Pink Slip

06.06.13

Did Backlash Prompt Komen’s Cancellations?

The breast cancer charity scrapped fundraisers in seven cities, prompting questions about whether the group has run its course. Winston Ross talks to the followers-turned-critics.

Lisa Bonchek Adams hopped off the Komen “bandwagon” years ago, long before the charity that puts on “Race For The Cure” events all over the world threatened to yank its funding for Planned Parenthood. Adams was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, and in the two years that followed she estimates she raised more than $20,000 in fundraising and events sponsored by the Dallas-based Susan G. Komen Foundation.

“You get caught up in it,” she said. “One year my mom and my dad and my daughter all walked together.”

Adams wasn’t the least surprised, though, by the charity’s announcement Monday that it was scrapping half of the 14 cities in which it has for the past decade sponsored a 3-day walk. The group said there has been a drop in “participation levels” over the past four years. Perhaps the pro-choice chickens have come home to roost?

“I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner,” said Adams. “Maybe they thought there would be an initial backlash and drop in donations, but then all would be forgiven.”

The Komen Foundation declined to provide specific numbers to The Daily Beast, but spokeswoman Andrea Rader said participation isn’t as much an issue as is the $2,300 minimum fundraising ask for those who do the three-day, 20-mile-per-day walks.

“Given the way the economy has been operating, this has just been harder for people to do,” Rader said. “We thought it better to shrink the markets to seven and hopefully return to the other markets. An awful lot of nonprofits are finding that in this economy, the economy of the last few years, it’s getting more difficult to raise funds.”

Dozens of supporters bemoaned Komen’s high price tag on the charity’s Facebook page.

“I don’t even wear pink anymore. It just turns my stomach.”

“If you were to move the fundraising goal back to $1,500 or $1,800 (for all cities — as it was on my first walk in 2005) I believe you would get an even higher participation level than you are getting now or in the past,” wrote a commenter named Diane Bruchhauser. “$2,300 is a difficult amount to raise without the support of a large company or being on a team.”

But Adams believes these cancellations are long overdue for Komen, which appears to now be feeling the repercussions of last year’s Planned Parenthood controversy. The Darien, Conn., woman backed away from Komen after discovering how little of the charity’s revenue is allotted to funding research—15 percent, down from nearly twice that in years past. When the Planned Parenthood debacle hit, it turned off many Komen supporters. Despite the charity’s prompt reversal of the decision, Race for the Cure events saw a 10 to 15 percent average drop in participation last year, Rader said.

“We know even though we reversed the decision, apologized and continued to fund 15 Planned Parenthood clinics this year, some people many not come back,” she said.

That’s because the controversy prompted people to start asking other questions, Adams said. “People really started investigating where the money was going. That’s the longterm problem with Susan G. Komen is they couldn’t give answers about why such a small percentage of money is going for research.”

Komen has responded that the vast majority of its revenue goes to not just research but also grants to smaller programs and to raise awareness about the value of early screenings. But for people like Adams, those answers don’t cut it.

Nor did the giant raise the organization’s founder and CEO took in November of 2010, to $684,000 from $417,000. Brinker has since changed job titles from CEO to chairwoman of the executive committee, though the organization’s web site still lists her as founder and CEO. Rader said Brinker hasn’t had a raise in the past two years.

“If Nancy Brinker were smart, she’d say, ‘Gee, I took $685,000 in salary last year. Whatever we need to make these events go on, how about I give up my salary for a year?’” Adams said. “If it’s really about the memory of her sister and she’s so devoted to the cause. She is their biggest liability.”

While the controversy has certainly caused Komen to take a public relations hit, some experts caution against oversimplifying a complex picture. Leslie Lenkowski, clinical professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University, say another problem for Komen is that charity walks have become highly competitive. Rader estimated there are around 40,000 walks and runs for charity held each year in the U.S., and Komen’s three-day event was an ambitious one. When Komen’s Race for the Cure events began in 1982, the organization was pretty much the only kid on the block, at least in terms of breast cancer. Now there are many organizations asking for the same dollars, in the same way.

“Keep in mind that this is a business, like any other business,” Lenkowski said. “In the fundraising business, if you make a better widget, your competitors will try to make an even better widget.”

Lenkowski also wonders if the novelty of walks and races for the cure has worn off, that they have “a kind of half-life,” which suggests that Komen may need to get more creative to tap into donor dollars.

For people like Adams, though, nothing the organization can do will bring her back.

“I don’t even wear pink anymore,” she said. “It just turns my stomach.”