Finger-Lickin Failure: Susan G. Komen’s Stance on “Buckets For The Cure” at Cause Marketing Forum

This post is a bit of a departure for me. I generally give examples of how my non-profits succeed and fail in our various efforts (like my guest posts on our #100X100 campaign for Chronicle of Philanthropy and Community Organizer 2.0 this week) that I hope you’ll be able to apply to your own work in the non-profit sphere.

I also blog about the varied conferences I attend to report the most useful things I learned while there and how I’m using that new knowledge in my own organizations (like my posts on what I learned from Chris Brogan and Steve Farber at SOBCon) hoping it will inspire you to extrapolate something you can use to enhance yours.

This post, on the other hand is an out and out criticism of a large national non-profit’s response to a cause marketing relationship that was considered a debacle by many. I’m speaking about the Susan G. Komen/KFC Buckets For The Cure campaign in which 50 cents from every bucket was donated to Susan G. Komen with the intention of making the single largest donation to a breast cancer organization in history.

If you aren’t aware of what the controversy is about read these great posts by Joe Waters, Nancy Schwartz and Scott Henderson before you go on. The sheer number of comments on all of these posts is a hint at how many people agree this was not a sound decision on the part of Komen. In my comments on posts about this mess I note my displeasure that an organization that seeks to promote women’s health would partner with a fast food restaurant whose fatty foods contribute to obesity, responsible for 20% of cancer-related death in women according to

This past week I attended Cause Marketing Forum. One of the panel discussions entitled “Where’s the Nonprofit” included Karen White, Director of Corporate Relations for Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Now, I’m a peace and love kind of girl and that’s part of why this post is such a departure for me. I like to learn from other people’s mistakes but I try not to judge them. We all make them. Why not use them to do better next time?

The reason I’m doing so here stems from the fact that this took place at a conference. This wasn’t a public forum. This was a gathering of peers who were specifically looking to assess stories of both failure and success for insight that would be relevant to their own organizations. That’s what Komen should have delivered – an opportunity for all of us to learn what not to do when considering a cause marketing partnership.

Instead what we got was a shamefully shameless defense of their decision.  When Karen White began her part of the panel she acknowledged the elephant in the room by uncomfortably joking that she should have come with buckets of chicken for all of us. I think I speak for the entire audience when I say I hoped that was a segue into her thoughts on this partnership. No such luck. She went on to continue her talk which I will not describe as it was largely irrelevant to the matter at hand.

When the panel was over and the questions from the audience were displayed the only one that appeared was an inquiry of her thoughts on KFC. Although she clearly didn’t want to talk about it everyone else there wanted to hear about it. Instead of using this opportunity to talk about how they were learning from it to change the ways they assess future potential cause marketing relationships she spun defense after defense.

Most amusing was the first – she wanted to point out that the 50 cents was earned when the franchisee bought the bucket, not when the customer ordered it. She implied that a customer could have easily bought a bucket full of mashed potatoes. Right….and we were all born yesterday. She went on to describe how the pros and cons of this partnership were weighed at every level, down to Board Members and the Founder of Komen.

She explained that 20% of KFC’s 5000+ locations were in areas where they had no affiliates or presence and the ability to reach these places was the primary factor in their decision. She shared that the Buckets For The Cure website didn’t generate many additional donations but that with 2 1/2 million views it spread significant education and awareness. She closed by saying they’re proud of the partnership with KFC and that she “stands behind it any day of the week.”

The website whose views she is so proud of includes this among its “Tips For A Healthy You” :

“Susan G. Komen for the Cure recommends that you…..make healthy lifestyle choices and maintain a healthy weight”

They stand behind the hypocrisy of educating people to make healthy choices via a brand (I mean no disrespect to KFC here, this is true of all fast-food restaurants) that is antithetic to making healthy choices?

I leave you to your own opinion of how this situation was handled but I was wildly disappointed she didn’t just fess up to having made a mistake. The rest of us need examples of veterans in the field who lead by learning from their failures and righting the course. As insiders we do not need to be cause-washed. In both a personal and professional capacity I have lost my respect for an organization that now seems more focused on money than mission.


10 thoughts on “Finger-Lickin Failure: Susan G. Komen’s Stance on “Buckets For The Cure” at Cause Marketing Forum

  1. Ian says:

    Estrella, thanks for publishing these notes from the conf. I agree that this is exactly how it happened and what she said.

    I was left with the impression that your argument will just fall on deaf ears. Komen and the folks at the top seem more concerned with dominating the business of breast cancer than fulfilling the mission. She spoke at length about reclaiming market share and ownership of the pink ribbon. She seemed genuinely glad to have beat the competition (in this case other breast cancer orgs). It’s a misguided approach which puts the org first.

    In that light, the komen kfc partnership makes logical (not moral) sense and no other outcome could have come about. Big business supports big business and komen has no choice but to find large scale ways to keep it’s machinery running. It’s a shame that they have to use meaningless PR and talking points to overcome the ironic choices they made.

    As for the argument itself, I doubt they’re doing any real measurement to prove they’ve raised awareness before and after. We’ll just have to trust the PR machine.

  2. M Keenan says:


    I appreciate your candor and diverting from your regular posts. It’s not about being negative or not nice, in fact that is the very way good diaglogue and discussions happen, hence we all learn from differing ideas.

