Illustration by Slug Signorino:

Billions of dollars have been invested in breast cancer related programs, services, research, and awareness activities over the years.

The Nonprofits

There are more than 1,400 registered nonprofit entities in the United States doing something oriented to breast cancer. Of these, more than 300 have no revenues at all; about another 300 have revenues under $50,000; 300 more raise between $100,00 and $500,000; and some 200 have contributions between $500,000 and $15 million. Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the largest breast cancer charity, received $420 million in revenues in 2011, with $175 million from contributions and grants.

In total, the nonprofit sector raises an estimated $2.5 to $3.25 billion for breast cancer in a given fiscal year. Between federal funding and the top five private foundations, the U.S. spends at least $1 billion annually on breast cancer research. No one knows how much is spent on all of those pink ribbon products and fundraising activities that are off the formal grid.

Some have estimated that $6 billion is raised every year in the name of breast cancer.

The “Thons”

Every year tens of millions of Americans ask people to sponsor them for walks, runs, bike rides, and other “thons.” The American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, one of the largest of these events, raised more than $400 million in 2010. The Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, a two-day walk with an $1,800 fund-raising minimum, was held in nine cities in 2010 and raised $58 million — with 52 cents on the dollar going toward logistics and promotion. Such events typically cost at least 50 cents for every dollar raised — compared with the nonprofit fundraising average of 15 to 20 cents per dollar.

To defray the cost of walks many require participants to meet high fund-raising minimums that may entail badgering friends, family, and strangers for donations. Market Watch writes that the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure urges participants,

“to pester waiters and bartenders to donate the day’s gratuities. Another Komen tip: “Tie a pink ribbon on your potential donor’s finger and ask them not to remove it until they’ve made a donation.”

Other strategies involve mass emails, customizable websites,  and other fundraising strategies and technologies. Tens of thousands of small-scale thons happen every year too, collecting money for schools, hospitals, cancer centers, and nonprofits, all vying for public space and donor dollars.

Cause Marketing

The month of October fills the marketplace with pink-ribboned products and breast-cancer-awareness-themed events and fundraisers. Many people ask, “Where does the money go?” No one seems to know. There are simply too many companies, organizations, and promotions to track, and very few of them are transparent enough to evaluate. Cause marketing donations are estimated to reach $1.78 billion in 2013, for a range of causes. This amount pales in comparison to the profits companies bring in from their pink ribbon campaigns. While it is impossible to track exactly how much companies profit, there is a clear trend.

Read More About Cause Marketing »

Policies on Corporate ContributionsI couldn't make this up

With so many breast cancer nonprofits and companies ready to include them within their cause marketing portfolios, charities themselves would be wise to develop strong policies about corporate contributions and potential conflicts of interest. Important considerations may include,

Does the company benefit more than the nonprofit?

Is the cause-marketing arrangement transparent?

What is the actual or anticipated portion of the purchase price that will benefit the charity?

How long with the campaign last? (e.g., just during the month of October?)

What is the maximum or guaranteed minimum contribution amount? (up to $50,000)

How may the company use the nonprofit’s name, logo, or other information?

Does the mission of the company resonate with the nonprofit’s mission?

Does the company have policies or procedures that run counter to the nonprofit’s goals or broader mission?

Does the company or its subsidiaries work in any way to weaken or circumvent public policies or regulations that further the nonprofit’s goals or broader mission?

How does association with the company affect the organization’s efficacy or political legitimacy?

Does the company or campaign contribute to other social problems?

Does the company use the color pink to better its reputation while selling or manufacturing products that increase breast cancer risk or have other negative health effects?

Does the company sell or manufacture products or services involving cancer diagnosis or treatment? If so, will the organization’s constituents and members be subjected to unwarranted influence?

Does the company advertise its cause marketing relationships using inaccurate or misleading information about breast cancer?

Does the campaign promote fear mongering or otherwise commercialize, trivialize, infantilize, and sexualize in the name of breast cancer awareness and fundraising?

These are a few of the key factors nonprofits should consider when deciding to partner with a company. Without regard to systemic outcomes, social context, and reliable measures to monitor progress, pink dollars may ultimately diminish the value of the fundraising.

Read About Fundraising Transparency »

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