What Susan G. Komen Did Right

The last two days have been filled with articles, tweets, Google+ and FB posts about what the Susan G. Komen Foundation did wrong. People were angry to learn they had chosen politics over what we believe their mission is: to help ensure access to early detection for women, help those struck by breast cancer, and to fund research to eradicate breast cancer. Many people voiced their opinions and in the end Komen reversed their decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood. But in the meantime, I started thinking about what Komen really does: marketing.

A quick review of the Komen website and last annual report yields no mission statement, but they frame their annual report with a focus on: Ensuring Quality Care for All, Empowering People, and Energizing Science. And a quick review of their annual report also tells us how they spent their budget:

12% – Administration
8% – Fundraising
7% – Treatment (Ensuring Quality Care for All?)
15% – Screening (Empowering People?)
24% – Research (Energizing Science?)
34% – Education

Now, this isn’t a bad breakdown… pretty impressive if you consider they spend only 20% on what is traditionally considered “overhead” (via administration and fundraising line items). But note that most of what they do is not treatment, screening, or research. Most of the money they spend goes to “education”. I may be jaded, but to me “education” is a fuzzy word. “Education” can be “outreach programs” which can also be marketing.

Susan G. Komen is the Pink Behemoth. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But in October, everywhere I go, I see pink. Komen raised the visibility of the issue, engaged those who have been affected by breast cancer, and built a $460 million empire on those pink ribbons, bags, hats, and tees. Komen is a marketing machine.

If any non-profit out there needs an example of what your marketing and communications teams can do, if given the resources, it’s Komen. Through marketing they raised the profile of the issue, which helped to raise the number of advocates, which helped to raise the money, which helped to put them in the position to fund organizations that can be the “boots on the ground” to fight the war against cancer through screenings, treatment, and research. That is pretty amazing.

Do I believe Komen is altruistic or as infallible as we would all like to believe non-profits are? No. I think the last few days have highlighted some primary key problems with non-profits:

1. Trying to be more than they should be or are set up to be.

2. Not creating enough diversity at the Board and Senior staff level to offset any personal and political agendas.

3. Believing that people will support an organization because of the “issue” and that the non-profit is on the “right” side of the issue.

The Pink Behemoth isn’t perfect, but no organization is. But if we understand that what Komen does right is marketing, then we can all learn some lessons here and appreciate the value of how far investing in good communications teams can go. And yes, it can go pretty far.


  1. Narissa, respect the post but have to disagree. Komen is a marketing machine, but for themselves. Have they done good, yes. They have raised awareness. But when they start painting KFC buckets of friend chicken pink, they have wandered into the realm of self-promotion, not building awareness for a cause. Then they start deciding who gets screening and who doesn’t based on one’s political, religious and/or moral beliefs? Makes me shudder. There are a lot of great companies out there that are phenomenal marketers – Disney, Nike, the Tea Party – but that doesn’t make them right.

    I found this as I was writing my own blog post on Komen – leave a nasty comment here ; )

    1. Dan – Don’t get me wrong, I am not assigning an intrinsic value to their marketing, I am just saying they are good at it… but I am not saying that they are on the right (no pun intended) side of the argument. I think, in fact that they owe every one of their supporters and all women who have fought breast cancer an apology. When they reversed their decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood based upon the outcry, they proved their lack of beliefs and mission. I agree they are about self-promotion, but that is what marketing is. Right? Marketing is a function, not a value. I hope people who were willing to close a blind eye to their actions until now refuse to moving forward.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s