Susan G. Komen–for the cure

Journal of Critical Incidents

Jason Anthony was a recent business graduate who had just moved to a new city and was settling into a new job. He had started endurance running as a form of exercise and as a way to meet people. A few of his friends participated in various races to raise funds and support various social causes. Three friends had invited him to participate in different races in three different cities, all on the same weekend! One of the races helped raise funds for Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. Since supporting any of the races involved travel, spending a couple of nights in a motel, and assorted other expenses, he wanted to know more about any organization he was supporting. He had heard of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, but realized he knew little beyond seeing pink ribbons on everything from license plates to firearms. He wondered: How had the organization become such a popular cause? Did it really use the funds raised to support a good cause? How was it different than other similar organizations?

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Komen History

Since its inception in 1982, Komen had invested approximately $2 billion to help fund breast cancer research, education, advocacy, health services and social support programs in the U.S., and through partnerships in more than 50 countries (Schneible, 2010). Currently, Komen had more than 100,000 volunteers working in a network of 124 affiliates worldwide. As of March 2012, Komen was listed on Charity Navigator with the site’s highest rating of four stars (Charity Navigator, 2012). Komen was the number one organization to which Americans said they were most likely to donate for the second year in a row (Harris Interactive EquiTrend Study 2010). Similar studies showed Komen as one of the most trusted non-profit brand names in the U.S. (Joslyn, 2010).

In 2007, the name was changed to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and trademarked a new logo in support of its promise “to end breast cancer forever.” The new logo became a pink ribbon that resembled a runner in motion and was meant to reflect the importance of Komen’s signature Race for the Cure event. The logo symbolically associated the organization with the values of the pink ribbon culture: fear of breast cancer, hope, and the charitable goodness of people and businesses that publicly supported the breast cancer movement (Sulik, 2010).

However, the trademarked “Race for the Cure” came at the expense of other charities. In an effort to protect their brand, the Susan G. Komen organization sent out letters to more than 100 other charities telling them they could no longer use the words “for the cure” in their names. Letters were sent to charitable organizations sponsoring events such as Kites for the Cure, Par for the Cure, Cupcakes for a Cure, Surfing for a Cure…. Not all of the organizations were raising funds for breast cancer cures, but they were prohibited from using the words “for a cure” in their names. Public opinion suggested the move did little to reduce public confusion about the different charitable events. However, the name change made fundraising more difficult for other organizations attempting to support worthy causes (Bassett, 2010).

In the 2009-2010 fiscal year, ending March 31, 2010, Komen reported approximately $400 million in earnings. Of this, $365 million (91.3 percent) came from contributions, including donations, sponsorships, race entry fees, and contributed goods and services. Approximately $35 million (8.8 percent) came from interest and dividends and gains on investments. The same year, Komen reported approximately $360 million in expenses. $283.2 million went for program services: $75.4 million (20.9 percent of total expenditure) went to research, $140.8 million (39.1 percent) went to public health education, $46.9 million (13 percent) went to health screening services, and $20.1 million (5.6 percent) went to treatment services. The other $76.8 million went to supporting services, including $36.1 million (10 percent of total expenditure) toward fund-raising costs and $40.6 million (11.3 percent) toward general and administrative costs (Komen, 2010). Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker was paid $417,712.

Corporate Partners

Sponsors were attracted to supporting breast cancer research for a number of reasons. First, breast cancer was a common form of cancer. Most people had a friend or family member who had fought breast cancer. Breast cancer was also considered a “safe” area of cause marketing as it does not encounter any of the lifestyle problems associated with certain other organizations fighting AIDS, domestic abuse, substance abuse, etc. Finally, Susan G. Komen’s positive public image allowed sponsors to avoid criticisms sometimes tied to other causes such as the support of abortions associated with Planned Parenthood.

Corporate partners were able to use the Susan G. Komen trademarked pink ribbon in their promotional efforts in exchange for donations to the foundation. In 2011, 216 corporate partners contributed over $55 million. Some critics argued the promotions were sometimes misleading and benefitted the Komen foundation and the corporate sponsor more than it did the consumers or cancer victims.

