How to not cure cancer

Skeptics and atheists and freethinking folk are supposed to be smart, and they are supposed to be inquiring and, well, skeptical and freethinking and stuff. But they very very often are not. Between skeptics being politically conservative (mainly with respect to social issues) and often not as inquiring and smart as they are fond of telling the rest of us they are, I am sufficiently annoyed by the movement(s) as a whole to reserve calling myself, for instance, a skeptic. If anything, I’m a skeptical skeptic. A godless freethinking skeptical meta-skeptic. That’s me.

The latest example of skeptical sorts being less smart than they claim they are has to do with the American Cancer Society. It is pretty well known that the American Cancer society uses far less than 100% of the money that is donated to them for actual research, treatment, or support, and that much of the money goes to internal costs and high executive salaries. You may recall that my friend Jaf recently wrote about her experience with one of their foot race fundraisers, where most of the money went to running the run, and not to cancer research. Jaf discovered that nearly 100% of the funds raised by runners went to managing the race. The Charity Navigator gives the ACS only three stars with a mere 48 percent financial rating, and document that program, administrative, and fundraising expenses add up to a high percentage of their take, often more than their take. In the fiscal year ending in 2009, the national organization took in $930 million, and spent 71.6 percent on “program expenses.” Keep in mind that the local races raised money that was mostly used to run the race, then passed this money on to the national organization, which significantly cuts into the percentage of money used for cancer related purposes. In that year they have a running deficit of 73 million borrowed from their 1.3 billion dollar bank account. The CEO gets just under one million, which is less than some others on their payroll get.

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, the Cancer Support Community, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation, and about 29 other societies or foundations have four star ratings from the Charity Navigator. Damon Runyon netted over 4 million in the same fiscal year referenced above, adding to it’s net assets of over 76 million. Small change compared to the ACS, but if you give money to them, it goes to something. Damon Runyon’s highest paid executive makes a third of the highest paid exec for the American Cancer Society. In other words, all these charities mostly spend the money you give them or raise for them on themselves, but among all those involved in cancer, the American Cancer society is behind dozens of others in efficiency.

So, here’s the thing. According to a recent article by Greta Christina,

…Todd Stiefel — philanthropist and founder of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, which provides financial support to atheist and other nonprofit and charitable organizations — approached the American Cancer Society with an offer. He wanted local atheist groups around the world to participate in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life program, as a national team, under the banner of the humanist charitable organization Foundation Beyond Belief. In order to make this happen, he made a generous offer: a $250,000 matching offer from the Todd Stiefel Foundation, which, as a matching offer, was likely to bring in a half million dollars to the American Cancer Society.

I have to ask myself if Todd Stiefel, the SFF, and the FBF are on the ball here. A small amount of research would likely have steered them away from the choice of ACS to raise funds for cancer research, treatment, or support. If these people and organizations were able to raise a half a million bucks, and I have no doubt they can, it would be more effective to randomly chose a major University research lab or two, have lunch with the lab directors to verify that they really are doing interesting cancer research … the lunch should be at a modest restaurant, of course … and just hand the damn money over to them. Hey, if they want to do it at the University of Minnesota, I would volunteer to personally oversee the expenditure to make sure it is not used on frivolities, and I’d provide an excellent report of what the money was used for and how it helped cancer research.

But the situation is much worse that the ACS being inefficient. It turns out, as Greta discusses in her excellent article, that the American Cancer Society did everything they could do to NOT take this half million dollars from the above mentioned individuals and organizations. It appears, though the parties involved were cagey enough to have avoided full incrimination, that the American Cancer Society is not interested in getting money from atheists. At all.

Well, if the atheists and skeptics and freethinkers were a little smarter than they are, they wouldn’t be interested in giving it. So this wouldn’t be a problem.

The lesson here is simple: Don’t give money to the American Cancer Society. For two reasons.

Do go read Greta’s piece at AlterNet. Then, if this makes you feel like giving money to something, click here.

