Chase the Vision, Not the Money

I had no sooner finished posting this blog entry than the Komen Foundation announced that they were reversing their decision on funding Planned Parenthood.  No matter – the damage has been done and there are still lessons to be learned.  Read on.

This week the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced that they would no longer provide funding to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings.  The decision sparked a huge firestorm of outrage as well as some serious investigative journalism into the reasons behind the defunding.  It’s a revealing story that illustrates the perils of prosperity and offers important lessons for charities and donors alike.

Komen is practically a household name, and its ubiquitous branding with pink ribbons, pink shoes, pink gloves, etc., is the envy of patient advocate organizations worldwide.  Like many advocacy groups, it started with a personal connection to a particular disease/condition.  When her older sister Susan died of breast cancer in 1980, Nancy Brinker Goodman founded SGK in her honor. 30 years later, Komen has annual earnings of nearly $400 million.

Komen has unquestionably raised awareness about breast cancer and pumped millions into research and public health education. And yet, in terms of finding a cure there really isn’t much to show for the effort.  Komen’s own website reports that the incidence of breast cancer has actually risen slightly over the last 30 years. During the same timeline, the mortality rate (time of diagnosis to time of death) has decreased somewhat for white women, but shows a slight increase for black women.

In their highly sophisticated marketing campaigns, they brand themselves as “Susan G. Komen for the Cure”, raising money via the “Race for the Cure”.  Unfortunately, rather than chase that vision they’ve fallen prey to the allure of money and the corruption of politics. Komen has built the kind of empire that is seen all too often in the “charitable foundation” arena; a marketing machine whose lavish salaries and political agenda drive its decision-making.

When you’re trying to keep a nonprofit viable it’s easy to lose sight of what got you started in the first place.  Everyone needs money to maintain and expand valuable programs.  But when your priorities shift from chasing the vision to chasing the money, the people and purpose you are supposed to be serving can get lost along the way.

We don’t know where Komen is headed from here, but nonprofit leaders would do well to take a lesson from this enormous blunder and the story behind it. Donors would be well-advised to take a hard look at the charities they choose to support, and do the research to find out where their money is actually going.  In the words of The Guardian’s Lizz Winstead,

“Last I checked, a pink breast cancer awareness toaster isn’t a substitute for affordable chemotherapy.”

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5 Responses to “Chase the Vision, Not the Money”

  1. Chase the Vision, Not the Money, Part 2 | u2fp - the cure warriors Says:

    […] year I published a blog post titled “Chase the Vision, Not the Money“, written in the wake of revelations about the Susan G. Komen Foundation and its questionable […]

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  2. Our Brother’s Keeper « u2fp – the cure warriors Says:

    […] u2fp – the cure warriors « Chase the Vision, Not the Money […]

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  3. Dennis Tesolat Says:

    Thanks for this post! I wanted to say more, but you’ve said it all. Thank you.

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  4. unite2fightparalysis Says:

    A charity’s 990 can be a very revealing document if you know what to look for; it’s a tool that all donors should be aware of. Charity Navigator is another good resource, although they give Komen 4 stars. CN bases their reports on publicly available information; the investigative powers and rapid communication of social media may be a stronger force for accountability.

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  5. Tom Simcoe Says:

    Reading your post inspired me to look up Komen’s exempt org tax return on Guidestar. There are quite a few people being paid over $500,000 on an annualized basis. Here is the link if you care to look it over. http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments//2010/751/835/2010-751835298-06b01a87-9A.pdf. I’m not sure whether a charitable juggernaut like this is good or bad, but it’s good to see the public playing the stakeholder role and calling for accountability.

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