Susan G. Komen for the Cure® Sells Out the Pink to Get the Green

This essay was republished with the same title by the Oxford University Press Blog on December 20, 2010, and by in June, 2011 with the new title “How Susan G. Komen for the Cure affects other cancer non-profits.”

In response to increased publicity surrounding Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s questionable trademark and marketing activities, the organization published an official statement on its website, titled: “Susan G. Komen for the Cure® Sees Trademark Protection as Responsible Stewardship of Donor Funds.”

According to the statement, Susan G. Komen for the Cure® has never sued other charities or put other non-profits out of business, and the organization does not have plans to do so in the future. Apparently knitters, sandwich makers, and kite fliers who want to raise money for breast cancer or other causes should breathe easier now! Of course, there are many ways to squeeze out organizations, large and small, and Komen’s high profile, clout, and overflowing coffers work in conjunction with legal teams, cease and desist orders, and polite suggestions to encourage a political and economic climate in which only the wealthiest survive.

When the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations (NABCO) closed its doors after 18 years of operation, it was because the organization did not want to give priority to fundraising over program delivery. The network of almost 400 organizations, which included advocates, institutions, and healthcare providers, provided labor-intensive programs such as referral and case management that did not have the same allure as the publicity-driven fundraising campaigns that are so appealing to sponsors. Ironically, Komen founder Nancy Brinker was also a founding member of NABCO, along with journalist Rose Kushner who also helped to establish the National Women’s Health Network, Diane Blum of Cancer Care, and Ruth Spear who was a patient and author living in New York. When NABCO closed, Komen was one of 12 nonprofit cancer and health organizations to receive non-exclusive rights to NABCO’s educational materials at no cost.

This is not to suggest that Komen played a direct role in the closing of NABCO, or that NABCO should have acted differently. The point is that decision upon decision, action upon action, organizations shape the climate in which other organizations operate. NABCO refused to perpetuate itself by catering to fundraising interests at the same time that Komen was ramping up its cause-marketing and corporate partnerships. Three years later, Komen solidified its brand with a name change and new logo, and in the current year the organization has garnered more corporate partnerships than ever. The financial incentives have taken on a life of their own. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be quibbling over trademarks and pink buckets of fried chicken.

Komen’s reputation in some circles, especially among key stakeholders in business and medicine, appears to be beyond reproach. But reputations involve more than financial portfolios, and Komen’s domineering actions against other charities (whether they move forward to an official legal objection or not) demand a solid explanation.

The public didn’t get one. But Komen’s official statement did make some clarifications, such as the number of legal oppositions and objections filed against other entities since its founding, the total amount for legal expenses reported in the most recent financial statement, and the total funds invested in programs in the last fiscal year:

  • Legal oppositions against other charities through the patent and trademark process: 16
  • Objections filed against companies or for-profit groups: 31
  • Total legal expenses last year: $515,405
  • Program budget for the 2010 fiscal year for research, screening and treatment programs, education and advocacy: $283 million.

The statement does not indicate how many cease and desist letters have been delivered to non-profits and charitable organizations since the inception of the organization for trademark reasons, or how many of these occurred after Komen’s name change in 2007. Nor does it reveal how much legal work was done on a pro bono basis to offset legal expenses. Aside from providing a few clarifications, Komen’s official statement about responsible stewardship of donor funds is misleading. It does not adequately explain why the organization would engage in any activities that would undermine the ability of other charitable organizations to do their own work toward the betterment of public health and the eradication of disease.

Other Komen statements suggest that trademark policing is meant to ensure that there is no confusion about who donor money supports. Susan G. Komen for the Cure with its stylized running ribbon is specific and clear. Kites for the cure without Komen’s logo is something else. Where’s the confusion? Or maybe that’s the point. There is no confusion. If the running ribbon sparkly pin in the Komen shop serves a different function than the generic pink ribbon that I wear on my lapel, then it represents Komen the organization and not the greater cause of breast cancer.

What is certain is that if there were truly a legal battle to be had against any entity over the trademarked ‘for the cure’ language, Komen has the resources to move it forward. But if it did, the organization could risk its not-for-profit status on its own branded items. In fact, the Komen store could be subject to the same income tax as anything else. What is really at stake here? It’s about money.

In the fundraising endeavor, Komen has redefined cure to mean a whole range of activities that do not involve the eradication of breast cancer. In this capacity Komen justifies spending roughly 25 percent of its program budget on research; encourages donors and patrons to light buildings, bridges, pyramids, and statues in pink when these monies could be spent on research; forms partnerships with corporations, some of whose products play a role in the development of chronic illnesses, such as cancer; and attempts to solidify its place as the self-proclaimed leader of a disparate and nonconsensual breast cancer movement.

