On April 20, a crowd of 1,732 students, staff, and cancer survivors gathered on Multi-Sport Field to celebrate Georgetown’s 2012 Relay for Life, the primary fundraising arm for the American Cancer Society. For this year’s festivities, Georgetown students raised $205,093 for cancer research. That number, along with the overall turnout at the event, is a disappointment for a program that earned a peak donation of $402,000 in 2009 and attracted over 3,000 participants in 2011. Despite the drop, Relay for Life is still one of the most enthusiastic and widely attended charity events on campus. While such strong turnout for a charity event is laudable, it is disappointing that students dedicate such a small amount of time to causes that are equally pressing, though less visible in our community of privilege.
Cancer kills over half a million Americans each year; it certainly warrants our attention, and its survivors our respect. But Relay for Life is a woefully inefficient charity. Upon examining the American CancerS ociety’s financial records, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that the funds raised by Relay for Life are not utilized to their full potential. According to Charity Navigator, an Internet watchdog for charitable organizations, in 2009—the the most recent year available—the ACS spent a middling 71.6 percent of its revenue on cancer research, wasting away 6.1 percent on staff salaries and another 22.2 percent on fundraising expenses. Such percentages are mediocre; many charitable organizations with far fewer resources are better stewards of donations. In 2009, CEO John Seffrin earned a chilling annual salary of $914,906. For an organization dedicated to funding research, these statistics are inexcusable.
Relay for Life spends an egregious amount of funds promoting its own brand. Relay might try to justify these expenditures by claiming that its efforts boost cancer awareness, but among the most statistically prevalent diseases, cancer is one of the most well-known.
In fact, the key to Relay for Life’s popularity is undoubtedly the ubiquity of cancer. Cancer sees no sex, class, race or sexual orientation. It takes lives indiscriminately, affecting people of every socioeconomic status. Meanwhile, diseases that predominately impact lower socioeconomic classes receive minimal attention. Take HIV/AIDS, which has reached epidemic levels in the District’s poorest wards. Given the available prevention and, albeit expensive, treatment methods available, AIDS ought to be a central focus of fundraising efforts on campus. Unfortunately, it is not.
It is no surprise that at a university whose student body is overwhelmingly upper-class, white and privileged, cancer is better able to mobilize students on an enormous scale. Of course cancer is a serious killer, but it is a shame that a disease has to hit students close to home for them to care.