Where Do Your Relay for Life Donations Go? American Cancer Society Doesn’t Tell You.

Part III in a series regarding my investigation into the American Cancer Society and interview with the Chief Medical Officer Dr. Otis Brawley 

Photo Courtesy: RelayforLife.org


This post focuses on Relay for Life. Does it surprise you that NOWHERE on the Relay for Life website does it tell you where your donations are going? Also, do YOU know where your dollars are going? Many people don’t. This post is for you.

A brief bit of background.

On April 22, 2011. I had a two hour phone interview with Dr. Otis Brawley, CMO of the American Cancer Society (ACS).

As I mentioned in a previous post, my interview didn’t go as expected and some insanely crazy things have happened since, such as:

- My comment on ACS’s Facebook Page “disappears.” ACS’s “responds.”
- ACS does NOT respond to all of my follow-up email questions, but posts this blog post: “Tough Choices in Research Funding” on Facebook and Twitter, apparently in response to my questions.
- ACS does NOT respond to my questions regarding this blog post on Facebook and Twitter, but rather a mutual friend of ACS’s and mine seemingly tries to run interference. I appreciate the help, but really, this is ACS’s job.

Seriously, it’s no wonder many people question the American Cancer Society. Communications skills are critical.

If you can’t communicate clearly, you can bet I am really wondering what you’re doing with millions of dollars.

Another very simple question: Why all the dodging? Why all the dodging when you even purport to have the answers summed up in a blog post? Why not give those answers directly to the person who was asking you these questions?

Well, here ARE some answers from ACS regarding Relay for Life. I have found that some people are confused where their dollars are going when they participate in a Relay event. Many think their donations are going directly to their specific cancer – their specific cause. That’s not the case. And, it’s no wonder many people ARE confused.

It’s of huge concern to me when the largest cancer nonprofit does not bother to tell you where your donations are going when you participate in a Relay for Life event. ALL nonprofits know the critical importance of spelling out this kind of information. It’s nonprofit 101 and the info should be first page, front and center! You’ll see ACS’s response below regarding this particular issue.

But, first, a few additional questions about Relay for Life I emailed to ACS and the organization’s responses:

Jen: When someone participates in a Relay for Life event, can they designate their donation dollars to a specific cancer? If not, where, specifically, do these event dollars go? 

(Why does ACS even offer the option to donate to a specific cancer? This seems to be very confusing to cancer advocates and isn’t the model under which ACS primarily operates, in my opinion.)

ACS: Currently, all donations made to the American Cancer Society through our Relay For Life events go into our general fund to be allocated where the need is greatest and where we have the most critical opportunities to make a difference in the fight against cancer and help people and families facing the disease. People donating on our main web site (cancer.org) can designate that their donation be restricted to cancer research, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, or lung cancer. We are continuing to explore opportunities through Relay For Life and all our programs to enhance satisfaction and provide our supporters with the most fulfilling and meaningful donation and participation experiences.

Jen: I have received feedback from several Relay for Life participants who are disheartened to think ACS has been less than upfront with them regarding where exactly their charitable contributions are going. What is your response to this?

ACS: We are very aware of the importance and the challenge of communicating to the public and Relay participants all the ways donor dollars are making a difference given the breadth and depth of our mission. We work to ensure that Relay supporters understand how their contributions are being used throughout their Relay experience with regular coaching and event emails, with communications at the events themselves, and throughout the year in continuing communications. Despite those efforts, we do understand we’re not always successful.

Jen: Is there anything ACS can or plans to do to make the message more clear to participants about where their donations go — what they are used for?

ACS: The American Cancer Society publishes an Annual Report and makes our financial statements available every year on cancer.org: http://bit.ly/l8WMS7. Our strategic plan and annual progress report also show the lifesaving work that our donors’ dollars make possible. And of course, we strive to ensure that Relay supporters understand how their contributions are being used throughout their Relay experience. We’re always looking for better ways to offer donors more clarity about how their dollars are used to carry out our mission and make an impact in the fight against cancer.

Jen: I can’t find information on the Relay for Life website that says where the funding goes. Can you please tell me where I can locate? There’s nothing on relayforlife.org that points you directly to how the funds raised are used?

ACS: You’re right, and thank you for bringing this to our attention. There is not one clear place that tells visitors to the site all the many ways their dollars are making a difference. Although there are links back to cancer.org that provide a lot of details on this, we should have a clear section as on our other event Web sites that clearly shows this. We are in the process of a complete site refresh for RelayForLife.org and will make this a top priority — both in the short-term and long-term for the site.