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23 thoughts on “How to not cure cancer

  1. There’s in general a lot of issues not just among the skeptical movement but among people in general in giving money to charities without paying enough attention to which charities actually create the most return for humanity. I don’t think in that broader context that blaming the skeptical movement like there’s something wrong with it is good in this context, especially when the matching donation offer came from a specific person. There’s no question that the problem in question here is a problem that the skeptical community should be aware of given how it prides itself on attention to evidence. But anything like the skeptical movement is going to have problems occasionally. This is in a way just like science as a whole. Sometimes it get things wrong, and sometimes it stumbles. That’s a fault of the method. The advantage is that skeptics (like scientists) are willing to admit when they are wrong, pick up and doing something else. That’s what matters. Being right now isn’t as important as being not as wrong in the future.

  2. Sounds like a bunch of back pedaling to me, Josh! Of course the point is not that Skeptics are always wrong about everything, but rather, that they were very wrong about this (assuming I’m right, of course, which so far I appear to be). But this is a fairly large deal. If you think you can raise a half million dollars in one (large coordinated) effort, you would bother to check the overhead rate on your main broker. They didn’t.

    That does not mean that skeptics are always wrong.

    I guess the irony is that had the ACS not acted in an entirely inappropriate manner, which they appear to have done, the atheists/freethinkers/skeptics would have pissed away away a half million bucks to buy some guy a yacht. Or part of a yacht (I have no idea how much they cost).

  3. Greg, you seem correct about the ironic element. And I agree that Todd Stiefel, the SFF, and the FBF all dropped the ball pretty badly here. The threads about this at Friendly Atheist also pointed out the serious problems with the ACS and made it clear that minimal fact checking would have found then. Actually, when I first heard about this I had suspected that the behavior of the ACS may have actually contributed to the lack of good checking in a sort of Tom Sawyer’s fence sort of way. But then it came out that they had already hired an intern to help with this which suggests that pretty early on they had already set their sight on the ACS and weren’t doing any further research.

  4. If these people and organizations were able to raise a half a million bucks, and I have no doubt they can….

    This, from the self-proclaimed skeptical meta-skeptic? 😉

    (I do have my suspicions this may have been slipped in on purpose. If not, you can always pretend it was!)

  5. Greg, I don’t have an opinion about whether ACS is the best or worst option for cancer donations, but I just want to point out that when a charity watchdog like Charity Navigator says (as you summarize) that “program, administrative, and fundraising expenses add up to a high percentage of their take, often more than their take,” program expenses are the real work of the charity. Charity Navigator’s glossary says, “Program Expenses: This measure reflects what percent of its total budget a charity spends on the programs and services it exists to deliver.”

    According to Charity Navigator, ACS spent $719 million on “program expenses” in FY 08/09 out of a total budget of $1,003 million. We’d have to look at ACS’s detailed financials to know what they included in the $719 for program expenses, but presumably that’s where the money for research was spent. ACS’ program expense % is 71.6% of its total budget. By comparison, the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, which gets four stars, is 80.4%. So ACS may not be the best, but to say “It is pretty well known that the American Cancer society uses only a small percentage of the money that is donated to them for actual research, treatment, or support, and that most of the money goes to internal costs and high executive salaries.” seems an exaggeration.

  6. Randy: This, from the self-proclaimed skeptical meta-skeptic? 😉
    (I do have my suspicions this may have been slipped in on purpose. If not, you can always pretend it was!)


    Did you read the original article? I’ve been following this on Friendly Atheist as well. It appears that there was a great deal of interest. 250K is already there and committed …. waiting to be used as matching funds. Chances are the race was a good focus for fundraising even though the funds would be useless), and not doing that would require a different approach, but there was excitement and interest and a very large number of people involved. They couuld get the 250 over a year or two (or 2.5?) and match it with the 250 in place.

