I’ve got $100 to donate to a cancer charity. What to do?

November 26, 2013

The other day, I received a $100 honorarium from a cancer research organization for participating in an interview conducted by a group called Patients Like Me.

It struck me that I ought to donate the money, and my initial thought was to give it to a charity set up for the treatment center where I am receiving care, MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. It also occurred to me to send it to The American Cancer Society, a mainstay of the cancer community.

Then I met Abby Milloy (pictured to the right), a “cancer navigator” for the Livestrong Foundation, which aids disadvantaged cancer patients by providing such necessities as help with insurance and free rides to treatment sessions. 

I know that many donors have fled the organization since its founder, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, admitted earlier this year to doping after vehemently denying he had cheated.

Armstrong had donated $7 million over the years—and helped devise a new way of fund raising with the sale of those trademark yellow bracelets–before cutting ties Livestrong in late 2012 as controversy over doping allegations was jeopardizing Livestrong’s ability to raise money.

Nothing about Armstrong’s troubled past has undermined the good work Livestrong does. I really admire their work, which focuses on supporting the cancer community rather than medical research.

Milloy said she works to obtain access to care for cancer patients who lack health insurance, sometimes by guiding them to clinical trials so they don’t have to pay anything for treatment.

The organization also guides cancer patients who still want to have children toward options that preserve fertility, a big reason why Livestrong draws so many younger patients.

As I considered writing the check to Livestrong, I realized it was only $100 that I was donating, not a lot of money for a foundation that has raised millions.  But I wanted to make sure that it went to a worthy organization. For just a minute, I considered raising money for cancer charities, as my fellow blogger and cancer patient  Lisa Bonchek Adams    has done for Memorial Sloan-Kettering. She has raised more than $30,000 toward a fundraising goal of $50,000 – inspiring!

Whether I embarked on fundraising or not, I wanted to do some research on cancer-related entities and blog about it since a lot of people save their charitable giving until the end of the year.  

For some reason, many cancer organizations get poor ratings when compared with other charitable organizations. I asked Stephanie Kalivas, of Chicago-based Charity Watch, a nonprofit that rates charities, why that is so.  

There wasn’t one simple answer, though it appeared that some of the giving goes astray.

“Cancer is a very emotional gift for people. A lot of people have been affected by cancer and a lot of times they don’t do any extra research. They hear ‘cancer’ and they want to help. Some of these organizations don’t have clear missions or aren’t run as efficiently as they could be, but they can get away with it,” says Kalivas. 

Charity Watch offers a grading system to help donors evaluate charities.

For instance, The American Cancer Society received a C-minus grade for its operations last year. Charity Watch found it costs the organization a hefty $41 for every $100 it raised, and just 58 percent of its expenses were used for program services. 


American Cancer Society CEO John Seffrin received a salary of $832,355 in 2012, down from more than $2 million he had earned in some recent years. As one of the highest-paid heads of a charitable organization, he had drawn some negative media attention. 

By comparison, Livestrong received an A-minus grade from Charity Watch, based on its fiscal 2011 operations. The group spent $17 to raise $100, and 80 percent of its expenses went to program services.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering got a perfect A, based on its 2011 operations. It cost the hospital $17 to raise $100, and 97 percent of its expenses went toward program services. 

Although executive salaries are not singled out by Charity Watch, they were part of an organization’s expenses. Executives who received the highest salaries were the CEOs of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, the Dana Farber Cancer Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Prostate Cancer Foundation, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the American Cancer Society.

Charity Watch did not rate any charitable funds at MD Anderson, however.

When vetting charities, it’s important to make sure the mission of the organiation is consistant with your values. This seems obvious. Then take that last step and go to a rating agency like Charity Watch or Charity Navigator and see how efficient the organization will be with your donation.  

Follow me on Twitter    @DLSherman


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