Monday, February 6, 2012

Thoughts on the “Politics” of the Komen Foundation’s Recent Stir

In Politics and the Cost of Conscience, syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker links the pressures faced by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation and Catholic charities.  Parker opines that both cases “concern a person's or an institution's freedom of conscience and the right to act upon one's moral beliefs without fear of intimidation and/or government coercion.”  She reasons that Catholic institutions face a looming requirement under the Affordable Care Act to “provide health insurance that covers contraception, including in some cases abortifacient  drugs,” with the result that they must “forfeit their most fundamental beliefs or face prohibitive penalties — or close hospitals, schools and other charities, with catastrophic consequences.” As for the Komen foundation, Parker notes that it “created a firestorm with its recent decision to stop donating about $680,000 a year to Planned Parenthood” (a decision that is now said to have been premature, according to subsequent reports).  It is apparent that Catholic charities face a “political” obstacle – governmental regulations.  But is the Komen matter also a “political” one?

Some, perhaps many, seem to think of the nonprofit’s decision concerning its future funding of Planned Parenthood in terms of “politics.”  In response to the Komen foundation’s statement that the funding decision was “not about politics,” journalist Lori Stahl counters in a Washington Post article:

But the truth is that Komen founder Nancy Brinker has strong Republican ties and Cecile Richards, who leads Planned Parenthood, is daughter of late Texas Gov. Ann Richards and has longtime Democratic Party ties. Also worth noting: This is an election year.

Another story in the Washington Post quotes a Planned Parenthood spokesperson – commenting on the funding spike that the organization received in the wake of the Komen hubbub – as saying “People respond powerfully when they see politics interfering with women’s health.”

I realize that we throw around the term “politics” very loosely to refer to any number of interpersonal and social dealings (e.g., “office politics,” “faculty politics,” etc.).  But when I read the words used by both supporters and critics of the foundation, more seems to be implied in characterizing this nonprofit’s recent decisions as “political” or “not political.”  The notion seems to be that (1) to make a decision concerning funding an entity that provides abortions (like Planned Parenthood) is necessarily a “political” decision; and (2) nonprofit foundations should refrain from entertaining “political” considerations in making funding choices.

I am troubled by the apparent assumption that “social policy” is solely a “political” matter.  The assumption cuts at the heart of so much of what the nonprofit sector is about.  Nonprofits do not simply deliver goods ordered by the government.  They decide what goods to deliver, and how much to deliver.  Social policy is very much the concern of nonprofits.  This point does not deny that controversial social policies – including those concerning the funding of abortions – invite and demand political (i.e., governmental) action. But social policy is not exclusively the province of government. Nonprofits do form, after all, a sector that is distinct from government.  And as long as they comply with the law and serve charitable ends, nonprofit charities are free to support the social policies that they believe best serve the community.  Although they can do so to a limited degree through actual “political” means (i.e., through modest attempts to influence legislation), they can do so extensively through non-political means.  Articulating a charitable mission and fulfilling that mission through funding choices fall squarely within the latter.

Notwithstanding her pairing of Catholic charities and the Komen foundation, Kathleen Parker seems to grasp this basic point, when she writes as follows:

Whatever one believes about the motivation behind its decision, the larger point is that Komen has no binding responsibility to allocate any part of its $93 million in grants to any organization. Komen is a nonprofit, free agent, and the good it has performed for millions of underserved women around the world is staggering. … Even if their real reason for ending funding is because they no longer want to be associated with an organization as politically controversial as Planned Parenthood, it is inarguably their right to change course.


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Ms. Parker is absolutely correct - Komen has no binding responsibility to make grants (or continue to make grants) to any specific organization. However, it does seem a bit disingenuous to suggest that their decision to pull their funding at this time is something other than a political decision. And just as it is their right to change course, it is also the donors' right to change course and choose to fund Planned Parenthood, or any other organization, rather than Komen. I'm also wondering if Komen will pull their funding from Penn State, who is "under investigation" in the wake of the Sandusky allegations.

Posted by: Cindy Bahn | Feb 7, 2012 12:59:44 PM

I really found this so meaty with the content, it's really great to read. Thanks for this.

Posted by: Lisa | Labor Posters | Feb 21, 2012 9:58:57 PM

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