Inside Komen’s NGOized Culture

Cristien Storm & Kate Boyd

First Published: Against the Current, No. 169, March/April 2014

EVEN IF YOU’VE never been to a Race for the Cure, you can picture it…

There’s a party goin’ on right here
A celebration to last throughout the years
So bring your good times, and your laughter too
We gonna celebrate your party with you
Come on now…

“Celebration” by Kool and the Gang blasts from giant black speakers throughout the park. A sea of women wearing pink Yoplait! t-shirts drink free bottles of Honest Tea emblazoned with pink ribbons. They wander past tables stacked with Avon sample kits and limited edition pink Red Bull for women. Smiling volunteers hand out free pink pompoms and Energizer bunny ears.

Women in the audience are wiping tears away, smiling and swaying to the music. Occasionally an automated voice reminds walkers not to forget to have their pictures taken at the “warrior photo booth.”

Enormous video screens light up and show audience members dancing. Everyone is smiling. They are going to fight for the cure with everything they have and they will love every pink pompom waving minute of it.

“You feel the Olympics in that opening ceremony. We need to make people feel this cause the same way.” —Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen

Race for the Cure

Attention to the methods that the Susan G. Komen Foundation uses in fundraising, development and organizing is essential to understanding and formulating imaginative, inclusive and creative responses and alternatives to the monopoly Komen holds over breast cancer research.

Komen’s emphasis on cultural organizing is often discounted, yet as the above description of a typical Race For The Cure event demonstrates, the mobilizing power of cultural organizing centered on feelings and emotions is a vehicle for socializing a seemingly informed (and moral) consumer citizen.

The introductory portrayal offers a glimpse into the complex web of relations among non-profits, philanthropic foundations, the pharmaceutical industry, medical technologies, and multinational corporations that converge within the organization Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure (previously named the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation), under what is now referred to as “NGOization.”

NGOization, according to Sabine Lang, is the process by which “social movements professionalize, institutionalize, and bureaucratize in vertically structured, policy-outcome-oriented organizations that focus on generating issue-specific and, to some degree, marketable expert knowledge or services.”(1)

Lang’s phrase draws attention to transformations whereby increasingly NGOs (non-governmental organizations) become the most favored institutional enactor of social change, as they are imagined to be free from state and market interests and simultaneously the best representative of grassroots efforts.

Since the 1970s, NGOs have grown exponentially in numbers and power in the space cleared by neoliberal efforts to expand privatization and disband social services, where consequently we see the state increasingly transfer social responsibility to NGOs and non-profits.

David Harvey describes this transformation in capitalism in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, finding that NGO’s and non-profits have “grown remarkably under neoliberalism, giving rise to the belief that opposition mobilized outside of the State apparatus and within some separate entity called ‘civil society’ is the powerhouse of oppositional politics and social transformation.”(2)

NGOs, imagined to be both outside of capitalist interests and necessarily trustworthy “do-gooders,” are viewed as the preferred activist model even as they continue to partner and subcontract with states, intergovernmental organizations and liberal philanthropic foundations — whose problematic role in the growth of the NGO sector is critically examined by groups such as INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming and Transpeople of Color Against Violence.

Further, as Lang points out, under NGOization, NGOs and non-profits are not generally mobilized by grassroots activists but by professional, highly educated and elite NGO activists with degrees in non-profit management or public policy, who commonly imagine that solutions to complex political, social and economic problems will be solved through bureaucratic, reformist policy fixes, rather than radically transformative visions of change.

Komen’s “Feel Good” Business

We are particularly interested in how Komen operates at the axis of charitable consumerism and participatory citizenship in ways that mirror corporate consumption practices, where concerned consumers engage in the market in ways that “feel good.” To this end, consumers can feel good, both about themselves and about how their purchasing power is positively impacting the world.

Komen uses an extraordinarily effective model of organizing that mobilizes consumers through extremely well-funded, meticulously designed events in which participants can engage in various activities (consuming, racing, testifying) that create personal identities (“I’m a Survivor,” “Real Men Wear Pink,” “Positive Warrior”) and the social relationships that determine how an individual knows themselves in the world.

This is indeed the power of culture, a formidable organizing principle that organizations and social movements have always used, and one that Komen has mastered.

In her autobiography Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer, Nancy Brinker describes such an approach, “It starts where everything else starts…money…funding…that’s the way to do it. Build it like a business.”(3) In Brinker’s view, “money and love make the world go round” and she approaches her meticulously controlled and choreographed philanthropic projects as an exemplary model of “organizing from the inside.”

