Non-profit Turf Wars: The Challenges When Every Group Is “For the Cure”
1. Feeding orphans
2. Building houses for the poor
3. Challenging unconstitutional government actions
4. Suing small nonprofits for trademark infringement
Now, I don’t have any data on this, but I suspect most of us would not choose number 4. So the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure is risking the alienation of a lot of people when it spends almost a million dollars a year defending its trademarks. Even supporter Stephen Colbert was inspired to lend his particular brand of criticism to their actions, which seem to go against the most basic principles of charity. Does it really matter which cancer-fighting organization money goes to? After all, these groups are all working toward the same goal, right?
Well, not really. The current fundraising climate for nonprofits is bleak, and competitiveness is increasing. If two groups have very similar names, the risk that someone will mistakenly give money to one when it meant to give to the other is a very real threat for a group. This problem is compounded by the existence of the internet, as evidenced by woundedwarriors.org, the site of an Omaha charity, which the Wounded Warriors Project, a similarly-named Florida charity, says received $2.2 million in donations intended for its group.
This confusion can also be a problem for donors who want their donations to make as big an impact as possible. Susan G. Komen has four stars on Charity Navigator, a website designed to rate the efficiency of national charities, and Uniting Against Lung Cancer, which runs Kites for a Cure, has a respectable three, but other groups may be too small or too new to receive similar positive ratings. A donor who thinks their money will mostly be spent on research or treatment programs may be funding overhead on a group that is run inefficiently or even corruptly.
This problem isn’t new. The predecessor to the organization I used to work for called itself the Committees of Correspondence, a title that should by all rights be in the public domain as an historical artifact. However, in the late 80s and early 90s, a Massachusetts drug prevention group and a democratic socialist group both began using the same name; suffice it to say, there was some unhappiness about the situation. Although it never went to court, this may have had more to do with the fact that none of the groups had any money for legal fees.
And that may be what makes the Susan G. Komen situation so distasteful to most people. Komen pulls in almost $300 million a year, while the organizations they go after are much smaller and don’t have the resources to argue that there isn’t actually a risk of confusion. Komen comes across as a bully, more interested in helping themselves than helping others. It may be a good idea from an intellectual property standpoint, but from a PR standpoint, Komen might be better served by backing off, at least a little.