October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month, and no doubt we’ll all be seeing a lot of pink and hearing about a lot of walks and runs for the cure. And that means Susan G. Komen, the world’s most famous breast cancer foundation, will be in the news again.
Komen gained the wrong kind of notice back in 2012 for a politically disastrous decision to cut off support for Planned Parenthood, and again in 2014, for a politically disastrous decision to accept a donation from a company that makes drill bits used in oil fracking, a process that uses known carcinogens. There were other criticisms of “pinkwashing” and some of the organization’s spending, leading to questions about whether it could recover its reputation as a leader in the space.
But in the years since those missteps, Komen has continued to use its considerable fundraising and grantmaking capacities in the fight against breast cancer. The organization recently announced grants of nearly $26 million to fund 62 new research projects.
Like Komen, breast cancer certainly hasn’t gone away. According to the CDC, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women after skin cancer, and the second-most common cause of cancer death in women. About one in eight American women have a lifetime risk of developing the disease, though the danger can be much higher for some with a family history or other risk factors. This means that approximately 266,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer by the end of 2018.
Komen is committed to reducing breast cancer deaths in the United States by 50 percent by 2026. This year’s funding is focused primarily on the hard-to-treat patients who have developed drug resistance to chemotherapy, and the very aggressive forms of triple negative (TNBC) and inflammatory breast cancer. It makes sense that these specific forms of cancer were targeted. According to BreastCancer.org, “the five-year survival rate for TNBC is around 77 percent versus 93 percent for other breast cancer types.” Slightly better, but still well below the national average, the survival rate For inflammatory breast cancer is 82 percent.
Earlier this year at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists annual conference, former Ambassador Nancy Brinker discussed Komen’s future. She acknowledged a major criticism of the organization’s spending habits: “People are very sensitive to high overheads, they're very sensitive to anything spent. They want to see money that they give go directly to a mission… Events become very expensive to do, so we have to figure out other ways of using technology to raise money and make sure that we connect with people.”
In addition, last year, Komen made it easier for potential donors to engage with the organization. In 2017, and during the current funding cycle, Komen is giving supporters an opportunity to make a personal impact by donating to four of this year’s new research grants. By visiting komen.org/givetoaproject, individuals can choose to donate directly to projects that “align with their passions or interests.” Perhaps such moves will help pound out some of the dings in the foundation’s image.
Indeed, since its public relations debacle in 2012, Komen appears to have been considering its moves more carefully, and working to earn the public’s hearts and dollars again. It seems to be working. Charity Navigator has increased its rating of the charity and donors of all sorts have been returning.
Among its image-recovery steps, Komen has called attention to its record of impact, not just in research, but in its direct work with the community. And that impact is substantial. Komen is still the best-known funder of breast cancer work, with a total research investment of $988 million to date, making it the largest nonprofit investment outside the U.S. government. Beyond even the most valid criticisms, Komen has put breast cancer awareness front and center in the public’s attention like no other charity or public health campaign has been able to do.