The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation is facing a fight to keep controversy from undermining its fundraising efforts.
After announcing that it would withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood screening programs last week — and then reversing that decision three days later — the foundation now faces the challenging task of repairing its image and trying to lure back disillusioned donors.
One of the nation's largest breast cancer charities, the foundation spends tens of millions of dollars annually on breast cancer research, education and screening.
At the Arlington Free Clinic in Northern Virginia, two-dozen women gathered to check in for a program known as the Komen Clinic. The program, funded by a $200,000 Komen Foundation grant, offers free breast exams to low-income women once a month.
Clinic director Nancy Pallison says many of these women wouldn't get the care they need without the Komen foundation's funding.
"They can't afford it. They don't know where to go, they don't have a regular doctor who would prescribe it for them," Pallison says. "So this just offers it to them for no cost, and it's a wonderful screening tool."
Like many Komen foundation grant recipients nationwide, the Arlington Free Clinic staff is worried about the screening program's future. The foundation spends more than $90 million each year on such community programs, and millions more for breast cancer research.
But many funders, annoyed by the foundation's initial decision to defund Planned Parenthood, have said they'll no longer give to the organization. Others, upset that the decision was reversed, have also said they'll no longer offer financial support.
Melissa Berman, president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, a consulting firm in New York, is optimistic that the foundation will eventually recover. "They changed their mind pretty quickly, and so they're going to be able to make a recovery here," Berman says.
Berman cites nonprofits like the American Red Cross and United Way, which both bounced back from high-profile controversies. But, she says, it takes time and a lot of hard work.
"Susan G. Komen will have to tell the story of how many women they reach, how many women get access to care, how many women participate in their events, how much research they're funding. They'll just have to continue to tell that story clearly and concisely," Berman says.
Indeed, foundation leaders started reaching out over the weekend, holding conference calls with affiliates and key supporters. Foundation officials did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.
Berman says Komen's long track record of impressive work for a good cause will ultimately help the foundation bounce back. But others think the latest crisis also provides an opportunity for donors to start asking some serious questions.
Susan B. Love is president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, which focuses on identifying the causes of breast cancer. Love, like many others in the breast cancer community, is critical of the Komen foundation for spending most of its research funds on treatment and finding a cure, rather than on disease prevention.
"Pink ribbons and walks and runs and all of that has raised a lot of money, and a lot of women are cured of breast cancer," Love says. "But around 110 women in this country die every day of breast cancer, and we've lost sight of the fact that just treating it is not good enough.
"What I hope the fallout will be is that it will be a wake-up call, that raising money is not enough. We need to ask how it's being spent," Love says.
Others worry that Komen's many corporate partnerships unduly influence the foundation's work.
"The problem with [corporate relationships] is that it does cause foundations to lose sight of their core vision if they're putting so much energy into chasing these sponsorships," says Samantha King, associate professor at Queens University in Ontario and author of the book Pink Ribbons Inc.
King cites Komen's 2010 "Buckets for the Cure" campaign with Kentucky Fried Chicken. Some studies have linked fatty foods to a higher risk of cancer.
In the past, the Komen foundation has said it only joins forces with those who share its philosophy and can help it to reach new audiences. But that explanation will likely get a lot more scrutiny now, as more donors question where they want their dollars to go.