Breast Cancer Fundraiser

A small charity started by a socialite is built into a national model. With hard work, celebrity support and organizational savvy, the foundation has grown much faster than its peers.

There were no pink ribbons at the first Susan G. Komen Foundation breast cancer fundraiser. Called Toys for Boys, the 1982 event in Texas was a polo party/charity auction that gave out jumper cables as favors.

In 24 years, a mix of hard work, high-profile supporters and an effective nationwide structure has transformed Komen from a small charity founded by a Dallas socialite to one of the country’s most notable disease-focused nonprofits. The group raised almost $200 million last year, about half through its signature Race for the Cure series, which should draw more than a million people nationwide this year.

“The Komen Foundation has managed to get the celebrities, get the corporate partners, get the big events,” said Linda Lampkin, with the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits & Philanthropy.

In recent years, the foundation has grown three times faster than the average for disease-specific charities measured in an Urban Institute study. Other groups work to copy Komen’s success, such as the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign.

“March of Dimes does a walk. We do a walk. A lot of folks do those. They’re clearly doing something special,” said Andy Buroker, the heart association’s 2006-07 chairman of the board.

Innovative concept

Running to fight cancer was a weird idea in 1980, when Susan G. Komen died of breast cancer at 36.

“When Komen first started, people didn’t talk about breast cancer,” said Nancy Byrd, vice president for the foundation’s domestic affiliate network. “I can remember going into CEO offices with Nancy Brinker, and when you said the word ‘breast’ they would turn bright red.”

But Brinker, Komen’s younger sister, had promised to change that culture. She lived in Dallas, where her husband, Norman Brinker, was turning the local Chili’s restaurant chain into Brinker International, now a $4 billion business. And in 1982, men, especially oilmen, had the money in Dallas. Hence the first auction Toys for Boys raised about $750,000, Byrd said, much of that coming from one man who won a Rolls Royce and gave it right back to be auctioned again.

After that, Brinker wanted to focus more on women. Running had grown popular and seemed healthy, so she planned a race. In 1983, 800 people coursed five kilometers through Dallas, the first Race for the Cure. All were women — Brinker liked the idea of women winning, Byrd said, so men couldn’t run. “Sponsors liked that,” Byrd said, because it let them connect with working women, a coveted demographic.

Making that corporate connection is key to Komen’s success. When the first few companies — including Jogbra, Lady Foot Locker and American Airlines — overcame wariness about associating with cancer, they saw they could create good will and maybe boost sales. Today, Komen brings in tens of millions of dollars a year in deals with dozens of companies from BMW to the makers of Yoplait yogurt.

Many other charities are chasing “cause marketing” deals, in which companies generate money and attention on behalf of the charities by giving consumers easy ways to donate, involving their customers in a cause, said Jeffrey Manning, who coordinates cause marketing for the Lance Armstrong Foundation. The cancer charity hit its own jackpot, bringing in about $55 million from people buying $1 yellow “Livestrong” bracelets designed by Oregon-based Nike.

Slow, steady growth

After the first race’s success, Komen slowly expanded to other cities, but stayed small and volunteer-driven. By 1989 it had five staff members, compared with nearly 200 today, and had raised $7 million in seven years.

The turning point came in 1990, thanks to Vice President Dan Quayle and his wife, Marilyn, whose mother died of breast cancer. The Quayles knew the Brinkers, who are major Republican donors, and asked to host a race in Washington, D.C. They involved many government employees, the race drew a big turnout and got lots of media coverage. “The phone has not stopped ringing since then,” Byrd said, and the foundation has added about 10 affiliates a year since.

Organization is another key to Komen’s growth. Having many local affiliates makes it easier to reach volunteers and to personalize races to suit the tastes of more than 100 host cities. And people like supporting local causes, attracting donors and sponsors.

Komen’s ability to present its cause sympathetically also fuels success, and breast cancer survivors have played a big role.

Although heart disease and lung cancer each kill far more women than breast cancer, they tend to strike older women and leave fewer survivors. Few lung cancer patients or stroke survivors in their 70s can march, and they get limited public sympathy. But 90 percent of the 213,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer this year will survive, many of them in their prime.

“When you have mothers of young children there, it is powerful,” Buroker said.

“Pink and pretty”

Upbeat events and efforts to make breast cancer a popular topic with corporate sponsors and the public may have a downside.

“I do think we have made breast cancer a disease more women are aware of. But I think we’ve made it pink and pretty,” said Frances Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition. “I think we’ve created a false sense of achievement around breast cancer,” because more than 40,000 women a year die of the disease, doctors don’t know its cause and rates of diagnosis are rising. Visco’s Washington, D.C.-based group focuses on lobbying governments for more research and better health care.

Still, Komen’s ability to involve millions of people and corporate partners is a model.

The Lung Cancer Alliance, in Washington, D.C., is getting advice from Komen as it tries to sign its first corporate partner, increase public support and become “a more attractive disease to partner with,” said President Laurie Fenton

“The Komen Foundation is just a top-notch organization,” Fenton said. “They’ve been extremely helpful to us as we launch our own movement.”