Win with resiliency

by | Feb 9, 2012 | Blog | 2 comments

Politics aside, Planned Parenthood’s win last week against the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure shows the power of resiliency in organizations.

The 95-year-old reproductive health care provider and educator was able to withstand the sudden, unexpected shock of being defunded by the 30-year-old breast cancer foundation. Within days, Planned Parenthood recovered quickly, not only getting the Komen funds back but also raising an even larger sum from a vast number of supporters.

In the interest of full-disclosure, for more than 20 years, I’ve been a Planned Parenthood donor, volunteer and now occasional paid consultant. During this time, I’ve experienced firsthand how the organization has learned to adapt to stay relevant, vibrant and influential.

From my perspective, Planned Parenthood was able to run circles around Komen, which appeared flat footed and tone deaf about the situation they had created, for these seven reasons. Many support the six habits of highly resilient organizations that Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz write about.

Planned Parenthood is resilient because it has:

1. A clearly-articulated purpose. Planned Parenthood’s mission resonates with the  staff, volunteers, patients and other key stakeholders. We embrace and support Planned Parenthood as a “trusted health care provider, an informed educator, a passionate advocate and a global partner helping similar organizations around the world” as explained on the website.

2. Strong shared values that permeate the organization. For example, those of us active with Planned Parenthood respect individual choice. We believe each person has a right to make informed, independent decisions about  health, sex and family planning. Not surprisingly in a group that treasures choice, we don’t always agree on everything. And over the years, we’ve had some heated discussions, especially about taking a more active role in politics. One board chairman I supported cautioned a group of voting delegates one year with words to this effect: “We’re a family. It’s perfectly normal for a family to argue inside the walls of our house. But when we go outside, we need to be united.” Then he broke the tension by asking delegates to line up to debate the contentious issue either at the “pro” mic (for “prophylactics”) or the “con” mic (for “condoms”). We all laughed and then the delegates respectfully discussed the issues.

3. A rich history that includes successes as well as struggles. This history, especially the memory of the organization’s founder Margaret Sanger, helps keep the organization focused and grounded. Her difficulties showed that the organization is not a stranger to controversy. For example, another board chairman I supported always started the meetings off reading at least one letter that Margaret Sanger had received about a woman’s personal plight about being denied health care, access to contraceptives or a botched back alley abortion. Those poignant letters inspired us to continue Planned Parenthood’s work. This rich history gives the organization willpower to fight today’s battles, not relive the past.

4.  A large active network. Planned Parenthood is a federation, with the national organization headquartered in New York and the affiliates with their health care clinics situated all across the country. Over the past 15 years or so, many of these affiliates have taken on greater advocacy roles in their communities as well as in state and local governments. Many of us know one another in real life as we gather for the annual conference as well as special sessions throughout the year, and work together on projects, carrying our conference bags. We know, like and trust one another. Plus, we’re connected closely with donors and volunteers, many of whom are former or even current patients. Both the national organization and the local affiliates maintain a large data base of email addresses. And now Planned Parenthood is active on Facebook and Twitter.  I learned about the Komen defunding from an email from my local affiliate before I heard about it on the news or from social media.

5. Extensive practice defending itself against opposing forces. Throughout its history, Planned Parenthood has faced a range of challenges to its mission. In the early 90s, the organization experienced a number of violent attacks, including the murder and maiming of medical staff members and volunteers at clinics around the country. Back then, it seemed every meeting started with a moment of silence to remember at least one brave individual who had lost his or her life doing Planned Parenthood’s work. That somber practice ingrained in many of us the spirit to stand up for the organization’s mission and values, especially access to reproductive health care. Many of us volunteers may characterize ourselves as “nice girls” but not when it comes to caving on reproductive health or sexuality. Yes, as  Dr. Lois Frankel often writes, nice girls don’t get the corner office or get rich; however, we nice girls are keeping choice alive, including the right to abortion.

6. The willpower and discipline to retool the organization. Those involved in the movement also tend to the organization. We’ve got the backbone to address issues head on, rather than shrink or avoid them. For instance, in the 90s, before anyone knew what crowdsourcing was, the entire federation participated in creating “Vision 2020.” We wanted to shape our future rather than be forced to accept somebody else’s future.  Even before then, we also recognized the need to bring in new blood. I remember one board meeting in which we all looked around the table and realized almost everyone was past their prime in terms of eggs and sperm. The nominating committee sprang into action to find board members who were of child-bearing age. Then when Cecile Richards joined as President in 2006, she instituted a youth organizing and policy conference that’s held every in conjunction with the annual conference. All the teenagers at the conference, many of whom are peer educators  as well as political activists, are inspiring.

7. Its pulse on the external environment. Planned Parenthood doesn’t let its guard down. Staff members in national and the affiliates are constantly monitoring issues, including health care reform, politics, partner activities, etc. The organization is able to swing into action quickly yet carefully when an opportunity or threat presents itself. In the Susan G. Komen controversy, the organization mobilized itself very quickly. And Cecile and other Planned Parenthood leaders stayed on message point about the need to provide access to breast cancer screening and other services for all women, including low-income. They did not take the bait to make this a political issue. In this case, the organization not only prevented damage but it also exploited an opportunity and to its fans, showed up as taking the high ground.

For its entire history, Planned Parenthood has combined a commonsense approach to women’s health and well-being with flexibility to adapt to new situations, little or big. For instance, when I left my salaried job and started my own business that didn’t provide paid vacation time that I could use for volunteer work, Planned Parenthood offered to pay me for my consulting services. And not surprisingly, it was at a Planned Parenthood meeting that I first heard my favorite quote about flexibility: “Blessed are the flexible because they don’t get bent out of shape.” As Ian Mitroff, the father of crisis management, advises, organizations can emerge from crises stronger than before–provided they prepare and react quickly.

I’m proud to stand with Planned Parenthood.


  1. Terry Limpert

    A wonderfully done explanation of Planned Parenthood’s resiliency expressed in the context of a sound framework that other organizations could apply to their own situations.

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Terry, thanks for your comment. Agree with you that other organizations should examine how they can become more resilient, especially in a world in which we cope with the growing threat of mega-crises and mega-messes, as Ian Mitroff calls them in his latest book, Swans, Swine, and Swindlers.

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