Planned Parenthood Strives to Find Its Identity and Purpose Amid Controversy

Dr. Leana Wen, recently ousted from her role as president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood, wrote in an editorial in the New York Times that the issue of abortion has become too politicized. 

“In my farewell message to colleagues,” she wrote, “I cited philosophical differences over the best way to protect reproductive health. While the traditional approach has been through prioritizing advocating for abortion rights, I have long believed that the most effective way to advance reproductive health is to be clear that it is not a political issue but a health care one.”

Any reader, no matter what one might think of abortion, could read her parting words with sympathy. After all, she said she was looking for consensus in a bitterly divided America. “I believed we could expand support for Planned Parenthood – and ultimately for abortion access – by finding common ground with the large majority of Americans who can unite behind the goal of improving the health and well-being of women and children.” Who could argue with that approach?

Long-serving senior staff and the board argued with that approach. They said Planned Parenthood needs to stay front and center as a protector of abortion rights, especially during this most controversial time. Instead of retreating into a blander, although hardly unimportant, role to uncontroversially find agreement among all political perspectives, they wanted a stronger spine on fighting abortion restrictions; less “Kumbaya – where everyone sings, laughs and cries together – and more “Do You Hear the People Sing?” – the sentiment of “angry men” that asks “Will you join our crusade?” The board decided, after a mere nine months, that Wen was not angry enough.

The societal implications of Planned Parenthood’s role in the abortion controversy are enough to keep everyone busy for a long time, but the implications for the board are immediate. The question is: What is Planned Parenthood? Either the board did not see what it was getting in Wen or, upon seeing what she was all about, suddenly felt uncomfortable with how it conveyed the organization’s mission to her. But what is the mission?

To answer that, we need to understand, as is common with several national organizations, that there are actually two organizations under the Planned Parenthood umbrella: Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Planned Parenthood Action Fund. The federation is a public charity (a 501(c)(3) organization); the action fund is a social welfare organization (a 501(c)(4) organization). The federation raised $344 million in 2017 (the most recent year that numbers are publicly available); the action fund raised $50 million that year. The federation can’t get too involved in politics; the action fund can.

All the news these last decades concerns the action fund.

It would seem that Wen’s rationale for Kumbaya would fit nicely into the federation’s mission of providing comprehensive health care. And, if the board’s rationale is to be believed, the action fund, whose mission is more directly aimed at public advocacy guaranteeing the right to choice, needs to stay strong in its fight against abortion.

It has been noted that Wen may have changed her stripes. In a memo she wrote before becoming president, she said abortion “is the fight of our time. We need to fight with everything we have.” A board dedicated to the fight might like those words. (Wen’s experience was, apparently, unblemished.) 

So, in the end, was the board guilty of not conducting due diligence into what she would bring? Or did its members change their minds? Even though Wen was in the media spotlight, the board played an even more crucial role in the controversy. 

Boards can’t always avoid controversy, and the way things played out these past nine months may have been inevitable. Still, a board hires and fires the chief executive of a nonprofit, and thus, as a general operating principle, it is obligated, the best it can, to predict and analyze all potential outcomes of its hiring decisions.

While the chief executive found intense controversy in firing Wen, the board also played a crucial role in the controversy.


Doug White, a longtime leader in the nation’s philanthropic community, is an author, teacher, and an adviser to nonprofit organizations and philanthropists, and he is co-chair of the FoolProof Foundation’s Walter Cronkite Project Committee, a governing board member of the Secular Coalition of America, and former director of Columbia University’s Master of Science in Fundraising Management. 

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