Komen for the Cure & Breast Cancer Action

One of the most distressing aspects of October for me is that it seems to bring out the worst in some of the organizations that work toward the elimination of this disease. This week on National Public Radio, I heard the latest rant by Barbara Brenner against Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Brenner bashing Komen is old hat and we've all heard it, but this year it got to me on a new level -- as a journalist and someone who has taught nonprofit management and sat on many boards of directors. Brenner is the Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action, whose self defined goal is to be the watchdog of the breast cancer movement. Their page-long mission statement has very commendable goals to look at environmental causes and disparities in breast cancer. But a group that sets itself up as a watchdog should do their homework before attacking other organizations as Brenner did on NPR. The interview by Jackie Lyden allowed Brenner to launch into her anti-pink ribbon diatribe against Komen and the use of the money it raises. It's not that she attacked Komen that's the problem since this is a country where free speech is encouraged, it's that she doesn't have her facts straight and, once again (as she has since 2004) her complaints are very general, very misleading, and, quite frankly, don't make a lot of sense. Let's look at exactly what she said, which you can confirm by listening to the interview yourself by clicking on the link above. First, she says that Komen paints "too pretty a picture" of where we are with breast cancer." OK, so some women don't want to be associated with a pink ribbon. That's fine, but thousands of women do, myself included. As a 24-year and a 3-year breast cancer survivor, I am proud to wear a pink ribbon to show solidarity with the other women in the world who have faced this disease. I keep one on my car, and I have had more than one stoplight conversation with a newly diagnosed woman. But if that's not your bag, fine. Just don't tell me what to do. But what is the pretty picture she's talking about--the fact that Komen mobilizes tens of thousands of women across the country and the world to be educated about cancer is a pretty picture? What is she talking about? Then she said that "when companies put a pink ribbon on a product, we are in trouble." Lyden finally followed up with a question on that one, asking her why. Brenner's response is that they don't do anything for breast cancer and some products are bad for our health. Let me address the first part of that. Cause related marketing is big business. Companies know from studies that if there are two products that are the same, women will buy the one involved in doing good works in the community. So for the company, it's marketing. What it does for breast cancer for the many groups that use cause marketing is pay the bills of the organization so the funds raised can go to programming. Here are some facts about Komen and the money they raise. The 127 races that are held by Komen affiliates around the world raise a lot of money--yes. And 75 percent of those funds stay in the community where they were raised to be used on all kinds of breast cancer related needs. Each affiliate sets its own guidelines, but they award grants in their area to non-profits, including hospitals, that provide such services as screening, diagnostics, and treatment as well as programs to educate and raise awareness. Some fund services such as expenses for survivors like transportation to treatment. In the '90s I was founding president of the board of two nonprofits in Dallas that addressed breast cancer. The first, a group called the Bridge Breast Network, assists uninsured women with diagnosis and treatment. We started the group with funding from memorials for my mother, who died of breast cancer in 1992, and then we had the very arduous task of fund raising for a start up that provided medical care for women with breast cancer. Had it not been for the Dallas Affiliate of Komen, we would never have gotten off the ground. And the women we served--all of whom did not have insurance and many of whom were minority--would not have had treatment. When we started Gilda's Club North Texas, the funding also came, albeit at lower amounts because we had to prove the numbers of our members that were breast cancer survivors. Komen affiliates do their homework on every grant. The other 25 percent of the money raised by the Komen affiliates goes back to Komen National and is directed to research – all of it. So where does the money come from to run the organization: corporate sponsors. The second part of Brenner's comment insinuated that Komen partners with beauty products and alcohol companies – which it doesn't. To see every partner Komen has at every level you only have to go to the sponsors page on their website. Yes, occassionally, a well meaning affiliate will partner with a local company not in keeping with Komen standards,something that is addressed as soon as Komen national finds out. Think about the challenges of an organization that has hundreds of affiliates around the country in terms of consistency of message. And, as she has for years, Brenner started in on Yoplait yogurt/Komen partnership and how sending in lids is a waste of time. Maybe for her, but again, she is putting her standards on the rest of the country. I know women who have proudly collected them in their neighborhood while educating women about breast cancer. But there is more to Yoplait that, again, Brenner hasn't taken the time to research. In another part of the interview Brenner talks about Latina women and the increasing numbers being diagnosed. Well, go to this page on the Komen website and see what Yoplait is doing about that. Basically, here it is straight from their website: Fondo Yoplait Para La Mujer Hispana (Yoplait fund for the Hispanic Woman) In 2010, Susan G. Komen for the Cure® and Yoplait are teaming up