Just Walk Away

June 10, 2013

Last Friday Salon posted a piece about  Susan G. Komen canceling seven of the 3-Day walks it had slated for 2014. Komen blamed “economic uncertainty and competition from other charities” but neither Salon’s writer nor its readers are so easily duped.

After all, Komen’s news of declining participation comes after years of missteps, including partnering with Kentucky Fried Chicken to sell pink buckets “for the cure” and attempting to cut off funding for breast cancer screenings and services provided by Planned Parenthood.

Finally, women are saying enough is enough.

What took everybody so long to see through Komen?

Oh yeah, women’s magazines chose to shield ad revenues rather than reveal troublesome problems with breast cancer walks. Let me explain my frustration. In 2003, I pitched an investigative feature about the financial fiasco behind Avon’s breast cancer walks to Health Magazine. The editors loved the idea and assigned me  a 2,200-word feature. I was ecstatic. It was my first in-depth feature for a national magazine. It was a topic I cared deeply about. It was my dream assignment.

I spent weeks reporting the story. I interviewed all the top muckety mucks. I collected reams of data. I made Mary read and reread the piece for coherence and flow. When my deadline came I hit the send button with a feeling of pride. A feeling that this article was going to make a difference. That I had written something smart, something interesting, something that women would want to read.

I got no response from my editor. Zero. Zip. Nada. A month went by. Still nothing. A sense of dread took root in my stomach. I somehow managed to send professional-sounding emails that relayed my concern but not my panic.

Six weeks later my editor called to tell me Health signed on to sponsor an Avon breast cancer walk in Birmingham, Alabama. The magazine killed the story. My stomach dropped.  I tried to place the story elsewhere to no avail.

Fast forward to last weekend. I read Salon’s coverage about the decline in popularity of breast cancer walks. I flashed to my long-forgotten story. Thanks to the beauty of Macs, a quick search brought up the story. I reread it, dusted it off, and pasted it below. Because it never benefited from an editor’s red pen, it’s a bit rough around the edges. But I’m still proud of it. And I’m still out here trying to shed a light on the stuff no one likes to publish.

Breast Cancer Walks Equal Big Business

Kate Kelly is not an angry person.

Friends describe the 46-year-old as light-hearted, loving and generous, someone who prides herself on giving to charities in her hometown of Republic, Missouri.

But mention the words charity and event in the same sentence and Kelly’s bright-green eyes narrow with suspicion. “I was naïve,” she says in reference to her first (and last), multi-day charity walk. “From now on I’ll look at those events with a jaundiced eye.”

Kelly’s saga began in January 2001 when a bulging envelope from a college friend in Colorado landed in her mailbox. Folded up inside was a full-page ad from The Denver Post announcing an upcoming Avon Breast Cancer 3-day walk. On top was a handwritten note. Her friend, always the social planner, was gathering a group to take part in the event, and wanting Kelly to sign on.

She still chuckles at how quickly she picked up the phone to say yes. It didn’t matter that she’d never logged 60 minutes on a treadmill much less trod 60 miles in 3 days “What can I say,” she sighs. “I was gung-ho about doing the right thing for breast cancer. I wanted to do my part for women.”

Like the 2,883 other registrants, Kelly needed to raise a minimum of $1,700 to walk — no small feat in a Mid-West town with a population of 9,500. In the six months leading up to her departure, she approached everyone she knew, family members, friends and past coworkers, asking them to give what they could afford. Even with a Herculean effort, at the fundraising deadline, Kelly came up $400 short. So, according to the event rules, she dutifully handed over her credit card to pay the remainder.

On the first day of the walk, Kelly was excited and nervous. But as opening ceremonies commenced a gradual sense of uneasiness crept over her. The melodramatic music, the tearful speakers, the canned pomp and circumstance all made Kelly uncomfortable. But she shrugged off the feeling as pre-walk jitters.

When the walk finally got underway, however, Kelly’s misgivings intensified. Everywhere she looked, her eyes fell on promotions for both Avon, the sponsor, and Pallotta TeamWorks, the event company Avon enlisted to coordinate the walk.

At dinner, Pallotta employees took advantage of a captive audience and touted their upcoming charity events, including a suicide prevention walk, AIDSRides, and an AIDS trek in Africa. Later that evening, an exhausted Kelly picked her way to her sleeping quarters past booths hawking Pallotta-emblazoned key chains, sweat shirts, and coffee mugs.

For Kelly, the final insult came during the closing ceremony. There she stood, soaking in sweat, wilting under a 90-degree sun, and shifting painfully from one blistered and swollen foot to another. She’d just trekked 60 miles over hot blacktop, but all the day’s accolades were lavished on Avon. Finally, feeling ignored and unappreciated, she did what she’d been doing for three days – she walked. “By the end, I felt used. I truly did.”