    Here is my take on the Dir of Corp Rel-Komen response at CMF. First, she was on company time and getting paid to put the best face forward. Politcally correct yes. Did it backfire, for sure and here is my thought why…

    Blogs, posts, tweets and chats are still going on about the responses. If Komen had come out and said, “we went into this campaign to achieve ‘this’ in mind and then realized that there now unintended consequences we didn’t expect and while there is some good from the campaign there is something to be learned and gain.” They didn’t have to say outright what those unintended consequences were, just see it as what it is.

    It seems like their defensive responses backfired. You know there was an advertisement back in the 80’s from a big company, the ad was a duck wearing goulashes and a rain-hat, the quote was, “It’s a rare duck that can’t stand a little improvement.” So, when a company takes a stand to go above and beyond to defend themselves, while everyone else is scratching their heds, it does seem a bit egonamiacal. And that unfortunately is what sticks in folks’ minds, not campaigns because they come and go.

  3. M Keenan says:


    PS: Since Komen didn’t think that what when in the bucket is nearly as important.. well, then see in my neck of the woods (South), I’d love to get some oxtail deep fried in fatback and smathered with butter-based gravy. Mmm mmm!

  4. Noland Hoshino says:


    I hope this small peak inside a large nonprofit organization gets wider coverage — for the sake of the donors and supporters, the organization’s staff, and cause peers.

    Like many, when I first saw the KFC/Komen commercial I was baffled. The partnership just didn’t fit or make sense (to the reasons you’ve already stated in your post). Now we get a glimpse of how the money is being raised — not by consumers who might purchase a bucket of chicken to support the organization, but by buying a bucket (chicken or no chicken).

    When you create a huge cash flow machine for nonprofit organizations, or any organization, you tend to loose track as to why you are raising money in the first place. You become detached from the cause and your eyes are on the $$$ — not good business.

    Personally, I never understood why everything needs to be “pink” “red” or “yellow.” There are so many great smaller nonprofit organizations (with extraordinary people) doing amazing things. They often are overshadowed by the large organizations that they don’t get the recognition (or funding) for their efforts.

    I hope this brings light to what happens when an organization lose focus on the cause and people (and don’t even admit it) and “sell out” for greater gains.

    Thanks for posting.

    Noland Hoshino

  5. Megan Strand says:

    I’m definitely with you that a healthy dose of humility and self-reflection would’ve been incredibly refreshing in Karen White’s presentation. I did find it reassuring that they at least DID have a strategy in deciding to partner with KFC but, like you, feel like they could’ve made a few adjustments and it would’ve been an all-around different kind of partnership.

    So you want to reach your “white space” where Komen doesn’t have a reach and you see KFC as a good way to do that? Ok. How about offering a special meal that is nutritionally sound, like grilled chicken and a salad? Serve THAT in the pink bucket so at least pink represents a deviation from the standard KFC meal.

    I’m also with Ian (and did my own post on her presentation that talks more about this point) in that I was probably even more shocked to hear White talk about “reclaiming their niche” within the sector, as if they viewed others in the fight against breast cancer as competitors instead of collaborators.

    At the end of the day, the thing I think bothered me the most about the whole presentation was the air of superiority with which it was delivered.

  6. Pamela Grow says:

    Terrific post! I concur with Ian who noted that “Komen and the folks at the top seem more concerned with dominating the business of breast cancer than fulfilling the mission.” After all, what is one of the #1 things that you can to to prevent breast cancer (aside from breastfeeding two or more children, which you rarely see mentioned)? Cut your dietary fat.

    Good God are we not all desperate for a little honesty and humility these days? A little less blame and a lot more accepting responsibility?

    How about if Komen simply said “we f#%ked up. We made a mistake. We valued the almighty buck over the lives of women.”

    But hey, why don’t I tell you how I really feel?

  7. Amy Sample Ward says:

    Estrella, thanks so much for this honest post and continuing the conversation.

    I definitely agree that what is important to note here is not that Komen made a mistake (that much has already been widely discussed – read: decided), but instead that Ms. White’s (and Komen at an organizational level) seem to feel there isn’t a safe environment to admit failure nor a templated way to talk about it, share it, learn from it.

    This is the bit that really worries and frustrates me. If we can’t create a culture that goes beyond the walls of select bloggers that sharing and admitting failure is something that is not only welcome and safe to do but is also valued, then we are in for a lot more buckets of misplaced relationships. If we aren’t cultivating community around making our organizations better in a space that recognizes success stories and not-as-successful stories, as I like to call them, then we will turn ourselves into echo chambers without any actual organizations listening and participating.

    I’m going to take this as a hint to try harder in my work to talk about, surface, and show learning opportunities from the not-as-successful stories I come across and hope all of us can co-create a more accepting environment for sharing and learning.

    Thanks again for writing this!

  8. heidimassey says:

    What is so striking to me is the difference between Komen’s competitive, never admit mistakes type of tone and an organization like Net Squared (which Amy is a part of) that is, in my experiences, completely open to collaboration and displays humility in all they do. Ultimately, I do believe people are going to tire of the “old school” way of doing things and embrace this new, open, collaborative style. I know that I certainly have!

    As I posted on Megan Strand’s blog, just think about what might have been possible had Komen kept their mission in mind-there might have been some sustainable changes in education about breast cancer in low income communities and there might have been the creation of meaningful relationships with volunteers and others. Some may say those are not part of Komen’s mission or they wouldn’t have raised as much money. Perhaps…but I find it hard to believe that engaging a community and creating meaningful relationships can do anything but increase the amount of success any organization experiences.

    Thanks Estrella, for a passionate and important post. Glad you broke the mold a bit on this one.

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