to educate and engage Hispanic communities through a special grant program for Komen Affiliates. Grants will be awarded to several Affiliates to engage new Hispanic leaders and Hispanic-serving organizations in key Affiliate activities, including governance, fundraising, communications, education, community profile, and grant making. Yoplait will donate up to $250,000 this year in support of this grant program. But her attack on Yoplait was nothing compared to her attack on KFC and its partnership with Komen, about which she said, "nutritionists went nuts." OK, obesity is a problem and obesity has been linked to breast cancer, but to blame one fast food restaurant, which may be the only one in the community (and therefore get lots of traffic) is absurd. And what Brenner, again, failed to note was that with those pink buckets comes community awareness. It's in the contract they sign with Komen. AGAIN – from the website, and it took me about 5 minutes to find it. Our corporate partners provide us with the opportunity to reach people where they live, work, and play. In addition to a financial contribution, each of these organizations have found a unique way to get their customers and employees involved in raising awareness and hope that we will one-day find the cures. We thank them for their commitment to the fight to end breast cancer. In other words, Komen gets it. The companies want to brand themselves as Komen friendly because Komen touches so many women (read customers), and Komen says, "yes, but this is what you have to do for breast cancer." That, my friends, is good business. And lots of companies don't even make the cut to begin the conversation. A number of years ago I was a college professor who taught nonprofit management at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Because Komen is based here and because it is the gold standard for cause related marketing, I always asked their marketing folks to come talk to class. Every year I heard them tell the class how many companies approached Komen hoping to be a partner and how many were summarily dismissed (Hooters, if you can believe it). The speaker always told the class how each partner was vetted and contracted so that both sides got what they wanted from the deal. In case you think they only said no to a few, I called Komen for the latest figures. In 2009 they had 366 companies approach them wanting to partner. They accepted 76. And remember that each of those companies that was turned down was offering money. Having sat on many a nonprofit board, I know what a struggle it is to raise money and how many ethical discussions there were when we weighed the "yes, but" of taking money from someone marginal. Komen is very clear about who they will and will not work with -- and the whole committee has to agree. Then Brenner began to attack where Komen puts its research dollars. Here is a direct quote from Brenner in the interview when Lyden asked her what she wanted from Komen. We want them to market with less aggressiveness with companies bad for our health and tell the real story behind breast cancer. It must be Ford, a million dollar sponsor, she is talking about when she says companies "bad for our health." You know a lot of people are killed in car accidents each year, and I am sure a percentage of those are Fords. Remember when I said she doesn't make sense. She somehow thinks that pink ribbons say to women that breast cancer is no longer a problem. Of course, that's why there are more of them every year (read this sarcastically). But the crowning moment was when Brenner wanted to know why, if Komen was putting so much into research, we weren't further ahead in finding the answers – and why wasn't Komen doing something about environmental exposure (gee Barbara, I thought that was BCA's mission). She also attacked Komen's commitment to prevention. Well, since its beginning, Komen has spent $50 million on prevention research, $10 million this year. Brenner contends that Komen's support of research is all wrong. OK, so what's the answer Barbara. You seem to know better than most of the cancer community how to spend research dollars and I, along with lots of people in Washington, want to know. I spend a good portion of my day reading studies and the complexity of cancer research continues to amaze me. Do researchers need to collaborate, yes. Do they need to be more transparent, yes. But to lay all of this at the feet of a nonprofit when the government has the National Cancer Institute that isn't doing much better, well. . . .you get my point. It's a puzzle hundreds if not thousands are trying to solve. I wish I had a list of all the Komen research projects that have led to breakthroughs in treatment. I wish I had a list of the grants that Komen gave based on collaboration. Maybe while we are covering the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium this December I'll try to get that list for you. Actually, I do agree with one thing Brenner said in the interview. When Lyden, who seemed to swallow Brenner's rant lock stock and barrel, asked what people could do that didn't want to give to research, Brenner said, "give to Breast Cancer Action" first, and then she said, in essence, to research who is doing the best work and give there. Wow, I agree, and I have preached that to everyone I know. But how do you do that? Well, if you are considering a charity, go to one of the sites that evaluate them. Charity Navigator is the largest and here is the page for Komen, which has a four star rating. Breast Cancer Action doesn't have a page because it doesn't fit their criteria that the nonprofit have a budget of at least $500,000. It used to, but it doesn't any more. You know the big message here is that everyone in the breast cancer fight is climbing the same mountain. We are taking different paths, and our job is to lend a helping hand to all those making a difference – not look for ways to block the path by throwing mud where it doesn't belong.