According to Chuck McLean, vice president for research at GuideStar, a nonprofit tracker in Williamsburg, Va., Komen's tax filings indicate that it spent 77% of its income on programs in the year that ended March 31, 2011. Though some would consider this relatively low, it can be difficult to compare numbers between charities.
"The rules for classifying expenses are extremely vague," said Peter Frumkin, director of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas in Austin. "One organization would see a secretary and say, 'Her job is administrative.' Another would say, 'She's critical to our program work.' "
McLean calculated that it costs Komen about 11 cents to raise a dollar, a ratio that's "very typical."
And Komen Chief Executive Nancy J. Brinker's 2010 compensation of $417,171 was in line with salaries of heads of other large philanthropies. Among charities that take in between $200 million and $500 million each year, the average chief executive salary is $430,000, according to CharityWatch.
"It's a real eye-opener for a lot of people," said Ken Berger, chief executive of Charity Navigator, which rates the efficiency and organizational stability of nonprofit groups. "But Susan G. Komen is one of the largest nonprofits in the U.S."
CharityWatch recently downgraded Komen from a B+ rating to a B in part because, according to Borochoff's estimates, its fundraising costs had climbed from 17 cents per dollar to about 25 cents per dollar in the last year.
Other breast cancer nonprofit groups have higher ratings from CharityWatch — the Breast Cancer Research Foundation earned an A+ and the National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund an A.
But, Borochoff emphasized, a B is still a very good rating and Komen's growth has remained impressive. In the last year, the group's income rose from $400 million to $440 million. "In this economy, 10% growth is pretty good," he said.
Komen's audited financial statements show that it spent $181 million on public health education and $75 million on research in the year ending March 31. In a news conference last week, Brinker said she wanted to boost the foundation's funding of research.
"One could certainly make an argument that they'd rather see more of the money go to finding a cure," Borochoff said.
Special correspondent Christie Aschwanden in Cedaredge, Colo., contributed to this report.