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Raising Breast-Cancer Awareness Fine, But Show 'Em The Money

Hartford Courant

October 1, 2006


by Susan Campbell

During October - National Breast Cancer Awareness month - a stroll through the grocery store or mall can give the shopper the feeling she has wandered into Barbie Land, all pink and earnest.

Manufacturers of products from Mercedes-Benz to Tic Tac breath mints have hoisted the pink flag in order to foster awareness of breast cancer. One can suppose that from awareness come donations for research, although that connection could be debated. The savvy shopper can choose from breast-cancer-awareness tweezers, candles, key fobs or low-fat pre-packaged meals and go home content that she is shopping toward the cure.

But not really, at least not to the extent one might think, according to the advocacy group Breast Cancer Action, which sponsors a "Think Before You Pink" website that tracks products and where the money solicited for breast-cancer research really goes. Some manufacturers who slap a pink ribbon on their boxes are simply giving a public nod to corporate citizenship, and that is all. This year, breast cancer is expected to affect 213,000 women and men - yes, men can get breast cancer, too. Defeating the scourge takes far more than lip service or pretty packages. It will take money - massive amounts of funding that go directly to research and prevention, and not to overpaid CEOs or fundraisers that feed on themselves.

Recently, Charity Navigator, the country's largest independent charity evaluator, rated nonprofit organizations that focus on breast cancer, of which there are many. Of the 1 million nonprofits in the country, slightly more than 700 are devoted to breast-cancer awareness and/or research. "I think the pink ribbon is everywhere, not just October," said Sandra Miniutti, Charity Navigator's director of external relations. "There isn't any other cause that has positioned itself like this."

The idea of a ribbon was borrowed from AIDS activists, who borrowed it from the wife of one of the American hostages held in Iran beginning in 1979, who got her inspiration from the song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon ('Round the Ole Oak Tree"). While ribbons now come in every hue, by far most ribbons you'll see this month will be pink. Be they grosgrain or bejeweled, they will be worn proudly.

Unfortunately, according to Samantha King, author of "Pink Ribbon, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy," the emphasis on corporate fundraising has actually stymied efforts to find the cause of breast cancer, not just the cure.

It has moved emphasis from prevention to detection and treatment. Wouldn't it be better to figure out the origin of this disease?

Miniutti said most of the 5,000 charities they've examined are efficient, but as with any group of charities, the field of breast-cancer awareness and research organizations has its share of bad management, overpaid CEOs, and too much money spent on fundraising. Charity Navigator gives the "Think Before You Pink" people the highest rating, a 4, for their organizational efficiency, and how well they've been able to maintain their programs and services.

By comparison, the National Cancer Center in New York, for example, gets a zero. The low rating comes in part because, according to Charity Navigator, 65.4 percent of that organization's money is spent strictly on fundraising.

Some products don't overtly display the ribbon, but give money to breast-cancer organizations anyway. Julia Fikse, designer of the lighthearted "Save the ta-tas" T-shirts and other products, donates 5 percent of each sale to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (which also received a 4 from Charity Navigator). Last quarter, the company donated about $4,690, according to Fikse's blog.

Charity Navigator has been busy monitoring charities since the terrorist attacks, and even more so since Hurricane Katrina. "People are used to having an independent analysis, such as movie reviews, and that's starting to spill over into their charitable giving," Miniutti said. The point is not to hamper gift-giving, Miniutti said. Instead, the point is for people to be smart about their donation dollars.


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