One of the first corporate sponsors was Yoplait Yogurt. Yoplait began a Save Lids to Save Lives campaign in 1998. In exchange, Yoplait was allowed to apply the Komen endorsement to Yoplait’s products. Customers were led to believe the company made a donation to Susan G. Komen for each yogurt lid returned to Yoplait. However, there was a limit placed on the amount Yoplait would donate, regardless of the number of lids returned. In 2010 the annual maximum commitment was raised to $1.6 million (General Mills, 2010). In return, Yoplait obtained an exclusive contract; no other yogurt manufacturer had the opportunity to be involved in the races. In 2002, credit card operator American Express launched a “Charge for a Cure” campaign which claimed that “in the search for a cure, every dollar counts.” In exchange for being associated with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, American Express agreed to pay the organization for each qualifying transaction. The amount donated per transaction, regardless of purchase amount, was one penny.

In May 2009, handgun maker Smith and Wesson announced a donation to the Massachusetts affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure of proceeds collected from the sale of the M&P9 JG, “a full-sized pistol engraved with the ‘Awareness Ribbon’ on the slide and packaged with two pink grip inserts”. The funds donated were to benefit breast cancer research, education, screening and treatment.

In April 2010, Komen paired with fast food restaurant chain KFC to offer “Buckets for the Cure,” a promotion in which fried and grilled chicken was sold in pink branded buckets. The collaboration garnered criticism from media outlets including The Colbert Report and other publications about the promotion of unhealthy eating habits and obesity. KFC contributed over $4.2 million to Komen, the largest single contribution in the organization’s history. The partnership with KFC, which had since ended, allowed Komen “to reach many millions of women that they had been unable to reach before,” said Brinker.

In April 2011 Komen introduced its own-brand of perfume “Promise Me,” complete with promotional appearances by CEO Nancy Brinker on the Home Shopping Network. The perfume encountered opposition due to several chemicals used in it including coumarin, oxybenzone, toluene and galaxolide. Some critics claimed the chemicals were potentially-harmful, possibly causing cancer. Komen stated its intention to have the product reformulated but refused to withdraw existing stocks of the “Promise Me” product from distribution. To critics of cause marketing, the use of a potentially-deadly disease as a marketing vehicle detracted from the original message and focus of the organization. In the words of one member of the IV League, a group of terminal (Stage IV) breast cancer patients interviewed in the Lea Pool documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc., “It’s like they’re using our disease to profit and that’s not OK” (Szklarski, 2012).

Susan G. Komen Expenditures

Jason found that since its formation in 1982, Komen had provided funding for basic, clinical, and translational breast cancer research and for innovative projects in the areas of breast health education and breast cancer screening and treatment. The organization had awarded more than 1,000 breast cancer research grants totaling more than $180 million. In 2011, the foundation spent $63 million (15 percent) of its donations on research.

One of the largest recipients of funding had been Planned Parenthood Association of America (Planned Parenthood). Komen had provided grants to pay for 170,000 clinical breast exams and 6,400 mammogram referrals with Planned Parenthood. This relationship had garnered criticism from religious groups and pro-life advocates because some Planned Parenthood health centers performed abortions and provided counseling that included information on abortion.

In January, 2012, this partnership became a major headline, eventually resulting in a termination of the partnership with Planned Parenthood. Apparently responding to some critics who believed Susan G. Komen should not be providing grants to an organization that was in any way associated with abortions, the foundation pulled their funding of Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood used their name and media access to inform the public that the grant monies were used for mammograms and pre-cancer screenings for low income individuals, and not for abortions. It took Komen two days to make any response to the Planned Parenthood announcement. The public outcry resulted in much bad publicity and a congressional investigation by Rep. Cliff Stearns. The publicity cost Komen donations and race sponsorships.


Jason asked himself, “Why should he get involved with Susan G. Komen or any other charitable organization?” Was Susan G. Komen really any different than any of its competitors? Had it become so concerned with developing its brand and obtaining corporate sponsors that it had lost its focus on supporting cancer research?

This critical incident was prepared by the authors and is intended to be used as a basis for class discussion. The views presented here are those of the authors based on their professional judgment and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Society for Case Research. Copyright [c] 2013 by the Society for Case Research and the authors. No part of this work may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means without the written permission of the Society for Case Research.



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