The firestorm incited by the Komen Foundation’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood hit the front page of the NY Times today.
What’s interesting here is the magnitude and virulence of the reaction. It’s not like Komen’s decision is the first attack on Planned Parenthood. Indeed, viewed in context, one could argue that this is just one attack out of many relatively indistinguishable attacks. So what’s going on here?
Fundamentally, the Komen Foundation made people feel like tools and fools, while simultaneously making them feel disgusted with themselves.
How this happened is relevant to any organization, non-profit or for-profit, that depends upon a large constituency to provide it with resources, be those resources money (e.g. customers buying product or making donations), time (e.g. volunteers), credibility (e.g. convincing your friends to support the organization), etc.
Organizations pay attention to their power bases. Organizations group people into a few different major groups:
1. The people who don’t care and won’t care no matter what; no significant effort is expended on these people.
2. The people who fundamentally believe in the cause/mission/values of the organization and provide resources to the organization, but pay little attention to the details. The organization will invest a certain amount of its resources in the form of public relations and outreach to convince these people to continue provide their resources (time, money, goods, etc). Because these people have demonstrated that they aren’t all that involved, or will provide resources no matter how much they might complain, the organization doesn’t really care what these people think or do so long as they continue to provide those resources.
3. The people who pay close attention and are actively involved and mobilized. These are the people who are actually important to the organization because they might withdraw their support if they don’t like what they see. The organization will focus its efforts on courting those people and make policy decisions intended to please those people.
Now, one can argue that if you push the people in category 2 far enough, they might well change their behavior and withhold resources. This is a valid argument, however there are two problems with it: 1) it can take a very long time for someone to decide they are so unhappy as to radically change their behavior and 2) would you pay more attention to the person who has already demonstrated their willingness to withhold resources if they are not happy or to the person who has demonstrated that they might withhold resources in some nebulous and poorly defined future state, but to date has been willing to swallow whatever you feed them?
In the case of the Komen Foundation, if someone jumps up and screams and yells about them cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, but in the end says, “But I strongly believe in their mission, so I’ll continue to give them money,” then that person’s opinion doesn’t matter. That’s category two.
Here’s the problem, at least for an organization: people enter category two because they believe in the values of the organization and see the organization as being congruent with their belief system. In the case of Komen, many people not just donated their money, but they also advertised the organization, gave their time, and encouraged their friends to donate. They saw themselves as part of a larger group dedicated to a worthy cause. They saw themselves as valued contributors to that worthy cause.
And then, pow!, all these people suddenly find that the values they thought the group held are not actually the values. They suddenly find that Komen is operating according to a set of values that may, in fact, contradict the values of its supporters. It’s kind of like thinking that you’re supporting Smokey the Bear and discovering that you’re really supporting Stokey, the fire-setting bear.
In other words, people get very upset when they realize they are in category two. They are upset for three significant reasons: the easy and obvious reason is that they’ve just discovered that they are being taken for granted. Instead of being seen as valued contributors, they are being seen as tools. This makes no one happy. We like to feel important, that the organization views us as a person, not a tool to its own ends. This is one of the reasons, by the way, why really good customer service is such a powerful tool for creating customer loyalty. It makes people feel they matter.
The second, and more serious, reason is that when an organization appears to be acting against its stated values, we feel fooled or tricked. For example, people tend to get more upset when an Apple device fails to work correctly than when a Windows device fails to work correctly. Apple Just Works and when it doesn’t, we feel tricked, whereas when a Windows device fails to work correctly, that’s just normal. When Google does something perceived as evil, people react very strongly: for example, when Google agreed to censor search results in China. Facebook, on the other hand, is an entirely different story.
The third, and most serious reason why people get upset, is that when we realize that supporting the organization means acting against our own personal values, we feel deeply betrayed. Not only did we support something we actually don’t believe in, we’ve put our credibility on the line by convincing our friends to support it as well. Now it’s personal: our self-image has just been called into question.
In one stroke, Komen managed a triple whammy: they hit all three reasons why people might get upset. The only surprising thing is that the reaction hasn’t been even stronger. On the other hand, the news cycle is still young.