Friday, May 20, 2011

All Aboard The Pink Gravy Train......

Garden toolkit benefitting NBCF
Recently my beloved and I were shopping in our local big-box hardware store.  Beloved stopped at a large display of pink gardening tools.   Pink hoes, rakes, trowels, loppers, snippers;  you name it, we saw it.  Once he stopped laughing he inspected the packaging on one of the items and found that a portion of the money's raised from the sale of the product went to the National Breast Cancer Foundation ("NBCF").

He stared for minute, pondered and then said to me "Oh NBCF?  They're one of the good ones aren't they?"  I then asked him why he thought that.  He then said,  "Well their name sounds very official and look at their logo. Aren't they for research?"  Well, not really, but more on that later.

A name and logo that seems to suggest some kind of official credibility in the minds of consumers.  Canny marketing to say the least, and the clever kind of branding that even had my beloved  pausing for thought.

But (luckily) he's married to me.  And as you know readers, I ask questions first before any money leaves my pocket.  Perhaps some of you are wondering how I go about researching an organization.

I find going straight to the source is a good place to start.

First stop, the organization's mission statement.

That's nice, but not necessarily a mission that I would support, given that I'm more interested in activities that might help actually eradicate breast cancer, which to me means research.  But does NBCF support research at all? Not according to its mission statement, but further digging yields this little snippet from a section on "Partnering with NBCF";

So apparently they do support some research through "breast cancer research projects", but exactly how much?  This requires a bit more exploration into the wonderful world of non-profit financial reporting.

I think any organization interested in transparency should have their Audited Financial Statements and IRS Form 990's linked on their website.  If they don't, that's an immediate red flag in my opinion.  Check the "About Us" section, "Media" section,  or run a search on their website for their financials.  Failing that,  go to, register for free, and you can find copies of IRS Form 990's for most charitable organizations.  (Click here for a guide on how to read a Form 990.)  Generally I avoid looking at the financial information listed in an organization's annual report, because it's usually summarized in a form that the organization wants to report and lacks the detail that I'm interested in.

In this case, NBCF's audited financials and Form 990's were readily available on their website.  From their audited financials, I was able to determine that research only made up 7% of their program allocations for 2010.  From total revenue and support of $10.1M, research amounted to $716k.  Not much when you compare the expenditures on "Awareness" ($3.7M or 37%)  and "Detection" ($2.1M or 21%).  Or even "Fundraising Expenses" for that matter which accounted for $1.0M or 10% of total revenues.

Now I'll be the first to agree that not every breast cancer organization has to fund research.  Certainly patient support, assistance with treatment, education, and screening and diagnostic programs are important functions,  in coping with breast (or any other) cancer or other incurable illness.  But as I've said before, the focus on breast cancer awareness and early detection seem to be the favored programs by so many organizations and I continue to harbor serious concerns that all of this expenditure is coming at the expense of potentially life-saving research.  And don't even get me started on the massive duplication of breast cancer education resources!

In this case, NBCF advertises to potential sponsors that some of its donations go to "breast cancer research programs", but without any supporting detail.  Why does NBCF mention research when attracting sponsors but neglect to mention it at all in their mission statement?  This seems odd to me.   Is this a deliberate attempt to avoid public scrutiny on the whole question of research, whilst still appealing to sponsors who are interested in funding research? I really don't know the answer to this question,  but  how many donors, sponsors and indeed, consumers of all those NBCF pink products, are aware that only 7% of NBCF's funds are being used for research?

From NBCF's financials it's clear where their priorities lie.  Awareness and Early Detection.  But what are NBCF doing differently that isn't already being done by so many other breast cancer organizations? What about Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, for example, who also demonstrate similar  Program spending, but on a much larger scale?  What are NBCF doing, that Komen isn't already doing?  How much more awareness and mammography for under-resourced women do we need?  Where's the evidence that this kind of spending is yielding meaningful results in stemming the breast cancer epidemic?

And so I continued to explore NBCF's resources.  Their website is pretty, fairly user friendly and clearly laid out.  But what about website content, which no doubt forms a large part of their Awareness program budget?  There's a discussion forum and social networking application which some might find useful, although this feature is not unique in the online breast cancer community.  I clicked through many of the links to breast cancer information, and didn't find anything new or different from other breast cancer websites.  Same information.  Same messages that early detection saves lives.  Same lack of scientific discussion.  However, it's obvious to me that NBCF have mastered the art of repackaging generic information and presenting it in an appealing way.  An excellent example of this is a new educational resource that NBCF recently released.   In their words, "an innovative, online resource for breast cancer education", it's basically an animated video presentation and website called Beyond The Shock® which is separate to their main website;

" utilizes ground-breaking technology and the resources of the global medical community to create an accessible platform for understanding a diagnosis of breast cancer and to help women understand all the treatment options available to them."
The resource is certainly aesthetically pleasing and graphically stylized, set to a stirring musical soundtrack, narrated by a comforting motherly voice  and is also very pink.  It also utilizes a metaphorical theme likening the experience of breast cancer to that of a train journey.  A journey that weaves through what looks like magical pink lollypop land to me.

