Giving money away to worthy causes is a wonderful thing to do, and one of the things that is wonderful about it is that these are personal decisions. I can decide to support Oglethorpe University and you can choose to support, let’s say, Oglethorpe University. Just kidding (not really). Seriously, though, I can decide that education is at the top of the causes I want to support, and you might choose your church or temple. To each his own. But I do think the business of philanthropy comes with its own set of rules.
Generalizations are often not entirely fair, but here’s one I will toss out to get us started: Really huge and wealthy organizations need your money less than smaller ones. In the field of education, I think it is fair to say that a $50,000 gift to Oglethorpe matters more than a $50,000 gift to Harvard … it will make more of a difference. So I begin with a bit of a bias against the largest of the large. I also tend to think that large organizations stand a greater chance of becoming political. When there is so much money at stake, I believe decisions can get corrupted, or at the very least, compromised.
This brings me to the Susan G. Foundation. Hard to argue with the cause. But, beyond the cause, I think there’s plenty to be concerned about. If their mission is discovering and curing breast cancer, then why would they make a decision that would deny access to screenings to a certain class of women? Unfortunately, the answer is all too clear. They entered into the fray around abortion and decided to align themselves politically with people they perceived were their largest financial supporters. Oops. Turns out they had miscalculated who their real donors were, then decided the backlash would result in turning off more supporters than it would draw. Who knows how this will turn out from a financial perspective, but the leadership of Komen never should have chosen to add a political agenda to their medical agenda.
How could this have happened? One thing I suspect is that this was not some careless, thoughtless step. It was planned and calculated. What do we know about Komen that might have predicted this path? Here’s a few things I have discovered: In the past few years, the percent of Komen funds devoted to funding research to understand the causes of breast cancer and to develop new, more effective treatments has been cut in half. (In 2011, only 15% went to these efforts…down from 29% in 2008.) By comparison, the Juvenile Diabetes Association spends 56% of its funds on research. Instead, 43% of Komen funds went toward "education." There are lots of ways to think about education, although a cynical view might be that in this case, education was largely about promotion (pink, pink everywhere). And in the case of breast cancer, I believe the data show that increased awareness has unfortunately made very little difference in the cure rate.
Komen has become a fund-raising machine but unfortunately, not a curing machine. Or even a research machine. And big, monolithic machines can often lose their way.
Komen, in my book, has lost its way.