The Real Komen Lesson: Charities Can Be 'Too Big To Fail' Too

The Susan G. Komen breast cancer fund reversed its Planned Parenthood action and the right wing anti-choice politician it hired has resigned. But the real lesson of this incident is broader than one decision or one person. Our society is

The Susan G. Komen breast cancer fund reversed its Planned Parenthood action and the right wing anti-choice politician it hired has resigned. But the real lesson of this incident is broader than one decision or one person.

Our society is permeated with a culture of corporate greed, aggression, and power that reaches from the boardrooms of New York to the meeting rooms of Washington.

The Susan G. Komen foundation has raised millions to support vitally important work, but it has also reinforced some of the worst tendencies in our society. It has leveraged big-company resources so that it could dominate its "marketplace," usually by serving as a marketing arm for a client list that includes some very poorly-behaved corporate citizens. Then it has used its market dominance to bully other organizations, push its own political agenda, and try to reshape the course of U.S. cancer research in dangerous ways.

Just like its most prominent sponsor, the Susan G. Komen foundation has become too big to fail.

The Players

Karen Handel had some bitter words for her critics as she stepped down from her post as Komen's vice president for public policy. "I am deeply disappointed by the gross mischaracterizations of the strategy, its rationale, and my involvement in it," Handel wrote.

But there was no "strategy," which Handel and others have defined as denying funding to any group that is under federal investigation. As we noted, and others reported as well, a number of other Komen grant recipients were under real federal investigation and were left untouched, while Planned Parenthood was to be cut for being the subject of a trumped-up, one-person investigation conducted by a right-wing member of Congress.

Nancy Brinker, Komen's founder and CEO, served in a number of positions under George W. Bush, while Handel was a Sarah Palin-endorsed gubernatorial candidate. Political affiliations shouldn't disqualify anyone from serving in a charitable role, of course. Like many people, I've often enjoyed working with ideological opponents on charitable issues of common interest. That kind of cause-based allegiance can help bind our society together.

But Brinker brings her ideology into her Komen work, and has done it so effectively that she's transformed the world of charitable giving ... for the worse. There isn't just the matter of her personal compensation, which the foundation reported as $531,924 as of 2010. Or the fact that she's the only employee who flies first class at the charity's expense, according to the fund's IRS financial filing. (See Komen's form 8453-EO for 2010.)

There's an argument to be made that highly effective fundraisers and executives should receive good, if not excessive, salaries and perks. We won't have that argument here. And for all we know, Ms. Brinker may donate her entire salary to charity. She did choose this career over corporate life, after all, which seems like an altruistic move.

Nor will we argue that Nancy Brinker hasn't been effective at her job. But how has she been effective?

Lids and Buckets

Brinker is a brilliant marketer. She didn't build her charity one donor at a time, but by channeling the power of the nation's ultra-large corporations. As we reported earlier, the foundation advertises itself to corporations this way: "Americans believe it's more important than ever for companies to be socially responsible ... In fact, 83 percent of Americans wish more of the products, services and retailers they use would support causes ..."

Corporate executives understand the power of idealism—and how to sell their products with it. The result means far less bang for your charity buck, but a lot more sales for Komen's corporate clients. Consider Yoplait. In 2005 it was able to move a lot more units of yogurt by attaching Komen's pink-ribbon logo, and by promising to donate ten cents for every Yoplait lid that buyers mailed in.

The problem? A stamp cost 37 cents in 2005, which means that the charity received slightly more than one-fourth of what people paid—and that's not including the cost of the yogurt itself. The charity only received ten cents. But Komen also received massive marketing visibility, with its logo on display in the dairy counter of almost every supermarket in the country.

Yoplait sold yogurt, Komen pushed its brand, and people spent dollars of their hard-earned money to donate ten cents—and to feel they'd done their good deed for the day. That crowds out other forms of giving that are more effective, and which don't build up a monopolistic charity. As the San Francisco Business Times reported, the range of products sporting Komen's pink ribbons soon included "golf balls, umbrellas, pencil sharpeners, grills, watches, wine, jewelry, paint, candy, soda, pens, iPod cases, shower gel, mixers and even pink-colored Tic-Tacs."

