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
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.”