Pink Daffodils or Yellow Ribbons? Questions around the merger of Canadian Cancer Society and Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation

The question of colour is one of many surrounding the merger of the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF). For now, it seems to be hanging in the air alongside rumination around the appearance of next spring’s tulip. It’s out there, but no one’s really put it into words yet.

Welcome to my world.

The top three charity funders of cancer research in Canada are the Canadian Cancer Society, which provides 30% of total charity funding to cancer research, The Terry Fox Foundation, which delivers 18% to the cancer research funding table and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, which kicks in 15% of the charity contribution.

Think about that in the context that charities, as a whole, contribute 27% of the total cancer research funding in Canada; 73% is provided by federal and provincial government agencies.

The CCS and CBCF announced their plans to merge in a simultaneous press release on October 28, 2016.

The merging of these two organizations means one charity will be making the decisions on—and providing—45% the charitable portion of cancer research funding in Canada. In 2013, charities contributed $134.5 million to cancer research. That’s a lot of influence on what research priorities receive funding.

Post merger, the next largest charity funder will be The Terry Fox Foundation if it continues with its current levels at 18%. The Alberta Cancer Foundation and The Prostate Foundation of Canada will hold the number four and five positions with a respective 10% and 7% contribution.

So many questions there are:

  • Why a merger and why now?
  • Which members of the two individual boards of directors will control the new organization? What are their backgrounds?
  • What will the impact be on research funding priorities?
  • How will research funding priorities be decided?
  • How will the two staffs be merged?
  • How many lay-offs are expected?
  • Will the merger impact current funding commitments?
  • What percentage of the new organization’s funding will be directed towards breast cancer (13.5% of all cancer diagnosis in 2010) versus other cancers like lung cancer (13.7% of all cancers diagnosed in 2010) or colorectal cancer (12.4% of all cancers in 2010)?
  • What percentage of researching funding will be devoted to prevention? Advovacy?

But neither organization is currently prepared to offer any more detail than is contained in the media release of October 28, 2016, which offers little more than the generic notion that “we’re stronger together,” as articulated by Robert Lawrie, Chair of the CCS Board of Directors.

Staff on the ground is none the wiser. In November, Julia Le of the Oakville Beaver spoke with the CCS Halton Community Office, serving Oakville, Burlington, Milton and Georgetown, which said it was unsure how the changes would affect the local level.

When asked what the announcement meant to its daily operation, CCS Community Fundraising Specialist Shelley Frank said, at the moment, the office staff didn’t know much more than what had been issued publicly by the CCS and CBCF.

CCS spokesperson, Rosie Hales, says now that neither it nor the CBCF will be talking about any details until the arrangements are finalized in early February 2017.

Are we good with this?

Do we feel okay that two of the leading cancer research funding charities in the country who will, after the merger, control almost half of the charity funds for cancer research are moving in together but won’t talk publicly about it?

Is our accountability itch scratched when two charities, who issued a combined $111.0 million of charitable tax credits in 2016, can appropriately do a deal like this without any public disclosure or consultation?

If a resounding yes is your answer, then you probably don’t need to read any further.

But if you’re curious, just one little bit curious, about any one of the questions raised here, you can follow me into the land of speculation for a moment. Nothing more than speculation. I have no inside knowledge whatsoever. But that’s the thing about a no-talk policy. Nature abhors a communications vacuum. As do I.

And, as always, what’s the first rule of speculation?  It’s follow the money, always follow the money.  Where it is and where it isn’t.

The CCS is the larger organization. In the past 10 years, they’ve posted revenue of $757.7 million on expenses of $748.2 million. It has $161.3 million in assets with $85.2 million in liabilities.

For the same time period, the CBCF had revenues of $479.2 million on expenses of $475.0 million. It currently has $50.0 million in assets with $27.8 million in liabilities.

In 2016, the CCS employed 1,607 people in full time (67%) and part time (33%) positions and paid an average wage of $51,759.

