Peter Buffett recently wrote a piece for the New York Times, “The Charitable-Industrial Complex” that grabbed my attention. As the son of the Oracle of Omaha, he is in a unique position to observe myriad personal and global aspects of the Not for Profit (NFP). As a sector, NFPs have grown faster than business or government. “It’s a massive business, with approximately $316 billion given away in 2012 in the United States alone and more than 9.4 million employed.” Buffett explores personal reasons for the explosion, but I am more interested in his systemic analysis.
First, he speaks of Philanthropic Colonialism: we try to impose our culturally relevant solutions to societies that bear little resemblance to our own. For more on this, I highly recommend Tiny Spark, a blog that investigates NFPs. I heard this podcast recently, on TOMS, a company that sells shoes with a charitable twist – you buy one pair and they will donate a second pair to one of the millions of children TOMS believes needs shoes. This is a patriarchal model: we decide that these children need shoes, so we give them shoes. But who is asking whether this is it the best use of resources?
Second, Buffett contends that many of the problems are created by a system deliberately designed to create inequality. As the inequality grows, so does the sector that addresses inequality. Often, the top-down decisions are made by the people who most benefit from these systems, even those who create it.
I know Buffett is speaking of NFPs with different global missions, but I have been thinking about this as it relates to Komen. They’ve created, or at least perfected, the myth of early detection saving lives. It’s a message that has legs — it seeks to tame the rotten, unfair uncertainty regarding a devastating disease. But as we know now, the reality of breast cancer is much more complicated. But Komen continues to bang that drum while allocating less than 20% of its resources to research.
Best guess: because it works. This over-simplified message of hope brings in donations.
Make no mistake about it — Susan G Komen for the Cure Foundation is a BIG business. Nancy Brinker, founder and Chair of Global Strategy , came under fire earlier this summer for her 64% raise; she now brings home $684,000 per year. That’s about $17 for every American who dies of breast cancer.
Breast cancer is a scary disease and the two biggest risk factors are being female and growing older. Feel good messages might bring in the money, but they haven’t cured cancer. It’s tempting to buy into the false comfort of control that Komen sells.
But even scarier than the chaos of breast cancer is the reality that so little is being done to address the true nature of the disease. Philanthropic Colonialism wrapped up in a pretty pink ribbon. Not enough of us are asking if this is the best use of resources.