Women in the World

03.20.12

Susan G. Komen Woes Continue as a Key New York Executive Resigns

Dara Richardson-Heron, the CEO of Komen’s powerful NYC affiliate, steps down, raising questions about the embattled cancer-fighting foundation. Abigail Pesta reports.

The chief executive officer of Susan G. Komen’s powerhouse New York City affiliate resigned today, a possible indication of further fallout from the foundation’s recent decision to de-fund—and then re-fund—Planned Parenthood. That scandal, which unfolded last month, triggered a backlash from critics and heavy scrutiny of the cancer-fighting foundation.

In a letter sent to constituents, the CEO of the New York City affiliate, Dara Richardson-Heron, M.D., said, “I have made a personal decision to leave my role as the CEO of Komen Greater NYC effective April 27, 2012, to pursue new career opportunities where I may continue to utilize my education, experience and expertise.” She continued, “As a physician, as a 14-year-and-counting survivor, and as the daughter of a 24-year-and-counting survivor, you have my word that I will continue to be a strong advocate for all women and families impacted by breast cancer.”

Richardson-Heron wasn’t immediately available for comment. Her resignation comes amid the recent news that the New York City affiliate is postponing two spring fundraising events—an awards gala and a teen-focused event called Tickled Pink—due to concerns about efforts to raise funds in the near term, according to the group’s director of communications, Vern T. Calhoun. A free breakfast for “grantees, supporters, and volunteers” is planned instead, according to a statement from the affiliate.

Calhoun declined to answer further questions about fundraising, saying only that the New York City affiliate is one of the top five affiliates in the country in terms of raising money. Komen has a nationwide network of affiliates, with more than 100,000 volunteers who work to raise money through races and pink-ribbon campaigns.

Eve Ellis, a former board member of the Komen affiliate in New York City, said she believes Richardson-Heron’s resignation is tied to the Planned Parenthood controversy. “I can’t say exactly why she [resigned], but I can tell you that Dara was working behind the scenes before the decision to cut funds to Planned Parenthood, saying, ‘Please don’t do this.’ After the decision, she was working behind the scenes to reverse it,” Ellis told The Daily Beast. She added, “I have the utmost respect for Dara. I was on the selection committee when we selected her—she is an impressive force.”

She added that Komen affiliates had recently received a questionnaire from the foundation, asking if more needed to be done regarding the Planned Parenthood flap.

The Komen foundation, in an internal memo to affiliates, said of Richardson-Heron’s resignation, “We wanted to take this opportunity to wish Dara well, to thank her for her service to our organization and to express our appreciation for her willingness to continue assisting the Greater NYC Affiliate during a transition. Under Dara’s leadership, the Greater NYC Affiliate has grown in size and stature to provide meaningful programs in New York, serving many thousands of women in need throughout the region.”

Ellis, who has called on Komen founder Nancy Brinker to resign in order to restore the foundation’s reputation, did so again today. “When the CEO of one of the biggest and most successful affiliates resigns, I hope Nancy Brinker takes note,” Ellis said.

Brinker has come under fire for her handling of the Planned Parenthood matter and her management and spending style, including a questionable expense report uncovered by The Daily Beast last month.

Brinker’s advocates point out that in the 30 years since she launched the foundation, she has raised some $1.9 billion for cancer research. The foundation and its nationwide affiliates were all Brinker’s vision—she started the charity after her sister, Susan G. Komen, died of breast cancer in her mid-30s.

Ellis said of Brinker, “I really feel that she can salvage this situation by stepping aside. I don’t mind if she steps aside as a hero, saying, look what I’ve built, with the help of others. The mission is bigger than all of us. Go out a hero, a martyr. It’s in Nancy Brinker’s hands and in her board’s hands. They are not an independent board—her son is on it. They need to be an independent voice.”

Richardson-Heron’s resignation is the third major departure from the foundation in recent weeks.

Katrina McGhee, the foundation’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, announced this month that she will be leaving as of May 4, after six years on the job. In an internal memo, Brinker praised McGhee for her “extraordinary contributions” and “exemplary leadership,” saying McGhee was leaving for personal reasons and would continue to do some project work for the foundation.

Last month, Karen Handel, the senior vice president for policy at Komen, resigned, saying she had spearheaded the decision to cut funds to Planned Parenthood amid pressure from donors and Catholic bishops.

At the time, Handel told The Daily Beast, “More donors said they were pulling out. The issue was ratcheting up. It wasn’t dying down. Two dozen Catholic bishops were saying not to support Komen “We needed to find some options for moving to neutral ground. I was tasked with doing that.” She went on to call Planned Parenthood a “gigantic bully.