Lessons from the Komen-Planned Parenthood fracas: It’s simply not enough to state your cause—you must live it, too

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It’s been nearly three months since Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood publicly squared off over funding cuts to mammogram services, but the story appears to have continuing momentum. Susan G. Komen is back in the news this week, with newspapers saying the organization is “still reeling” from the incident and suffering lower than normal race registration.

Why is one of the world’s largest and most powerful nonprofit organizations still facing these repercussions? While some have suggested the two organizations were inflaming passions by playing politics, I think the reason the story gained traction with average Americans was much more simple: Susan G. Komen has managed to tap into the public consciousness like no other nonprofit organization today, ensuring everyone from professional athletes to average citizens wear pink during the month of October and getting over 1 million supporters globally to participate in a series of fundraising races and walks.

Cutting mammography funding for low-income women appeared to be fundamentally at odds with Susan G. Komen’s stated mission to achieve a world without breast cancer. And because the cause it champions is so intensely personal for many of its supporters, the incongruity felt more like a friend’s betrayal than an organization’s poor brand alignment.

It’s a dangerous—and potentially costly—game to play. Although charitable giving is starting to rebound after the recession, some in the nonprofit community have estimated that it could take years before donations return to pre-recession levels. With fierce competition for donor dollars, nonprofits simply can’t afford to lose the continuing support of those who believe in their mission.

So, what’s a nonprofit to do? The first step for any nonprofit organization looking to attract and retain a loyal group of donors and volunteers should be clearly defining its cause: what is the change you’re trying to make in the world?

But it’s not enough to simply say what you stand for—you must then align around it. Every action and interaction should be in support of advancing your unique cause. Only then can you attract—and more importantly, retain—donors and volunteers who can help you achieve your vision for a better world.

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