    So actually, your comment is a great example of how skepticism often goes wrong! You did not personally already know this stuff, so you assume it is not likely true and play the skepticism card! What skeptics are skeptical about vs. not is a psychological, social, and cultural phenomenon, just like the rest of those silly humans, not a rational super-smart thingie like they think it is! 🙂

  7. @Greg Laden: Actually, yes, I read it a week or so ago at FA (which I only just found a couple of weeks ago or so, by coincidence). I was being entirely tongue-in-cheek with my “accusation”; I thought using a silly smiley face and parenthetical might be overkill, but perhaps not.

    More seriously, though, one point you seem to have overlooked or omitted is that they could likely bring in at least somewhat more outside donations when associated with a big name like ACS, than with a smaller fish in the big pond of charity. A minor side issue, is all.

  8. I had a smily face too!

    likely bring in at least somewhat more outside donations when associated with a big name like ACS, than with a smaller fish in the big pond of charity.

    I do note that in my response to you.

    If they wen the ACS route, in one season they could get involved in 100 already planned races. Of course, they might (or might not, I’m not sure) find that when an individual racer rasied 100 bucks that onyly 10 got to the ACS and then of those 7 to cancer related things … and also, I wonder if the 250K goes to match at the level of the local race (thus 1/10 dollars get passed on) or the national post-race-cost contribution. These things are not clear.

    But to continue, yes, the infrastructure is in place to turn effort and energy into fund raising, so the whole thing could be done in a year. If they try for the half mil without any existing charity it would take two to two and a half years to get together 250K to meet the match, I’d guess (gut feeling entirely).

  9. It takes a special kind of bastard to steal money donated to cancer research. The same sort who wouldn’t even try to make it subtle; note that their transparency/accountability rating is rated four stars. Thanks for the heads up, Greg.

  10. Ah, Greg… there’s a lot wrong with what you wrote up there, but I’m just going to quickly point out three of the most glaring:

    1) If you bother to find the ACS Combined Audited Financial Statements (available on their website), you would see that in the most recent fiscal year listed (Sept 1, 2009 – to Aug 31 2010) that ACS and ALL its regional divisions reported a combined income of $956,129,000 and spent a combined $951,123,000 on all expenses. The split was 72% on Programs and 28% on administration and fundraising.

    2) “Program Expenses” refers to the cancer related work the ACS does (Research, Prevention, Detection/Treatment, and Patient Support). I’m not sure why you’re making up rates of $7 out of every $100 actually making it to “cancer related things” when the organization has clearly laid out audited financial statements that show (even accounting for the transfer from local to national organization) that last year $72 out of every $100 was spent on “cancer related things”. Whether you think that is an acceptable number is up to you, but let’s not make up numbers a whole order of magnitude off.

    (By comparison, the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation spends $81 of every $100 on “cancer related things”, although at their current level, it would take DRCRF over 75 years to match the amount the ACS spends on programs in a single year.)

    3) I’ve never heard of any University associated research lab being able to directly receive funds from a donor. For what I hope would be obvious ethical/legal/logistic reasons, these are usually handled through an associated Foundation/Society set up for expressly this purpose. In the case of the University of Minnesota, that would appear to be the Minnesota Medical Foundation. The MMF’s Charity Navigator score: Three Stars.

  11. Jrb, I fail to see how your point number 1 is different than what I said. Regarding 2, I know. Regarding 3, You’re wrong. You’re not having heard of it is really not that relevant.

  12. While I’m here, would you mind telling me where your friend Jaf said “…that nearly 100% of the funds raised by runners went to managing the race.”

    Because when I go to the linked blog article the only relevant part I see says, “I do feel, however, that they put too much money into the event… I believe they mentioned that they got about $3o,000 from sponsors and that covered the overhead costs for running the event.”

    That would seem to imply the opposite of what you said and that thanks to the support of sponsors covering the costs of the event, 100% of the money raised by the runners would go to the ACS.

  13. “While I’m here”

    ? you’re not really here. You’re using the interent. You’re there, I’m here.

    Sponsors in that context are the people sponsoring the runners.

