On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

When nonprofits become fundraising behemoths

Share story

Livestrong bracelet
A 2009 file photo of a wristband from Lance Armstrong's association, Livestrong, which fights cancer.
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

When nonprofits become money-raising behemoths, do the organizations stray from the original good intentions? As breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure recovers from their Planned Parenthood controversy, we wanted to take a look at big fundraisers and where their money goes.

Last month, Komen Vice President Karen Handel resigned after the organization's decision to pull $680,000 from Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings ignited a firestorm of criticism.

Handel, a former Republican candidate for Georgia governor, had openly opposed abortion and was actively engaged in efforts to cut off the grants and said the charity's reversal hurt its core mission.

"I am deeply disappointed by the gross mischaracterizations of the strategy, its rationale, and my involvement in it," Handel said in her letter. "I openly acknowledge my role in the matter and continue to believe our decision was the best one for Komen's future and the women we serve."

Another big charity under fire is Lance Armstrong's Livestrong nonprofit, which focuses on cancer awareness. In Outside magazine, Bill Gifford looked at Livestrong's finances and found very little of their money actually going to cancer research. 

From Outside:

On the program side, I learned that Livestrong provides an innovative and expanding suite of direct services to help cancer survivors negotiate our Kafkaesque health care system. Beyond that, though, I found a curiously fuzzy mix of cancer-war goals like 'survivorship' and 'global awareness,' labels that seem to entail plastering the yellow Livestrong logo on everything from T-shirts to medical conferences to soccer stadiums... Livestrong spends massively on advertising, PR, and 'branding,' all of which helps preserve Armstrong's marketability at a time when he's under fire. Meanwhile, Armstrong has used the goodwill of his foundation to cut business deals that have enriched him personally, an ethically questionable move...

Equally interesting is what the foundation doesn't do. Most people--including nearly everybody I surveyed while reporting this story--assume that Livestrong funnels large amounts of money into cancer research. Nope. The foundation gave out a total of $20 million in research grants between 1998 and 2005, the year it began phasing out its support of hard science. A note on the foundation's website informs visitors that, as of 2010, it no longer even accepts research proposals. 

Kivi Leroux Miller, president of Nonprofit Marketing Guide, will be on The Daily Circuit Tuesday to talk about the issue. Rick Cohen, National correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly, will also join the discussion along with University of Minnesota associate professor Jodi Sandfort.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

KERRI'S TAKEAWAY

Bigger is not always worse for nonprofits. Bigger organizations have the ability to hire more staff to stay in touch with the nonprofit's mission.