Since 1992, Avon has raised more than $250 million for breast cancer awareness, education, and research. Theirs is one of the most successful examples of cause marketing in history.

Cause marketing is the marriage of a for-profit business and a nonprofit charity. The relationships are symbiotic. Charities tap into a dependable source of donations while companies bask in a benevolent, do-gooder glow. If you shop (and who doesn’t?), chances are you’re more familiar with cause marketing than you think.

Picture that pink breast cancer ribbon. You know the one; it looks like a lowercase “l.” Seems like it pops up on everything from frozen dinners to vacuum cleaners. Have you ever wondered what it’s doing there? Well, if you stop to peruse the fine print, the logo usually indicates that the parent company will donate a percentage of the product’s purchase price to a breast cancer charity. In lieu of promoting products, other companies engage in cause marketing by sponsoring endurance events to raise money for charity.

Funny to think that something as small as a pink ribbon sways consumers’ buying decisions, but research indicates it’s a powerful draw. A study conducted by experts at the School of Business at the University of Alberta, found that consumers who viewed a cause-marketing advertisement rated the company “more prestigious, less risky, and more trustworthy” in comparison to those who saw an ad for a company without a charitable link.

In addition, “78 percent of adults said they would be more likely to buy a product associated with a cause they cared about,” according to a survey by a cause-marketing research firm.

With numbers like these, it’s easy to understand why companies are increasingly courting charities. In fact, cause marketing is one of the hottest business trends of the past decade. During the 1990s, cause-marketing sponsorship grew from $125 million to $700 million, an eye-popping 450 percent. Although the tallies are still out, cause-marketing sponsorship was anticipated to leap another 13 percent last year.

And, like it or not, the best-selling cause is breast cancer.

No one knows this better than the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Over the past few years, the charity has partnered with nearly 40 companies, including American Airlines, BMW, Ford, Hallmark, KitchenAid, and Lee Jeans. Cause-marketing relationships have helped the Foundation quadruple revenues since 1996 to more than $111 million in 2000, the latest year for which numbers are available.

The relationship between Komen and breast cancer is obvious, but what about Avon? “We chose breast cancer because we wanted to actively support women’s health and women’s interest,” says Susan Heaney, director of Avon’s Breast Cancer Crusade, the company’s fundraising arm. “We wanted to make sure we chose a cause that resonated with our customers.”

Regardless of how companies came to embrace breast cancer as a cause, not everyone is thrilled with the results. Least of all, Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group based in San Francisco. “Breast cancer is a great cause-marketing tool because it’s an issue women care about and women consume a lot of products, especially household goods,” she says. “But people need to think about whether or not companies using breast cancer to improve their bottom line is really helpful in the struggle to get control of this epidemic.”

Last October, Breast Cancer Action launched a nationwide campaign called “think before you pink.” The goal? To educate the public about how companies exploit breast cancer to sell products. Among other tactics, the group took out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling attention to cause-marketing examples they deemed especially egregious.

One of the campaigns the ad targeted was Yoplait Yogurt’s “Save Lids to Save Lives.” The idea is straightforward enough. Buy a pink-topped container of yogurt. Mail the lid back to Yoplait, and the company donates 10 cents to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Brenner calculates that a person must eat three containers of Yoplait every day during the four-month campaign to raise a paltry $36 for the cause (minus postage). Hungry anyone?

When asked if a woman wouldn’t be better off sending a $36 check straight to charity, Cindy Schneible, vice president of cause-related marketing and sponsorship at the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, points out that the Yoplait program generated $750,000 for the Foundation last year. “I don’t know about you,” she adds, “but to me that’s a lot of money.”

Point taken. Thanks to cause marketing, dozens of companies are raising heaps of money for breast cancer. So what’s the rub?

The sticking point, according to Brenner, is the danger of “breast cancer fatigue,” or the fear that consumers will reach a saturation point. After all, how many yogurt lids can you peel, 60-mile walks can you trek, and vacuum cleaners can you buy until you say “enough!” Worse yet, Brenner worries some people may be turned off by how commercialized the cause has become.

If anyone is a poster child for breast cancer fatigue, it’s Kate Kelly. She still fumes recalling the slick banners, Pallotta’s glorified nightly infomercials, and the free samples of Avon sunscreen, lotion, and hand soap that bombarded the walkers. “Breast cancer took a backseat to Avon and Pallotta.”

In hindsight, public murmurings of dissatisfaction indicated that Kelly wasn’t alone in her frustration. As Pallotta TeamWorks’ events grew more successful, the company came under fire in the media for excessive self-promotion (hawking the founder’s book), questionable spending of donated funds (passing out cucumber eye masks), and high fees (charging Avon up to 2.4 million a year for coordinating the walks). Meanwhile, participant criticisms mirrored Kelly’s own: too many sales pitches, not enough emphasis on the cause.