Yes, Komen parcels out money to some breast cancer organizations, supports some quality research projects, and gives some supporters a platform to come together. But, it also fails to attend to the perspectives and goals of the total breast cancer movement and refuses to answer to a concerned public that only wants to see an end to the breast cancer epidemic. Yet, Komen’s official statement maintains that:

“Our reputation for transparency, funding life-saving research and our total dedication to ending breast cancer is unquestioned.”

This official statement does not suggest transparency. Clearly, Komen’s reputation is being questioned. Instead of recognizing this, Komen ends with a patronizing tug on the heartstrings aimed at destabilizing the critique put forth by those who are concerned as much about breast cancer as Komen purports to be:

“We are disappointed that our supporters have been misled and have been distracted by this issue, especially when many Americans cannot afford the treatment they need, access to breast cancer care is at risk and so many people continue to lose loved ones. Our singular objective is and has always been to find and ensure access to the cures for breast cancer, and we are enormously grateful for those who stand with us in this mission.”

No doubt Komen is disappointed. My colleagues and I are disappointed. Women whose mammograms didn’t see their tumors are disappointed. Those who are being treated for pre-cancers as if they were invasive disease are disappointed. My friends with recurrences and metastatic breast cancer are really disappointed. But disappointment means nothing unless it leads to clarity and action.

Komen is right about one thing. This is a critical time when many Americans cannot afford treatment, need care, and continue to lose loved ones. That is precisely why the leaders of advocacy need to think deeply about what they are doing, and how they are doing it. It is why we all need to think about what is lost when fundraising and self-perpetuation become the top priority.

Acknowledgement: I want to thank the bloggers and health activists who provided feedback on this essay before it was published. I’m fortunate to have access to this articulate and compassionate group of critical thinkers.

Related Stories:

Charity Brawl: Nonprofits Aren’t So Generous When a Name’s at Stake, The Wall Street Journal

Susan G. Komen Fights for Trademark, Marketplace, American Public Media

Susan G. Komen Foundation Elbows Out Charities Over Use of the Word “Cure” Huffington Post, (Picked up by International News Portal)

‘Susan G. Komen for the Cure’ Wages Turf War Over Trademark Slogan, Huffington Post

Lawsuits for the Cure, WEGO Health

Komen ‘For the Cure’ Trademark Protection Ignites Ire of Some Breast Cancer Bloggers, Oncology Times

Komen Protecting For the Cure Trademark,

The cure for bullying by Komen is simple, Statesman Journal

Is Susan G. Komen the Big Bad Wolf? Or an Astute Business?,

Susan G. Komen Foundation Fighting Other Non-Profits Instead Of Cancer?, Seattle’s Q13 Fox News

The Battle “for the Cure” – The Phrase, That Is, Oxford University Press Blog

Poor Pink Goliath, Pink Ribbon Blues

Komen Foundation Sues Meat Company Over ‘For The Cure’ Phrase, The Dallas Morning News

Be Sociable, Share!

5 comments to Susan G. Komen for the Cure® Sells Out the Pink to Get the Green

  • I’m offended that the Komen organization has insinuated that our legitimate questions and concerns about their practices may be construed as being distracting and misleading to their supporters. As someone who is dealing with metastatic breast cancer, I most certainly have a vested interest in ensuring that Komen fulfills its stated mission of ending breast cancer. However I personally cannot sit back and trust that everybody involved in the breast cancer “industry”, to which Komen is a significant stakeholder, have my best interests at heart, when an organization’s actions speak otherwise. Until my disease is “cured” in the sense that the general public understands the word “cure” to mean, I maintain my right to demand accountability and transparency from the nation’s largest breast cancer fundraiser. This is not meant to be distracting, nor is it intended to detract from the good works that are currently ongoing. It should simply be read as a demand for action and a signal that more needs to be done. If the National Breast Cancer Coalition is saying “It’s time to move beyond awareness to action, and it’s time to peel back the pink to see what’s really happening in breast cancer research, treatment, prevention and cure”, then why is it so difficult for Komen to critically reevaluate its priorities and change course, so that the public can rest assured that it’s hard-earned dollars really are working “for the cure”. The question should not be who is legally entitled to use the words “for the cure”, but where is the cure?

  • Exactly, Gayle & Anna. Precisely. Why are they splitting hairs over a prepositional phrase that, in fact, they do NOT own the trademark on? While the focus of many of their local volunteers may be on actually helping women with breast cancer in tangible, material ways, why is their focus as an organization on who gets to use a phrase that is, sadly, in the present context of breast cancer incidence & mortality, meaningless? I am stupified by this. Frankly, they remind me of all the pundits & pols this week who have entirely missed the point with respect to how many Americans have drawn a connection between the tragedy in Arizona and the hateful rhetoric that passes for discourse these days. The point is not whether one crazy gunman was influenced by gunsites on websites or hyped-up rhetoric. The point is that all that rhetoric does not address the needs of this country’s citizens. The same goes for this trademark nonsense. We are upset with Komen because their pursuit of other charities using three little words is so entirely beside the point.

