Is Susan G. Komen for the Cure Getting Too Big For Her Britches?

A Review of Promise Me by Nancy G. Brinker with Joni Rodgers

Feb 24, 2011 by

"Race For The Cure"A Review of Promise Me, by Nancy G. Brinker with Joni Rodgers

After reading this book, I came to the conclusion that Nancy G. Brinker and I probably would not be girlfriends. And, as much as I thought I was going to admire her for the incredible job she has done bringing national attention to breast cancer, the book left me questioning if she is more like Mark Zukerberg or more like the Winklevoss twins.

“I’m not everyone’s cup of tea.” Brinker shares in the book. She goes out of her way to paint as realistic picture of herself as anyone can do.  If most of us are honest, we tend to like ourselves, weaknesses and all.  I assume Brinker is the same way. Nevertheless, she gives us a glimpse of her personality by comparing herself to her friend, former first lady, Laura Bush.

“I think we’re always attracted to people who have the qualities we wish we had ourselves […] Unlike me she is patient. She understands people and always says the appropriate thing. More than anyone else I know, she has a way of articulating what needs to be articulated, always in the nicest possible way. She is not a grandstander, never pushy.”

Knowing that, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the foundation she created is now being accused of behaving the exact way that Nancy G. Brinker behaves: pushy domineering and does not play well with others.

When the foundation changed its name in 1997 to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, it also trademarked the phrase “for the cure.” And, like any powerful organization, it takes its Trademark seriously. So when it learns of other nonprofits holding events “for the cure,” it sends them a not so lovely billet doux saying “cease and desist.” The company spent a lot of donors’ money protecting that trademark – estimates between $500,000 and $1 million.

While the organization is evidently on legal terra firma, it does leave a bad taste in your mouth to think that hundreds of organizations working to cure diseases can no longer use the phrase, “for the cure.” Even Stephen Colbert, a huge supporter of Susan G Komen for the Cure, took the organization to task.

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Medical sociologist Gayle Sulik also has a great post about the controversy, and has this to say about Komen’s tactics.

Komen’s high profile, clout, and overflowing coffers work in conjunction with legal teams, cease and desist orders, and polite suggestions to encourage a political and economic climate in which only the wealthiest survive.

If the Komen Foundation were a corporation instead of a non-profit, few would have a problem with the company trying to protect its trademark. But it’s not a corporation and its behavior is alien to the mindset, culture and spirit of the nonprofit world.

What you discover when you read the book is that Nancy G. Brinker is not cut from the nonprofit mindset but rather the corporate mindset.  It explains a lot. And, when you read about her background, it is not at all surprising that her organization does not follow the same mores as most non-profits.

The truth is I would never have read this book if it had not been the “book selection” for my social justice book club. Then again, that’s one of the reasons I’m in the book club ―to read books I would not gravitate to on my own.  Left to my own devices, I’ll go for the mystery, the best-seller, business books related to my work, and of course chick lit.

Even with that caveat, I wasn’t dreading reading the book. I went into thinking that I would be inspired and learn some of the strategies that Brinker used to turn this initiative into the behemoth foundation it is today.

That is where I was sorely disappointed. The impression I got from reading this book is that if Brinker had not been married to Norm Brinker – creator of the salad bar- the organization would have remained a Texas-centric organization, raising money for local breast cancer research.

From the Booklist review on Amazon:

“After breast cancer kills her beautiful 36-year-old sister, Suzy, Nancy starts the world’s largest breast-cancer charity in her memory. At age 37, she discovers a lump in her own chest. Nancy gets by with a little help from her second husband, Norman Brinker, the casual-dining gazillionaire and a member of the Susan G. Komen board from its inception in 1982 until his death last year.”

This is not a memoir of how the organization was built. Sure, she talks about how hard she worked – and I don’t doubt that she is/was a workhorse, but she doesn’t take us inside the board room to share some of the critical decisions that were made to grow the foundation.   Reading between the lines, you get the sense that Norm Brinker, not Nancy who decided to make it more than a nice little non-profit in Texas.