Observers noted the irony when Komen teamed with KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) to promote "Buckets for the Cure." Komen was able to raise more than $4 million by teaming with KFC to promote itself and unhealthy food at the same time.

Bank of America, which is currently the target of multiple state and federal investigations, is prominently featured on the Komen website. Although it was allowed to settle these multiple offenses while "neither admitting nor denying wrongdoing," the evidence—and the many millions it has spent to avoid being charged—form a compelling picture of a serial corporate fraudster.

There's nothing quite like the power of pink to fight a record like that.

The real question is: Do we really want our charities to be marketing arms for the country's largest corporations?

Never Enough

And do we want our charities behaving like our worst corporations? The Komen fund has been ruthless and relentless in its drive to dominate its brand. It hasn't hesitated to deploy flotillas of lawyers against anyone it sees as a threat.

The group has directed its firepower most aggressively against anyone who uses the words "for the cure" in their promotional materials. Komen seems to feel that this common phrase is now its own intellectual property, and by fighting this fight it’s leading the charge to seize, monetize, and capitalize one of the last commons left in our society: language.

It hasn't directed its attacks against for-profit entities, either, but has pursued high-dollar litigation and intimidation tactics against other charities. Uniting Against Lung Cancer was targeted for the offense of holding a "Kites For the Cure" event. They've also attacked "Par for the Cure," "Surfing for a Cure," "Cupcakes for a Cure" and "Mush for the Cure."

Komen has even threatened other charities with legal action if they use the color pink in their materials. Pink is, as every Aerosmith fan knows, "like red but not quite." The band also describes the color as "not even a question," which seems to be Komen's view of their ownership of it.

Here's a thought: If Komen's going to sue people for using "for the cure" in their materials, then guess who should sue Komen? The Cure. The British band was formed in 1976, six years before Susan G. Komen for the Cure was formed. I think Robert Smith and company have a compelling case.

In the meantime, Komen marches on relentlessly, leveraging its corporate money and political firepower to crush anyone in its way. As the old Cure song says, "However big I feel, it's never enough."

Too Big to Fail

Komen has made itself the dominant player in private breast cancer funding. What does that mean? For one thing, major research institutes have to think twice before crossing it. When Komen announces that it will no longer fund stem-cell research, researchers all across the country have to rethink their priorities. And if a promising avenue is closed off, we may lose a tool that could save millions of lives.

It can apply the same forms of intimidation to other organizations in the charitable sphere. And it can use its visibility and financial resources to throw its weight around in the corridors of political power, both in Washington and in state capitols around the country.

In the wake of Ms. Handel's departure, it's worth asking why an organization like this needs a vice president of public policy. That title is usual reserved for researchers—or for lobbyists. Ms. Handel's biography and job description make it clear she's not a researcher.

What's more, the Komen foundation has been giving money to Ari Fleischer and other highly political consultants. How many Komen donors knew they were subsidizing right-wing political groups? And do we know whether Ms. Handel will continue to receive a salary from Komen? A review of that 2010 IRS documents suggests that two former executives were receiving six-figure annual salaries while dong no work. Are Komen donors funding right-wing ideologues?

The Cure for the Race

The solution for too-big-to-fail charities isn't all that different from the banking solution. But banks are more highly regulated than charities, which is appropriate. But the public can still decide whether, to paraphrase Alan Greenspan, "too big to fail is too big to exist" in the world of charitable giving. If it feels that way about the Susan G. Komen fund, then it can and should contribute elsewhere.

Brinker and her colleagues can't object to that, can they? That's just the free market at work.

People can even use the pink-ribbon as a reminder: When they see it they can remember to donate to another charity. That's thinking, not marketing, and no one—including Nancy Brinker—has figured out how to sue people for their thoughts.

At least, not yet.

About Richard RJ Eskow

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