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How much pink turns into green?

Breast Cancer

It can be hard to know what good comes from buying products that promise profits to breast cancer causes. The American Institute of Philanthropy gives out grades to help clarify the choices.

October 04, 2010|By Julia Edwards, Tribune Newspapers

Pink toothbrushes, pink bottles of wine, pink debit cards — there's a chance to donate to breast cancer pretty much everywhere you shop. But how can you tell how much good comes from each piece of pink?

It's a reasonable question, considering the complexity of charitable giving and the millions of dollars involved.

"People of every age are very sympathetic to breast cancer and willing to help, and fundraisers take advantage of that," says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a nonprofit organization in Chicago that helps donors make informed giving decisions. "They are motivated to help, but may not look into whether or not they are being efficient."

The makers of some pink products donate proceeds only for a limited time, says Borochoff. These products may command a higher price tag, and sometimes they will remain on sale after the donation period ends — even with the higher price.

Companies often place a cap on the amount they will give to a breast cancer cause no matter how many items are sold. And while some manufacturers promise to give a percentage of total profits, in a poor economy, those profits may be scarce.

"It's really tricky because there's a lot of fine print," Borochoff says.

The American Institute of Philanthropy gives grades to charities so that donors can see which ones will use their money most efficiently. The highest grades are awarded to organizations that spend most of their revenue on their mission — not on fundraising itself.

The top breast cancer charities include the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (A+), the National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund (A), the Breast Cancer Fund (A-) and Susan G. Komen for the Cure (B+). The Fs went to charities with similar-sounding names: American Breast Cancer Foundation, United Breast Cancer Foundation and Coalition Against Breast Cancer.

To earn an A, charities had to spend at least 75% of the money they raised on the mission they claimed to support, with the rest going to fundraising activities and employee salaries. C-range companies devote about 60% of their revenue to their stated mission. But there's a gray area — sometimes an organization counts a fundraising plea as part of its mission to educate by tacking on a reminder to get a mammogram.

"As long as direct mail includes some kind of 'education,' then they think they can count that as one of their programs," says Laurie Styron, an analyst at the American Institute of Philanthropy who combs through the finances of charities to separate fundraising from programs.

To Styron, the most surprising grade went to the Avon Foundation for Women, which sponsors the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. The organization gives 69% of its fundraising dollars to programs, but it was penalized for blurring the line between the foundation and the beauty products corporation.

"The bottom line is to buy the best product for the best price," Borochoff says. "Any money you save you can donate to charity, and then you get the tax deduction."

juliaedwards@tribune.com

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