She casts herself as an apolitical ambassador and the Komen Foundation as a politically impartial, “emotion-fueled solar system(s) of a giant nonprofit foundation” that uses a marketing framework as its primary organizing principle. Brinker’s goal is “to evoke deep feeling and a safe” environment in which to express it.

Expression, in this context, comprises positive emotional appeals to end breast cancer, professionally-crafted testimonials, advertising jingles, informed pink purchasing, and the personal sacrifice of individual bodies enduring three-day races. The over-valuing of positivity silences and renders invisible any serious critique of the structures of power which shape the breast cancer industry and redirects responsibility from corporate and anti-environmental practices as major causes of cancer.

This strategy also endorses the myth of the “power of positive thinking,” and as author Barbara Ehrenreich describes, bright-sides “negative” and angry survivors (and family members) for not approaching breast cancer with optimism resituating blame back on to survivors with the wrong attitude.(4)

A sustained look at Race for the Cure offers insight into the professionally mutual relations among philanthropic foundations, the state, corporations and NGOs that shape the increasingly complex political landscapes of our moment. More specifically, it also illuminates the powerful role that cause-marketing plays under NGOization — a role we note is particularly effective for organizing the emotions of consumers who sincerely believe their pink Red Bull purchases and races for “the Cure” directly fund research that will undoubtedly discover a cure and end breast cancer.

Our concern is not only that Race for the Cure activist tactics generate incredibly lucrative business for a shocking array of corporate sponsors, but that the emotions of these consumers are also being directed to not think critically about the multiple layers and complexities of the politics and big business of breast cancer.

Selling Pink

Buying pink feels good, yet it inevitably propagates capitalist power relationships between increasingly professionalized NGOs, corporations and elites positioned to maintain and expand systems of domination across the globe.

Buying pink is indeed big business. Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure is one of the largest, most popular and best-funded non-profit breast cancer awareness organizations in the world. According to Gayle Sulik in Pink Ribbon Blues, in 2007 alone Komen raised more than $275 million in revenue, boasted 94 official corporate sponsorships (ranging from American Airlines, Bank of America, Ford, General Mills, Marvel Entertainment, Old Navy, Payless to Walgreens and Zumba), and amassed the leading revenue profits from corporate “cause-marketing” campaigns in the world.

Founded by Texas marketing expert Nancy Brinker in 1982, Komen claims to represent both the needs and experiences of most breast cancer survivors, despite the grim reality that its organizing model has not been successful at “curing” breast cancer — nor in expanding access to cancer care and prevention services globally to women of color and poor women (and men) who disproportionately die from breast cancer every year.(5)

For instance, though “African American women have a 10% lower incidents of breast cancer compared to white women,” they are more likely to die.(6)

Although established programs like Komen’s Circle of Promise claim national representation from African-American women, in general Komen’s programs do not address the very real barriers women of color face when accessing treatment and in addressing causes of cancer. In fact Komen’s organizing strategies, funding priorities and anti-feminist agenda have actually exacerbated divisions across race, class, sexuality, gender identity and nation.

Yet Komen has succeeded, at the expense of grassroots organizing and without improving the lives of poor women and women of color, at generating a growing corporate interest in breast cancer since the 1990s, and is admired by non-profits and private businesses alike for successfully bridging extremely profitable relationships with a variety of multinational corporations.

Through partnerships with Komen, these corporations can claim to balance their “private” and “public” interests, simultaneously intentionally privileging and standardizing certain medical technologies (mammography) and drugs as the now logical, common-sense way of surviving breast cancer — “solutions,” not surprisingly, directly linked to the expansion of corporate interests.

Komen continues to downplay environmental factors that are undoubtedly a fundamental cause of breast cancer, and obscures corporate sponsors’ interest (and responsibility) in producing breast cancer causing products — whether through the hazardous production processes required to produce the commodity or through the use of the commodity itself.

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Avon, the world’s largest direct-selling cosmetics company, produces health and beauty products which contain ingredients like parabens, triclosan, and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives that have been linked to cancer.

Avon products are also likely to contain sodium laureth sulfate, a chemical that is processed using ethylene oxide, a known breast cancer carcinogen. These chemicals combine to create another carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane, found in products that create suds or bubbles like shampoo, liquid soap and bubble bath.

Environmental Working Group’s analysis suggests that 97% of hair relaxers, 57% of baby soaps and 22% of all products in the Skin Deep database (a website researching and documenting safety profiles of cosmetics and personal care products) may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane. Because 1,4-diozane is a contaminant produced during manufacturing, the FDA does not require Avon, or any other corporation in the cosmetic industry, to include it in their list of ingredients on their product labels.

