Wristbands and the Multi-Million Dollar Cancer Fundraising Industry
October 28, 2004

In America, Cancer fundraising is king. At least once a month in some way or another I am hit up on the job for cash in order to support some Cancer cause including prevention, treatment, and finding a cure for a disease that seems to be taking out someone I know at least twice a year. I trust that the Susan G. Komen foundation along with the Cancer Care Alliance can be counted among the two to bring in the most revenue.

Am I the only one who raises both eyebrows to this new rise in capitalizing on peoples' losses and pain via fundraising to "cure" a disease? And especially when the word "cure" is really up for discussion as a good part of me is inclined to think that with the cash flow this cause is bringing in, the arrival at a cure isn't exactly the goal anymore. I mean really, curing cancer although ideal isn't exactly in the best interest of those whose livelihood is based on the actual "research process".

My intention here is not to be insensitive about what I see is a great need, but merely to put the very thing we often glaze over because of the exterior of "good" under a necessary microscope.

Perhaps I take this reserved perspective because I live in Seattle, Washington, cancer research capitol of the world and home of the renowned Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where everyone seeking out the latest and greatest in cancer therapy and discoveries comes to visit. In eight grade, one of my classmates was the daughter of famed astronomer (and evolutionist) Carl Sagan who temporarily re-located to Seattle for the sole purpose of getting treatment. "Fred Hutch" as we affectionately call it, pulls in big donors from around the world. They are perhaps the wealthiest nonprofit in existence in the Pacific Northwest. You should see their benefit galas, all the old (and new) money from around the town comes out in their best after five attire and parties the night away at the finest hotels for $250 a plate.

Awhile back, I took some flak short of being called "heretical" when I suggested I was skeptical of the latest fundraising trend by way of the Lance Armstrong Foundation: the yellow wristband. Well, here we are almost three months later, and the press is beginning to confirm some of my suspicions (although indirectly).

It was recently announced that approximately $20 million has been raised via the yellow bracelets thus far and with a significant amount on back order, the organization has no plans of slowing up anytime soon. The Houston Chronicle reported that the latest trend in fundraising has charities copying the bracelet, hoping for similar success:

"Charities and causes of all stripes are rushing to cash in on the popularity of the Lance Armstrong Foundation's yellow wristband.

A rainbow of wristbands are now being sold to promote awareness of everything from breast cancer to high medical malpractice premiums for doctors.

The trendy silicone rubber bracelet produced by the cycling superstar's cancer-fighting organization is imprinted with the motto "Live Strong." This week, the foundation will announce that it has sold 20 million wristbands at $1 each, the Austin American-Statesman reported today.

Proceeds go toward programs for young people with cancer."

That is 77% of the proceeds. The remaining goes to "overhead". Seventy-seven cents on every dollar are promised to go to "research". Because of the nature of and sensitivity surrounding such a cause, the regulation of funds received for "research" is not generally brought under suspicion.

Still, with the rise in the wristband's popularity, the opportunists have come out. Since the bracelets are in such high demand (month-long back order) The Detroit News reported on the rising trend in eBay price-mongering:

"...the yellow rubber wristband with the words “Live Strong” has become the fashion statement of the times.

Unfortunately, this hot new trend also has become the folly of some opportunists on eBay, who can’t resist a two-bit profit on an otherwise humanitarian effort....thanks to some heartless people, the yellow bands are now reselling on eBay for upward of $20 and the sellers are pocketing the profit.

“We are extremely disappointed that eBay has refused to take these auctions down,” Michelle Milford, a spokeswoman for the foundation, told me.

Milford says the foundation receives an average of 200,000 orders in a single day. The nonprofit’s warehouse can only produce 600,000 a week.

For those that may not know, Nike gave $1 million in seed money to kick off the Armstrong Foundation's campaign. A few discerning ones have been wise to note that the yellow wristband trend is extremely clever marketing on the part of Nike who partnered with the foundation to mass produce the bracelets. Undoubtedly, the funds raked in as a result of other Live Strong merchandise sold (e.g. shorts and t-shirts) far outweigh the current $20 million raised thus far in the campaign. And as far as I know, those funds aren't being donated to cancer research.

This isn't a knock against those who choose to support the cancer cause by purchasing or wearing this bracelet. I in fact probably have one somewhere in my disorganized junk drawer. If anything, my raised eyebrows exist simply because I see an area of permissibility in America that often goes unquestioned. Americans will generally give to any cause that seems "good" because for the most part, we all need to appease our consciences and make up for the lack of charity we show the rest of the year. Still, I feel more inclined to seek out other ways to help this cause. There's too much room for my dollars to end up in the wrong hands.

