Nancy G. Brinker

Nancy G. Brinker

My first time inside a corporate boardroom was a disaster.

Susan G. Komen, now the world’s largest nonprofit source of funding for the fight against breast cancer, was the quintessential start-up. I started in my living room in 1982 with total capital of $200. So I went to New York City to recruit corporate partners and convince makers of women’s intimate apparel and cosmetics to include labels reminding women to get mammograms. I thought it was brilliant. Everyone else thought it was negative marketing, and they showed me the door.

Twenty-five years later, Komen has more than 130 corporate partners whose creative cause-related marketing programs help us raise and invest more than $150 million a year for breast cancer research and community outreach programs to women in need. By the end of this year, Komen will have invested nearly $1 billion in breast cancer research and community outreach programs, making us the world’s largest source of nonprofit funds dedicated to fighting breast cancer [editor’s note: By early 2021, Komen reported that it had invested over $2.9 billion in research, community health outreach, advocacy, and programs in more than 60 countries].

How did we do it? Building a nonprofit is much like building a business, with social entrepreneurship demanding many of the same skills as any other venture.

Seeing the Invisible

Great undertakings, whether building a business or curing a disease, inspire people with a bold vision. Ever since my sister, Susan G. Komen, made me promise in her final moments that I’d eradicate this disease, Komen has been driven by a single vision: a world without breast cancer.

Successful entrepreneurs excel at what Jonathan Swift called the art of seeing the invisible. To others, the cure to breast cancer may be invisible. To us, it’s inevitable. To paraphrase the Proverbs, where there is no vision, the organization perishes.

Connecting, Not Marketing

It’s one of the biggest mistakes in business and nonprofits: marketing a product instead of connecting with people on an emotional level. Everything we do at Komen, especially the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure Series©, allows people to support the cause in a personal, meaningful way.

People don’t donate to organizations or simply buy products. They believe in ideas and dreams. Become the idea, the dream, that people want.

Dare to be Different

For businesses and nonprofits, the challenge is the same: standing out from the crowd. Komen has always distinguished itself by funding the unfunded – funding programs that have been overlooked by others. Find your niche. Then do it better than anyone else.

Evolve or Perish

What Darwin said of organisms is true of organizations. It’s not the strongest that survive; it’s the ones that are most adaptable to change. Had we never created Komen’s innovative affiliate model, in which 75% of funds raised by our local affiliates stays in those communities while 25% supports research, we wouldn’t have grown to 125 affiliates with more than 100,000 survivors and activists. As a result, we’re the world’s largest grassroots network fighting breast cancer.

The return on our investment? When caught early before it spreads beyond the breast, the survival rate for breast cancer is now 98 percent, and there are more than 2 million breast cancer survivors alive today. That’s not bad for a living-room start-up.

Yet our vision remains. And until there’s a world without breast cancer, we’ll keep minding our business.

Nancy G. Brinker grew up in a household of caregivers and fundraisers. In addition to creating Susan G. Komen for the Cure (now known as Susan G. Komen) in her sister’s memory, she has served in public relations and broadcasting, as Ambassador to Hungary, and as White House Chief of Protocol. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

This article is reprinted from the Legacy Special Edition of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!

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