STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, here's the irony of the moves Cokie mentioned by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation. The foundation initially suggested it was steering clear of politics by withdrawing funds from Planned Parenthood. Instead, the announcement was seen as intensely political. It totally changed many people's view of a foundation that promoted the seemingly benign cause of fighting breast cancer.
Now that Komen has reversed its decision, it begins an effort at recovery. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
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PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: While all hell was breaking loose last week at the Susan G. Komen Foundation in Texas, two dozen low-income women gathered in the lobby of the Arlington Free Clinic in Northern Virginia.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's - I don't know, it's today, the - my...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mammogram?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Uh-huh.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh. Yeah, today.
FESSLER: They were checking in for free breast exams, at a once-a-month program known here as the Komen Clinic. It's funded by a $200,000 foundation grant and without it, director Nancy Pallison says there's no question many of these women wouldn't get the care they need.
NANCY PALLISON: 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. So this just offers it to them for no cost, and it's a wonderful screening tool.
FESSLER: So like many grant recipients, people here are understandably a little worried. The Susan G. Komen Foundation spends more than $90 million a year on such community programs, and millions more for breast cancer research.
But many funders, annoyed by the initial Planned Parenthood decision, have said they'll no longer give. And so, too, have those who were upset that the decision was reversed three days later. The question now is: How much long-term damage has been done?
MELISSA BERMAN: They changed their mind pretty quickly, and so they're going to be able to make a recovery here.
FESSLER: Melissa Berman is president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, a consulting firm in New York. She's optimistic that the foundation will recover eventually. She notes that other nonprofits - such as the American Red Cross and United Way - came back after high-profile controversies. But she says it takes time, and a lot of hard work.
BERMAN: 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.
FESSLER: And indeed, foundation leaders started reaching out over the weekend, holding conference calls with affiliates and key supporters. Foundation officials did not respond to several requests for comment. But Berman says one thing Komen has going for it is a long track record of doing impressive work for a good cause. But others think that the latest crisis also provides an opportunity for donors to start asking some serious questions.
DR. SUSAN LOVE: What I hope the fallout will be is that it'll be a wake-up call; that raising money is not enough. We need to ask how it's being spent.
FESSLER: Susan Love is president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. It focuses on trying to find the causes of breast cancer. She's one of many who are critical of the Komen Foundation for spending most of its research money on breast cancer treatment and finding a cure, rather than on preventing the disease.
LOVE: Pink ribbons and walks and runs, and all of that has raised a lot money and, you know, a lot of women are cured of breast cancer. But 110 - 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.
FESSLER: And some worry about Komen's partnership with all those companies that want to join the pink-ribbon bandwagon; that it unduly influences the foundation's work. Samantha King is an associate professor at Queens University in Ontario, and author of a book called "Pink Ribbons Inc."
SAMANTHA KING: The problem with that is that it does cause foundations to lose sight of their core vision if they're putting so much energy into chasing these sponsorships.
FESSLER: She cites Komen's 2010 Buckets for the Cure campaign with Kentucky Fried Chicken, even though fatty foods have been linked by some to a higher risk of cancer. In the past, the foundation has said it only joins forces with those who share its philosophy and can help it to reach new audiences. But that explanation, like many others, will likely get a lot more scrutiny now as donors decide where they want their dollars to go.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.