It's not that the National Breast Cancer Research Center is a scam. It's more like a charity within a charity, run by an organization called the Walker Cancer Research Institute. The parent organization, based in Aberdeen, Md., dutifully files tax returns that show it raised $12.7 million in 2009 and spent 52% of it on fundraising. The return also reports that the organization spent exactly $487,505, or about 4% of its income, on research most of it for probing plant life for anticancer compounds. Given that kind of research commitment, the group is unlikely to make significant advances anytime soon.
That said, Walker has a better chance of accomplishing something than the National Charity for Cancer Research, part of the Optimal Medical Foundation Inc. in Fremont, Calif. The group gathered $5.3 million in 2009, of which zero seems to have gone toward research. And don't confuse that with another Walker affiliate, called simply National Cancer Research Center, which uses the exact same fundraising letter as its California counterpart. Wonder what share of the $487,505 this branch gets to spend. "I shudder when I look at how many groups have 'cancer research' in their names," says Greg Simon, a board member and former head of FasterCures, a nonprofit focused on improving medical research. "The general public is throwing its money away."
That's why you may need to fire your cancer charity. Despite a terrible recession and its aftereffects, Americans will donate some $300 billion to charitable organizations this year, an avalanche of generosity that no other nation can match. If you've got a cause poverty, veterans, ducks, the apocalypse Americans will find a few nickels to spare. But when it comes to vicious diseases like cancer, we can be generous to a fault.
The cost of badly managed cancer charities isn't just wasted money. People are dying while these outfits mishandle funds that could go toward care. Search the word cancer in GuideStar, a database of nonprofits, and 7,747 names show up.
Traditional charities become focused on what they do fundraising or attracting high-profile board members rather than how they do. Many charities get started to memorialize loved ones, say, but never reach critical mass. "About 90% of nonprofits never make it over the $1 million mark," says Kathy Giusti, a former Big Pharma exec and cancer survivor who co-founded the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF). "It really gets hard to develop new ideas." Giusti's organization, which has brought a number of drugs to market in a short period of time using a venture-capital model, has leapfrogged other charities that target multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood.
The more prevalent the cancer, the more pernicious the problem. Pediatric cancer is a typical sector in which proliferation doesn't mean performance. Research focus is potentially diluted by thousands of small foundations. The mail is full of heart-tugging pitches replete with pictures of bald kids fighting cancer. "Last chance to send a teddy bear to a pediatric cancer patient for Valentine's Day," pleads a missive from the Children's Cancer Research Fund (CCRF), which has a nickel attached to make the plea more plaintive a common direct-mail gimmick. In 2009 the charity sent $2.7 million to the University of Minnesota, its sole beneficiary, for research, which is admirable. But it also spent about $9.8 million on direct mail and other expenses to deliver that funding, which is a lot of teddy bears. Is it efficient? No, says Charity Navigator, a group that grades philanthropies and gives the CCRF a zero rating. Yes, says marketing manager Kris Huson, since investigators can often use seed money to apply for larger grants and multiply the money that CCRF provides, which can lead to bigger things. The university, for instance, has a brain-tumor vaccination in clinical trials.
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