Walk for Your Health, But It Won’t Help Anyone Else’s, Much

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A Little History on the “Walk for [Disease]” Thing

Back in 2000, I wrote a column for what was called then simply The Breast Cancer Action Newsletter entitled “Exercise Your Mind.” It was a critical look at what was then the Avon 3-Day Walk for Breast Cancer:  how the money is raised, who gets to participate and who doesn’t, the administrative costs of making the walks happen, and the lack of transparency about where the money raised for the cause actually ends up.

It is now more than a decade later and the criticism has been taken up by others: Samantha King wrote a book about it called Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, and a June 18, 2011 op-ed in the New York Times by Ted Gup was entitled “The Weirdness of Walking to Raise Money.” Yet the phenomenon of walking to raise money to cure diseases persists and grows.

Breast cancer is by far the biggest beneficiary of fundraising walks: big ones are sponsored in multiple cities by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation (which took over the 3-day walk from Avon), The Avon Foundation (philanthropic arm of the cosmetics company, which now hosts a 2-day walk), The Revlon Foundation, and the American Cancer Society, to name a few. With all the walks going on, and all the money being raised with the promise of curing breast cancer, shouldn’t breast cancer be cured by now? (If you think it has been, check with the folks at Metastatic Breast Cancer Network for more realistic view.)

How Fundraising Walks Work

All these walks have things in common:

–your family and friends asking you for money so they will be allowed to participate (there’s always a minimum donation required)

–high administrative overhead, which means that of every dollar you give to support a walker, considerably less than a dollar goes to the cause you think you’re supporting

–decisions made by the walk organizers, not the walkers, about where the money raised will be donated, which is often to places far from the community where the funds are raised

–an opportunity for people concerned about a particular disease to be together to share stories and support each other

From Overdone to Ridiculous

The walk thing has now gone far beyond breast cancer. You can walk “for” (who is “for” diseases? Can we have a show of hands?) diabetes, birth defects, Alzheimer’s Disease, mental illness, epilepsy, hunger, and farm animals. The list goes on and on. You can even walk against abortion.

In what I think is the ultimate sad irony, there is a walk for ALS. You know, that disease that robs people like me who have it of the ability to walk.

Walk to Make a Real Difference

I still believe – and more so – what I thought in 2000 when I wrote that column for the BCA newsletter. Walk if you want to – it’s good for your health. If you want to be sure your walking truly benefits people who are ill, walk to the nearest organization doing work you admire on the issue and lend a hand. You can even hand them a check if you’re so inspired.

© Barbara A. Brenner

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20 Responses to Walk for Your Health, But It Won’t Help Anyone Else’s, Much

  1. Mary Whitehead says:

    Brilliant !!! Happy Fourth of July, dear Barbara!

  2. helen jacobs says:

    at our local Cancer Resource Center we do an annual walk (or kayak) to raise funds. All funds stay local. We walk up the beautiful Big River, and mostly it feels like a good way to be with community, support our wonderful local agency, and do a circle in remembrance of those struggling with cancer or those we have already lost to the disease. A difference between local and National fundraising. Thanks Barbara as always for “healthy Barbs” and your perspectives on illness, healing and politics.

  3. Thanks for telling the real story about raising money by walking for or rather against diseases/illnesses. I thought of you immediately when I read Ted Gup’s op-ed. Would you consider attaching this to his op-ed online?

  4. Sandra Steingraber says:

    Ted Gup and I taught together at the Wildbranch environmental writing workshop in Vermont a few years ago. Coincidentally, two of my students there (in different years) wrote essays on the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life walk, and in both cases, the communities they wrote about were located in places where the groundwater was contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals.

    These authors explored, in ways that Gup doesn’t, how the cancer walks provide the opportunity to talk about, and even imitate, the experience of cancer without ever talking about what causes it. (Each walker sets out on a challenging, ennobling “journey” just as each cancer patient does. And the finish line is victory.)

    More recently, a professor at an upstate NY community college wrote to me about a word/concept from New Guinea that seems to relevant to all this. The word is Mokita, which is defined as “the truth that everyone knows but no one wants to talk about openly. This unspoken truth is usually something unpleasant or unwelcome that will disrupt the social peace or bring perceived family embarrassment if brought into the open.” He said that came across it in a book called IN OTHER WORDS by Christophe J. Moore, in the chapter on indigenous languages.

    An interesting note about Gup: his grandfather was a Romanian Jewish immigrant who, during the Great Depression secretly gave money to needy families in Ohio at Christmas. Based on a stash of secret letters that he found, Ted wrote a wonderful book about his grandfather and the families that he anonymously and directly assisted. Basically, this old guy followed the advice in your blog’s last paragraph. In spades. With such a heroic ancestor as a point of philanthropic comparison, it’s no wonder that Gup finds the whole walking for cancer ritual a bit odd. But your analysis pulls back the curtain on the oddness even further. Brava, Barbara!

    (Walking for ALS! Oh, and then let’s have a bake sale for anorexia!)

  5. BobO says:

    Thank you once again for telling the truth. I admire people who raise money and walk for causes they truly believe in, but I have always questioned the monetary distribution.

