Two weekends ago I took part in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life. As I reported in "We Walked to Fight Cancer," I was very gratified to be a part of our town's contribution to the cause of conquering cancer. In the end, we raised more than $100,000.
Our town is only one of some 5000 communities around the U. S. to sponsor a Relay for Life. The very next weekend the town next door to us held their Relay for Life, and I saw that the town of Ridgefield, over the line in Connecticut, held theirs as well. Ridgefield is a little bigger than my town, and a little richer, and the people in Ridgefield raised something in the order of $200,000.
We're raising a lot of money to fight cancer.
I happened to be in Ridgefield last week, and I picked up a copy of the local newspaper. I saw an editorial by a doctor who writes a weekly column. (The article should be here soon -- but the paper has a delay in posting to its internet site.) The doctor, Dr. Evan Levine, complained that when he recently had gone to the grocery store with a friend of his, they were accosted by a young woman asking them to buy a $1 raffle ticket -- proceeds to go to Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. They were told the money would help children with cancer and fund research that might cure cancer. His friend immediately bought five tickets. The doctor reluctantly bought one, just to avoid any embarrassing situation.
But Dr. Levine wrote that he really didn't want to buy a ticket to benefit Sloan-Kettering. Why? Because he's cold-hearted? No, because he had recently read that in 2009 the president of Sloan-Kettering took home a salary of over $4.4 million a year. The top five executives of Sloan-Kettering had pulled in almost $20 million for the year.
Dr. Levine thought that was a lot of raffle tickets. Too many raffle tickets. And he wondered if the executives at Sloan-Kettering were sending kids out "to beg for money for the sick and needy, or for the fat and wealthy."
"I think the execs at Sloan-Kettering are undeserving, overcompensated gluttons," he wrote. "Someone should demand that their salaries be lowered out of the stratosphere." He pointed out that if the top executives of this nonprofit organization satisfied themselves with only $1 million a year, then an extra $15 million would be available to help the poor children, and to help fund research to find a cure.
Reading this column gave me pause. And I wondered if by participating in Relay for Life I had just been suckered into helping raise money not for kids, or a cure for cancer, but for executives who were enriching themselves in the name of a not-for-profit organization, and at the expense of poor children with cancer, women suffering from breast cancer and others facing this dreaded disease.
I went on the Internet and did a little research on the American Cancer Society. I found one long multi-part article entitled: "The American Cancer Society Runs with the Money and Away from the Cure." It castigated the American Cancer Society (ACS) for being in bed with the chemical companies and the pharmaceutical companies, for pushing mammograms which may do more harm than good, and for failing to find a cure for cancer even though they've been collecting money and building a "bloated cancer industry" for over 40 years. The article also charged that the American Cancer Society "pleads poverty, [but] actually takes in more money than any other US charity," and it claimed that "high-ranking officers of the American Cancer Society were making as much as a million dollars a year."
Of course, I realize that the American Cancer Society is not the same as the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and that apparently the American Cancer Society is, in fact, taking the Ridgefield doctor's advice -- paying its top administrators about $1 million a year, instead of $4 million a year. And just maybe the ACS ought to be coordinating with pharmaceutical companies that produce cancer drugs -- and are mammograms all that bad? The article may have made some good points; but it clearly had an ax to grind.
I found the Charity Navigator, an organization that evaluates American charities, and saw that it awards the American Cancer Society three out of four stars -- a decent but not top-notch rating. Approximately 70 percent of the ACS budget goes to actual program activities, while 30 percent goes to administrative expenses and fundraising overhead. I also found that the American Cancer Society is not the richest American charity, as the critical article claimed. The richest is the American Red Cross. ACS comes in at number 5.
Among the various activities of the American Cancer Society, apparently the Relay for Life rates as one of its more efficient fundraisers -- partly because a lot of the fundraising expenses (such as food, drink, shelter and entertainment) are borne by the volunteers themselves. Anyway, the popular overnight event only spends about 8 cents of every dollar on overhead.
That's as much as I know. I can't pretend to have made a full-scale investigation of charitable giving in America, or the American Cancer Society, or the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. All I can say is that, as potential donors, we should probably be somewhat careful about where we make our charitable contributions. Because I, for one, want my dollars to actually go toward a cure for cancer and to help unfortunate kids, and not to bloat the salary of fat-cat administrators who are lining their own pockets in the name of charity.
I will most likely walk in the Relay for Life next year, because it does seem to be a worthwhile activity of a better-than-average charity. But as far as Sloan-Kettering goes, well, I think $4.4 million is too much to pay out in one salary. Don't you?