My conservative "friends" (and I'm using these political terms loosely to mean pro-choice and pro-life), meanwhile, were equally enthusiastic about giving to Komen, at least before its leaders reversed their decision. If the matter at hand weren't such a serious one -- whether to fund abortions -- I would get a kick out of the competitive spirit that this fight seemed to inspire. Americans find causes they are passionate about and then contribute generously.
Usually you only see this kind of fire-in-the-belly fundraising in political campaigns, but this was a sort of philanthropy Superbowl. Nonprofits try to capitalize on our passions all the time with races for charity or auctions or celebrity Jeopardy tournaments, but rarely do two nonprofits compete head to head for gifts as seemed to be the case this week. It certainly made me think that there is enough concern for both of the organizations involved here that either one could make it just fine without government funding.
But this week, Komen also illustrated the downside of a nonprofit whose mission becomes something of a cause celebre. It is not only that pink ribbons are so ubiquitous as to make observers wonder what they really signify. Some have also suggested that all of the publicity was obscuring some serious problems with cancer research. In 2010, Slate reviewed a book called Pink Ribbon Blues.
Early detection is the cornerstone of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Pink-October fundraising groups like the Susan G. Komen Foundation promote the importance of early mammograms. (Komen is the Pink Behemoth; it claims to have raised more than $1 billion since its founding in 1982.) But the faith that mammogram screening protects women is largely outdated, Sulik writes. In 2006, researchers concluded that "for every 2,000 women invited for screening throughout 10 years, one will have her life prolonged and 10 healthy women, who would not have been diagnosed if there had not been screening, will be treated unnecessarily." Though you'd never know it from reading the Komen Foundation's materials, the consensus in medicine now is that early mammograms are of questionable benefit.
Unfortunately, breast cancer research seems to have become more of a political cause than a scientific one. Pink ribbons have become symbols of feminism more than of curing a disease. Men wear them to show they care about women. Women wear them to show sisterhood is powerful and that women's health matters. And all this has made Komen very popular with a certain set. But for that part of Komen's constituency, women's health implies something else too -- "reproductive health." So their support for Komen is of a piece with their support for organizations like Planned Parenthood. Komen has been subtly trading in on this feminist association. This is not just any cancer they are hoping to cure. It's breast cancer. if you don't care about breast cancer, you don't care about women, right? But this branding has caused Komen's current problems.
Either a charity can reach everyone with a kind of benign message about curing a disease, or it can hitch a star to a more controversial ideology. The former approach may not earn it as much money. But the latter approach doesn't come without strings.