Why Charitable Foundations need to be Extra Careful with Partnerships

In 2012, I wrote a blog on breast cancer and the Susan G. Komen Foundation. The pink ribbon carries a lot of associations—women’s health, breast cancer, all types of runs, pink clothing on football players etc.

But in a prominent fight between breast cancer charity, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and women’s health organization Planned Parenthood, the ribbon was suddenly associated with controversy in an area which makes no sense except in the fanatical right-to-life world in the USA where the anti-abortion movement is very strong. What happened was the breast cancer charity decided to pull hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to Planned Parenthood, citing a congressional investigation over whether Planned Parenthood uses federal funds for abortions. Planned Parenthood in turn accused the Komen Foundation of having “succumbed to political pressure.”

The move immediately incited backlash in the media and online, but the charity’s communications strategy and response was roundly criticized. Komen was slow to respond online — and when it did, it changed its message numerous times. First, it cited a policy stating that it doesn’t provide funding to organizations under investigation. After critics were quick to equate that to a political move aimed at appeasing right-wing donors, Komen changed tacks and said the real reason was actually related to the fact that Planned Parenthood doesn’t actually administer screenings but hands out referrals for mammograms. See my blog

Well here we go again. They are now under fire for its partnership with Baker Hughes, one of the world’s largest oilfield services, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. According to the Huffington Post, Baker Hughes announced it would paint 1,000 of its gold drill bits pink to “serve as a reminder of the importance of supporting research, treatment, screening, and education to help find cures for this disease.” Source


San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action “thanked Susan G. Komen and Baker Hughes for partnering on the most ludicrous piece of pink sh*t they’ve seen all year—1,000 shiny pink drill bits.” The organization said the partnership is “the most egregious example of ‘pink-washing’ they’ve ever seen,” noting that toxic fracking chemicals are linked to breast cancer.

Will this become a full-out crisis that will significantly damage their reputation and relationships with donors and supporters? Hard to say, but clearly this was a poor choice in selecting a partner. It’s not the first time the Foundation has come under fire and it most likely won’t be the last. What matters more from a reputational point of view is how true they stay to their declared set of values and priorities.

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