Corporate Philanthropy: What About the Impact

Updated: Nov 23, 2019

In 1995 a mother who had a child with cancer walked into Aflac's headquarters asking for money to help upgrade the floor of a hospital where children were treated for cancer. She wanted $25,000; she walked out with $3,000,000 and a commitment from Aflac's CEO, Dan Amos. Since then, Aflac has raised over 130M for childhood cancer. They saw an opportunity to make a difference. The impact they've made is immeasurable.

I love this story. It's corporate philanthropy at its best. Now, here's a story of it at its not-so-best.

Recently, I met with a manager of corporate philanthropy at a Fortune 500 company to discuss how the company could help raise pancreatic cancer awareness. Prior to meeting, I researched the company's current philanthropic programs. I knew taking on a new cause could be laborious and having an outreach plan that aligned with the company's current initiatives, along with details on how I, and the pancreatic cancer nonprofit chosen, could work to help lighten administrative tasks by providing materials and other things needed for an awareness campaign.

The first part of the meeting went well. I explained why raising awareness is so important by telling the stories I'd heard from patients themselves. Thirty-eight percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will be told there are no treatment options, primarily because, outside of metropolitan areas, medical professionals aren't aware of treatment options and know little about this disease. I had other stories to tell, but the manager stopped me. I needed to understand how his organization chose the causes they support. He explained that they supported causes that affected customers and the communities in which the company served. I understood and wasn't surprised. Pancreatic cancer advocates are used to rejection and helping one's own customers and communities is a logical approach to philanthropy.

But, he continued. "You have to understand, for our company to support pancreatic cancer, there'd have to be more victims."

At that moment, my aunt lay dying, and a few months earlier, my father-in-law and a friend passed away, all from this horrible disease. This comment came at the most inopportune time.

I left the meeting frustrated and confused. Having researched this company's support of other cancer types, I knew they proudly supported Susan B Komen. I also knew that pancreatic kills more people than breast cancer each year. However, to be fair, when supporting nonprofits, incident rates typically trump survival rates, and breast cancer is more prevalent. Their support of breast cancer itself wasn't alarming. It's their choice of charities. Let me explain.

According to the most reputable charity rating agency, CharityNavigator, Komen spends 46.7% on education (awareness), 28.8% on research, and 24.5% on screening & treatment. There's so much I could say about these percentages, and all thoughts involve generalizing. ( I know there are certain populations where education is needed, etc.) But, really? Does Komen and corporations that support Komen think that almost half of the population isn't aware of breast cancer's warning signs and symptoms?

Did this company or Komen's many other corporate sponsors - and there is a LOT listed on their website - fail to carefully consider where their money would go? What about impact? Was that considered? Let's go back to Aflac. It's not difficult to see how their commitment helped childhood cancer, and continues to do so.

Imagine what would happen if the amount of corporate donations that flowed into Komen this month - breast cancer awareness month - would also be given to pancreatic cancer nonprofits in November, pancreatic cancer awareness month. The impact would be enormous.

Pancreatic cancer may be unpopular (it's hard to talk about such a lethal disease) and difficult (with few treatment options, the fight is tough), but support always make a difference. Making an impact, in the case of pancreatic cancer is easy, and that's the only time "easy" will be appropriately used when talking about this disease.

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