Last week’s stunning PR nightmare at the Susan G. Komen Foundation is a textbook example of how not to run a nonprofit. Komen decided early last week to pull all funding from Planned Parenthood and then went radio silent in response to an increasingly angered social media network. Finally they flipped their original decision while firing the anti-Planned Parenthood vice president for public policy, Karen Handel.
Komen’s PR response was woefully inadequate, their social media efforts were non-existent compared to Planned Parenthood’s, and their board decision-making process was flawed. And all of this follows their brand-busting decision last year to partner with KFC.
Obviously, the organization is not making good decisions.
But few people are placing the blame for these missteps where it should probably go, at the top. Karen Handel herself argued that she wasn’t the only decision maker, “I clearly acknowledge [my role] in the process, but to suggest I had sole authority is just absurd. The policy was vetted at all appropriate levels.”
I wonder if Komen isn’t suffering from classic founder’s syndrome. Founder’s syndrome is when the original founder of a nonprofit (or a leader who has been there for a very long time) creates a culture where:
- Power and influence all reside within the single founder
- The brand of the organization is inextricably linked to the personality of the founder
- Staff are powerless to speak up and be heard when they disagree with certain decisions
- The board of directors merely rubber stamps founder decisions and have no real authority over and provide no strategic direction to the organization
- Decisions are rarely tested or debated
Komen was founded by Nancy Brinker when her sister, Susan G. Komen, died of breast cancer in 1982. For such a massive organization (a 2010 budget of $400+ million), the Komen Foundation only has 9 board members, most of whom are friends or family of the founder . The organization’s structure and behavior have all the signs of classic founder’s syndrome.
In a healthy nonprofit environment, staff are allowed (even encouraged) to push back, ask hard questions, have their dissenting opinions heard. And the board of directors has the ultimate strategic and fiscal authority for the organization. As a group, they debate and grapple with big strategic decisions. And, as a group, board and staff together are charged with achieving the mission.
When founder’s syndrome is present it can spell trouble for a nonprofit. Far beyond the PR nightmare we have witnessed the past week with Komen, founder’s syndrome can fundamentally weaken an organization. It can make the organization’s funding and brand name overly reliant on one person. It can cause a lack of critical and innovative thinking. Ultimately, it can mean that the organization becomes less about social impact and more about the personality of the founder.
What has played out with the Komen Foundation over the past few months should be a cautionary tale for other nonprofits. To be strong, effective, innovative and sustainable, a nonprofit must encourage a culture of group ownership. It remains to be seen if Komen learns from their mistakes, but at the very least perhaps other nonprofits can.
Photo Credit: Jeffrey