Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards heard whispers that the Susan G. Komen foundation would stop funding Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screenings from an anti-choice blog in early December. But she shrugged it off as the kind of bullying rumor that often circulates in her world. (Until Planned Parenthood, she says, “I had never worked with an organization where there were people that literally got up every day trying to figure out how to keep us from doing our work.”) Then the Komen foundation president called just before Christmas to say it was true. “It came as a total surprise,” says Richards, who requested a meeting with Komen’s board to revisit the matter but was denied.
It was only after an Associated Press reporter broke the story in late January that Richards let loose the deluge. “Disappointing news from a friend” was the subject line on Richards’s January 31 late afternoon e-mail to more than a million supporters. The first Facebook posting on the subject received 2,438 shares.
Four days later, Planned Parenthood boasted $3 million in new funding; 32,000 new Facebook fans; 22,000 people who “shared” the freshly inaugurated Planned Parenthood Facebook badge, leading to upward of 100,000 new viewers of the site; the very public support of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who donated $250,000 to the organization; vast television and radio exposure; and… the Komen funding back in place.
How exactly did Cecile Richards pull off this trick?
Richards is not your standard-issue CEO. Her organizing experience began back in junior high with her neighborhood’s first recycling program and powered on with her stints as a campus activist, labor organizer, deputy chief of staff to then–House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and head of the Democratic electoral coalition America Votes in 2004. (She even met her future husband, Kirk Adams, former organizing director at the AFL-CIO, while signing up New Orleans hotel workers.) Since taking the helm in 2006, Richards has steered Planned Parenthood through treacherous rapids, ensuring each time that it emerged not just unscathed but stronger. Indeed, this was the metaphor she chose last April, on the historic day federal funding for her organization was subjected to an up-or-down vote on the Hill, when I observed her at work in her office. “It’s like a five-day whitewater trip,” she told a Capitol Hill supporter on the phone. She went on to compare the attacks by anti-choice Republicans to Level 4s and 5s: she has been down the rapids before, figuratively and literally. “We’re just going to run this sucker. We just have to do it, and go out the other side.”
A few days earlier in April, the government had threatened to shut down over funding to Planned Parenthood. During numerous Oval Office skirmishes, President Obama, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finally hammered out a compromise to let the budget pass, if Planned Parenthood submitted to the unprecedented yes-or-no vote. Such dramatics might rattle the average nonprofit president, but Richards, who was methodically thanking a list of supporters by phone, showed only mild flickers of the nearly twenty-four-hours-a-day sweat she had endured over the previous week.
With cropped blond hair, bright red nails, short black dress and black sling-back shoes, Richards, 54, looked like a stylish morning-show host. She has a television voice too, a slightly raspy light Texas twang, which slips easily between jokes and strategy. On one finger she was flashing a large aquamarine ring her famous mother, former Governor Ann Richards, owned and wears in her portrait in the Texas Capitol Rotunda, and which bestows luck.