Komen Maryland counts on Race for the Cure to pay for programs and support services related to breast cancer, but as the date for the 20th annual event approaches the group is facing steep declines in the number of people signed up and the amount of money raised.
A little more than two weeks before the Oct. 21 event in Hunt Valley, registrations for the run/walk are off 42 percent and donations are down 55 percent, Komen Maryland disclosed Thursday.
The organization blames the weak economy and tightened purse strings, but marketing experts say it's more likely fallout from the controversial decision by its parent organization earlier this year to stop funding the social services organization Planned Parenthood.
Although that decision was eventually reversed, it is probably still fresh on the minds of people who perceived the move as politically driven by those who opposed Planned Parenthood's abortion services, some crisis management experts said.
"There's nothing else that would account for drops of this size," said Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of Levick, a strategic communications firm in Washington and New York. "I know they are trying to take steps to bounce back, but this is going to take some time. A lot of trust was lost because they committed probably the greatest sin — getting wrapped up in politics."
Komen Maryland executives worry that the deterioration in support will hurt the programs it funds and mean fewer women get mammograms and other support services. The group doled out $2.2 million to fund 26 programs around the state last year.
"People don't necessarily understand that if it doesn't have the big pink Komen ribbon on it that it could still be Komen funding that's paying for their mammogram, that's paying for groceries, that's paying for transportation and paying for the nurse that is navigating them through their treatment," said Rebecca McCoy, community health director of Komen Maryland.
But the group's officials also maintained that the effect of Planned Parenthood on participation is nominal and that the slow economic recovery has played a bigger role. Komen Maryland also faces increased competition from other organizations as well as other races held in October, including the Baltimore Running Festival, the group said.
"I think people are limited in the amount of money they are able to give and sometimes they have to make a choice," said Robin Prothro, Komen Maryland's CEO. "Maybe people are buying houses and cars, but those may be considered a higher need and they are pulling back from other areas."
The Race for the Cure brought in $3.1 million last year, the biggest money-maker for the organization, which had revenue of $4.3 million.
The group is trying to distinguish itself from Susan G. Komen for the Cure, pointing out that just 25 percent of its revenue goes to the national organization. Otherwise, Komen Maryland operates as a separate entity that manages its own finances, Prothro said. The group never funded Planned Parenthood, so it never could deny the group funds, she said.
"There is confusion around what the local organization is doing versus the national organization," Prothro said. "I don't think people understand the history of Planned Parenthood and Komen Maryland."
Organizations that received funding from Komen worry about their programs' futures.
Tori Lijewski leads a Komen-funded outreach program at three MedStar hospitals, including MedStar Harbor Hospital in South Baltimore. Her program helped more than 400 women in the last three years get mammograms and other services using more than $260,000 in Komen grants. She said it already is stretched thin by the current funding and she couldn't imagine getting less.
"We walk a thin line in being able to help everyone," Lijewski said.
Breast cancer survivor Iris Berman also worries about potential cuts in services if support doesn't pick up. When the 50-year-old had a double mastectomy more than four years ago, she turned to Survivors Offering Support. The Komen-funded group connected her with a mentor who guided her through the toughest times of her disease.
"She understood things that even my family didn't — as much as they wanted to," she said.
Many Komen affiliates around the country are trying to win back supporters. Declines have hit chapters in Washington, D.C., Northeast Ohio, San Francisco, southwest Florida and southwest Arizona, among others.
"Controversies such as what occurred between Komen and Planned Parenthood have a long half-life, especially when the issues are so personally felt," said Kevin O'Keefe, president of the Baltimore office of Weber Shandwick, a global marketing and public relations firm with a crisis communications practice. "So it is reasonable to expect some disaffection, which can be expressed in reduced willingness to give."
Melissa Berman, president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors Inc., a nonprofit advisory service for donors, said that the recession still is hurting fundraising efforts by nonprofits but that wouldn't account for all the declines at Komen affiliates.
"It's taken a while for them to make it clear they are making a clean break from the past," Berman said. "It is not clear they've done enough to assure people there is new leadership and new perspective."
She pointed out that founder Nancy Brinker stepped down as CEO but still appears to play a prominent role in the organization.
Other nonprofits said fundraising has remained consistent despite the economy. The National MS Society Maryland Chapter said it's raised around $1 million annually for the last several years through its annual fundraiser walks. This year donations were down about 1 percent.
"Given the overall economic climate, that is solid," said Ellen Hannibal, the MS chapter's marketing manager.
Komen Maryland lost several major sponsors from last year, including Morgan State University's MBA program, which donated $10,000 previously, and Visa, which kicked in $30,000.
Morgan State said it pulled funding this year because of its own funding constraints and not because of anything Komen did.
"I still feel strongly about the support Komen provides women who are in need," said Ardenia Myrick, director of Morgan's MBA program.
Grocery chain Safeway is a longtime supporter of the Komen Maryland Race for the Cure and is donating $50,000 this year. It will have a booth at the event and give out free samples. Spokesman Greg Ten Eyck said Safeway was satisfied with Komen's decision to reverse its decision on Planned Parenthood.
"We think that they handled it properly and we continue to support the core of what they represent, which is to find a cure for breast cancer," he said.
A Komen national spokeswoman said that the Planned Parenthood incident hurt the organization, but there have been improvements. Some affiliates, such as the one in Charlotte, N.C., are meeting donation expectations, said spokeswoman Andrea Rader.
She said the organization will continue to remind people of the services they provide and the women they help.
"The further we move away from that incident and the more that we remind people of our impact locally, we are seeing people tend to come back," Rader said.
Crisis management experts said the organization could eventually regain its ground.
"I do think they will recover," said Rockefeller's Berman. "I think they will recover because although they did make an honest mistake, they also have many, many years of credibility behind them."