The Maryland branch of Susan G. Komen announced Monday that it will shut down amid downsizing by its parent organization, a national nonprofit that funds breast cancer research and treatment.
Susan G. Komen Maryland board members voted April 1 to dissolve the charity, lay off its staff and donate its remaining assets to a number of local organizations, including the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, University of Maryland Medical System Foundation and the Saint Agnes Hospital Foundation. The list also includes nonprofit organizations like Blossoms of Hope, Moveable Feast Inc. and Nueva Vida.
The nonprofit, which is perhaps best known for hosting large fundraising walks and races in Baltimore, Hunt Valley and then Columbia, has contributed more than $40 million since its founding in 1993 to community programs, education and national research focused on breast cancer, according to its website.
In a statement, Susan G. Komen Maryland blamed its closure on a recent restructuring by the national nonprofit.
Prompted in part by the coronavirus pandemic and associated fundraising challenges, Susan G. Komen announced in April 2020 that it planned to fold all 61 of its local affiliates into the national organization, laying off some staffers along the way. Fundraising dollars would largely go into a national pool, rather than directly to local services for those impacted by breast cancer.
In response, some Komen staffers from affiliates have joined the national organization, but other groups, like Maryland’s and Philadelphia’s, have decided to disband.
“Due to these recent changes nationally, money raised locally will no longer be directly accessible through programs to people impacted by breast cancer living here in Maryland,” said Michael Jessup, executive director of Susan G. Komen Maryland, in a news release. “We wanted to find a way to honor our mission and give one last gift to programs we have partnered with for so many years.”
As part of the national restructuring, the nonprofit announced it would close all of its offices, and transition its staffers to remote work. It also laid off some staffers in its central office and at local affiliates.
“Predominantly, that was to reduce inefficiencies,” said Lori Van Dam, Komen’s regional vice president for the Northeast. “If we have 61 independent affiliates, they all have finance people, they all have marketing people, they all have legal people. And we don’t have those silos anymore.”
The restructuring decision was partly brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, which made holding traditional Komen fundraising events, like the race, untenable, Van Dam said.
“We knew that we were not going to be able to raise the kind of revenue we had done in previous years,” she said.
Maryland Komen officials did not respond Monday to questions about how many employees worked for the organization, nor how much money it had left over.
Komen has attracted criticism for how it managed its funds. Critics said a deceptively small chunk of the funds went to breast cancer research, relative to education and treatment, when research was sometimes most prominently advertised. Earlier in its history, the charity also spent money to sue other nonprofits that used the “For the Cure” language trademarked by Susan G. Komen.
According to Charity Navigator, which gave the Texas-based national charity a score of 82 out of 100, about 77.5% of Komen’s revenue from the fiscal year ending in March 2018 went toward programming, and the remainder went toward fundraising and administrative costs.
Even though Komen Maryland is dissolving, the organization still will have a presence in the state, Van Dam said. There are still Komen employees who live in Maryland, some of whom previously worked with the Maryland chapter, she said.
This year, for instance, the national charity plans to hold a virtual More Than Pink Walk, formerly the Race for the Cure, for Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12.
“From a community facing perspective, there should be little difference in what people see from us,” Van Dam said. “Not everyone actually realizes, or realized in the past, that there was a national organization and a local organization.”
But some local advocates are worried that losing Susan G. Komen Maryland could mean losing a community that supported breast cancer survivors and victims’ families.
Jacquelyn Debella, a Laurel resident who said she first started fundraising for Susan G. Komen Maryland about 12 years ago, after her mother and sister were diagnosed with breast cancer, was stunned to see the news Monday on Facebook.
“Without having a state organization, a lot of that personal support that people need when they’re going through that — or their families need — where will they get that from?” she said.
The national organization has set up a fund to help people battling the disease, no matter where they live, and pay for treatment and other necessities, rather than providing those services itself, Van Dam said.
“We don’t want to say to somebody, no sorry we can’t help you because you don’t live in the right ZIP code. And that’s what we were doing,” Van Dam said.
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But those personalized services were helpful for survivors, Debella said.
“Would they still be able to do things like provide transportation to those people in treatment? Would they be able to provide child care for those people or meals?” Debella said. “I just don’t understand how it would be personalized.”
Debella remembers donning pirate gear every year for the race to support her fundraising team, called the Pirates of the Chesapeake. Over the years, she got to know the organizers, and fell in love with the event as a way to cope with the loss of her mother and sister from the disease. Even when the walk was canceled due to the pandemic, she and her children walked around the neighborhood with friends.
“My son is 10 now and he’s been doing it since he was in utero, you know?” she said.
Debella raised about $1,000 for Susan G. Komen annually, she said. And it meant something to know that the money raised was going toward Marylanders dealing with breast cancer, Debella said.
She worries that with a centralized structure, the race and the nonprofit just won’t be the same.
“When you go through cancer, it’s just such an overwhelming experience,” she said. “Who’s going to be there for these survivors and their families and who’s going to be that local avenue for them?”