Are we headed in the right direction towards finding a cure? Draw your own conclusions.

Posted by Ambra at October 28, 2004 1:33 AM in Culture
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77% isn't a very good number, but I don't know how much the actual bracelet costs to produce, package, and mail. I can believe 23 cents to get a bracelet out.

On the other hand a few years ago the fad was WWJD bracelets. Did any portion of that money go to charity? I betting it all went into some fashion accessory company's pocket. Just playing a little devils advocate here.

Perhaps someone more knowledgeable about illnesses can correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought that cancer (like AIDS) changes over time, and that drugs/treatment used for a particular patient may not be effective in the future for a different patient, and/or the cancer changes over time for a particular patient and becomes unresponsive to the already-tried treatment.

This does not mean that we should stop trying to find a cure. We could question the use of funds, with perhaps less going to finding the "cure" and more funding for quality-of-life improvement to those battling cancer. It's up to the donors to question how their money is being used and choosing charities wisely, rather than it going the "fad charity du jour".

Every year my company goes overboard on Relay for Life, and every year I feel like I'm the bad guy since I don't go gung-ho over their fundraisers. I wish they could keep the workplace for work and keep the begging out. If a company wants to donate to charity, fine, just don't strong-arm the employees. And don't get me started on the cookie dough-popcorn-candy selling in the office either ...

Around here the strongarming is for United Way.

77% isn't very good?

As I understand the fundraising/charity business, 77% is an excellent number.

I am intrigued as to why anyone would pay $20 for one of the wristbands on eBay. The motivation is not at all clear to me. (Nor, on the other hand, is it clear to me why the foundation thinks eBay should take down such auctions. Is it merely because they're not getting a cut? Do they think they own the bracelet even after you buy it?)

My wife sells the bracelets on Ebay. She is not making $20 a piece, but getting about half that on average. She gave the Armstrong foundation every bit of money they wanted for them. They, the foundation, does not hold a lein on them so they are hers to sell. If she gives them away -- so be it. However, if someone does not want to wait the 4 to 6 weeks to get them (I understan you have to buy more than one) then they bid on ebay and get them overnight. Its a fashion statement. The point is, the foundation is getting every bit of money it wanted from each of them. $1 each.
I buy a pair of Nike sneakers. Later, they become hot and I sell them for 5x's what I paid for them. Whats the difference?
No foul, no harm.

ItsNotAboutHeaven

Am I the only one that seems to have noticed that the only people I ever see wearing the yellow bracelet seem to hard core Democrats? I was just thinking that it had morphed into an unwritten badge of support for Kerry since I always see Kerry wearing his. Or am I crazy???

Jeff; i don't think the devil needs and advocate..ha ha. But really, I agree 77% isn't good for a cause that's purely charity related. I don't think the WWJD fad ever sought to be raising money. That's the main difference there.

Hey Sarah yeah the United Way thing is underway here too. From what I hear they give 93% of all funds received to their agencies. The thing I don't dig about United Way is the fact that you don't always know where your money's going if it's designated to "the safetynet". And if you pick up the listing of the agencies they support, there are some questionable ones (think Queer Alliance for GLBT Adoption) and things of that nature. Still you can designate your funds. Still, United Way is another one of those sketchy orgs to me.

MarcV you forgot WRAPPING paper fundraisers too. I get hit up for those all the time. And I'm glad to hear somebody else plays the bad guy. I'm the one who gets irritated at the number of fundraisers we do for JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes). My goodness, they might as well get my entire paycheck. But enough of that. You're right. Unless donors police, it's free for all. Well that an nonprofits get audited.

Autumn: I'm glad someone else besides me pointed this out. And I might add, it's no coincidence that every photo op he gets, John Kerry is sporting a yellow bracelet too.

The bracelets are not curing cancer, they are supposed to be a statement that raises awareness of cancer. Does anyone think that every person who wears these LAF bracelets are aware of the effects of cancer - the havioc it causes in lives. NO, NO, NO, there is only a small % of people who wear them proudly in support of their cancer research. They have become nothing but a fashion statement - I have refused to wear mine since Kerry wears his everywhere and I don't want to copy him. Plus, I don't wear one for fear that someone will think that I agree with Lance's philosy - I don't!. I have no idea how much money the LAF is contributing towards cancer research from these bracelets - if you chose to give to the LAF then I would hope you have done your homework.

