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02.05.12

Komen for the Cure: How the Group's Founder Courted Controversy

Nancy Brinker, founder of the organization that battled Planned Parenthood, is no stranger to controversy. Sandra McElwaine on how she miscalculated her most public moment.

Ever since last Tuesday, Nancy Brinker has been at the center of a firestorm. That was when word finally surfaced that Susan G. Komen for the Cure, of which she is the founder, had decided to defund Planned Parenthood. The repercussions were swift and came from every level: social media, mainstream press, Congress (26 Democratic senators wrote a letter), members of its own board, scientists, donors, and the general public. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg was so dismayed that he donated $250,000 to Planned Parenthood to ease the shortfall.

The decision quickly became a public-relations fiasco that caught the organization totally off guard and rocked it to its core. "We really were surprised by the backlash, things got totally out of hand,” says former board chair Alexine Jackson. "I guess it will never be completely over, but I hope the reaction will eventually die down.”

That reaction was so overwhelming that Brinker went on YouTube in a Sarah Palinesque up-do, to state her position insisting it was not political, and that her group “would never bow to pressure.” But after a hurried board conference call on Thursday night, Brinker abruptly switched course,  apologizing to the American public "for recent decisions” and rapidly reestablished the bond with Planned Parenthood.

Controversy is not new to the commanding, 66-year-old businesswoman, diplomat, and Medal of Freedom recipient, who established the world's largest breast cancer nonprofit, with its signature pink ribbon, in memory of her older sister, Susan in 1982. (Laura Bush, a close friend, was one of her original supporters and volunteers. After their mastectomies, Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan joined the group.) Brinker is currently CEO of the organization. An IRS filing shows that she received a salary of $417,171 from April 2010 to March 2011; since Komen's inception, Brinker has raised billions to prevent and battle the disease. During the ’80s she overcame breast cancer herself, and fought to protect her now world-famous brand.

The competition for big bucks is fierce, and she has inevitably left a number of disgruntled charities in her wake, among them small-town philanthropies who use “for the cure” as part of their message. These include “Kites for the Cure,” "Cupcakes for a Cure,” and "Mush for the Cure,” which involves sled-dog racing.

Some of these have complained that they have faced legal threats from Komen, have little money to fight back, and feel squelched by the powerful group.

During the ’80s she overcame breast cancer herself, and fought to protect her now
world-famous brand.

“Komen plays hardball and is determined to stay on top,” says a member of another cancer organization, who declined to be identified. "Let’s be honest about all this: people think of breast cancer as a charity, but it’s really a major business.”

Brinker held her first benefit when she was 5 and Suzy, her sister, was 8, in the backyard of her home in Peoria, Ill. They sang Rosemary Clooney songs, danced, and raised $64 for polio, a terrifying disease at the time.

She went to the University of Illinois and later learned the intricacies of PR and high fashion at an executive training program at Neiman Marcus in Dallas. She quickly glommed on to and adopted Stanley Marcus’s mantra, “Never stop selling.”

There, in the early ’80s, she met and married multimillionaire restaurateur Norman Brinker, a major Republican donor. He had previously been married to Grand Slam tennis star Maureen “Little Mo” Connnelly, who had died from ovarian cancer.

When they tied the knot, the union provided Nancy with a network of A-list political connections and friends, plus the funds to lead a luxurious lifestyle and create the Komen Foundation, now the Susan G. Komen for the Cure with affiliates in 170 communities in 50 nations. (Interesting note: the largest Race for the Cure, a three-day run, is held in Rome, Italy.)

In 1993 Norman Brinker suffered severe head injuries during a polo match and remained on crutches for the rest of his life. Several years later the couple divorced and with a hefty settlement, formidable drive, and her chum George W. Bush in the White House, Nancy was ready to step onto the world stage. First the [resident appointed her ambassador to Hungary and then U.S. chief of protocol.

According to close friends, her Hungarian experience was not a happy one. She was lonely, says a friend, and spent most of her time away from her post.

Nevertheless, she managed to amass a collection of modern Hungarian art, which is divided between her apartment in Washington, D.C., and her Palm Beach house. She also led a breast cancer awareness march across Budapest’s historic Chain Bridge, which was bathed in a special pink light for the occasion. (She has enveloped the White House, the Cowboys Stadium, and other public spaces and monuments in a rosy glow to call attention to breast cancer. The New York Times has referred to this as “the Pinking of America.”)

Her role as chief of protocol was more to her liking. It is a ceremonial job. There is no heavy lifting. She was home, close to friends, and the Bushes did a minimum of formal entertaining. They were more mac and cheese than black tie and champagne. “She was a terrific chief of protocol,” says Anita McBride, Laura Bush’s former chief of staff. “She used her platform to accomplish big things.” Among them was a major outreach to Middle Eastern countries where McBride says Nancy and Laura Bush ”lifted the veil” on the taboo subject of breast cancer.

She also endorsed “Experience America," in which the diplomatic corps was encouraged to get out of the Washington environment to meet with American business and civic leaders on their own turf in different parts of the country. That program continues today.

Now the super-sophisticate who never stopped selling has a repair job to do—restoring the confidence and support of her own constituency and the larger concern for women's health. It will necessitate all the political and promotional skills she can muster.

Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately reported Nancy Brinker’s salary. As CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Brinker makes about $417,000 per year.