    Hey, guess what. Tonight, they turned on a special lighting arrangement on the new span over the Mississippi here in Minneapolis … the bridge that replaced the one that fell down. It’s all pink. Probably cost thousands to do that. Do you know what they did it for?

    Yes, you’ve guessed correctly. For the upcoming ACS race.

    Meanwhile we are having a race Saturday AM in minneapolis called the Big Gay Race. 100% of the funds from that go to the cause the race is being run for. Details here:

  14. For the ACS, “Program” includes donations to political parties. I am not sure how much of the total is used in that manner

    “for every $1 spent on direct service, approximately $6.40 is spent on compensation and overhead. In all ten states, salaries and fringe benefits are by far the largest single budget items, a surprising fact in light of the characterization of the appeals, which stress an urgent and critical need for donations to provide cancer services.

    Nationally, only 16 percent or less of all money raised is spent on direct services to cancer victims, like driving cancer patients from the hospital after chemotherapy and providing pain medication.

    Most of the funds raised by the ACS go to pay overhead, salaries, fringe benefits, and travel expenses of its national executives in Atlanta. They also go to pay chief executive officers, who earn six-figure salaries in several states, and the hundreds of other employees who work out of some 3,000 regional offices nationwide. The typical ACS affiliate, which helps raise the money for the national office, spends more than 52 percent of its budget on salaries, pensions, fringe benefits, and overhead for its own employees. Salaries and overhead for most ACS affiliates also exceeded 50 percent, although most direct community services are handled by unpaid volunteers”

  15. You know, Rosemary, speaking of skepticism, citing a link from a site that claims that drinking milk is a major cause of cancer makes me mighty skeptical.

  16. Skeptics tend to be conservative? Compared to what? Oh well. In my experience, reality has a distinct liberal bias.

    You ignore a main objective of the donation (the primary objective in my estimation). ACS has a high profile and the donation would get a lot of publicity. I suggest that a main goal is to seek recognition of atheist giving and to put in on equal footing with giving by religious organizations. The goal isn’t just to be charitable, it’s to get widespread recognition that good deeds aren’t the property of the pious.

    Giving directly to research could certainly be a more effective use of funds, but there would be next to no meaninful public image equity doing that. And in a perverse way, the very rejection of the Freethought offer provides even greater PR benefits than ACS quietly accepting the donations. Perhaps these folks are smarter than you give them credit for. Many of us unorganized skeptics give quietly and get no credit. An organization of freethinkers had better consider the PR benefits of charity in this political environment.

  17. I did not ignore that objective. It is quite obvious, and in fact, the present outcome, though not what was intended, is an important result, as you point out.

    Nonetheless, when you think about the diminishing returns from something like races, where perhaps 7 dollars out of 100 go to “program” (though that would not affect the matching fund value it would apply to the local race funds), spending a half a mil to look like you’re giving good money to a good cause when you are really doing something less than brilliant counteracts that objective.

    Which brings us back to my point.

    Giving directly to research could certainly be a more effective use of funds, but there would be next to no meaninful public image equity doing that.

    Likely, but not necessarily. The same organization(s) that can raise all this money because of their high visibility and stuff could let people know about it, if they did it right.

  18. I have found skeptics the opposite – more prone to libertarianism (right-wing economics, liberal social policies).

  19. I think that skeptics are all sorts, politically, and yes, quite a few libertarians.

    But a truely skeptical view of the world would naturally lead one towards progressive values, right? All the TRUE skeptics are progressive liberal feminists. Everybody else is faking it.

  20. I assume the Foundation Beyond Belief chose the ACS for two reasons:

    1) Raise funds for cancer research. A noble endeavor that will help solve one of the most troubling human issues.

    2) Many non-skeptics believe that the irreligious/secular are completely indifferent to human suffering. It is my belief that the FBB chose the ACS because it is a well-known entity in the charity world and recognition from such an organization would help correct this misnomer.

    The ACS not accepting the donation will prove to be far more affective though.

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