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‘I ♥ boobies’ charity wrestles with sudden spell of success

A small cancer charity's "i ♥ boobies" bracelets are selling like hotcakes — creating controversy in schools and posing bookkeeping and oversight challenges for the charity.
/ Source: NBC News and

This is a story about women's breasts and a slang — some would say risqué — word referring to them.

That word is "boobies."

Snicker if you like, but it's turning out to be a very serious word. School kids in districts across the United States have been suspended over it, and a small California charity is wrestling with the challenges — welcome as they may be — of handling millions more dollars in donations than it has ever had to deal with before.

The charity is the of Carlsbad, Calif. For most of its decade of  existence, it has raised a few hundred thousand dollars a year for breast cancer prevention and education programs targeting young people through "underground" art and music projects and X-Games-style board sports.

One notable campaign sells artist-decorated plaster casts of famous women's torsos (among them those of singer Katy Perry and striptease diva Dita Von Teese). Other revenue comes from the sale of T-shirts, bumper stickers and cause bracelets bearing the slogan "i ♥ boobies" — an in-your-face declaration that "speaks to young people in their own voice about a subject that's very scary and taboo," according to Kimmy McAtee, the foundation's marketing manager.

About a year and a half ago, the Keep A Breast Foundation went big with the bracelets, selling them year-round in retail stores across the country, and that's when things took off.

"Currently, we're selling about a million and a half a month," McAtee said. Not surprisingly — and perhaps not unintentionally — they're running into resistance from teachers and administrators in schools from New York to California, confrontations that have been widely chronicled in news stories like and . And Monday, the tension ended up in court.

"The more it gets picked up in the media, the more schools we hear are banning them," said McAtee, who said administrators would be better off "taking it as a teaching moment."

Revenue skyrocketsCertainly, the success of the bracelets has been just that for Keep A Breast — a learning experience. At $2 to $4 a pop, the bracelets are now generating more than $3 million a month for the foundation. Just two years ago, it took in $495,969 — in total.

"We're still trying to figure out what we're going to do with all the money," said Executive Director Shaney Jo Darden, an artist and designer who co-founded the foundation.

The organization's officers aren't the only ones trying to figure that out. Keep A Breast's tax records show that $6,723 went to breast cancer research awards and grants in 2008. That's about 1.4 percent of its revenue. (After receiving an extension, the foundation won't file its 2009 return until later this month.)

Darden said a little more than $100,000 has been directed to such programs this year, which works out to a similar percentage of the $10 million or more in revenue the foundation is likely to report thanks to the bracelets.

"It's kind of irritating that you wonder where the money goes," said Anita House of Dallas, who bought one of the bracelets for her 12-year-old son, Noah, a few weeks ago. "You assume it's going one place, and you don't know where it's going."

That irritation springs from a misunderstanding of the Keep A Breast Foundation's mission. The foundation has never promised that it would directly turn over a significant proportion of its donations to cancer research and treatment programs. Most of the money it raises supports traveling education projects and art and music campaigns intended to create a national community of cancer survivors and activists that's "easy and approachable to talk to" and isn't all about "a sea of pink ribbons," McAtee said.

Whatever donors may think and expect, charity watchdogs say there's nothing necessarily wrong with that strategy.

Jeremy Gregg, chief executive of Executives in Action, a nonprofit organization in Dallas that helps charities find experienced managers, reviewed Keep A Breast's records and acknowledged that "on the surface, that raises some eyebrows."

But digging deeper, he said, the group appears to be getting it right because "success" will always be difficult to measure when "the purpose of this is to be an advocacy organization." After all, how do you quantify the value of someone who's inspired to volunteer at her local cancer outreach or organize an independent fundraiser in his local school?

Coping with successFor small charities, sudden success is its own, special challenge, said Ken Berger, chief executive of Charity Navigator, which analyzes charities' financial practices as a guide for philanthropic groups and other donors. That's why it's not surprising that the Keep A Breast Foundation has struggled to "use the next dollar effectively and scale up an organization in rapid succession," he said.

Numerous charities faced a similar conundrum after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January, he said. They, too, were flooded with donations equaling two to three times their annual budgets in just a few days — money that Berger said donors probably assumed was "going to go out the door quickly."

But "to be done right, it can take years to do it thoughtfully and planfully," he said.

The charity has to find a way to track every dollar from beginning to end for tax purposes. It has to acquire facilities; hire managers, directors and oversight specialists; and draw up and enforce financial "best practices." And the groups to which the charity distributes donations have to be vetted thoroughly, because one bad decision can destroy its credibility, Berger said.

That takes time and costs money, Berger said, which poses a dilemma for rapidly growing charities.

The Keep A Breast Foundation has to reassure its donors that it's spending wisely, because "the trust of the people you have is the most important thing you have," he said. But "if they do this thing thoughtfully and slowly, people wonder where the money's going. If they do it fast, they could do it recklessly." For people considering whether to buy an "i ♥ boobies" bracelet — or donating to any other smaller group that doesn't yet have a long-established record — he offered this advice: "Think of it like an investor in the stock market."

"These smaller organizations are higher-risk," Berger said. "They're at an early stage with an untested idea, so they may not have a lot of data." But it might be worth taking that risk "because it's a creative, innovative idea" — like funny bracelets that help young people think about breast cancer in a new way.

The point is to "really get to know them," Berger said. Call the group. Can it detail its fundraising operations, expenses and distribution milestones? Does it have a reserve plan for rainy days? Can you get its tax records just by asking? If it can't reassure you on any of that, walk away.

The Keep A Breast Foundation has struggled at times to make such data easily accessible, and it still doesn't post all its financial records on its Web site, as Berger advises.

The group did volunteer to provide those records to anyone who asks, and it does of all of its grants. But Gregg, of Executives in Action, said it could do a better job of spelling out what it's doing with donors' dollars.

McAtee said the Keep A Breast Foundation is working on that. But she acknowledged it's a big task for a small outfit like hers.

"Up until two years ago, (Darden) ran it out of her house," McAtee said. Now, with the success of the "i ♥ boobies" campaign, "we're reaching out to really amazing people" for help, she said.

The foundation has added advisers and paid staff, including health, media and financial officers, its records confirm.

"We're really excited for what the future holds," she said.