Screenshot from the Introduction section
After watching the Introduction....

"...[y]et somehow these challenges become fertile soil or seeds of strength, love and resilience mature and grow strong...", 

and the Conclusion ....

"...[f]amily, friends and other breast cancer patients are your shield and safety net, carefully knit together to strengthen you.  Alongside them your triumphs over new hills will be celebrated and your struggles through new valleys will be endured....."  

and feeling rather underwhelmed I decided to take a look at Chapter 5 "Types and Stages".  I watched the subchapter on Stage IV.  All one minute and five seconds of it.  I learned that;

  • I might find treatment exhausting.
  • I should "...make careful decisions and plans.."
  • "....many women discover strength of character and qualities of resilience they never knew they had..."
  • I should have a good support network of family and friends.

Ho Hum.  Thankfully, I never heard the words "death",  because that would be a buzzkill after my lovely pink train journey.

As for NBCF's main website.  More of the same pretty pink graphics and nifty little tools.  Catchy programs with names like Help for Today...Hope ForTomorrow® through its National Mammography Program, Early Detection Plan®, MyNBCF online social community, the Pink Ribbon Challenge, and the usual stock of generic and duplicated educational information that we see on many other breast cancer sites.  Shockingly, I couldn't find much information relating to metastatic breast cancer other than a few little definitions here and there and of course that lovely trip through magical pink lollypop land.

But interestingly, although NBCF's mission statement states that it provides "mammograms for those in need" and provides "nurturing support services", from the website I couldn't find out how to get a mammogram, nor do they list a telephone number on the "Contact Us" section.  Too bad if you do need a mammogram or some nurturing support!

But there was plenty of information if you're considering donating or becoming a sponsor!

But I am pleased to see that NBCF is diversifying beyond the business of breast cancer and pink train journeys,  into the self-defense industry.

I may have Stage IV Breast Cancer, but at least I'll be well-armed.  Well not against breast cancer, but all those nasty perps.

Thanks NBCF!

One of the good ones?  You be the judge. 


  1. Well done. Thank you. What a strange name for this organization.


  2. I agree with you Anna, we have all the awareness we could possibly want and then some. I can support helping low-income women get screened but I have a feeling money could be re-allocated for research and still provide this, especially for big organizations like Komen.

    I especially liked how you pointed out that this group doesn't offer a hint on how someone might obtain one of these screenings.

    I think you have become to nonprofits what Gary Schwartz is to health journalism--our No. 1 watchdog. Well done.

  3. Simple: I love this post.

    How many brochures about "what is cancer" and "staging" need to be written? What a phenomenal waste; not to mention the marketing manipulation that many well-intended people think they are actually contributing something worthwhile.

    This is the modern day equivalent of snake oil.

    Keep follow 'the nifty pink train' tracks, Anna.


  4. Anna,
    Thanks for pulling all this together so well once again. I find it interesting your beloved was even "taken in" by this organiztion despite the fact he's married to you! Just think how many people out there are incorrectly influenced on a daily basis. Keep on educating!

  5. Great work! Thanks for the digging you do to find out the real stories behind these orgs. I agree, spending 37% on "awareness" seems like an overabundance.

  6. Oh, you've nailed it. This is such a typical example of the useless information being sold as "education and awareness." It is indeed the "usual stock of generic and duplicated educational information that we see on many other breast cancer sites." Yet this is stylized in a way that makes it attractive to sponsors.

    In addition to the lack of anything useful on this site, there is dangerous misinformation as well. The video conveniently combines stage zero (noninvasive) and stage 1 (invasive) breast cancer into one category when these are very different scenarios.

    The catch phrases about how to cope with breast cancer echo the sound bites in mass mediated advertising that shows breast cancer to be a wondrous opportunity for personal growth. So is surviving an tsunami, but it wouldn't be discussed that way!

    Every element of this website could be completely deconstructed. Thank you for parsing out some of the most egregious areas. It's clear that the pink gravy train continues to churn down the consumption track. Choo choo!

  7. Excellent post, Anna. I'm just speechless that they are so blatant about cause marketing. It's like, oh, and by the way, there's this trivial little thing called breast cancer underneath all this pink crap we'll help you sell.

    Heaven forbid we ever cure it, because all this marketing revenue would just dry up, huh?

  8. I love that - 'magical pink lollypop land' - truly inspired. I too could not believe that train ride and just how 'pleasant' it seemed to make bc.
    Also conveniently overlooked the family and friends that didn't 'knit together to strengthen you' to celebrate your triumphs over new hills...

  9. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! I think you just pulled their pants down and left them standing naked in the middle of the street! Way to go, sister.

    What great research!

  10. Unbelievable! Where will it all end? I hope Komen and the NBCF are reading these blogs. They need a whiff of reality from breast cancer survivors before they come out with more products that we are just dying to have.


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