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How To Build A Non-Profit That Thrives And Influences: A Conversation With Nancy Brinker

Ambassador Nancy Brinker

(Forbes) – According to an IEG Sponsorship Report, cause marketing grew from about $120 million in sponsorships for 1990, to $1.85 billion in 2014. Clearly, cause marketing has become a part of American culture and people are supporting issues and causes that touch them personally and matter to them ethically and civically. As thousands of people each day are increasing their involvement in both health advocacy and nonprofit, philanthropic causes, the burning question on their minds is how to effectively expand awareness of their own cause while surviving the rapidly-expanding competitive landscape. It’s clear that a new path needs to be cleared where nonprofit organizations can both co-exist and collaborate together in order to prevent fragmentation, detrimental competition, and a dilution of efforts to make progress on their respective causes.

To address that issue, I was excited to speak with Ms. Nancy G. Brinker, whose work as a game changer in women’s health advocacy, and her vision for the future of nonprofits represents an inspiring model to learn from. Founder of and Chair of Global Strategy for Susan G. Komen®, Brinker is regarded as the leader of the global breast cancer movement. She served as the United States Ambassador to Hungary from 2001 to 2003, and was White House Chief of Protocol from 2007 to 2009 under President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. She has been honored as one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” and is the New York Times best-selling author of Promise Me – How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer.

Here’s what she shares:

Kathy Caprino: Before you founded Susan G. Komen, cause marketing and the breast cancer movement were almost nonexistent. What caused you to enter the field?

Nancy Brinker: Everything started for me with the promise I made to my sister Susan as she was losing her life to breast cancer. She was only 36 years old, with two small children, and she had her whole life in front of her when she died. Suzy and I were best friends and she was always thinking more about others than herself. Shortly before she passed, I promised her that I’d do anything and everything I could to ensure that women with breast cancer didn’t have to suffer through the same fear and indignities she’d endured. There was so much stigma around the word “cancer” in those days, and so little attention paid to women’s health, that as my sister’s beautiful spirit was extinguished, I felt an overwhelming need to change things. I wasn’t at all sure what to do or where to begin, but I knew we had to change the way we learned about, spoke about and treated breast cancer. So, that’s how our organization, Susan G. Komen, and the movement Suzy sparked all got started – it was a simple promise to try to change things for the better.

Caprino: What were the biggest challenges that you faced when starting Komen?

Brinker: In 1982, the world was a very different place than it is today for a woman diagnosed with breast cancer. On the medical front, there were fewer treatment options and resources available. On a cultural level, there was quite a lot of shame and stigma associated with the disease. You didn’t hear the words “breast cancer” on TV.  No one talked openly about breast cancer, even though (former First Lady) Betty Ford had talked about it so openly just a few years earlier. It was a completely different landscape.

The first step toward finding a cure was to break the silence that surrounded breast cancer and create a community built on understanding and empowerment.I first started talking about the promise I’d made to Suzy with my family, friends and close business connections, and slowly, but surely the organization began raising money to help support research and help women who were in need.

Breast cancer touches people from all walks of life and it was important to reach out to people everywhere with the message that there is more information, there’s more you need to know, there is more you can do and ask others to do. When the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure series started in 1983, 800 people showed up to race, and we knew we’d landed on something that had the potential to change lives.  Today, more than three decades later, there are 150 races worldwide. More than a million people participate in these races each year, and there are hundreds of thousands of volunteers. This is only possible because there is a worldwide community of people that experiences the value of this work firsthand. I never imagined that one promise could become so powerful.

Finding corporate sponsors and partners was a challenge when the organization started out too, because companies didn’t want their names associated with cancer, much less breast cancer, in those days. But I knew it was a matter of educating and, frankly, refusing to take “no” for an answer. We asked lingerie companies to put breast awareness cards on bras during the month of October, but it took a very long time before major corporations agreed to work with Komen on projects that brought breast health messages like this to women in ways that began to make a difference. Companies like American Airlines and Ford were among the first to understand the importance, and they took a risk when they first said “yes.” Today, Komen is supported by more than 120 corporate partnerships funding hundreds of millions of dollars of medical research, community service and women’s health advocacy programming.

Caprino:  What are some significant changes you’ve seen in the nonprofit landscape since you started three decades ago?

Brinker: In 1982, there was more stigma around health issues for women and men. But today, the public is better informed—due to the efforts of many nonprofit organizations like Susan G. Komen—and charitable giving really is a part of many people’s lives. Technology and the internet have also given us incredible new crowdsourcing tools that make donating smaller amounts to a wider variety of causes very convenient.  Nonprofits still see and depend on major gifts and corporate partnerships, but all around the world people are connecting with and supporting causes on a very personal level.

When I started Susan G. Komen, breast cancer charities were almost nonexistent. Today, our organization has invested more than $2.6 billion in breast cancer research, education, screening and treatment. Komen has the world’s largest global grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists who are determined to help others affected by breast cancer as they raise the funds that make our mission possible. These successes speak volumes about how far Komen has come in reaching the goal of eradicating breast cancer, and they reflect major advances in philanthropy in general. Consumers are savvier and there are more ways to give back.

There’s been a significant rise in collaboration among breast cancer organizations that are working toward the same goal which I believe is integral to large-scale progress.  As an example,   Komen recently joined with what are now 31 breast cancer organizations and companies to form the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance. Komen is also working with Dr. Susan Love of Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation on a groundbreaking internet study – the Health of Women (HOW) Study — to help us better understand the short- and long-term effects of breast cancer treatment and ultimately, to find common threads that may lead to better understanding of causation. Medical breakthroughs aren’t only made in the laboratory.   The HOW Study questionnaire demonstrates important collaboration between individuals and organizations focused on making life better for all. Sharing of ideas within the nonprofit community in this way can result in new creative solutions that will help us reach the same goal; in Komen’s case, that’s eradicating breast cancer.

Caprino: What advice would you give to future nonprofit leaders?

Brinker: Well, I think the single most important thing is that you can’t, and shouldn’t, expect to do it alone. No matter how passionate, personal or ambitious a person’s vision is, a nonprofit organization cannot succeed without a committed group of supporters and volunteers all working together collaboratively. The mission comes first always. Especially today, when our social and business networks congregate in such a fast-moving and changing online universe. And of course, you need to have a level of trust and transparency in what you do both internally and publicly. You need resilience too, because people will not always agree with or understand what you are doing. Sometimes you will need to change, sometimes you will need to hold firm until others are able to see your vision with more clarity. It is important to be fearless.

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