In my job as consultant to nonprofit organizations around the country, I rack up a respectable share of frequent flier miles. On a domestic Delta Airlines flight earlier this month, I was all set to engage in one of my favorite flying activities – chatting up whoever happens to be seated next to me – when a video began playing at the screen at the front of the cabin. Since my business is philanthropy and the video had to do with Delta’s charitable activities, I listened closely.

There is no debate about the seriousness of breast cancer as a health issue effecting millions of women throughout the world. That is exactly why powerhouse corporations that adopt breast cancer as a cause can’t only be spreading awareness; they must back up gestures with more significant dollars.

October, as we all know, is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the video highlighted Delta’s 10-year-partnership with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. In the video, passengers are urged to contribute to breast cancer research by purchasing a Minute Maid Pink Lemonade or other selected items. During the course of the hour and a half flight, the flight attendants made three different pushes for passengers to contribute. It’s no exaggeration to say we were asked to give more than we were reminded to fasten our seat belts.

Now, I hate to sound a sour note when it comes to corporations doing good work, especially when they support a cause as noble as breast cancer research. Over the course of a 10-year partnership, Delta has raised $7.9 million for the foundation, funding 31 separate projects related to the eradication of breast cancer. So what, you might ask, is the problem? I do have some questions about what this effort means and the tone it sets for corporate philanthropy. Delta’s campaign and others like it raise three distinct issues:

  • Is impulse giving a good thing?
  • When corporations ask their customers to give, are they matching those gifts?
  • Has the “pinking” of October gone too far?

As a general rule, I’m not a fan of impulse giving. I don’t feel comfortable when I’m asked at the pump at Sam’s Club or at the counter at Barnes and Noble or the grocery store. I rarely know a great deal about the charity I’m asked to support. And since I’m in public, there’s a certain amount of pressure involved. Who wants to appear uncharitable?  And yet, in some cases, how do I even know my donation will make it to its intended source? I like to say that giving works best when a donor gives in a planned and calculated fashion. You wouldn’t or shouldn’t pick a company to invest in willy-nilly, and you shouldn’t roll the dice with your charitable gifts – which more and more donors equate with investments. Donors should have the time to learn about charities and give to places that move them and where they feel their dollars will do the most good. That can’t happen by buying a glass of pink lemonade on a flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia.

Now, while I don’t love impulse giving, I don’t want to write off the idea of corporations asking their customers to contribute to charity. Clearly, the millions that Delta has given to breast cancer research, and the awareness it has helped generate, have contributed to the public good. But are corporations matching their donors’ gifts, dollar for dollar? Most of the time, large corporations aren’t doing this, but are benefiting in the court of public opinion from the generosity of their customers. (I have reached out to, on several occasions, Delta’s corporate communications office trying to find out how much of the $7.9 million came from Delta as opposed to its passengers. I have not received a response.) On the whole, corporate America is not contributing its fair share. In 2013, corporate profits grew by 3 percent, but corporate giving declined by two percent, according to the most recent Giving USA Survey. Last year, corporate giving totaled $17.9 million, accounting for 5 percent of all charitable dollars. Delta, for its part, netted $2.7 billion in profits in 2013, a record for the airline.  Too many corporations are getting credit for being charitable while they clearly could be giving more. Delta appears to be following an example set by too many corporate entities.

The last point, really more of a question, is likely the most controversial: Have we taken Breast Cancer Awareness Month too far? Awareness is a great thing and the work of organizations like Susan G. Komen have had an enormous impact on raising the public consciousness about breast cancer and channeling dollars toward research. But we may have reached the point of awareness saturation. “Think Before You Pink” (, a project of Breast Cancer Action, makes a compelling case that we have. The campaign was launched more than a decade ago to call attention to the “countless ways the breast cancer industry, and the culture of pink it has spawned, distract attention away from the bold action we need to successfully address and end the breast cancer epidemic and to achieve health justice for all women in all communities.” The focus on pink ribbon campaigns, according to the organization, fails to address the systemic issues at the heart of this epidemic, instead of emphasizing individual risk and individual solutions.

Do the pink drill bits created by Baker Hughes Inc., a provider of gas and oil-field services – this really happened, I’m not kidding – really move the needle on the public conversation or the prioritization of research? I don’t think so. Sometimes, efforts to highlight breast cancer come across as tacky, or worse, self-serving. For instance, on September 30, Delta flew its annual “Breast Cancer One” charter pink plane from Atlanta to New York.  Let’s consider the ubiquity of pink in the NFL this month. (The NFL is, unbelievably, a nonprofit entity but its teams are for-profit enterprises.)  Embracing breast cancer research may have won the NFL a few points with some adult women, a demographic it is trying to reach. But what have all of those pink towels and socks really accomplished?  In terms of dollars, the NFL (with its annual revenues upwards of $9 billion), has given just $7 million to the American Cancer Society since 2009, according to a recent Washington Post article. Roughly 12 percent of a $26.95 pink-lined New England Patriots hat goes to the fight against breast cancer, according to the article. (The NFL says it donates all of its royalties to charity and the rest of the money is taken by retailers and the manufacturer.)

According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a woman dies of breast cancer every 74 seconds somewhere in the world. There is no debate about the seriousness of breast cancer as a health issue affecting millions of women throughout the world.  That is exactly why powerhouse corporations that adopt breast cancer as a cause can’t only be spreading awareness; they must back up gestures with more significant dollars. And, please, if you’re going to ask me to buy pink lemonade, once is quite enough.