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How Do You Know Which Charity to Give Your Money to?

Updated on August 21, 2017
Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran is a writer & former newspaper reporter/editor who traveled the world as a soldier's better half. Her works are on Amazon.

How could anyone be so cynical as to find something negative to say about supporting a charity?

Aren’t all efforts to support a good cause equally good?

Well, no.

Some organizations send more of the money they raise to the good cause than others. It is worth taking a, yes, cynical look at the inner workings of a fund raising effort before you lend them your voice, your time, your money, and your professional and personal capital.

The month of October is a case in point as myriad organizations spend the month raising money in the effort to find a cure for breast cancer. The two largest are Susan G. Komen's Race for the Cure and the American Cancer Society's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer.

The American Cancer Society coined the pink ribbon symbol to represent the search for a cure specifically for breast cancer and to encourage those who have survived this disease. They didn’t even trademark or copyright it. The decision was made that the pink ribbon should be shared as far and wide as possible to draw attention to the need to find a cure for this disease. Komen, on the other hand, spends almost a million dollars a year in legal fees protecting their brand (the light pink ribbon and the words "for the cure"). Their spokesperson reportedly told the Huffington Post that legal fees comprise a “very small part” of their budget.

"I think it's important that charities protect their brand, but on the other hand, I don't think the donors' intent in giving their money was to fund a turf war," said Sandra Minuitti, a spokesperson for Charity Navigator, a watch-dog organization on how not-for-profits use the dollars they receive in donations.

No one is surprised when a national business like McDonalds goes to court to sue over the use of their name and images. But intellectual property lawyers like Michael Mercanti say they are surprised by the large number of oppositions Komen has filed against other charities making it difficult for them even to coexist.

Sue Prom, the founder of a small dog sledding fundraiser for breast cancer called "Mush for the Cure" in Grand Marais, Minn., is learning the hard way what it means to use the words, for the cure, that Komen considers their domain. She heard from Komen's lawyers this summer advising her to change the name of her event or face legal proceedings.

"I think it's a shame," Prom said to the Huffington Post. "It's not okay. People don't give their money to the Komen Foundation, and they don't do their races and events so that Komen can squash any other fundraising efforts by individuals. That's not what it's about."

So far, Komen has identified and filed legal trademark oppositions against more than a hundred of these smaller charities, including Kites for a Cure, Par for The Cure, Surfing for a Cure, and Cupcakes for a Cure.

Roxanne Donovan, whose sister runs Kites for a Cure, described their event as a family kite-flying fund raiser with proceeds going for lung cancer research. Donovan reported how intimidated her family was by Komen's big law firm that said they had to drop "cure" from their event's name even though it was being held for an entirely different form of cancer. The family spent their own money purchasing signs, t-shirts and other materials and could not afford to replace them. They also had to spend money on legal fees instead of raising money for the original cause they wanted to support. Kites for a Cure finally settled with Komen, with the help of pro bono lawyers, by adding "for lung cancer" to their name.

National Sponsor of More Birthdays

Have you noticed all the companies that sell products with the pink Komen brand somewhere on them? Bank of America’s drive-thru banking tubes, Yoplait Yogurt, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Ford Motor Company, Hallmark Cards, Princess Cruises. The clear message is that if you buy these products you are contributing to the effort to treat cancer patients or research to find a cure for cancer. Is that actually what you are doing?

Executive Director of Charity Navigator, Trent Stamp, says rarely does more than a penny out of the dollar go to research or treatment. “It’s just great advertising.” The companies that sell these “pinkwashers” products know very well that promoting themselves as supporters of breast cancer awareness gives the public a better perception of them and increases their profits.

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, is on record stating that the makers of some pink products donate proceeds only for a limited time. In fact manufacturers usually put a ceiling on the total amount of money that will be donated to Komen.

The breast cancer advocacy organization, Breast Cancer Action, is on record describing October as a public relations campaign that, instead of discussing the causes and prevention of breast cancer, shines a light on awareness only in order to encourage women to get mammograms. The term "pinkwashing" has been used by Breast Cancer Action to describe the actions of companies that manufacture and use chemicals that have been linked with breast cancer while publicly supporting charities focused on curing the disease. Their argument is that more money is spent marketing these campaigns than is donated to the cause.