  • Kat

    So how would you do things differently Gayle? Seeing as you aren’t running one the largest non-profits…or any non-profit for that matter. I find it ironic and somewhat commical that you are selling a book and cashing in on bashing Komen for “selling out pink to cash in on green”. Why not come up with solutions instead of critiqing what everyone else is doing wrong in the fight against breast cancer.

  • It’s a good question. I do not run a non-profit though I have a background in community based organizing. It is important for me to maintain and independent voice to avoid any conflict of interest with advocacy organizations. There are over 1300 breast cancer organizations in the U.S. and many are doing things differently. The book goes into detail about the whole system (of which the Komen organization is one part), and it addresses both the positive and negative consequences of various approaches to the problem of breast cancer.

    As for cashing in, that doesn’t really happen with academic books. This one took ten years of research and writing. It is not my intention for anyone who has supported Komen to feel ‘bashed’ and I apologize if some people feel that way. But, the behaviors of the Komen leadership have been unskillful at best, and harmful at worst. People diagnosed with breast cancer deserve better than that, as do the Komen affiliates, and all of those who have volunteered, walked, and raised funds for the organization. The small organizations trying to do their part in promoting public health and finding cures, well they deserve better too.

  • […] Me Alone Ko-Mart.Org Is There A Cure for Hypocrisy? The Scent of Exploitation Komen By The Numbers Komen Sells Out Lawsuits for the Cure Komen’s Wild Ride, one of the best ‘grumblings’ ever […]

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest

“Pink Ribbon Blues”

Paperback includes a new Introduction on fundraising controversies and a color insert with images of, and reactions to, the pinking of breast cancer (2012).

Praise » 

Flyer »

Press Release »

Hardback Cover »

Paperback Cover »

Request Review Copies »

Order the Paperback »


"Seeing clearly through the pink haze" Toronto Sun

*Sad face*: Being happy does not help you live longer" New Scientist

How should we address breast cancer when norms continually change? The Guardian

Your Fun 'No Bra Day' Photos Are Overshadowing Terminal Breast Cancer Patients Broadly

Backlash against “pinkwashing” of breast cancer awareness campaigns BMJ

Breast Cancer to Rise 50 Percent by 2030? Hey, Not So Fast! Health News Review

Breast Cancer: The Flaws in the Cause

How to Make the Biggest Impact With Your Breast Cancer Donations Money

The Very Pink, Very Controversial Business of Breast Cancer Awareness Racked

NFL, Pink Ribbons Not Enough to Win over Women CNN

3 Questions We Need to Answer for Breast Cancer Awareness Month Chronicle of Philanthropy

The problem with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Women's Health Magazine

Pink Ribbon Envy: Living with an Uncool Cancer The Nib

A Year After Bombings, Some Say 'Boston Strong' Has Gone Overboard NPR, All Things Considered

Canadian Mammogram Study KCRW, NPR Affiliate

Time to Debunk the Mammography Myth CNN

Breast Cancer: Awareness, Activism & Pinkwashing NPR Charlotte

Buying Pink Al Jazeera's The Stream Watch »

The Pink Backlash Orlando Sentinel

Why Jolie's Test Costs So Much CNN

Preventative Mastectomies: Disease and Deception BlogTalkRadio

Angelina Jolie and the 'Breast Cancer Gene' KCRW

Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer The New York Times Magazine.

The Story Behind the Pink Ribbon Campaign Sisters Talk Radio

WISH Interview Women's International Summit for Health

Making Cancer About The Patient, Not The Body Part CBS Pittsburgh

Sexy breast cancer campaigns anger many patients USA Today

The perils of pink The Daily

Komen pink campaign creates breast-cancer blues for some Dallas Morning News

A yellow flag for the NFL's pink New York Daily

Gayle Sulik named #7 in SharecareNow’s Top 10 Online Influencers in Breast Cancer

Breast cancer cancer causes so easily derailed Philly Inquirer

Komen Charity Under Microscope for Funding, Science Reuters

The Fight Against Cancer - And Abortion?

Susan G. Komen For the Cure defunds Planned Parenthood. In Deep with Angie Coiro

Amid Breast Cancer Month, Is there Pink Fatigue? NPR's All Things Considered

How is Breast Cancer Culture Undermining Women's Health? America’s Radio News Network

Pink Ribbon Culture and Breast Cancer The Kojo Nnamdi Show

The Big Business of Breast Cancer
Marie Claire

Does Breast Cancer Awareness Month Crowd Out Other Diseases? Slate

Pink Inc. Has Many Starting to See Red The Sacramento Bee

Get Your Pink Off Ottawa Citizen

Komen Pink Ribbons Raise Green and Questions USA Today