WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Nancy Brinker stepped down Wednesday from her position as chief executive of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the powerhouse fundraising organization for breast cancer research.
Brinker, a part-time Palm Beach resident and former ambassador, founded the organization in 1982, naming it for her sister who died of breast cancer. Komen has raised more than $740 million for breast cancer research and set the standard for the nonprofit industry with its marketing campaign that linked anti-breast cancer efforts with a vivid shade of pink. Its local affiliates have received $1.3 billion in community programs over the last 30 years to pay for screenings, education, financial and psychological support for women and men with breast cancer. She will relinquish her post when a replacement is found, she said.
But in February, Komen announced it was withholding its annual grant to Planned Parenthood, which was being investigated by an anti-abortion congressman. After several days of outcry from Planned Parenthood supporters across the country, Komen decided to restore the money to Planned Parenthood. A number of Komen officers had earlier quit in protest.
Planned Parenthood provides abortions as part of its family planning services, but the Komen grant of $680,000 did not pay for any abortions.
Despite its rapid reversal, the organization sustained grave damage to its public image.
Somebody had to go, and it turned out to be Komen policy chief Karen Handel, a well-known abortion foe. Handel, blamed by many for the original Planned Parenthood decision, resigned. Three other executives also resigned: Katrina McGhee, executive vice president and chief marketing officer; Nancy Macgregor, vice president of global networks; and Joanna Newcomb, director of affiliate strategy and planning.
In a number of cities, the Komen-sponsored Race for the Cure also took a beating, with registration down by 30 percent.
Komen found itself in the position of angering people at both extremes of the abortion debate.
Brinker is not leaving the organization she founded. She will move to a new role focusing on revenue creation, strategy and global growth. Komen president Elizabeth Thompson will leave in September, according to a statement from Komen, which called the changes "a new period of transition."
"We are doing everything in our power to ensure that women have access to quality cancer care and the support that they need, as we seek answers through cutting-edge research," Brinker said Wednesday.
Several breast cancer survivors in Palm Beach County said the transition was long overdue.
"It was the right move," said Susan Kristoff, a cancer survivor who quit her job with the Florida Komen organization this year as a protest after the Planned Parenthood controversy. "I would be happy to rejoin the organization after this."
From the beginning of the controversy, Kristoff's stronger loyalty was to Planned Parenthood.
"Planned Parenthood diagnosed my cervical cancer in the early '80s and saved my life," said Kristoff. "It is an excellent organization."
According to published reports, only about 3 percent of Planned Parenthood revenue goes to abortions. The rest of Planned Parenthood's efforts center on low-cost birth control, gynecological services and mammograms, services often used by young, uninsured or low-income women.
Marjorie Hacker of Boynton Beach was a recent breast cancer survivor in 2006 when she ran the Komen-sponsored Race for the Cure in a pink wig.
Hacker said she has lost confidence in Komen and will not be running the race again.
"When (Brinker) started this, it was about her sister," said Hacker, a pet portraitist. "When things get big, the personalization gets lost. Now, it's not about her sister, it's about fundraising."
Hacker said she now devotes her charitable efforts to volunteering at the Caring Kitchen in Delray Beach.
Ann Fonfa, a 19-year breast cancer survivor, sees Brinker's move as a leadership change but not necessarily a philosophical change for the organization. Fonfa, of Delray Beach, is the founder of the nonprofit Annie Appleseed Project, a patient advocacy group that focuses on alternative therapies for cancer patients.
Fonfa said Komen spends too much of its money on mammography when studies show that most women find breast cancer through self-exams.
"Mammography has zero to do with the cure, but we've come to worship it," said Fonfa, adding that despite massive infusions of Komen money to research, mortality rates for all cancers have gone down less than 2 percent a year.
"As the founder, Ambassador Brinker brought a lot of energy, she had a lot of heart, but she burned out. The organization became political and the focus was lost. And Komen has way too
much control of which research gets funded. They have way too much power and they have a political agenda."
Brinker was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2009. She is a former ambassador to Hungary and former chief of protocol under President George W. Bush. Her career in public service also includes being a goodwill ambassador to the World Health Organization.