By comparison, the CBCF employed 158 people in full time (75%) and part time (25%) positions and paid an average wage of $86,216.

What these organizations have in common is cancer research, but in so many other ways, they couldn’t be more different.

The Canadian Cancer Society is a sprawling behemoth of a brand that takes the global view on the cancer research environment, raises money $20 at a time for non-site specific cancer research, delivers programming to patients and their families on a community level, garners the energy of thousands of volunteers and is very active on the prevention scene, including providing help for smokers who want to quit and lobbying in Ottawa for systemic change.

On the other hand, the CBCF is a foundation whose primary focus is providing funds for breast cancer research. It licenses pink ribbon products, raises money from what it calls “cause marketing” and from mega-events, such as Run for the Cure. From a mandate perspective, you could, metaphorically speaking, put CBCF in the coat pocket of the Canadian Cancer Society.

So are we looking at merger between two equals, a takeover or the third option, a Hail Mary? It’s important to know because it’s important to know who is calling the biggest shots in these merger negotiations. Because this is about cancer research priorities. And that means peoples’ lives.

Will the daffodil stay yellow or turn pink?

Will the CCS be obliged to focus more of its energy on one site-specific cancer? Will CCS politely subsume the CBCF? Will we see the Run for the Cure raising money for CCS instead of CBCF. And where will all those pink ribbon partners go?

Back on the money trail we see a potential rationale for the merger on the books of the CBCF and, although neither organization is allergic to running annual operating deficits, the last five years of revenue numbers for CBCF paint a bit of a dismal picture, I’m afraid.

In 2012, the Foundation posted revenue of $53.3 million. Since then, for undetermined reasons, at least to this scribe, that revenue has fallen every year to a 2016 low of $36.1 million. The Foundation is bringing in 67.8% of the revenue it did five years ago. That has to be tough.

Maybe CBCF approached CCS? Who knows, right? But the numbers do form a particular narrative.

And one fascinating piece of information in the October 28, 2016 press release is that the CBCF’s CEO, Lynne Hudson, has become the CEO of CCS and will be the CEO of the newly merged group. She’d spent about 18 months at CBCF and, before that, eight years with Plan Canada International.  Why was that decision made and will it affect the priorities of the new group?

Rosie Hales, Communication Specialist at the Canadian Cancer Society says both organizations won’t be talking about the details of the merger until it’s all finished, in early February. That will take the form of an “announcement,” not a “statement,” but neither will it be a “press conference.”

We can only hope the media gives this critical story the same vigorous attention it gave the launching of Sick Kids Hospital Foundation’s latest holiday campaign in November. Even if it does, perhaps  the volume could be turned up on the investigative part of the story, a story that impacts the lives of people who are very ill.

In the meantime, my book, Cap in Hand: How Charities are Failing the People of Canada and the World is available for pre-order. Click here. For your reading pleasure, there are two whole chapters on cancer research and fundraising.



Author Photo 01 Sandy Tam PhotographyGail Picco is a strategist and nonprofit executive who has worked in the charity sector for 25 years, most of which as President of Gail Picco Associates. Prior to establishing Gail Picco Associates, she spent eight years working in a shelter for assaulted women and children. She is the author of What the Enemy Thinks, a recent novel set in the nonprofit sector, of Your Working Girl, a blog of memoir and commentary on politics, charity and popular culture, and writes a regular column for Hilborn Charity News. She is a Principal with The Osborne Group in Toronto and Chair of the Regent Park Film Festival.


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  1. Thanks for spotlighting this interesting issue. I’m curious where hospital foundation fundraising for cancer research (e.g. Princess Margaret) fit into the totals?

    • What a great question, Valerie. The answer is they don’t. Neither does Sick Kids. Neither one is a member of the Canadian Cancer Research Alliance, the organization that puts these numbers together. I get into the details of this in my book.

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