Should that discredit Ms. Brinker’s accomplishments? Of course, not. But there is a difference between being the person who implements the strategy, and the person who creates the strategy.

It’s what is not said in the book that makes me think Ms. Brinker was more the titular head of the organization, while her business-brilliant husband mapped out the game plan.  Although the Brinkers eventually divorced, Ms. Brinker goes out of her way to credit Norm Brinker for his contribution to the foundation. From the nature of the relationship that she describes, you get a sense that Norm was the one really running things, and Ms. Brinker was the public face of the organization, not that there is anything wrong with that.

Should that matter? Not really, except I thought I was going to read the story of how this one woman built one of the country’s largest foundations.  Instead, I was left with the impression that if she had not married well, the Susan G. Komen Foundation would still be a Texas centric foundation.

Despite that disappointment, the book was an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the issue of breast cancer and who has ever wondered about the woman behind the name: Susan G. Komen.

The book does a great job of documenting the history of  society’s attitude and treatment of breast cancer and it offers a wealth of resources for families dealing with breast cancer. The co-author Joni Rodgers, who I am assuming did the heavy lifting with writing this memoir, has an easy to read, enjoyable writing style and she really excelled in telling the story.

As much as this was a memoir of Nancy G. Brinker, it was also a tribute to her sister Susan G Komen. Brinker and Rodgers succeed in painting a picture of Suzy to the point you feel like you really know her and understand why she was initially passive regarding her breast cancer care.

This is where Brinker shines. She is a relentless messenger that women must be aggressive advocates for their own healthcare. She takes to task the attitudes that led her sister Suzy to be complacent and shares the graphic details of her sisters struggle to serve as a cautionary tale.

Yet, with all the good she has done, she does come off as petty and mean-spirited.  If  she is really serious that she wishes she were more like Laura Bush, I would encourage her to rethink the organization’s tough stand on their trademark and take her own advice that she shared in the book.

“If I have seen further than others,” said Sir Isaac Newton, “it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

We at SGK gratefully stood on the shoulders of giants, and we hope others will stand on ours.”

About the Author

Elana Centor Has Written 6 Articles For Us!

Elana’s vision of a world class enterprise providing social media training, coaching and consulting is the foundation of DWT’s conception and development. Her distinguished 30-year career as a marketing expert, journalist, author and social media pioneer gives DWT the authority to succeed.
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  1. I have two counter points:

    I think that women who accomplish what most others cannot, or will not, have to think and act differently from the rest. It’s easy to judge how people do a thing that you have not even tried to accomplish yourself. The whole culture behind that level of fundraising or any big wig “club” of achievers cannot be understood unless you are in it. It’s a type of politics, and sorry, but you have to learn to play the game to win. Also, there are thousands of women married to multi-millionaires who have not raised a quarter of a billion dollars, even though it probably brought Brinker special opportunities. But she took it and made it into so much more. So what if she is not demure like Laura Bush. We are not all the same. The pushy among us have moved mountains the demure would not have bent their necks back far enough to look at.

    However, I am oh so glad Elana brought up the act of trademarking “for the cure” which Joni has defended with great PR spin poise, yet not convincingly. I think that this weekend I am going to contect a few media outlets and see if this can get some coverage, and I encourage others to do so as well. Just because you CAN do something does not mean it’s right. SGK Foundation seems to have lost perspective.

  2. You go, Elana! I enjoyed your review. Too bad Joni is so sensitive. She should be glad you wrote about the book, and that you felt free to express your opinion – which is what your review is. I’m not inclined to read the book or support the Susan G. Komen fund. I’m a woman. I have breasts but I’m tired of this group and their pushy ways. THAT’s how I SEE them. Pushy and in my face.

    And, besides, I’m sick of be associated with pink.

    Totally off-topic, I guess. But there you have it – you inspired me with your wish to read about a strong woman with serious accomplishments, only to be delivered a story that disappointed in so many ways.


