Four months ago Thursday, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation announced it was cutting ties with Planned Parenthood, setting off a backlash from its members that eventually led to a complete reversal and the resignation of several top officers. That incident may be behind the breast cancer advocacy group, but the damage is still hampering its marquee Race for the Cure events, which are drawing lower-than-expected participation in cities around the country — sometimes dramatically so.
Nowhere is that more true than in Washington, D.C. On June 2, participants will march in D.C.’s Race for the Cure to raise funds for local cancer treatment and screening services. But registration for the high-profile event, which takes place at the National Mall, is only at about 25,000, according to local station WJLA, a staggering 37.5 percent drop-off from the 40,000 who ran, walked or donated their time last year.
Andrea Rader, a spokeswoman for Komen’s national office, confirmed that the numbers — while not yet final — were “about right.” While participation has been varied this year, she acknowledged a number of cities had encountered similar issues.
“Certainly we’re seeing an impact from the controversy earlier this year,” Rader said of fundraising efforts. “I can’t put a number on it, though, saying it’s X percent, because there are other issues with the economy and we’re seeing a mixed bag in different cities.”
In Sacramento, Calif., approximately 18,000 people participated in the race this year, down from 25,000 the previous year. And it took a late surge in registration to get just to that number. In Richmond, Va., about 6,000 joined in, down from 7,300 the previous year and well short of organizers’ goal of 10,000. Asked about the decline, the local affiliate’s executive director Linda Tiller told the Richmond Times Dispatch there’s “nothing other to attribute it to” than the Planned Parenthood flap.
Tucson, Ariz.’s race shrank from 10,000 registrants to below 8,000 this year. Some 45,000 marched in Columbus, Ohio, down from 50,000 in previous years. In Atlanta, organizers also reported their participation rate was down 10 to 15 percent in 2012.
Maureen Meldrum, Komen Detroit executive director and a 21-year breast cancer survivor, told TPM that participation was down for the city’s race earlier this week, though she partly attributed the decline to the event being held on Memorial Day.
“To the extent that people hear negative reports they may choose to stay away,” she said of the Planned Parenthood flap. “But if they’re people who wish to help poor women with breast cancer problems, that’s who will lose. Our mission hasn’t changed, we had about three bad weeks out of 30 wonderful years.”
The Planned Parenthood episode may even have had an impact beyond its own organization. Y-ME, a support group for breast cancer patients that also holds an annual walk to raise money for its operations, attributed recent fundraising troubles to donors mistakenly assuming they were connected with Komen.
“We knew we were impacted because we actually got angry calls and emails and we knew from talking to participants in the event that they were challenged meeting their numbers,” Y-ME CEO Cindy Geoghegan told TPM. “It’s a challenge and it’s affecting other breast cancer groups as well.”
While she has posted information on her website and sent out e-mails pointing out her group is not connected to Komen, she’s urging donors not to turn their backs on their cause: “Nothing changed on Jan. 31 when this debacle started, the need hasn’t changed and we still need their help.”
For volunteers and officers at local Komen chapters, many of whom opposed the national foundation’s brief decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood, it can be a frustrating experience watching their own community’s funding for grants dry up over the controversy.
“Some of my former team members are not joining and not donating this year because they are mad at Komen,” Haralee Weintraub, a volunteer for Komen’s Oregon and southwestern Washington affiliate, told TPM, adding that additional controversies over corporate fundraising for breast cancer charities, or “pinkwashing,” was also generating complaints. “I am finding myself having to re-educate people on all the good Komen does and how much of their donations stay in our community.”
In general, officials across the board are stressing the importance of Komen’s fundraising to individual city affiliates in an effort to add some context to the national headquarters’ struggles.
“What we’re trying to remind people of us is these are local women: 75 percent of the money raised locally stays in the local community and paid for 700,000 breast cancer screenings last year,” Rader said. “We are probably in deeper collaboration with our affiliates than we would have been in a business-as-usual situation, and we’ve found they’ve been doing a pretty good job making people aware of what Komen has been doing there for years.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.