How Susan G. Komen for the Cure affects other cancer non-profits


by Gayle A. Sulik, PhD

In response to increased publicity surrounding Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s questionable trademark and marketing activities, the organization published an official statement on its website, titled: “Susan G. Komen for the Cure® Sees Trademark Protection as Responsible Stewardship of Donor Funds.”

According to the statement, Susan G. Komen for the Cure® has never sued other charities or put other non-profits out of business, and the organization does not have plans to do so in the future.

Apparently knitters, sandwich makers, and kite fliers who want to raise money for breast cancer or other causes should breathe easier now! Of course, there are many ways to squeeze out organizations, large and small, and Komen’s high profile, clout, and overflowing coffers work in conjunction with legal teams, cease and desist orders, and polite suggestions to encourage a political and economic climate in which only the wealthiest survive.

When the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations (NABCO) closed its doors after 18 years of operation, it was because the organization did not want to give priority to fundraising over program delivery. The network of almost 400 organizations, which included advocates, institutions, and healthcare providers, provided labor-intensive programs such as referral and case management that did not have the same allure as the publicity-driven fundraising campaigns that are so appealing to sponsors. Ironically, Komen founder Nancy Brinker was also a founding member of NABCO, along with journalist Rose Kushner who also helped to establish the National Women’s Health Network, Diane Blum of Cancer Care, and Ruth Spear who was a patient and author living in New York. When NABCO closed, Komen was one of 12 nonprofit cancer and health organizations to receive non-exclusive rights to NABCO’s educational materials at no cost.

This is not to suggest that Komen played a direct role in the closing of NABCO, or that NABCO should have acted differently. The point is that decision upon decision, action upon action, organizations shape the climate in which other organizations operate. NABCO refused to perpetuate itself by catering to fundraising interests at the same time that Komen was ramping up its cause-marketing and corporate partnerships. Three years later, Komen solidified its brand with a name change and new logo, and in the current year the organization has garnered more corporate partnerships than ever. The financial incentives have taken on a life of their own. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be quibbling over trademarks and pink buckets of fried chicken.

Komen’s reputation in some circles, especially among key stakeholders in business and medicine, appears to be beyond reproach. But reputations involve more than financial portfolios, and Komen’s domineering actions against other charities (whether they move forward to an official legal objection or not) demand a solid explanation.

The public didn’t get one. But Komen’s official statement did make some clarifications, such as the number of legal oppositions and objections filed against other entities since its founding, the total amount for legal expenses reported in the most recent financial statement, and the total funds invested in programs in the last fiscal year:

  • Legal oppositions against other charities through the patent and trademark process: 16
  • Objections filed against companies or for-profit groups: 31
  • Total legal expenses last year: $515,405
  • Program budget for the 2010 fiscal year for research, screening and treatment programs, education and advocacy: $283 million.

The statement does not indicate how many cease and desist letters have been delivered to non-profits and charitable organizations since the inception of the organization for trademark reasons, or how many of these occurred after Komen’s name change in 2007. Nor does it reveal how much legal work was done on a pro bono basis to offset legal expenses. Aside from providing a few clarifications, Komen’s official statement about responsible stewardship of donor funds is misleading. It does not adequately explain why the organization would engage in any activities that would undermine the ability of other charitable organizations to do their own work toward the betterment of public health and the eradication of disease.

Other Komen statements suggest that trademark policing is meant to ensure that there is no confusion about who donor money supports. Susan G. Komen for the Cure with its stylized running ribbon is specific and clear. Kites for the cure without Komen’s logo is something else. Where’s the confusion? Or maybe that’s the point. There is no confusion. If the running ribbon sparkly pin in the Komen shop serves a different function than the generic pink ribbon that I wear on my lapel, then it represents Komen the organization and not the greater cause of breast cancer.

What is certain is that if there were truly a legal battle to be had against any entity over the trademarked ‘for the cure’ language, Komen has the resources to move it forward. But if it did, the organization could risk its not-for-profit status on its own branded items. In fact, the Komen store could be subject to the same income tax as anything else. What is really at stake here? It’s about money.

In the fundraising endeavor, Komen has redefined cure to mean a whole range of activities that do not involve the eradication of breast cancer. In this capacity Komen justifies spending roughly 25 percent of its program budget on research; encourages donors and patrons to light buildings, bridges, pyramids, and statues in pink when these monies could be spent on research; forms partnerships with corporations, some of whose products play a role in the development of chronic illnesses, such as cancer; and attempts to solidify its place as the self-proclaimed leader of a disparate and nonconsensual breast cancer movement.

Yes, Komen parcels out money to some breast cancer organizations, supports some quality research projects, and gives some supporters a platform to come together. But, it also fails to attend to the perspectives and goals of the total breast cancer movement and refuses to answer to a concerned public that only wants to see an end to the breast cancer epidemic. Yet, Komen’s official statement maintains that:

“Our reputation for transparency, funding life-saving research and our total dedication to ending breast cancer is unquestioned.”

This official statement does not suggest transparency. Clearly, Komen’s reputation is being questioned. Instead of recognizing this, Komen ends with a patronizing tug on the heartstrings aimed at destabilizing the critique put forth by those who are concerned as much about breast cancer as Komen purports to be:

“We are disappointed that our supporters have been misled and have been distracted by this issue, especially when many Americans cannot afford the treatment they need, access to breast cancer care is at risk and so many people continue to lose loved ones. Our singular objective is and has always been to find and ensure access to the cures for breast cancer, and we are enormously grateful for those who stand with us in this mission.”

No doubt Komen is disappointed. My colleagues and I are disappointed. Women whose mammograms didn’t see their tumors are disappointed. Those who are being treated for pre-cancers as if they were invasive disease are disappointed. My friends with recurrences and metastatic breast cancer are really disappointed. But disappointment means nothing unless it leads to clarity and action.

Komen is right about one thing. This is a critical time when many Americans cannot afford treatment, need care, and continue to lose loved ones. That is precisely why the leaders of advocacy need to think deeply about what they are doing, and how they are doing it. It is why we all need to think about what is lost when fundraising and self-perpetuation become the top priority.

Gayle A. Sulik is a medical sociologist and author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health. This post originally appeared in the Oxford University Press blog under the title “Susan G. Komen for the Cure® Sells Out the Pink to Get the Green.”

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