The weekend to end modesty

By Dan Delmar on September 4, 2008

Everything about the recent Weekend to End Breast Cancer is over the top. Judging solely based on the millions of dollars raised, one could come to the conclusion that the adage ‘bigger is better’ should be applied to charity. But when a supposedly selfless deed is flaunted in front of an entire city and turned into an exercise of corporate and self-promotion, what’s left is a sad commentary on just how selfish we’ve become.

The absurdity in the event’s name alone seems to be lost on most people. After its fourth annual weekend, breast cancer continues to kill people on the following Monday morning. Despite being given false hope, participants continue to fork over millions every year in the belief that they are taking part in something “life-changing,” and “world-changing,” according to the promotional literature. Granted, those who were walking crookedly last week, nursing blisters after the 60km island-wide trek, are to be commended for raising money for a worthwhile cause (the Jewish General Hospital’s Segal Cancer Centre). Along with a pat on the back, allow me to enlighten the walkers on whom else they’re helping.

The JGH hires a company called CauseForce, based in Hollywood no less, to organize and promote the event. Although little is known about the company, we do know it puts on similar events across Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. The Weekend to End Breast Cancer’s marketing formula, for example, is a virtual carbon-copy in every Canadian city, from Vancouver to Halifax: Same logos, same photographs, same television ads and same advertising copy (word for word). It’s essentially a franchise that uses many of the same marketing tactics as a McDonald’s or a Burger King, but instead applied to charity. It makes perfect sense from a business standpoint: Re-use the same marketing material in every city and save a small fortune.

This brings me to the most obvious question of all: How much is CauseForce’s cut? How much of your donation is going toward the “battle against breast cancer” and how much is going into CauseForce coffers? I’m sorry to say I don’t know. The JGH—despite being a hospital funded with public money—has withheld those exact figures since the Weekends began in 2005. It would be nice if it did, at least for the sake of transparency.

In order to maintain the status of charitable organization in the eyes of Revenue Canada, 80 per cent of funds collected must go toward the cause. The JGH has said in the past that CauseForce is paid only a flat fee, not a percentage on the final take. A line taken from a Vancouver event waiver form makes one wonder just what the hard numbers are, exactly:

“CauseForce Inc. cannot make any guarantees about what percentage of a donation will remain for the cause and what percentage will help cover the expenses of the event. This depends entirely on how many people participate and on how much money they raise. The more we raise, the greater the percentage that will remain for the cause.”

The first three weekends raised a total of $25-million for the JGH – great. It’s not like I’m pro-cancer. But do the ends justify the means? The sheer magnitude of the event takes attention away from other smaller, grassroots charities that may eventually have to compete on a grander scale just to remind Montrealers that they’re still there. Then we get into a battle of attention-grabbers (CauseForce’s Underwear Affair has participants shamelessly running around in their skimpies), which is annoying on many levels.

There’s the office charity collection agent who squeezes every last penny out of colleagues in an attempt to reach a fundraising goal (with the Weekend, you’re banned from strutting around town in your pink tights unless you come up with $2,000). It’s simply the needless excess of these walks that I find curious. Raising money can directly help a charity – there’s no question about it. But how does flaunting your sacrifice in front of the city help said charity?

The automatic response from the pink ribbon crowd is the incredible amount of “awareness” that is “raised.” Thank-you for finally making me aware of a disease that touches no less than one in nine Canadian women; a disease that has become the darling cause of the corporate world because its victims are in a desired target demographic; a disease that I’m reminded of daily because people plaster pink ribbons on their carcinogen-spewing SUVs in an utterly backward gesture of solidarity; a disease that killed my grandmother and nearly killed my aunt. Thank-you for parading yourselves across the island and back, alerting me to this silent killer!

Sarcasm aside, I don’t doubt that most of the participants had good intentions. But in my view, they are misguided. It’s time to bring modesty back into the act of giving. What’s wrong with writing a cheque or putting a bill into a tin, satisfied in knowing that you did a good deed and kept it to yourself? Why do you need to get something in return (a plastic bracelet, a bumper sticker), much in the same manner you would with any transaction at a store? Why do you need to show everyone what a benevolent person you are?

With respect to breast cancer and the pink ribbon, we need to shift our focus from a consumer-driven attitude to a more pro-active ‘buyer-beware’ attitude. There’s a reason many corporations are so quick to adopt the ribbon, which in itself was born from focus groups: Many cosmetics contain a group of chemical preservatives known as parabens, which have been linked (albeit loosely, for now) to cancer; pharmacies sell drugs that treat the disease; car companies and big oil contribute directly to rising cancer rates because of vehicle emissions; General Electric builds mammogram machines and Kodak supplies the film for them. The thing about corporate charity is that it’s not really charity, it’s marketing. “Cause marketing,” is the industry term, to be more precise.

Walkers: Consider yourselves heroic and inspired if you must, but know that you’re being used as living, breathing promotional tools to sell stuff. Donors: Cut out the middleman and write a cheque to the Segal Cancer Centre (and don’t tell me about it). Charity is not a transaction, nor is it a means of self-promotion. It’s giving without getting something in return. An anonymous donation may not be as gratifying in the short-term, but I promise you, it’s better for the soul.


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