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Column: Breast Cancer Charities - Knowledge is Power

Recent controversial decisions made by the Susan G. Komen organization have thrust the ethics of breast cancer fundraising into the national spotlight. While Komen's choice of fund allocations threatened their status as a non-partisan entity, the practices of breast cancer charities as a whole are being closely examined.

Part of the concern comes from the tactic of “pinkwashing,” — a term relating to the overuse of the iconic pink ribbon symbol or even the color pink itself for financial gain. As a result of this trend, many looking to donate to worthy breast cancer charities are at a loss. How can we, as a community of patients, survivors, families, and medical professionals, ensure our money is being put to the best possible use? Who can we trust?

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Dr. David Weintritt

Charity Navigator, an independent nonprofit organization, has the mission of helping charitable givers answer that very question. Reviewing executive compensation, obtaining copies of financial records and confirming 501(c) (3) status are all listed as habits of savvy donors on the organization's website. Above all, Charity Navigator implores donors to be weary of charities with bloated budgets and poor performance outcomes.

“Talk with the charity to learn about its accomplishments, goals and challenges,” the website recommends. Although this might be a time consuming measure, in the end, it will guarantee that you know and like where your money is going.

Think Before You Pink, a campaign dedicated to increasing transparency and accountability by companies that take part in breast cancer fundraising, similarly urges givers to ask what programs are being specifically funded with their donations. Think Before You Pink uses the following example to emphasize why directed questioning is so important:

“If [your] donation is going to breast cancer services, is it reaching the people most in need, in the most effective way? The Breast Cancer Site store, for example, donates money to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, which helps pay for mammograms for women who cannot afford them. But mammograms are already covered for low-income women through the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening Program. Although this screening program does have limitations, what is most needed is the funding to get low-income women treatment if breast cancer is found.”

Clearly, the best way to maximize the value of donations to breast cancer charities is for donors to empower themselves with knowledge. Take time to thoroughly investigate the programs and financial health of charities before giving. Look for charities with an honest and open dialogue about fund allocation. Additionally, charitable organizations must work to make evaluative tools available. Donors have a right to know whether the programs their money is funding are effective.

Keeping this in mind, it would be a mistake to discount all of the good and well-intentioned work many of these charities, including the Komen foundation, have done. Looking to the future, the answer is not to stop giving money, but to use established, independent resources to donate smarter. If the breast cancer community can learn anything from the recent Susan G. Komen controversy, it should be that blindly giving money to charities adorned with pink ribbons is not the most effective way to catalyze change. Be vigilant in selecting charities, demand honesty and accessibility, and the ultimate pay-off will be great.

By David C. Weintritt, MD, FACS and Pre-med student Elizabeth Benge contributed to this article.

Director Breast Care Institute Mount Vernon Hospital