Magazine article The American Prospect

Shopping for the Cure

Magazine article The American Prospect

Shopping for the Cure

Article excerpt

Millions of American women are now running, swimming, and climbing for breast cancer, raising extraordinary sums of money for charities whose workings they know almost nothing about. This odd throwback to the earliest breast cancer fundraising campaigns of the 1930s may go unnoticed because the outward appearances are so radically changed. But although spandex and sweatbands have replaced white gloves and hats, and biking has replaced baking, women are once again donating their time, energy, and money, no questions asked.

The Race for the Cure, one of the oldest of these athletic events, is run by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up to fight breast cancer in 1982. In 1998, the most recent year for which figures are publicly available, it raised over $54 million in 85 separate races. (This is a gross number. Komen will not say how much of this amount went to fundraising expenses and how much to breast cancer causes.) Joining the bandwagon in the early 1990s, cosmetic giants Avon and Revlon introduced sporting events of their own. Revlon's Run/Walks for Women in New York and Los Angeles netted $4 million in 1999 ($17 million between 1993 and 1999), which the company contributed to breast cancer charities. The Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, which sponsors three-day, 60-mile walks, netted $15.6 million from its four 1999 events.

The impressive sums raised and contributed by these corporate charities are, of course, not gifts in the usual sense (i.e., donations out of company profits). They are the contributions made by millions of volunteer athletes and their supporters, bundled together, re-packaged, and released under the corporate logo of the organizing charity. As facilitators of this transformation process, participating companies gain for themselves an immeasurable amount of public goodwill. And because they are dealing with unrestricted donations from volunteers rather than investments from shareholders, they are essentially unaccountable for how they distribute the funds.

It is not only Komen that takes this opportunity to obscure its expenses. Just as Komen will give out only gross numbers from its athletic events, Revlon and Avon will give out only net numbers. But it appears that the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade spends more than a third of the funds it raises in its three-day events on advertising, event expenses, and overhead. The Crusade's literature puts it this way: "The Avon 3-Days have delivered over $25 million to the breast cancer cause since 1998, representing a 60% return." At Komen, one spokesperson told me that the foundation keeps race expenses for its one-day events below 25 percent of race revenues (not counting cash and in-kind donations from corporate sponsors); others refuse to confirm that and will say only that the foundation's overall expenses amount to 9 percent of overall revenue. Revlon says its expenses for its one-day Run/Walks are about 11 percent of revenues (including the contributions of corporate sponsors).

Obviously, the three organizations' expense figures are neither clear nor comparable--given the variety of ways revenues are accounted for and differences in the nature of the events--but all would seem substantial enough to pique participants' curiosity. Oddly, they haven't.

For participants what seems to count is not this kind of operational detail, but their own public involvement in the fight against the disease and their ability to make a show of their numbers. Likewise, they expect the media coverage of these events to convey the vast toll that breast cancer has taken on the lives of American women and the physical courage of those who have survived, rather than any urgent demands for new research priorities or stronger public policies. In this, the athletic events differ markedly from the political demonstrations of the breast cancer movement in the early 1990s, which the races have largely come to replace. …

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