  3. Maggie

    Elana, I haven’t read Promise Me, but your review is similar to other reviews I have read about the book. What amazes me is that Nancy G. Brinker and Joni Rodgers are focusing on the “awareness of breast cancer” and the “amount of money” that the foundation Susan G. Komen for the Cure has achieved. What have they actually done to find a cure? According to what I’ve read, the $1.5 billion raised has gone primarily to marketing, not to breast cancer research. Where exactly do we women stand on reaching a cure? And what exactly is Susan G. Komen for the Cure doing to help women with limited resources who may have breast cancer?

    Last Fall, my gynecologist found a lump on my breast. My younger sister had breast cancer and I am considered at high risk for contracting the disease. I was 55, unemployed, and without any health insurance. I called my local Komen for the Cure office. They did nothing to help me! The young women I spoke were not knowledgeable about resources in the Atlanta area, they had no programs in place to help me, and they weren’t very sympathetic.

    I called everywhere to find a place where I could get a diagnostic mammogram. The American Cancer Society was the most helpful organization. Althugh they steered me in the right direction, even the American Cancer Society doesn’t have a service for diagnosing cancer.

    Please note that there is a major difference between “diagnostic” mammograms and “screening” mammograms. It is my understanding from speaking with the woman at Komen for the Cure that the foundation predominately provides funding for screening mammograms, much less for diagnostic mammograms. And neither are available year round.

    A month later, after jumping though many hoops, I finally received both a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound from the Fulton County Georgia Health Department. I was diagnosed as breast cancer free in the questionable breast. Yeah!

    However, I will never donate any more money or support Komen for the Cure. So much for Suzy’s promise.

  4. Elena, I’m Joni Rodgers, the coauthor who worked with Nancy on this book, and I am absolutely baffled by some of what you say here.

    Instead of gassing on about her boardroom acumen, Nancy wanted to tell Suzy’s story and profile the scientists, researchers, volunteers, and fighters who she feels are the true backbone of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Instead of bragging up her own accomplishments (which are formidable), she wanted to talk about how Norman, Stanley Marcus and others mentored her in the art of leadership.

    You are ridiculously off the mark suggesting that Norm was by any stretch of the imagination the mastermind behind SGK. Did you miss the part where she was already setting all this in motion before she and Norman got together? What about all the fundraising and activism that started long before she met him, dating back to when she and Suzy were little girls? And Suzy – who never met Norman – insisting on many occasions before she died, “Promise me, Nan. This has to change.” And Nancy’s ascending to the world political stage after she and Norman went their separate ways?

    Tragically, Norman suffered a serious brain injury in a polo accident just as SGK was starting to take off. I don’t know how anyone reading that sad chapter could extrapolate that he was the driving force behind the growth of the world’s largest grassroots organization, which took flight after he was disabled. He was the wind beneath the wings of his wife, who happens to be a force of nature, and she’s grateful for his support.

    Interesting: she was just as supportive of his endeavors, but nobody seems to think she invented the salad bar. It’s absolutely small and sexist to assume that a woman who marries a powerful man could only be his puppet. In fact, the great love story in this book is about two dynamic people who met their match, respected each other as equals and created an extraordinary life together, each enabling the other to realize their full potential.

    As for the big, bad bully beating up on poor little fundraisers: much has been made of what is, in reality, basic common sense measures any organization would take to protect consumers. Susan G. Komen for the Cure consistently receives the highest ratings from Charity Navigator and other watchdogs. People feel comfortable donating money to SGK, and predictably, there are some not-so-altruistic people who seek to take advantage of that. SGK supports many small breast cancer organizations to the tune of millions each year. But we don’t hear much about that in the blogosphere, do we? Or on comedy shows. But that’s the boring truth.

    SGK has raised over $1.5 BILLION for breast cancer research and services in the last 30 years, and from the beginning, Nancy has been vigilant about making sure that money is spent with an unwavering focus on the health of women – particularly the most vulnerable, low-resource women – who look to SGK for hope and help. She personally feels a tremendous responsibility to every volunteer, survivor, family member and donor, and she is fiercely protective of Suzy’s name. Suzy was loving, generous, prudent, inclusive, and kind; Nancy won’t allow this organization be anything less than that.

