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More MS news articles for July 2003

When nonprofits get sharp elbows

Cancer group catches MS fund-raiser in snag

July 26, 2003
By Naomi Aoki, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe

Janelle Hamilton's motives were pure and simple: A hairdresser in Norfolk, Va., all she wanted to do was host a cut-a-thon to raise money for multiple sclerosis.

Inspired by a friend and longtime client whose granddaughter has the debilitating disease, Hamilton teamed up with the Boston Cure Project, a small nonprofit that raises money for MS research.

To promote the event, which takes place tomorrow, they came up with the catch phrase ''Cuts for a Cure.'' But when they began advertising, they received a letter from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. It asked that they refrain from using ''Cuts for a Cure'' or any ''For the Cure'' phrases similar to those used by Komen.

To their surprise, they discovered the Dallas nonprofit had filed more than 100 trademark applications for terms that include ''For the Cure.'' In addition to ''Race for the Cure,'' the group's big annual fund-raiser, they've registered ''Hearts for the Cure,'' ''Laugh for the Cure,'' ''Clean for the Cure,'' ''Pink Tulips for the Cure,'' ''Soft Rock for the Cure,'' ''Polo for the Cure,'' as well as ''For the Cure'' itself.

''No one should have a lock on three ordinary words in the English language when you're trying to help other people,'' Hamilton said. ''Breast cancer isn't the only disease that needs to be cured.''

The Komen foundation's efforts to build a franchise around the three-word phrase strike Hamilton as patently absurd, even bordering on offensive. But academics who study the nonprofit world say Komen's strategy -- albeit unusually aggressive -- opens a window on the increasingly competitive world of fund-raising.

The number of nonprofits has ballooned, growing to 1.5 million organizations worldwide, from 12,000 in 1940. In cancer alone, the American Cancer Society, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the Cancer Research Foundation of America, and scores of other groups compete for donor dollars. And as they do, they are increasingly acting like businesses.

''When it comes to marketing and branding, we're in the middle of a revolution in the nonprofit sector,'' said Frederick S. Lane, professor of public affairs at Bernard M. Baruch College, The City University of New York. ''You can call what the Komen foundation is doing aggressive, or you can call it cutting edge.''

The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation was founded by Nancy Brinker in 1982 as a promise to her sister, Susan Komen, who died of breast cancer at age 36. The first Race for the Cure was held in Dallas in 1983 with 800 participants. Since then, the event has grown into the largest series of 5 kilometer races in the world, with 112 cities nationwide and 1.5 million people expected to participate this year.

Out of that event, fund-raisers such as Men for the Cure, Doctors for the Cure, and Friends for the Cure took shape, encouraging men, physicians, and non-runners to support the fight against breast cancer. Golf tournaments were dubbed Swing for the Cure, tennis tournaments were called Serve for the Cure, and dinner events such as Chef's Night Out for the Cure began to pop up.

Komen also seeks corporate sponsorships, giving rise to programs such as Cook for the Cure, through which KitchenAid donates $50 for every pink stand-mixer it sells and sponsors individuals who host dinner parties to raise money for the Komen foundation. In all, Komen said, the foundation is associated with about 90 ''For the Cure'' or ''For a Cure'' programs.

''Our integrity and good will is very much reflected in those trade names,'' said Cindy Schneible, the foundation's vice president of cause marketing and sponsorship. ''As a nonprofit, what you have is your name and reputation. It's important to protect those.''

When the American Cancer Society filed a trademark application for Cars for a Cure, the name of its car donation program, attorneys for the Susan G. Komen Foundation objected. They argued that potential donors might confuse the program with Komen's For the Cure events, and that the sheer quantity of Komen's For the Cure trademarks should give them rights to the term for fund-raising.

Over Komen's objections, the trademark office issued the mark to the American Cancer Society, concluding that the term ''For the Cure,'' especially in connection with charitable fund-raising, was too widespread to block others from using it. The different nature of the programs, as well as the fact that promotional efforts clearly named the charity with which the programs were associated, made it unlikely that consumers would be confused by the two marks.

The Komen foundation said most disputes are resolved amicably. But Drew Hudson, president of a Washington, D.C., temporary agency, The Choice Inc., said it may be that most groups don't have the resources to fight back. Hudson started a fund-raising campaign for an AIDS clinic, the Whitman-Walker Clinic, four years ago. If clients mention the campaign called Temps for the Cure when requesting temp services, the agency donates a certain portion of the proceeds to the clinic.

Over the years, Hudson said, the program raised about $25,000 for the clinic. Hudson decided to seek a trademark for the name when considering whether to expand the program. When he did, the Komen foundation objected. Hudson said the foundation agreed to allow him to keep using the name until his supply of marketing materials and stationery were exhausted. Then, he'll have to change the name.

''I fought it a bit,'' Hudson said. ''But I was fighting a losing battle. I couldn't keep spending on it.''

In the future, Art Mellor, the Boston Cure Project's director, said, the group will use the phrase ''To Cure MS'' in lieu of ''For the Cure.'' Its annual Hunt for the Cure event will become Hunt to Cure MS. If Hamilton holds the cut-a-thon again next year, which she said she plans to do, it will be called Cuts to Cure MS. It means new logos, new marketing materials, and new T-shirts. But it promises to be less arduous than fighting a large nonprofit like Komen.

''In the commercial sector, the concern is that a competitor is going to benefit from your good will,'' Mellor said. ''How is that bad in the nonprofit world?''

Jim Andrews, editorial director of the Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Report, said protecting trademarks is the first step in luring corporate sponsors. A company teams up with a charity to benefit from the good will people feel for that cause. In many cases, it invests millions of dollars in logos, advertising, and events to promote its program, and it's bound to protect that investment. With a projected $921 million at stake this year in corporate sponsorships, Andrews said, fund-raisers are getting savvy about ''branding'' their events.

And like it or not, the money would not be there without the marketing machines that raise it, said Peter Frumkin, associate professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. ''On the one hand, you'd love to have a nonprofit sector in which all organizations generously share and cooperate with each other,'' he said. ''But you have to be realistic. These organizations are struggling for funds and survival. So they do what they have to do.''

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