The problem all this marketing poses for other charities is the fact that Komen is succeeding. They have done such a good job of flooding the market with their brand, they are actually forcing organizations like the American Cancer Society to spend more donation dollars trying to compete for contributors at the loss of dollars going to researchers who are actually trying to work “for the cure.” So when a well-meaning contributor gives their donation dollar to Komen, not only is less of their money going to research, they are raising awareness of the Komen brand. As a result, they are forcing other fund raising charities to spend more of each of their donated dollars on marketing instead of research as well.

And even on an individual basis, we're not talking about small amounts of money. Registration for Komen’s 3-Day Walk for a Cure is $2,300 per registrant. Registration for a Making Strides Walk is $25 in advance or $35 the day of the walk. Last year the Komen three day event raised $3.2 million in Atlanta, Georgia, only one of the many cities where they hold the walk. Making Strides also averages a million dollars a day in the multiple cities where those events are held.

The Susan G. Komen foundation donated no more than 18% of its net revenue to research in fiscal 2012, 17 % in 2011, 19% in 2010, and 21% in 2009.

The bedrock problem created whenever an organization is created solely for the support of funding for a single cancer is the fact that no one knows where the answers are going to come from. Research in one area has frequently discovered the cure for a different form of cancer. The most efficient donation goes to the overall effort to continue to find the cures for cancer, in all its forms, which is actually being done every day. ACS statistics show 25 people are alive each and every day who would not have been alive 25 years ago because of treatments that have been developed through years of research in all areas. In this fight, there is probably not going to be one and only one cure for this insidious disease.

In the name of full disclosure I must include in this hub the fact that I worked for The American Cancer Society for two and a half years. In my defense, in my job I did research on the fundraising efforts in the communities that held ACS events and other not-for-profit efforts, which is where many of the concerns expressed here came from originally. While ACS adapted to the changes that were pressed upon them in the marketplace, all staff was encouraged not to disparage any other organizations. Making Strides adopted the hot pink shade of pink to differentiate themselves from the Komen light pink. (When you see National Football teams flaunting hot pink armbands and towels, you know which charity they support. But nobody will try to convince you that part of your ticket price is going to a charity. The NFL is a sponsor of Making Strides like other corporations that make their own donation in exchange for name recognition by ACS.)

With any charitable donation always find out how they are rated by charity watchdog groups, such as, and what their administrative percentages are. There must be some overhead expenses for them to exist - but they shouldn't be higher than around 20%.

And finally - thank you for giving to whichever good cause you choose.


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    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      13 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      October is coming, and along with it everything from pink ribbons to pink football cleats, and requests for donations. Educate yourself and put your hard-earned dollars where they will do the most good.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      It's October again, and I just saw a commercial that promises 100% of net profits from their contributions will go to cancer research. News Flash: 100% of net profits from ALL contributions go to the cause! That means what goes to the cause after expenses and administration are paid. Please be an informed contributor.

    • RTalloni profile image


      3 years ago from the short journey

      Important post to consider. So glad to see this highlighted and have the opportunity to share it!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Still, an excellent and important article, and I see more and more essays and articles like this, so it seems as if maybe the "word" is starting to get around. Thank you.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      J-R-Fr13m9n: People should be able to give their hard-earned $$$ with confidence it is being used as promised. Thanks for commenting.

    • J - R - Fr13m9n profile image

      Jane Ramona Rynkiewicz Frieman 

      4 years ago from Morris County, New Jersey

      My sentiments exactly. Thanks for making this information public. About 40+ years ago there was a book published regarding where does your money go when you donate to famous charities.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      DzyMsLizzy: Thanks for the update. Wonder what has transpired since I posted this video.