Seriously? How could something like this merely be an oversight? I honestly do not get it. No one shouldn’t have to try to “get it.”

Some time has passed since I received this response and had a chance to write this post. I thought I would see if this “top priority” has been addressed.

Here what you find when you click on a tab that says “Where the Dollars Go:

Yep, an error page.

Honestly, I don’t even remember that tab being there before, so maybe that a smidge of progress. Maybe.

Bottom line: If you participate in a Relay for Life event, know that your donations go into ACS’s “general” cancer fund, not to a specific cancer.

Secondly, demand clear answers from the American Cancer Society, and all organizations. Ask questions. If you don’t get answers, keep asking. You shouldn’t have to run a relay to get them.

  • Claire Celsi

    Don’t you think it’s more accurate for them to state that “your donations first cover our overhead expenses, including staff and benefits, then whatever is left is given to cancer-fighting efforts?” That is why I NEVER give money to umbrella organizations like ACS or United Way. Their entire business model is “skimming off the top.” Instead I give directly to the organization of my choice that provides the care/service that is closest to the patient as possible.

  • Traci

    Wow! I guess this sums up what my answer will be once they finally decide to write me back…IF they write me back, is more appropriate.

  • http://twitter.com/Qualiki Sam Qualiki Mendez

     I’m all for the questioning, and wanting a little more transparency, but


    It does say right on the Relay website that the money doesn’t go to a specific cancer. And them saying that the donations support “all aspects” implies that it goes to a general ACS fund, but they should be spelling that part out more directly.

    • http://www.wtflungcancer.com/ Jennifer Windrum

      Hi Sam. Wahooo!  The Relay site has been updated with this information on the home page now since my post.  Thanks for the message. I am glad to see this info front and center. Jen

  • Toddfhelt

    Summary:  2011 RelayForLife generated $388M, with over 5,100 community events and over 3 million participants.  Not sure what the overhead costs are for RelayForLife in particular, that info may be somewhere in the reports available on this “Financial Information” page.  But the overall expenses from the 2011 ACS “Stewardship Report” (for 2010) was $952M, with 28.5% ($271M) going to “Supporting Services” which is overhead and fundraising costs, and 71.5% ($681M) going to actual program services like cancer research, prevention, detection, treatment, patient support.

    • criphip

      Cancer research.
      .drug companies sell what is found for amounts cancer patients cannot pay. When insurance runs out. Too bad

  • greg anton

    I keep seeing on websites that the American Cancer Society uses just 25% of each dollar taken in from donations to help in the fight against cancer.  Is this true?

  • Clayman206

    http://www.bbb.org/charity-reviews/national/cancer/american-cancer-society-in-atlanta-ga-186  Better Business Bureau. Complete break down of where money was spent and how all the funds were allocated.

  • Ta Davis

    I have often wondered where the money goes.  My wife died from cancer several years ago.  She was on Tarceva and Lovenocks(sp).  Each of these drugs were over $100.00 a day after insurance.  The cost was financially devistating to our family.  After her death, many of our friends and family were very active in relay for life.  I couldn’t do it.  I wanted to know where all that money went.  My thoughts were: the money went to pay for cancer research but the drug companies didn’t extend that good will to those who might benfit from their research.  If you think about it, what a business plan!  Have someone else offset the cost of research and then charge whatever you want for your product.  Keep in mind that the customer will die without your product.  Thus a cancer patient with good insurance might pay up to $10,000.00 dollars a month.  Just wrong.

    • criphip

      I tried to respond on FB link but blocked me.

  • Don Noble

    I was amazed at the large expensive acrylic “awards” that the local chairman for  received for her participation in Relay for Life. (No small expense.) Also, I donated to the lady raising money for the Susan G Komen “Race for the Cure”, she placed 3rd in raising money in the state and received a free air ticket. 

  • guest

    you’re an idiot and bitter because you’re not smart enough to understand how a non-profit works.

    • criphip

      Yes u r an idiot. Go fetch the dollar fa ts and see who the idiot is yourself

  • Weats

    is that why on the “tough choices” blog thing they say they have three comments but only show two? is the other one you?

  • Weats

    And the error page is still there today, 6/12/12. I think you should make a yearly blog about it, updating it every year that passes since the day of the “I’ll fix that” email they sent. Happy Truth Day!