It has been up to organizations like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group to expose the use of toxic and cancer-causing chemicals such as sodium laureth sulfate, ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane in beauty products. There is horrifying irony in companies like Avon being a corporate sponsor of Susan G. Komen Race For the Cure, and also raising more than $400 million in the last decade to fund research to find a cure through its Walk For Breast Cancer, while manufacturing and promoting cancer-causing personal care products.

Breast Cancer Cause-Marketing

These astounding profits are amassed through marketing and cultural organizing strategies. Though Nancy Brinker did not develop cause-marketing, when she founded the Komen Foundation she introduced it into the mainstream corporate and consumer landscape, turning breast cancer into a highly-profitable commodity by creating relatively new marketing relationships.

Cause-marketing campaigns direct companies — regardless of their ethical practices and politics — to associate themselves with certain causes in order to build brand loyalty and expand the reputation of their products and their businesses as “good,” responsible corporate partners.

This alliance between (a now generous) corporation and (worthy) cause works to link said corporation (and concomitant product) with a particular issue (like breast cancer awareness) in the minds of the consumer, who can then make a “feel-good” “conscious consumer choice” to contribute her dollars to a “good” cause. Further, this consumer often feels empowered through purchasing cause-related products, imagining herself through her purchase as socially responsible, altruistic and even worldly.

Thus, cause-marketing distinguishes one brand over another while creating commitment and loyalty of customers to particular corporations and products. Though corporations position cause-marketing strategies as evidence of their charitable inclinations, marketing experts are clear that cause-marketing is primarily a profit-making strategy and an effective method to conceal or disassociate a corporation’s unethical practices or its tainted past from consumer memories.

Brinker’s particularly successful strategy organized a consumer culture that combined participatory social events and an activist sensibility that is routed through Komen ribbon purchasing.

As she writes: “…Even the coolest hipsters describe (Race for the Cure events) as life changing…events (that) can even make grown men cry.”(7)

When Komen made a strategic decision to focus on cause-marketing and cultural organizing, they zeroed in on feelings as the vehicle through which to mobilize women as consumers, volunteers, and de-facto philanthropists for “The Cure,” a phrase that Komen has attempted to trademark.

Komen is not the first business to link women’s empowerment to commodities (remember Virginia Slims “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby” and Betty Crocker’s declaration for women to “Get Out of the Kitchen!”), or to link its brand to emotions (recall Coke’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” or Nike’s “Just Do it!”). But today Komen, and Nancy Brinker specifically, are the darling of cause-marketing which, in addition to being extremely profitable, promotes a capitalist cultural identity that merges consumption, volunteerism and good citizenship.

The Real Men Wear Pink campaign between the National Football League and Komen, for instance, collapses a range of issues related to race, gender and philanthropy. Aimed at engaging the female 40% of NFL fans who had been previously ignored in marketing strategies, the campaign was also a means for the NFL to “rebrand” and present a wholesome image after a number of scandals involving players arrested for drug use and domestic violence.

Partnering with Komen, NFL players donned pink apparel including Reebok-sponsored hats, gloves, sweat bands, shoes, towels and mouth guards, while referees were outfitted with pink whistles and cheerleaders with pink boots and pompoms. In addition to wearing pink products (which NFL fans could purchase), players offered testimonials in short videos endorsing Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

Testimonials sometimes feature an NFL player offering personal stories about his own experiences with breast cancer and subsequent philanthropic endeavors. In other videos, rock music backsets images of players, coaches and cheerleaders sporting pink paraphernalia (also available for purchase); no narration is required for viewers to understand the association (and business relations) between NFL and Komen.

Some videos simply show players making general statements of support for early detection or Race for the Cure. These videos evoke various images of “good citizenship” (philanthropy) and proper volunteerism (consumerism), while suggesting that the feminized (pink) moral authority of Komen produces substantial changes in the character of “questionable” NFL players.

The campaign not only engaged the 40% female fan base; it secured new customers and restored the public image of the NFL and those “questionable players,” and made both the NFL and Komen a lot of money.

“Make Every Day Pink!”™

One thing that struck us in particular about Race for the Cure is the spectacular way bodies and feelings are mobilized through fear-mongering via a positive, pink-washing optimism that privileges both the illusion of early detection as the primary solution to breast cancer, and the myth of consumer-oriented activism.

Today we know that early detection is not a viable model for the prevention of, or escape from, breast cancer. There is no scientific evidence that supports this myth. In fact, the scientific evidence suggests early detection methods can lead to unnecessary and sometimes deadly treatments.

