What to Do at the Susan G. Komen Foundation

By all accounts, the Susan G. Komen Foundation is reeling. It's fast losing financial resources and staff, not to mention its most precious commodity of all: authenticity. Crisis communications and staff changes may help, but the foundation's leaders must address something much deeper if this storied organization is to flourish again.

The foundation just named a new chief executive to replace Nancy Brinker, the organization's founder. This move came after numerous missteps by the organization, starting at least as far back as February 2012, when the foundation sought to cut funding for Planned Parenthood. This set off an unending firestorm of criticism.

Other criticisms have included Brinker's $648,717 salary, and her seeming unwillingness to step down as chief executive after she made her intentions known to do so last August.

At the same time, many of the top brass at Komen have left the organization. Komen also has cancelled half of its iconic three-day walks starting next year, as registration around the country has plummeted 10 to 15 percent. Additionally, the foundation has been forced to dip into its reserves to meet various program and other obligations, a move that stoked still more criticism from among the foundation's 120 affiliates.

Clearly, there are internal issues to be sorted out, and there is a serious need to stop the hemorrhaging. But my own experience in these situations is that the initial questions that should drive Komen's deliberations should be outward rather than inward-facing.

Komen likely will face, as do so many organizations, a sharp inward pull to hunker down, circle the wagons, and produce more strategic plans and internal re-organizations driven by professionals, for professionals. Such a strategy would be a mistake.

Instead, the first question Komen leaders should ask is: What space should Komen occupy?

This is more than simply asking "what role should it play" -- as if the organization is an island unto itself. It's not. In listening to groups talk about their 'role' in a community, they often reflexively move to separate themselves from other groups, claim turf, and even build walls between themselves and others.

At the heart of the "what space" question must be a recognition that other groups and organizations are valuable to the cause, and that Komen must work in this larger ecosystem, rather than separating itself from it. The "what space" question requires uncovering and making sense of women's and families' aspirations and challenges in fighting breast cancer.

This is not about conducting more surveys or focus groups to help Komen better position its existing or new programs; rather, it is to know deeply what matters to people and to leverage those insights to help Komen better understand the space it should occupy in people's lives and the relationships it wishes to build with people. The same questions can be asked of Komen's 120 affiliates: what do these affiliates seek to accomplish? Are they there to serve Komen's corporate office, or is the corporate office there to serve them?

Of course, such questions need to be integrated with an understanding of existing data, expert knowledge and related trends. But let's be clear: the problem organizations face when they come under fire, when they are worried about their own survival and relevance, is that they immediately turn inward. They adopt a myopic focus on their organization rather than make the people and communities they serve their main point of reference. And those are exactly the wrong moves.

The crisis at Komen is about authenticity. Does the organization have the people they serve clearly in their line of sight, or has it lost sight of them amid its troubles and pressures? Does it engage people in ways that enable them to take greater control over their lives, or does the organization see people primarily as donors and supporters? Does Komen work in tandem with other groups and organizations, or apart from them? Is the organization's concern about its future survival and finding the path of least resistance, or does it believe that its future health will be a function of its relevance -- an issue that will require real change?

Such questions demand soul-searching at the highest levels. They also demand turning outward -- and outside leaders' own comfort zones.

Richard C. Harwood is president of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. He is a nationally recognized expert in the fields of public innovation and community change, with a 25-year track record. He recently facilitated the unanimous decision on the fate of Sandy Hook Elementary, where 26 children and adults were killed in December 2012. Harwood is the author of numerous works, including his most recent: "The Work of Hope: How Individuals & Organizations Can Authentically Do Good." He can be reached at rharwood@theharwoodinstitute.org.