  • Blcd411

    Several years ago the staff got an extra week off with pay for getting the participants to reach their goal in CT.  But there is no money available to pay for patients parking fees with the road to recovery. Something not right with the whole ACS picture.

    • http://www.facebook.com/naomi.loera.7 Naomi Loera

      Exactly What I’ve been saying for a long time ……..They ACS offers no help to current patients with Cancer but reffering people to other places that actually do help ….Hmm I’d rather my money Go directly to Cancer pt’s that need help getting treatment to stay alive rather then someone’s Payroll smh

  • http://www.facebook.com/jaccurso Joe Accurso III

    Becasue someone you loved died of cancer is no reason to give to the ACS. Instead go take your money and get healthy. Cancer is a lifestyle disease. Spend a little more on healhtier foods, less chemically processed foods, cleaner body products and cleaning supplies. Change your life and bring others along with you as a tribute to someone who lost their life.  I think the family i lost to cancer would appreciate us being healthy.

    • Delaney51

      I lost someone very close to me. It started out as lung cancer, which she fought and went into remission. A few months later it can back as brain cancer. This woman never smoked a day in her life and she did life a clean lifestyle. Some people have a predisposition to cancer. It offends me that you say it’s merely a “lifestyle” thing. Sure your lifestyle plays a part but thats not the entire reason for getting cancer. And further more, I live on Long Island; born and raised. This is one of the top areas in the nation for breast cancer. We can’t all get up and move away from our homes.

    • Jo

      Cancer is not a “lifestyle disease” yes there are some that can be prevented in situations but not all cancer is preventable!! My daughter was diagnosed at 10 months old, she was born with cancer! It was nothing that I did or could have done differently. It was a freak gene mutation and my daughter would not be alive today if it wasn’t for those who are so compassionate about saving other that they donated their money and time to cancer research! The ACS has been a god send to my family and this article is absolutely trash!

    • FeedUP

      Your decision to refer to cancer as a lifestyle disease simply shows just how ignorant and clueless the world is about the simplest of things!!! I am a nine time cancer survivor and it had nothing to do with my lifestyle choices. How utterly offensive can one truly be? Honestly where the hell did you get that little gem of information you decided to stew out on the internet. Next thing is you will tell me that God is punishing me for some wrong I did in my youth. Really? Now as for ACS, they run on a 10% rule and keep very much to that rule. Only ten percent of the money raised goes to administrative cost. The remainder goes to research (of course), and programs like Road to Recovery. This program offers rides for Chemo patients so that the family member does not have to take off work for your treatments. There is a 1800 number that is open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week that will help you in ways you did not even think they could help you with. For example, I called about help with medicine, after talking with me, the young lady on the phone told me about a service that my insurance would pay for to have my house cleaned because I physically could not clean my own house after my surgeries. If you have to travel out of town for treatment or surgery, there are HOPE lodges all over the US that family members can stay for free why their love ones get the treatment they need. There is the CLOSET, where wigs, turban, and even boobs are provided for patients who are in treatment or post surgery. There is a free camp for kids, and countless other programs. Come on people, let us not destroy everything. Besides which, if you are not happy and think there needs to be change, pick up your mantel and join the fight. I do not see you volunteering to drive patients to treatment, or to sit with folks and just talk. Maybe it is time to step down off that high horse and stop looking down your nose at those of us who are in the trenches and trying to make a difference so that your children and grandchildren can possible never here the words you have cancer! Lifestyle choice?!?!?! Smmmh

  • jgl
  • http://twitter.com/WearGrayForADay WearGrayForADay

    TheAmerican Cancer Society was a great resource for me when I was diagnosed with a grade 4 abrain tumor GBM.   Brain Cancer is an ignored cancer like lung cancer but I don’t know why no one will  talk about it. Why do we have a stigma attached to us?? ACS gave me tons of info and put me in touch with other resources. They were ectremely helpful. I support them comepletely.

  • Willoverkathy

    Just read where the American Red Cross President and CEO Marsh J. Evans salary for the year was $651,957 plus expenses. I have a friend who has cancer and asked for help and they were told the red cross doesn’t give them money.The girl told her that she had helped with the relay for life,so she gave her one hundred dollars for gas expense. She has co pays and other expenses and I think it is a shame that the Red Cross will not help.