Early detection is an individualized, all too easy approach that privileges medically uncomplicated and decontextualized imaginations of cancer survivors: Western, white, middle class, cis-gendered, able-bodied women with full access to medical and community resources and social support. Despite its failure to actually prevent cancer, early detection is paraded across the board as the premier solution for “the cure.” It has evolved into a devastatingly deceptive fundraising strategy by having people race, walk, row, bowl and dance to raise money to expand the early detection/mammography industry.

It is hardly coincidence that corporations with financial investments in mammography technologies, such as GE and AstraZeneca, are also the very same visionary funders behind Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure since its inception. It is also no coincidence that the mammography industry exports obsolete technologies that have been linked to breast cancer, to the imagined “global village of women” around the world that Nancy Brinker (et al) are determined to cure through expansion of their breast cancer empire.(8)

Race for the Cure mobilizes through a positive, cheery, apolitical, consumerist model of survivorship that tempers the anxiety of living in a world where cancer is every day. This strategy situates anger, critique, and the not-so-pretty in pink reality of cancer as oppositional, and even part of the problem.

Barbara Ehrenreich describes surviving and researching the breast cancer industry: “In the seamless world of breast cancer culture, where one Web site links to another — from personal narratives and grassroots endeavors to the glitzy level of corporate sponsors and celebrity spokespeople — cheerfulness is required, dissent a kind of treason.”(9)

Consequently the realities of cancer such as grief, rage, loss, trauma, isolation, bankruptcy, medical debt, loneliness, toxic side effects, poverty and homelessness are rendered invisible, and any expressions of those particular emotions marks one as negative, improper and therefore the source of one’s own inability to survive breast cancer.

“You are the CEO of your own body!” — so proclaims Nancy Brinker. In a context where you can feel out of control of your own body and the world you live in, as survivors and allies know, Komen offers a familiar and seemingly protective talisman against fear by giving people “something to do.”

Whether running for three days, making your yearly doctor appointments, performing your monthly breast exam, buying Yoplait! rather than Nancy’s Yogurt, or making “empowered” purchasing choices guided by pink ribbons, it feels like you are really doing something to make a difference.

This kind of doing, however reassuring it feels, obscures corporate and NGO interests in the breast cancer industry and the global imperialist practices that support and expand it, while simultaneously de-funding and redirecting resources away from the research and activism addressing environmental causes of cancer that disproportionately impact communities of color and poor people around the world.

Re-Visioning the Struggle

NGOization offers consumer-driven visions of activism rather than critical investigations into the complex relationships among corporate interests, non-profits, NGOs and the cancer industry. Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure perpetuates a depoliticized pink optimism that silences reasonable rage and redirects genuine energy, passion, time and commitment away from meaningful social change solidarities, toward individual consumer lifestyle choices.

There has certainly been well organized resistance to Komen — including the mass response to its announcement that Komen would withdraw its funding from Planned Parenthood, resulting in huge damage to “Race for the Cure” and a hasty backtrack. There have also been Breast Cancer Action campaigns like What the Cluck?! and Yoplait: Put A Lid On It, for example.

Many mainstream social movements are increasingly invested in cause-marketing as the horizon of activist practices, where buying the right product is conflated with good citizenship and solidarity, and where activist practices begin and end with well-informed, intentional, purchasing choices.

The coalescing of cause-marketing and cultural organizing that Komen does so well, produces individualized models of consumerism that are tantalizingly simplistic and resonate with a somatic “feel goodness” that we must continually interrogate. In other words, even educated, conscious consumerism cannot be the end goal or primary strategy for those of us struggling for significant structural transformations.

It is absolutely necessary that we work to identify, challenge and re-imagine multiple visions of breast cancer survivorship and activist responses. Such a re-visioning will be messy and will certainly not feel good. We are convinced, however, that in the present moment characterized by nauseating pink cheerfulness, this is precisely what we need.


Lang, Sabine. NGOs, Civil Society, and the Public Sphere, 64. Cambridge: University Press, 2013.

back to textHarvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 78. Oxford University Press, 2005.
back to textBrinker, Nancy. Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer,192. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010.
back to textFor more on “bright siding,” see Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2009 book, Bright-Sided, How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, (New York: Picador).
back to textAn estimated 500 men die annually from breast cancer and this rate is on the rise. In addition, men are also profoundly impacted by breast cancer and often struggle alongside survivors.
back to textSulik, Gayle A. Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health, 41.Oxford: University Press, 2011.
back to textBrinker, 100.
back to textAccording to the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. in the 1970s mammography machines previously banned because of concerns they actually caused cancer were shipped outside the U.S. under the auspice of helping women in developing countries with “life-saving technologies.” See also Samantha King’s book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy.
back to textEhrenreich, Barbara. Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, 31.
back to text

March/April 2014, ATC 169