I’m sure you’re familiar with “Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” the charity organization that puts pink ribbons on countless commercial products in the effort to raise awareness about breast cancer. I touched on “pink-ribbon saturation” in a previous post. Komen has attracted controversy in the past for giving grants to Planned Parenthood, and also for some of its dubious alliances with decidedly unhealthy products. Since then, Komen has come under additional fire for legally challenging charity groups that use “cure” in their names, including tiny operations such as “Cupcakes for a Cure” and “Surfing for a Cure.” Komen spends nearly one million dollars per year on its legal department, which defends some 200 trademarks, all in the effort to prevent what spokespersons call “confusion in the marketplace.” This is money that was donated in good faith specifically for the cure of cancer, and instead is siphoned off to fund the intimidation and legal strong-arming of much smaller charities devoted to curing cancer.
Are we angry yet? Komen’s partnership with KFC — which, incredibly, attempted to associate fried chicken with good health — resulted in $4.2 million, the largest corporate donation so far. And yet, in just over four years, every last penny will have evaporated in Komen’s legal department alone.
I e-mailed Komen (phone: 877-465-6636) to complain about this travesty. In their form-letter reply, they stated that 84 cents of every donated dollar goes directly toward “all of these programs,” which include “community outreach and advocacy.” It is unclear how many of those 84 cents go directly for the cure, such as funding experimental trials. And still, I have to ask, why only 84 cents? Why not 95 cents, or 98 cents? Hell, even Las Vegas slot machines pay back at a rate in the mid to upper 90s. When you donate a buck to Komen, what isn’t spent on marketing and promotion to grow the organization goes to lawyers, administrators, and others who will never cure cancer.
Komen admits that it occasionally “asks another charity ... to consider clarifying the name,” but that it spends “far below the $1 million mentioned in one news story” on legal challenges to protect its brand. Yes, we get that lawyers also do contract work. But hey, guess what: Whether $500,000, $50,000, or $1,000, any and all of it is too much. It’s all money donated — but not spent — for the cure.
Here’s the enormous irony of it all: Komen, an entity founded to help cure cancer, has become a cancer itself. In the human body, cancer begins when a few healthy, useful cells undergo a change that causes them to grow uncontrollably into a mass. This mass then continues to grow, gobbling up more and more resources in the process (to the detriment of the system as a whole), eventually getting so large that useful organs — I’m thinking of groups like “Cupcakes for a Cure” in this analogy — get crushed. That is how cancer kills an individual, and that is why overgrown, overstaffed groups like Komen unintentionally work to destroy the reputation of important causes. It’s as if the original Susan G. Komen’s cancer lives on, decades later, having long moved on from its host’s dead body to infect all of society, albeit in a subtler, but still insidious, manner.
Many of us have horror stories about working with or volunteering for a major charity. That’s because a successful nonprofit tends to gradually morph into a self-sustaining entity, whose primary function becomes to grow, the assumption being that a larger and more visible charity can do more good than a small, obscure one. However, the larger an organization becomes, the less appropriate the word “nonprofit” is: Anyone on the payroll is profiting very much from the business, and the group needs to meet a quota of donations to keep up. A board of directors and a legal team are assembled. Advertising, promotion, and publicity begins. The original motivation for the mission fades into the background; ideas such as market penetration, branding, and trademarks become important, commencing the legal challenges. Meanwhile, all of this growth is increasingly justified in the name of “awareness.” At this point, do we really need to be made more aware that breast cancer exists?
Don’t get me wrong; I am all for helping those in need. I’ve given four-figure donations to the American Red Cross in response to recent disasters. However, now I’m wondering if that was the best way to donate. From now on I will seek out smaller, more direct means of giving. You know, you can give directly to a children’s hospital; you can call up a local school and ask where you can send a check for classroom materials; you can give to the public library. I could start my own charity right now and do just that with 100% of the donations. An organization with an elite board of directors and hundreds or thousands of employees on the payroll cannot.
Giving to a major, highly visible charity, as epitomized by Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is the laziest, most inefficient way to be generous. Don’t feed the cancer.