Is There Something about Breast Cancer Charities That Makes Them Particularly Vulnerable to Fraud?

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September 14, 2011; Source: Marie Claire | The beauty and fashion magazine Marie Claire has a stunning article on the “big business of breast cancer” in its upcoming issue. Given the $6 billion that is raised by various breast cancer charities every year, the magazine asks, “Is it any wonder that the disease has become a gold mine for pink profiteers and old-fashioned hucksters?” Noting that even National Football League players sport pink ribbons in October, Marie Claire says that “breast cancer has become the NFL of diseases, glutted with corporate sponsorships, merchandise deals, and ad campaigns . . . true year-round, but especially in October, when breast cancer marketing reaches a frothy pink frenzy.”

Here are some of the charges in the Marie Claire article:

  • “Though breast cancer researchers and advocates perpetually plead for more money, the disease is, in fact, awash in it.” The article says that the National Institutes of Health gave $763 million for the study of breast cancer, more than twice as much as it allocated for any other type of cancer. That is on top of other government funding, including $140 million from the Department of Defense for breast cancer research.
  • There are 1,400 IRS-recognized charities addressing breast cancer, the largest being the very well-known and respected Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, which took in $420 million last year.
  • The huge amount of money in the field has been “a boon for charity scammers.” According to the article, breast cancer “makes a particularly alluring target—not just because there is so much money involved or because women across all income levels tend to give more than men, but because we give to breast cancer forcefully, eagerly, superstitiously.”
  • Despite all the fundraising, “we are really no closer to a cure today than we were two decades ago.” Breast cancer is still the leading cancer killer among women aged 20 to 59, and the number of women dying of breast cancer every day is still pretty much the same as it was in 1991.

Apparently, few people raise questions about breast cancer charities. Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues, a book critical of pink-ribbon marketing campaigns, charges that “breast cancer has been untouchable for a while. . . . If you question anything, well then, you must hate women.”

The article goes into the various scams and frauds that have fleeced donors while sending little or no money to actual breast cancer research. One of these “charities” is the Coalition Against Breast Cancer, which has been sued by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The AG’s suit called CABC a “sham charity” that is the “personal piggy bank” for its founder Andrew Smith and his friends, who have allegedly walked off with $9.1 million over the past five years. Other charities that allegedly send minimal amounts of money to breast cancer research while fattening insiders’ wallets include Breast Cancer Charities of America, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, and the Cancer Fund of America, among others.

The article raises a couple of possibilities: Aren’t all charities vulnerable in one way or another to hucksters and crooks, making the examples in the article just like ones that could be found in any segment of the charitable sector? Or are breast cancer donors somehow particularly vulnerable because of the vast amount of fundraising that surrounds the disease, as well the ubiquitous corporate marketing of pink ribbons and other paraphernalia?—Mary Bennett