What Does the Susan G. Komen Foundation Actually Do?

What Women Really Think
Feb. 6 2012 5:00 PM

What Does the Susan G. Komen Foundation Actually Do?

73982151
Washington, UNITED STATES: The pink ribbon, symbolic of breast cancer support, is seen during the Komen Community Challenge rally 26 April, 2007 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of last week’s dust-up over the Komen Foundation’s short-lived decision to cut its funding ties with Planned Parenthood, many of us at Double X started to wonder just what the pink-ribbon organization actually does with all the money it collects. After all, though Planned Parenthood was at risk of losing about $700,000 in grants, that’s a pittance compared to Komen’s impressive income of about $400 million dollars in 2010. Where does all the rest of that cash go, and, more importantly, is it really being put to the best possible use?

I took some time to go through both Komen’s tax filings for 2009 as well as its Annual Report for 2009-10 (PDF), and the breakdown of expenditures goes like this: 12 percent for administration; 8 percent for fundraising; 7 percent for treatment; 15 percent for screening; 24 percent research; and 34 percent for education. Putting the administrative costs aside for the moment, let’s break down what each of the remaining categories actually means.

Advertisement

While Komen understandably touts cases in which its funds have directly subsidized individuals’ cancer treatment, such intervention only accounted for about $20 million in 2010. In terms of individual patient care, far more money goes to screening (including Planned Parenthood), which include mammograms and general clinical exams; Komen claims to have funded 625,000 of these at a cost of a little under $50 million in 2010. On the research front, the foundation provides grants totaling about $75 million to both individual researchers and organizations with specific research projects, such as a study about the efficacy of flax seed as a cancer prevention measure. Finally, Komen dropped just over $140 million on breast cancer awareness education, which they say reached 2.2 million people in 2010.

In our internal discussions, that last number—the remarkable amount of money spent on education relative to the other services—roused the most suspicion. Emily Yoffe wondered if such an intense focus on awareness was misplaced: “When Komen started 30 years ago part of its mission was 'breast cancer awareness.' They've won that war. Who's not aware of breast cancer?” And indeed, the use of “awareness” as a somewhat murky concept in the health-focused nonprofit world has come under some scrutiny as of late. How can one tell when the target audience is sufficiently saturated with awareness, and how do you measure that on an individual basis? When do awareness campaigns cross the line between honest education and organizational self-promotion?

These are not unfair questions to ask given Komen’s near-monopoly of the breast cancer advocacy stage, a status that has been controversially maintained by a rather aggressive legal policy against other charities who want to use the phrase “for the cure”  in their materials. (According their tax filings for 2009, Komen spent about $375,000 on external legal services in addition to rewarding their then general counsel, Jonathan Blum, with a total compensation package of just under $218,000.) Beyond the issue of education, the actual medical usefulness of all those mammograms—for which Komen advocates fiercely—is also worth considering. Recent studies have shown that the tests don’t actually reduce the risk of death from breast cancer by all that much, and, in some cases, the exaggeration of their relevance actually leads women to have unnecessary and invasive procedures.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They’re just not ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 16 2014 2:11 PM Spare the Rod What Charles Barkley gets wrong about corporal punishment and black culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 1:39 PM The Case of the Missing Cerebellum How did a Chinese woman live 24 years missing part of her brain?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.