[HEALTH] Susan G. Komen – A Foundation for the Money, Not for the Cure

This article originally appeared at Vita di Donna on 21 April 2017 and can be read here (in Italian). Associazione Vita di Donna Onlus is a non-profit organization based out of Rome, Italy, that aims to protect women’s health and reproductive rights, headed up by Dr. Elisabetta Canitano.

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I sit in traffic on a cold but sunny Friday morning, surrounded by cars, businesses, and the now-ubiquitous LED billboards. Within the last five years, these enormous, brightly-lit signs dot the American roadways with an ever-changing litany of advertisements and promotions. On this morning, where I normally wouldn’t notice these attention-demanding signs, I glance up to see an advertisement for an upcoming “Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.”

Immediately, my mood darkens.

Susan G. Komen, the most well-known breast cancer organization in the United States, raises millions of dollars each year through a variety of channels – walking marathons and 5K runs, partnerships with corporate sponsors, and mobile app donations. Since its inception in 1982, Komen has raised close to 3 billion dollars, with almost 1 billion of that total going toward research. While these numbers seem impressive, this is only about 25-30% of their total fundraising. This is not entirely uncommon in the US with larger advocacy organizations; however, coupled with many other concerns about large Chief Executive Officer (CEO) salaries, dubious corporate partnerships, and money spent that seems to only be cycled back into the organization, the Komen name should raise several red flags for anyone considering donating to them.

Over the last few years, Komen has come under fire for how much of their annual fundraising goes toward their CEO’s salaries. At one point, Komen founder and former CEO Nancy Goodman Brinker made a top compensation of $560,896 a year, while president Elizabeth Thompson earned $606,461 – over 1 million dollars combined. While large salaries are not unusual for foundations of this nature, comparisons show that CEOs at other organizations which make more money in annual fundraising earn proportionally less.

During this time, Komen was coming under fire for canceling several of their “Race for the Cure” events amid pulling funding from Planned Parenthood (more on that in a moment). Eventually, Brinker stepped down as CEO and assumed a volunteer position in the organization, but not before taking a salary of $397,093 at the end of fiscal year 2015. In the same financial period, current president and CEO Judith Solerno made $479,858. This speaks to an overall imbalance between the people who are supposed to be served by these foundations – women who cannot afford cancer screenings or treatment, for example – and the people running the organizations.

In addition to concerns with leadership salaries, about 45% of the money raised by Komen goes toward “education programs.” It’s unclear what this encompasses aside from things like brochures and videos, but it apparently includes what most people are familiar with from Komen: awareness campaigns. In the US, October is “Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” and today it is almost impossible to be an adult anywhere in the world and not be aware of breast cancer. In October, you can buy anything and everything in various shades of pink: the ubiquitous ribbons, but also shirts, hats, shoes, purses, kitchen utensils, jewelry, pens, beauty products, household cleaning supplies, iPods, candy, duct tape, trash bins, dog pillows, watches, breakfast cereals, stuffed animals, refrigerator magnets, boxing gloves, coffee mugs, phone chargers, and much more. Most of these items are sold with just a fraction of the profits going toward anything but more awareness campaigns, creating an odd capitalist loop in which people feel good about spending money on junk because they believe the money to be going to a “worthy cause,” when the money goes toward creating more junk.

In addition to all the absurd useless items to add to your shopping cart, Komen previously partnered with US-based fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken, on a campaign that featured the restaurant’s famous fried chicken served in bright pink buckets. This move brought criticism from media and health outlets, who saw the collaboration as a promotion of unhealthy eating habits when obesity has been linked as a contributing cause to breast cancer.

Other specious corporate partnerships have included Ford Motor Company creating a pink-trimmed Mustang for Komen, despite studies showing a long-term link between women who work with automotive plastics being at a five times higher risk of developing breast cancer; and most bizarrely, oil drilling company Baker Hughes marketing pink Komen drill bits used for hydraulic fracturing (a method of stimulating underground oil wells, commonly called “fracking”), despite the fact that nearly one-quarter of the chemicals used during this process are known to increase the risk of cancer.

Komen has also come under fire for a 2012 decision to stop sending funds to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening and treatment, on the advice of the foundation’s Senior Vice President of Public Policy at the time Karen Handel, a Republican politician. Handel, who was previously Secretary of State of Georgia (US), voted ‘yes’ on this decision, which eventually cost Planned Parenthood funding for 6,400 mammogram referrals and 170,000 clinical breast exams, mainly to under- and uninsured patients. The backlash was swift and with long-term effect – within a week, Komen’s board of directors reversed the decision and Handel resigned. In the year following, Komen received 22% less in contributions.

Most infuriating of all Komen’s various uses for the money they raise is the litigation they have brought over the years toward smaller organizations who use the phrase “for the/a cure” in any of their fundraising efforts. There have been more than 100 small, local, grassroots groups that have been sued by Komen for using this phrase in any marketing materials. This is even though only about 20% of Komen’s expenditures goes toward research to find a cure, and less of that goes toward funding research to finding a cause and cure for metastatic breast cancer. The hypocrisy of a foundation that actively stops other organizations from using the phrase “for the cure” when they put so little money toward finding a cure themselves is astounding.

These are not the only problems with Susan G. Komen, but these are some of the most egregious and they should be enough to give you pause before you open your wallet to give to this foundation. As with many other large-scale charitable organizations, do your research and consider donating to or volunteering for smaller, local, and/or non-profit groups who do more to help the breast cancer community create reasonable screening schedules, fund scientific research, and work toward finding a cure – instead of putting money into giant billboard advertisements, useless household clutter, dangerous corporate partnerships, and their own pockets.

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