Big Charity

It must be tough running a charity. You’ve got a cause you care deeply about, and you’re constantly juggling the game of having to spend money (in administration, advertising, staff) to raise money (for the cause!), and worse, of sometimes having to compromise to achieve your goals — you sometimes have to work with your enemies to get where you’re going. And if you’re really, really good at it, and raise lots and lots of money, it becomes easy to lose sight of the cause while becoming corporate.

So it goes with Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the $400 million/year giant pink gorilla of cancer charities, fighting for the cause of ending breast cancer. As charities go, they’re reasonably efficent (about 20% of their budget is overhead, 20% goes to cancer research, and the rest goes to education and health care), and they’re certainly effective — they practically own the color pink, it seems, and their little pink ribbons are ubiquitous. If you’ve donated money to them in the past, you should have no regrets, and you can pat yourself on the back for having done some good.

But it’s time to cut the cord to this Big Charity.

Komen has lost sight of the cause, and has become more of a money-raising machine, for one thing. This is one of those awkward compromises they made to tap into corporate interests: they sold their identity and their label to anyone willing to cough up the cash. One correlation with the incidence of breast cancer is dietary fat — yet Komen went into a commercial promotion with KFC, selling big pink buckets of greasy fried chicken.

It was this national nonprofit education and advocacy organization that coined the term “pinkwashing” to describe the situation where a company purports to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink-ribboned product, but manufactures products that are linked to the disease.

This latest campaign between KFC and Komen is “simply pinkwashing at its worst,” Barbara A. Brenner, JD, executive director of BCA, told Medscape Oncology. “This is just so wrong on every level. . . . This is so much more about KFC’s bottom line than about curing breast cancer,” she said.

This is just one example of losing sight of the goal. I would argue that in addition they’ve been too successful: their marketing has obscured their purpose. We’re drowning in a sea of pink every time breast cancer is brought up, and the symbol of slapping a pink ribbon on something has replaced the substance of the cause. I always say that prayer is the very least you can do, but slapping a ribbon on your car is a very close runner-up.

And now, the last straw. Ultimately, breast cancer research is one part of improving women’s health; if that narrow slice of concern begins to cannibalize the wider aspects of women’s well-being, it does more harm than good. The Susan G. Komen Foundation has reached that point where the money-making machine is being hijacked to benefit organizations that do harm to women.

Specifically, Komen has yanked its support for breast-cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood. That’s astonishing. Education and screening for breast cancer is what Komen is all about — it’s what they do. It’s as if I were to announce that I reject the teaching of evolution at a particular college campus because I really hate their football team (and if I had millions of dollars worth of clout). It makes no sense from the perspective of an anti-cancer charity.

It does make sense if you’re a right-wing corporate entity that has funded its growth on a foundation of a universally appreciated cause, but that actually has closer ties to conservative corporate and religious interests. They aren’t so much against breast cancer, as they are for protecting “good” girls, and against those fornicating sluts who get abortions, and can go ahead and die horribly. They listen more to the anti-abortion crusaders (some of whom are on their executive staff!) than to women.

So don’t give to them anymore. Redirect your charitable giving to organizations that don’t have a Puritanical streak, and are a bit less Republican in outlook. There is no shortage; I recommend the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Breast Cancer Charities of America, CancerCare, and the Cancer Research Institute. So far, they all seem to be dedicated to fighting cancer and helping people, and a lot less concerned about policing people’s morality to conform to that of the Religious Right.

But I don’t want Susan G. Komen to go away. I think it is an excellent charity for right-wingers and Christian fundamentalists to donate to — their money will go to a cause we can all support, and it’s better than filling the coffers of the Mormon or Catholic churches.

P.S. There are some very bad arguments for not donating to the Komen foundation out there, and the very worst are those that selectively cite statistics to argue that cancer research is futile. Some cancers have been refractory and have shown little progress in the last decade; others are showing significantly better statistics. But most importantly, our understanding of cancer has steadily advanced, and even where someone dies of the disease, we glean another piece of the puzzle. And of course, what do you propose to do otherwise? Nothing at all?

(Also on FtB)