    During a year researching and writing this book with Nan, I spent a great deal of time with her, her mom, her son, her friends and SGK movers and shakers. (Sadly, Norman died when we were just beginning our work together.) I’ve never met anyone who lives her life with more passion, humor, integrity and galvanized purpose. Nancy Brinker is a complicated person who doesn’t pretend to be perfect, but I came to love and admire her. She really opened herself up in this memoir, invited readers into the most painful, private aspects of her astonishing life journey. Though many people are too cynical to open their hearts to her in return, the real “behind the scenes” story of Susan G. Komen for the Cure is the tale of two sisters and how the strong sense of social responsibility with which they were raised has literally changed the world.

    So Elena, I’m sad for you. You missed the point. And you’re missing out on a great girlfriend.

    • Hello Joni!
      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about my review. Obviously,since you worked closely with Ms. Brinker you have more insight into the situation than I do. And, I’m thrilled to hear she was not just the public face of the organization but the real leader.

      But, in defense of my review, that is not the impression I got from reading the book.

      I loved the story about Susan G. Komen. For years I have wondered who she was. I learned we have a lot in common. Like Susan, I went to the University of Missouri. And I expect, since she was Jewish, and in those days that meant belonging to the Jewish sorority, she and I were sorority sisters ( I was there about 10 years later). Also, the fact that she, a member of AEPHI was Miss Mizzou told me reams about her physical looks and her personality.

      It was wonderful learning about the person behind the name of the organization. While Nancy and you might have wanted the book to focus on Susan, as I reader and someone who loves to see successful women in leadership roles, I was disappointed in how little we learned about Nancy’s leadership.

      Susan G. Komen is one of the largest, most successful and most respected nonprofits in the world. I craved to learn more about how Nancy did it.

      If I take offense at anything you wrote, saying my conclusion that Nancy could not have done it without Norm was small and sexist. I must say this is a first, I don’t think anyone has ever called me sexist!
      Here is my impression from your book. Nancy was an incredible fundraiser. She was creating an organization in honor of her sister. She did not have a vision, in the beginning of creating a national organization. But sometime between the time she married Norm and held that rainy, soggy fundraiser at her home, the organization evolved. How did that happen?

      Since the book went into detail about everything else, the omission about the growth of the organization, raised huge questions? Why wasn’t that included? That’s hugely interesting.

      You may not like that the book left that impression with me, but by ommitting that story arc, you left a lot of unanswered questions.

      The book does describe that Nancy was an incredible and relentless fundraiser. But it also said her goal was to create a small organization that focused on Texas health care facilities. I wanted to know when she realized that it could be something bigger.
      It seemed that the book went from that rainy, soggy, first fundraiser to walks all over the country. I wanted more of the organizations evolution. That’s me. That’s what I wanted to read.
      While the information about her marriages was interesting, I could have had less of that and more about the evolution of this phenomenal organization.

      We need to know more about women in leadership, what struggles they have as a woman leader and how they approach growth, controversy and success. Maybe a follow-up book?

      As to the controversy over Susan G. Komen For the Cure’s heavy handedness over its trademark “For The Cure.” I am not alone in being disappointed that the organization has co-opted a term that so many non-profits need to use for their fundraisers.

      While Lance Armstrong started the yellow jelly bracelets, many other organizations were “inspired” by them and goodness knows there are many many organizations that have them. I don’t believe it takes away from Lance Armstrong’s efforts.

      I understand about the importance of branding.I just don’t think that “FOR THE CURE” is your brand. Susan G. Komen is the brand. All the rest of the words are window dressing. She represents the heart and soul of the organization. Just sayin.

      FYI, it’s Elana,not Elena.

      • Lorelei

        I have been doing research on Nancy’s leadership style. I wanted to know what is going on behind the scenes of the organization to make it what it is today. I could not find any details about the inner workings of the organization. There is information about Nancy and her accomplishments, what has been raised but not the how. Elana, you did a good job of pointing out my frustrations finding information about the organization.

  5. admin

    Elana – Thanks for sharing your insights. I suppose behind the scenes of many organizations in the “for the good world” we find similar struggles and personalities as in the for profit world. Still, as you point out, “good” does get done’ albeit our own stumbling and personalities.

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