At the same time, charities began questioning their ever-shrinking slab of the donation pie. Over the six years Pallotta coordinated nationwide AIDSRides, for instance, the percentage of donations given to AIDS charities plummeted from 73 to 46 cents on the dollar. In Washington DC in 2002, the final year that Pallotta organized the event, expenses consumed 86 percent of the money raised.

Of course, it’s important to understand that the old business adage “it takes money to make money” rings equally true for charities as it does for for-profits. In Avon’s case, the expense of putting on a 3-day event for more than 8,000 people is not cheap. The Colorado walkers raised $8.3 million. From that amount $4.9 million (59 percent) went to charity – certainly nothing to sneeze at. What about the other 41 percent? Well, $1.7 million for participant support, everything from hot meals to blister kits; $1.6 million for administrative and marketing fees, including that ad in the Denver Post; and a $270,000 “production fee” for Pallotta TeamWorks.

Another confounding factor is that multi-day charity events are as much about the participants as they are about the cause. Let’s face it the teamwork, the camaraderie, the physical challenge, and the emotional catharsis of pushing beyond what you thought possible can’t be matched by simply writing a check.

For all the hurt feelings, Kelly still reflects on how it felt to trudge through Colorado’s tiny mountain communities and see people lining the streets clapping and cheering her on. She also savors the memory of being adrift in a sea of women as they melted into the warm embrace of the Rockies at sunset.

On the other hand, it’s important to let friends and family who sponsor you know what percentage of their donation will fund your experience versus the intended charity.

“When you sponsor someone for a charity walk, you’re really writing three checks — one for the event-management company; one for the benefits the walker receives, the T-shirt, the massages, and the meals; and one for the charity,” says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity watchdog group. “If it’s a very costly event, but you’re happy because you got some great benefits, that’s fine. But, if you want to help the cause, you should find out how much will be left over.”

During their 5-year partnership, Avon and Pallotta produced 34 Breast Cancer 3-day walks. On average, 62 percent of donations raised were distributed to breast cancer charities. The remaining 41 percent went to expenses. According to general guidelines put forth by the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, a charity’s fund-raising costs should not exceed 35 percent of contributions.

Avon’s Heaney defends the company’s track record and says she has no complaints with Pallotta. “I’d challenged the watchdogs to tell me how many of those people would have written any check if someone they knew firsthand wasn’t doing a walk,” she says. “If raising money were that easy there would be no cause-marketing.”

Still, Avon is acutely aware of the widespread criticism of events coordinated by Pallotta TeamWorks. Last August, the company announced it was severing ties with Pallotta. Shortly afterward, Pallotta TeamWorks suspended operations and laid off most of its 250-member staff.

Avon, meanwhile, is working hard to regain any goodwill lost and, in December, announced a new event called “Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.” The series of two-day walks is scheduled for eight cities in 2003.

Some of the walk’s core components look familiar, such as the hefty $1,750 entry fee and the ubiquitous presence of the Avon corporate logo. But, to its credit, the company made some key changes. To cut costs the walk is now two days instead of two and the beginning and ending ceremonies are held in the same location, so the set can be recycled. In a nod to shifting priorities, a breast cancer health expo will replace the evening entertainment and sales pitches.

Most importantly, Avon is paying the production staff, which includes a smattering of ex-Pallotta employees, out-of-pocket (the company’s not the walkers’). “We took what we learned from past events and created a new model,” says Heaney. “If someone is writing a check and entrusting it to us, we want to make sure they have confidence in how we’re using that money.”

What does Kelly think about Avon’s new walks? “I’m glad Avon’s changing it for the future. I think women should be active in these events. I just want them to be better informed than I was.”

How to Give Wisely

If you’re like most Americans, chances are you’re no charity slouch. In 2001, roughly 89 percent of all United States households gave an average of $1,600 to charity — a grand total of $160 billion.

Too often, the process begins and ends with writing a check. But it’s equally important to find out where your money ends up: will it add another tray of shrimp cocktail to the year-end donor party or fund mammograms for low-income women?

Hey, it’s your money. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask. If you’re not sure where to start, below are a few questions to start off with.

*How much of your contribution will benefit the charity directly? According to the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, “at least 50 percent should be spent on programs and activities directly related to the organization’s purposes.”

*Are the charity’s goals clear? Ask what tangible results they’ve achieved in the past year, the more specifics the better. Is the charity’s mission specific, like providing wigs to women receiving chemotherapy, or vague, such as eradicating breast cancer. One isn’t necessarily better than another, but it’s important that your money doesn’t fall into a black hole.

*How successful is the charity in meeting its goals? If a charity spokesperson can’t tell you what they’ve done to forward the cause lately, choose a charity that can.

*Take a closer look at what you’re funding. It’s important to believe not only in the cause but also in the charity’s approach. If you want to donate to a breast cancer charity that explores the disease’s environmental links, for instance, don’t write a check to an organization with a primary interest in breast cancer genetics.

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