  6. Amy Harris says:

    After 3 not-a-dull moment years with Breast Cancer Action (Thanks, Barbara!), I’m currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia. And – make no mistake – the Race for the Cure is on here in Georgia, too. Much to my dismay, I was asked to help with Peace Corps efforts on “raising awareness” by participating in the race. Politely, I declined. But, in my head I was thinking, “Um. There’s no way I’m doing that!” Then I got an idea… I asked the Director if I could do a training on breast cancer and walks for current trainees and volunteers (there are 98 of us in Georgia) – the goal being providing a different voice and perspective on this issue. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    • bbzinger says:

      Fabulous, Amy. Thanks for this post. In case you you weren’t aware of it, the State department and the Komen Foundation have ties to each other that Ellen Leopold has been trying to unearth for some time.

      Hope it’s all going well with your Peace Corps gig.

  7. salvage says:

    All true enough but anything that gets North Americans up off the couch can’t be all bad.

  8. Jo Ann madigan says:

    Thank you once again Barbara! I love you and I love Sandra steingraber. You both inspire me beyond measure.

  9. Gayle Sulik says:

    I’m so glad you’re blogging, Barbara!

    Despite the mainstream support for breast cancer lifestyle events and products (of which there is a ridiculous amount), more and more people are questioning what it’s all about. There is a growing pink fatigue and quest for information about where the money is going and what it is actually doing. I feel heartened by this and by all of the work that smart and feisty cancer rebels are doing to expose the pink underbelly.

  10. For the big guns of non-profit CORPORATION status, these walks are nothing more than marketing cache’. What a perfect opportunity to raise the profile of the SPONSORS and for the non-profit CORPORATION’s to sell the opportunities to the SPONSORS. For the smaller NFP’s, perhaps these walks are an important source of revenue and a way to raise the profile of their particular cause. But like everything else that has been over-done, sooner or later we all just get a bit bored with the corporatization and monetization of good folks’ altruism. Your advice is good. Skip the walks, cut out the middleman, and make sure you know where your money/efforts are really going.

  11. Teresa says:

    Definitely a pink fatigue. Even if I had been taking part in Race for Life where I live I would certainly not be now because of the thousands involved along with the razzmatazz turning it into a circus. As for the awareness raising thing who doesn’t know about breast cancer? Even as a teenager in the 1970′s I was sick of reading about it in women’s magazines and asked a teacher why there was a cancer epidemic. His reply was that we live long enough to get cancer but that wasn’t the whole answer as there were children getting cancer. I have a friend who has heard so much he now as a cancer phobia and gets panicky if he hears of somebody getting cancer. I would joke about his phobia but that didn’t help.

    Cancer awareness takes the spotlight away from lesser known diseases such as lupus and even heart disease.

  12. As someone who finished chemo the end of April for breast cancer, had surgery 6/6 and will start 6-8 weeks of radiation in about 4 weeks, I have not changed my opinion about the ‘walks’ , Komen etc..and that opinion is pretty much the same as yours, Barb :) Thank you.

  13. PS I could use a walk a thon to help pay for my own medical bills/deductible LOL

  14. Pingback: The Cancer Show » Walking for “The Cure” is Mostly Just Walking.

  15. Mitch Gart says:

    Good post. Recently I was involved with an ALS bike ride. I got to know one of the organizers. It turns out she is a full time staff member who does nothing else all year but organize ALS bike rides. Excuse me? You are paid a full time salary to do nothing but that? So that’s where the money is going!

    I didn’t say anything at the time because she is bright, articulate, and passionate about curing ALS. But the idea of a charity paying someone full time to do that seems wrong to me. I won’t say which ALS organization it is, but they need to be putting their money into researching a cure.

  16. Adeel v says:

    I am glad I came across this post and the subsequent discussion. I am doing research on ways that money can be raised for causes/not profits that don’t require the same old mundane way of walks and the expense associated with it. Currently, I am leaning towards the concept of having an online platform where any individual(s) can use their talent/guts to take on a challenge for a cause/not profit in their locality. This will not only bring more interest and attention from the wider audience who would be interested in interesting challenges/talents being shared but also have the ability to support through online pledges. From the money raised, the cause will get 80%, platform service another 10% to maintain and grow operations and the person taking on the challenge will also get 10% to ensure this is sustainable model and many many more people take to raising money for worthwhile causes as there is a slight monetary compensation. Would love to hear what you guys think about it. Thanks.

  17. Marilyn Gilin says:

    I am a breast cancer patient, working full time through surgery, chemo, and radiation. I wrote the American Cancer Society for help to pay my deductibles and co-pays but they can’t help me. If I took off work and went on disability, then they could help! They raise a lot of money year after year…where is their full disclosure? I would like to read it!

  18. clifylq says:

    Any of you ladies know why the 3-day walks with the Susan G. Komen group are down in numbers? If your the least bit curious you can find the answer here,- http://www.clifylq.com/everyone-deserves-a-life-time-of-treatment-not-cure/

  19. Selina says:

    The Susan G Komen CEO Nancy Brinker makes a half a million a year and her top 50 execs make a hundred grand themselves so you can see why they demand you raise 2300 plus the 90.00 registration fee “to support the cause”. That is crazy!!!! If a charity is not interested in whatever you can afford to give then maybe your money could be used best at a charity with lower admin costs. I won’t be begging my family and friends for money to make Ms. Brinker and her executives richer!

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