Mission Breast Cancer Awareness and Eradication
BCA Fights to Set Itself Apart
May 2, 2006
By Abny Santicola, editor, FS Advisor
What do you do when your organization's No. 1 funding challenge is differentiating itself from the hundreds or even thousands of other organizations, larger and smaller than yours, with the same mission?
With a mailing list of 16,000, half of which are donors, San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action is smaller than organizations such as the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation but larger than the many local breast cancer organizations out there.
Getting people to distinguish BCA from other organizations is tough. Executive Director Barbara Brenner says it's important not to suggest that the work you do is somehow more important than that of other organizations. A large part of BCA's efforts involves helping people understand what it does, how it relates to what other organizations do and the overall importance of its work, the goal of which, Brenner says, is to find a cure for breast cancer and put itself out of business.
BCA's mission statement lists the organization's mission as carrying "the voices of people affected by breast cancer to inspire and compel the changes necessary to end the breast cancer epidemic."
"A lot of breast cancer organizations say 'we want to end the epidemic,' and it's true; everybody wants to end the epidemic. But we're doing two things that are a little bit different, and it's in our mission statement. We carry the voices of people affected. People call us here and they tell us what they're experiencing. So we know the issues that people are dealing with now. That's what carrying the voices means," Brenner says.
"And when we say 'inspire and compel the changes necessary to end the epidemic,' you know, I think it conveys that we're not pulling punches," she adds. "We ask very hard questions here. And people know ... our donors certainly know and appreciate that about us."
Brenner says she often encounters people confused by the number of breast cancer organizations who wonder why they aren't all working together. The answer is simple, she says: "Because we have different strategies. We understand things differently. We think change happens in different ways ..."
Another challenge the organization faces has to do with its decision in 1998 to restrict the corporate contributions it could accept. For example, BCA will not take pharmaceutical funding due to the policy work it does and because it provides information to people about drugs and doesn't want to put forth a perception that its advice is in any way influenced by funding. The funding challenges of this decision are compounded by the fact that its restrictive corporate-contributions policy leads some to believe that it doesn't take any corporate money, which is untrue, Brenner adds.
"A lot of breast cancer nonprofits get a lot of money from the health industry, which means that we're sort of swimming against the tide," she says. The upside is that this stance is attractive to a lot of individual donors.
Brenner says that when the policy was first adopted, the organization made it known in its newsletter and it was covered in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute: "It was a big deal, and we got letters from people that said, 'Thank you. I wish I had a million dollars to give you,' and from other people that said, 'Are you out of your mind?'"
And we're a little bit out of our minds," Brenner says. "Because if we wanted to just no holds barred get the amount of money it would take to advance our mission to the place where we could go out of business, we couldn't have these restrictions."
While relying on funds from individual donors is a harder way to raise money, it's resulted in a very strong individual donor base. "Certainly the donors that I talk to ... completely understand, they appreciate it and to some degree will step up their support because they know that without this voice ... many things will not change," Brenner says. "Since I got here 10 years ago we've had 50 percent or more of our support come from individuals."
Still, she says, the "wealthiest people in the world don't usually write checks to organizations pushing the agenda, which is what we're doing."
Given the organization's corporate funding restrictions, its reliance on individual donors and its efforts to differentiate itself from other breast cancer organizations, Brenner says it's important BCA be clear in its messaging about why it takes its particular approach.
"Messaging and fundraising are one in the same. It's not that every time we send out a message we're asking for money," Brenner says. "But if our message makes sense, then donors respond to it positively. Tell people what it is you're doing, why you do it the way you do it, and if you're telling a compelling story, the organization will sell itself.
"What we're saying to people is, 'Make an investment. Think of this as if you were buying stock. You are making an investment in a future where your children will not have to deal with what we're dealing with,'" she adds.