Now - since I am trying to make an extra buck I have purchased several, several of these bands from the LAF - therefore - I have contributed to Lance's cancer research. Due to the popularity of these bracelets I resell them on auction for around $10-$15 each. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this since I have purchased them from the foundation. If there are people who care so much about a crazed fashion statement to pay over $10 for a freakin' rubber band then more power to them. If I was stealing them or faking them then I would be in the wrong but I"m not - I'm what's known as a reseller! Shutting down an auction that sells a rubber band is inane. What say you about me selling a yellow shirt I purchased from lance? Nothing....Peace and chill out.

I just had several chunks of cancer removed from my neck last week, so you can bet I have some opinions on "cancer research."

I also have kids in publicly and privately funded schools, so I also have opinions on selling useless stuff as "fund raisers."

Cancer is the ultimate auto-immune disease, and IMO the absolute best place to be putting money is into prevention. Better nutrition and lifestyle modifications (increasing movement [not necessarily exercise], getting some sun, limiting smoking, alchohol exposure...) could be easily accomplished and would probably slash cancer rates, but these things will never be advocated strongly enough to make a difference, because no one can ever make a profit from the population adopting these healthful choices en masse.

There are many cancer treatments, particularly insulin potentiated chemotherapy, that have been very effectively used in other countries for decades that are all but ignored here. What's up with that? I think research here tends to become insular and circular, with everyone chasing after the Big Cure. It seems like these foundations are more about public appearances and show than they are about actually helping people who are sick and dying.

And I absolutely detest having to buy anything -- even Girl Scout cookies -- to help an organization "raise funds." If I want to give them money, that's what I do. I'd much rather hand the Cadet $5, all of which goes to the troop, than spend $6 on two boxes of toxic cookies (have you looked at the ingredients?), of which maybe 50 cents -- at most $1 -- goes to the troop.

I strongly advise everyone to refuse to participate in these shake-down schemes in which we supposedly "get something" for our "charity". Here's a hint: when you get something in return, it's not charity. Your "charity" is no different from any other purchase transaction.

The latest I'm dealing with? My kids' elementary school fund-raiser is huge tubs of scoop-and-bake cookie dough, replete with hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup... I wouldn't feed these cookies to my kids if they were free, and I'm certainly not going to ask anyone else to buy this stuff. I will send my kids to school with a check for more than what they'd get for selling 20 tubs a piece, though.

My kids won't get the "incentive awards" but the school will get the cash, and I'll have spared my family the artery-damaging effects of that cookie dough.

Oh, dear -- I may have trouble getting off this extra-high soap box I seem to have climbed up on -- this subject sees the convergence of two of my pet issues: bad nutrition and peddling junk for fund raising... sorry!

the problems with a cancer cure in the USA is hampered by the FDA - People are needlessly dying from cancer due to FDA regulation that are keeping the USA up to 10yrs behind in research. The FDA prevents trial meds from going to those these meds may help. The FDA forces researchers to keep people who would benefit from certain drugs out of trials....and on, and on, and on. Any quesions on the evils of the FDA and how they are allowing people to die from cancer check out the life extension foundtion research. They have so much documented on this it alone will make you sick!

Wow Joan, the "chunks" terminology really gave me a mental picture. And I agree, prevention is where the focus should be. There are so many things so many people have been doing wrong for so many years. And with the boom of the health and wellness industry, there's no way we shouldn't be seriously channeling efforts to getting peopled educated about prevention.

And Ohmygoodness, and the cookie dough fundraisers and likes...you are SO right. I wish you hadn't pulled that soapbox from under yourself so quickly. I want to hear more!

Sharon: I don't even want to be BEGIN thinking about what they're not telling us. I bank on human nature as purely wicked.

Joan, I agree. These are all shakedown schemes. As for reselling on eBay or a flea market big deal, owners can do as they please.

Jeff: I'd wager it only costs 2 or 3 cents to make, the rest is overhead. Unless the foundation workers are all volunteers and work for free, nevertheless, there still is other overhead involved such as office space and comms.

I wear my yellow band because it motivates me to work hard to overcome the obstacles in my life, which pale in comparison to people who have had to personally deal with cancer. If Lance (and everyone else) can continue on with life and thrive, so can I.

I could care less who else wears one, and the motivation it gives me is worth at least a dollar.

Aw man, you missed your chance!
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