1. Opinion

Breast cancer charities focus on fundraising

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Published Feb. 6, 2012

We shouldn't be surprised that Susan G. Komen for the Cure chose to placate potential donors over providing services for women in need. The charity reversed its initial decision not to renew grants to Planned Parenthood, when it gave in to even greater pressure from other potential donors. Many wealthy charities promote raising money over providing services, but rarely is the public provided such a blatant opportunity to think about the imbalance.

Take a tour of the websites of the wealthiest breast cancer charities. The top 10 each claimed revenues of more than $4 million in 2010, according to the nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator. The websites provide multiple ways to donate, participate in fundraisers, or consume for the cure from user-friendly one-click locations on the home page. But if you go to those websites as a woman who needs funding for a mammogram, you'll have a far more frustrating search. Finding financial assistance for screening is certainly part of achieving the awareness that they all promote.

Look past the opportunities to donate, and click the "What We Do" link on the Breast Cancer Relief Foundation's home page. You'll find that the charity funds hospitals and mobile mammography vans to provide exams for those who can't afford them. An inside page lists 15 projects that the foundation has recently funded but no information on where you might get a mammogram tomorrow.

National Breast Cancer Foundation home page claims that the charity provides "funding for mammograms," but how someone can get that help is anyone's guess. Typing "financial assistance" in the home page search box brings up old annual reports, but no suggestion for a woman in need.

Two of the five, Breast Cancer Research Foundation, with $36 million in revenue in 2010, and National Breast Cancer Coalition, with $12 million, do not claim to provide assistance for individual women, but you'd think that with those revenue numbers, they could afford to provide links from their home pages to organizations that do.

Even Komen, which brought in almost $312 million in 2010, says nothing on the home page about how women in need can find financial assistance.

Only one of the top 10, American Breast Cancer Foundation, provides a phone number for the individual who can't afford a needed mammogram more prominently than providing an opportunity to donate. But this organization has received consistently low ratings from watchdog organizations because of its high cost of doing business. Charity Navigator reports that it spends more than 50 cents of every dollar on fundraising or administrative costs.

An organization's designation as a charity does not means that it is fiscally responsible or that one can easily access the services it claims to provide or that it considers information for individuals in need part of its public education program. Komen has long been a model for fund-raising success. It should go a step further and make financial assistance for women in need a priority in their promotion of "breast cancer awareness."

In the meantime, if you want your donation dollars to make change, give locally. Almost every local cancer treatment facility accepts tax-deductible donations and puts more than 90 cents of every dollar into providing direct support for those in need.

And, the woman in need of a free mammogram ought not waste her time looking for help from the wealthiest breast cancer charities. She can get help most quickly by calling local providers. Her local Planned Parenthood chapter is a good place to start.

Deni Elliott, who holds the Poynter Jamison Chair of Media Ethics and Press Policy at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, is on sabbatical, working on a book to be called "What You Think You Know Can Kill You: Busting the Myths of Breast Cancer."