      You are so right about a business' motive in matching a donation. I know many companies that match an employee's donation, but that is to track the concerns of the people who make up their companies. They get so many requests for donations. This is a way to decide where to put their corporate dollars, which I think is fine. But I agree with you about the buy-this-and-we'll-give. There is a set amount they are going to donate no matter how many things they sell. It's pure bait and switch.

      I keep waiting for someone to come to Komen's defense. I think many participants have no idea of the backstory.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      4 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Well put! You've hit on another topic totally ignored by the news media. I've read about these kinds of abuses, and even outright scams before, and it makes me so angry.

      I'm not in a position to donate much of anything but a buck or two at any one time, and the idea of paying 2 grand for an entry fee might as well be 2 million, on my budget.

      The other ploy that irritates the living sh** out of me is the corporate "buy this and we'll donate $xx to such and so charity." Well, I always say, "If you are seriously motivated to donate, JUST DO SO! Don't make it dependent upon my purchase! Your sales and income records show what you can afford--and it's a tax-write off for you anyway, so cut the crap and just make the donation. Stop putting "consumer incentives to donate" on your packaging, because all that is, is a marketing ploy."

      Voted up, useful, interesting and shared.

      (P.S. Your video comes up with a message, "This video does not exist.")

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      tillsontitan: Thanks for adding your voice to this word of caution to well-intended folks.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      4 years ago from New York

      Well done Kathleen. So many people are unaware of the "administrative costs" of some charities. I've seen a few where only ten cents on a dollar goes to the charity. It is certainly important to find that out BEFORE you donate.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      teaches12345: You are right about many groups that have been under suspicion. I can tell you on behalf of United Way and American Cancer Society, don't blame your local chapter for the sins of the national organization and vice versa.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      5 years ago

      Thanks for raising awareness on charities that may need further research prior to contribution. It was the Red Cross just a few years ago that had similar false distributions. It is a shame that charity is misleading those who give from the heart for a good cause.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I have no idea except when a small group of people suddenly find themselves on a large stage with an audience, they often feel they have to put on a show. Example: recent government shutdown.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Terrific hub. Well written and full of the necessary and important facts. Do you have any insight into what exactly the "Komen foundation of leadership's problem is? Why do they act this way and have such policies? Thanks. Sharing.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      timelesstravgeler: Glad to hear you got the help you needed from ACS. I'll be the first to admit it doesn't always work out that way in spite of the best efforts. Nobody bats 1000 all the time.

      DDE: Glad to be of use and thanks for commenting.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      How can a 'Good Cause' possibly be less than 100% good an informative and useful hub thanks for sharing

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      5 years ago from California

      Always look at stats for any charity, before I give. Despite nearly 20 years of living with cancer my only association has been with the ACS. They came through for me when I needed them.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thanks for the confirmation ladies. I was braced for some pushback, because if you've participated in a 3-day, it is very emotional and affirming. I don't challenge that. People are well-intentioned. It's a shame something that starts out only with good intentions, goes arrigh as the years go by.

    • my_girl_sara profile image

      Cynthia Lyerly 

      5 years ago from Georgia

      Here's a blog you might be interested in that is related to this blog...

      The disease ribbons are actually based on a superstition.

    • my_girl_sara profile image

      Cynthia Lyerly 

      5 years ago from Georgia

      Awesome hub! I am in the process of writing a hub about the sham this cancer research really is. These "charities" are really businesses that have NO intention of finding a cure. I will probably quote your hub if that is OK.

      Great information. We need to get the word out regarding the marketing ploy that is waged against us. I can't watch those race for the cure TV ads without crying so I turn the channel. It's sad the depths they have sunk to.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      5 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Kathleen - Thanks for pointing out a problem with that light pink ribbon charity that may surprise many people. It's ironic that I saw and read your hub just after reading a blogpost that raised my awareness about that ribbon and how it is being used to mislead consumers. You and your readers may be interested:

      The term "pinkwashing" refers to the use of the Komen breast cancer awareness ribbon in promotional campaigns by corporations that are actually part of the problem rather than the solution. They sell products full of carcinogens.

      We have to be hyper-alert these days to weed out the hypocritical from the sincere. Sad, but true.

      Voted Up++ and shared



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