor’s decision,” Professor Donaldson said. “If my identity is bound up with a commitment to women’s health and women’s reproductive rights, why pay money to corrupt the integrity of my commitments?”

Dr. Richardson-Heron’s decision to resign as the chief of Komen’s New York affiliate after less than four years only reinforced the disappointment among some formerly avid Komen supporters.

Among Komen’s 121 affiliates, New York is the largest fund-raiser, collecting about $12.7 million in cash and in-kind donations in the 2011 fiscal year. Its board and staff had opposed the decision to stop financing Planned Parenthood.

“I think it is of huge significance that the chief executive of the No. 1 affiliate of Komen has resigned,” said Eve Ellis, who served on the New York board from 2004 to 2010 and headed the search committee that selected Dr. Richardson-Heron. Ms. Ellis said she had not spoken to Dr. Richardson-Heron but speculated that fund-raising problems that ensued from the controversy may have contributed to her decision to resign. “Personally, I wouldn’t be giving or raising money for them right now.”

In the wake of the controversy, for example, the New York affiliate has postponed two spring fund-raising events — a gala awards dinner and an event for teenagers called Tickled Pink! — because the group was “not certain about our ability to fund-raise in the near term,” Vern Calhoun, the affiliate’s communications director, wrote in an e-mail. He said Dr. Richardson-Heron was unavailable for comment.

Mr. Raffaelli, the Komen board member, said it would be unfortunate if the New York affiliate lost financing because it would only penalize women in need of breast cancer screening and treatment.

“The challenge for us now is to reaffirm that politics don’t play any role in picking grantees,” he said. “The challenge for the local affiliates is to reaffirm in their communities how they use their money to fight breast cancer.”