Pink Ribbon Colonialism

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.

6 thoughts on “Pink Ribbon Colonialism”

  1. I used to work for a company that was a telecom company for NFP organizations (mostly). I can definitely say these companies make ALOT of money off of donations. What I didn’t like about the company was the usual harassing of people for donations; if they want to donate they will from the goodness of their heart, not when some asshole calls them up begging for cash when they just got home from work trying to relax with a hot meal, sometimes with their family or just a hot meal if they’re retired.

    As for those breast cancer orgs I also have read at how alot of them are scams due to the fact that they make money for cures they don’t expect to happen, not to mention they don’t tell people the truth: that vitamins, most notably C and D, can help reduce the amount of a tumor tremendously. Instead they have these walk-a-thons and NFL supporting Breast Cancer Awareness Month and all but as you see it’s all for profit. Sure they’re doing a good thing by helping others but the question is are they doing it more for themselves or do they truly care about healing people?

    I’m sure I don’t need to tell you which orgs I’m talking about, they’re VERY well-known.

  2. ‘Economies‘ are systems for allocating scarce resources. There are two general types. Market economies allocate resources via voluntary trade between individuals. Planned economies allocate resources via compulsory edict by an individual or group.

    Comparative study of these two systems, particularly in the context you discuss, may be worthwhile.

  3. I remember this phone call I received a couple of weeks ago from a company I’ve never heard of, asking for a donation of $20 per month for the benefit of breast cancer patients. I am more than willing to help but I didn’t feel comfortable giving my credit card information over the phone to an organization I don’t even know, so I declined. It’s a sad reality that there are a lot of NFP organizations out there who take advantage of this opportunity, promising change and help, but not fulfilling its promise. At the end of the day, it all boils down to business. As someone with a family history of breast cancer, the disease is very scary for me too. I totally agree, more resources should be spent on research and cure on the disease; that’s the kind of help we really need.

  4. I’m interested in learning how to help people in my town receiving cancer treatment or who have family members going through it.

    What are your big fears or frustrations? What have you tried that hasn’t worked? What do you need help with?

    Please email me at or

    1. John, I would call a local cancer organization to find out. I am several years past my diagnosis and as a mother of young children, my needs might have been different from other people’s. Thanks for wanting to help.

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