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Where Do My Pink Ribbon Donations Go?

Some Charities are More Charitable Than Others

By Marc Lallanilla

Updated January 05, 2009

(LifeWire) - It's difficult to walk through a store without seeing merchandise sporting a pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness and fundraising. Golf balls, blenders, dog collars, cake pans, neckties, even boxing gloves and shot glasses are now available being adorned with pink ribbons.

But where, you might ask, does all this charitable money go? And how does it help those who are battling breast cancer?

The pink ribbon, like the red ribbon for AIDS preceding it, has been adopted by many organizations to demonstrate their interest in breast cancer research, education and support. The symbol was first used by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer organization in the 1980s, when "you couldn't use the words 'breast cancer' in public,'' according to Katrina McGhee, the vice president of marketing for the group.

The pink ribbon gained popularity through Komen's Race for the Cure and other campaigns. But the symbol is not trademarked or copyrighted, so virtually anyone can slap it on a poster or product, which can lead some critics to question how donated funds are used.

Follow the Money

"The good news is that the vast majority of charities do good work with very limited resources," said Ken Berger, the president and executive director of Charity Navigator, an organization based in Mahwah, N.J., that evaluates and ranks charities on their efficiency at delivering funds to those in need.

But Berger and others who track pink ribbon campaigns and similar corporate-sponsored charities caution that your donations might not provide much help to breast cancer patients.

"Many of these corporate sponsorships are not very charitable at all," he said. "The amount of money going to the charity is very small. If you buy a product for $100, typically the charity will only get pennies.

"We advise donors to be very wary. The best thing you can do is cut out the middleman and write a check directly to the charity."

Berger points out that the vast majority of charitable donations in the U.S. do not come from corporate-sponsored campaigns. "Four percent of the charitable dollars given out in this country come from the corporate world; roughly 75% come from individuals," he said.

Pink Ribbon Holiday Ornament
Photo © Pam Stephan

"Think Before You Pink"

Others agree that cancer is not going to be cured by consumer purchases. "Shopping alone is not going to get us to the end of breast cancer," said Pauli Ojea, a community organizer with Breast Cancer Action, a political advocacy group based in San Francisco. "Breast cancer requires a big change, and not the kind of change that's in your pocket."

Breast Cancer Action is spearheading a campaign called "Think Before You Pink." The project arose out of concern over the confusing array of pink ribbon campaigns and the lack of transparency found in many of those campaigns.

Ojea advises consumers to remember some fundamental questions to ask before purchasing pink ribbon products. "One of the most important questions to ask the company is where their money is going," she said.

She cites as an example a Cartier "pink ribbon" watch that the company sold for $3,900 in 2005. What wasn't obvious to consumers, according to Ojea, is that Cartier capped its donation at $30,000, regardless of how many watches were actually sold.

Another caveat for consumers to remember is that many companies may spend more on advertising their pink ribbon products than they actually donate to breast cancer charities. "People should ask how much money is going to marketing and how much is going to breast cancer," Ojea said.

For example, Breast Cancer Action claims that the maker of Post-It Notes (3M) spent $500,000 marketing a 70-foot tall ribbon made of pink Post-It Notes, but gave only $300,000 to the cause. Representatives from Cartier and 3M were not available to comment on the allegations by Breast Cancer Action, although Cartier did make available a statement from Komen that said in part, "Without the funds raised from partners like Cartier, Komen could not fund the amount of work it does.''

Even Goats Come in Pink

Despite the fact that some pink ribbon campaigns may benefit corporations more than they benefit breast cancer patients, there is still much value to these campaigns and many do in fact provide real services directly to those diagnosed with breast cancer.

"We don't want people to get cynical," Berger said of pink ribbon campaigns. "We, of course, applaud the increase in awareness. And if you're going to buy the product anyway, it's a win-win."

One organization, Charity Navigator, ranks "The Rose" high for benefits from pink ribbon donations for the Houston-area nonprofit healthcare center that provides screening, diagnosis, treatment and support for women with breast cancer, regardless of income or insurance coverage. The 22-year-old group has been recognized by the CDC as a model program, according to its development director, Dee Lowrey.

The Rose's "Empower Her" Sponsorship Program has a team of patient advocates -- many of whom are multilingual -- who guide women diagnosed with breast cancer through the entire process of mammography screening, diagnosis and treatment, including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. "We'll even pick up their kids from school,'' said spokeswoman Maggie Phillips.

Additionally, The Rose has partnered with more than 500 doctors and clinics in the Houston area to provide medical services at no charge to the patient.

Those services would not be possible without the funds that The Rose receives from pink-ribbon themed charitable efforts, according to Phllips. Among the fundraisers that support The Rose are an annual shrimp boil and a Pink Goat Society, so named for a locally raised goat – dyed pink– that sold for $115,000. All proceeds from the sale were donated to The Rose.

The Rose also receives funds from larger charitable organizations, according to information on the group's website. These include a grant of more than $900,000 in May of 2008 from the Houston affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and an award of more than $300,000 from the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.


"ACS: Statistics for 2008." American Cancer Society. 9 Jul. 2008.

Ken Berger, President/Executive Director, Charity Navigator, telephone interview, 8 Jul. 2008.

Maggie Phillips, Communications Coordinator, The Rose, telephone interview, 9 Jul. 2008.

Pauli Ojea, Community Organizer, Breast Cancer Action, telephone interview, 9 Jul. 2008.

The Rose: A Non-Profit Breast Cancer Organization. the-rose.org. 9 Jul. 2008.

"Think Before You Pink." Breast Cancer Action. 8 Jul. 2008.

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Marc Lallanilla is a New York-based freelance writer and editor. He has written extensively on health, science, the environment, design, architecture, business, lifestyle and travel.

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