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There will be no fighting in the war room: nonprofit non-collaboration and Susan G. Komen

In “Charity Brawl: Nonprofits Aren’t So Generous When a Name’s at Stake,” Clifford M. Marks explains the lengths to which Susan G. Komen for the Cure—a very large, successful nonprofit—will go to protect what it thinks is its brand and the phrase “for the cure,” particularly in conjunction with the color pink. Komen hounds other nonprofits, even those sister nonprofits battling other forms of cancer, such as lung cancer, who get too close to what they think is their turf.

Basically, Komen is acting like BP protecting their dumb flower logo or Apple and Apple Records fighting over an image of, well, an apple. As I wrote in April in “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point,” nonprofits are really in competition with one another and most talk of collaboration is the stuff of fairy tales and true believers.

The hammer and tongs approach used by Komen shows that, while the organization wants to cure cancer, it also wants to make sure it does the curing itself by protecting its brand and ability to raise money. Self-aggrandizement is not exclusive to the political and business worlds. I’m sure that if one pokes through Komen’s marketing materials, lip service will be paid to collaboration, but the fangs come out when another nonprofit gets too close to their food bowl. As Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley says in Dr. Strangelove, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room.” I paraphrase, “Gentle nonprofits, you can’t fight with one another. Let’s all just collaborate, but don’t go anywhere near my donors.”

EDIT: The New York Times is picking up on this: “Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer.” The number of people who orient their lives to research instead of emotion is small.

Komen’s behavior reinforces our point: nonprofits are more like businesses than most people realize.