  • Guest

    This is absolutely ridiculous! I have worked in many hospitals and cancer support organizations and have seen first hand just how funds raised by ACS and their Relay For Life event provides FREE services/programs to cancer patients and caregivers. The research for treatment breakthroughs such as Tamoxifen (Breast Cancer), Rituxin (Several Cancers), introduction of bone marrow transplants, and so on have been funded by ACS. For the person who mentioned ACS staff getting days off, etc – the majority of their fundraisers are at night and on the weekends so the company compensates and gives them occasional days off so as not burn them out. Most ACS staff make less than a teacher’s annual salary. Most staff members work for the ACS based on their own personal experiences with cancer. You REALLY should do your homework. I say this as a caregiver, spouse of cancer patient, volunteer for multiple cancer fundraising organizations. I have an army of individuals who would dispute your claims. Instead of trashing these organizations, perhaps you should be spending your time giving back to the community and helping others. I’m not saying that there aren’t certain non-profits that need to be analyzed more closely, but ACS is NOT one of them!

    • criphip

      My sister died of cancer and did not have funds for a daily trip for chemo. She had 3 children. I helped wjat I could and the total amount given from ACS was $37.00.Tell me again how they help? That money was all they allowed to help with fuel. No help with special diets or anything else. My neighbor got close to the same amount. A widow with little funds. I consider it the biggest fraud of all charities followed by AHS..heart charity. I hope you get to experience their personal help.

  • Delaney51

    I’ve seen the financials for the ACS thru their site and the BBB. A lot of their money goes to grants for docs to do their research on different types of cancer. Sure they have to pay the people who work for them. Everybody needs a paycheck. No charity gives 100% of the funds to research. It’s the drug companies fault that the drugs are so expensive, not the ACS. If they were to give money directly to patients there wouldn’t be any money for research. Pretty much everybody knows someone who has or has passed due to cancer. Who’s to say who deserves more money if they did give money directly to patients? If you want to be angry at someone, attack the drug companies. They are the ones who are all about profits. The ACS doesn’t manufacture drugs. Also, if the ACS wasn’t around to help point people in the right direction for help then who would? I’m not saying their saints but you can’t say that they don’t help the cause. Maybe they just need to be more clear in the ways that they do help. They’re not an ATM.

  • Shelly

    I read your article. I have been participating in my local relay for 5 years. This is what I have learned. Most of what goes in to a relay is donated. The expense to put on a relay must not exceed a certain amount. (And the amount is small.) As for staff, as someone so correctly put in another post–everyone needs a paycheck. However, ACS operate at less than 10% budget. That means that less than 10 cents out of every dollar goes toward administration. If you visit a local ACS office, many of the staff are sharing desks to save money. The rest of the dollar goes towards research, education, advocacy, and service. All services are free to cancer patients and caregivers. Currently, ACS is involved with another longitudinal study to look at the effects of genetics and cancer.

    • criphip

      Look again. Even 10% of $25 million is not chump change. Try and track down the exact $ expendature..no way can you do it. Tried.

  • Matt
  • http://www.facebook.com/ingridrdh Ingrid Eck Pullen

    I am doing a Relay in June and have had a few friends complain that the money does not go toward cancer research, but into the pockets of the CEO’s. Glad to read this.

  • Big Al

    I discovered so much information regarding fund raising organizations and where your donation actually goes (administrative costs) during my college years. Now, many years later… I see all these people, every year doing the tent thing at Relay for Life and I have asked these same people, “Have you seen paper work on where your money goes?’ They do not know what goes where….I could scream at the ignorance.

  • Insider

    I know ACS want you to believe they are there to help. The fact is alot of your money is given to fund the drug company’s . Another way ACS uses your money in payroll,phone calls 17million a year..Yes that is true. Go read at this at website http://www.Gothamgr.com check that out!

  • Natalie Outlaw

    This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. My family has a long history of participating in Relay for Life and the ACS does help people. Yeah, they have to pay their workers- God forbid. But that’s only 10% of their donations. Ten cents out of a dollar while the other ninety goes to providing transportation, research, and numerous other benefits to Cancer Patients. The ACS does NOT set Chemo prices so don’t you dare try to blame them for the high costs. Also, not a single nonprofit can help everyone. There are THOUSANDS-MILLIONS even- of cancer patients and not enough donations as it is because people like you convince people not to donate. This is just sick. The reason we can’t get enough money to help everyone is blog posts like these. You are lower than low and you sicken me.

  • Linda G

    I found this in under 5 minutes, so not sure why it was so hard for you to find it.


  • Holly

    Here is your answer.
    The American Cancer Society is a fantastic organization that provides so many great resources. Over head costs must be covered but that is the same in all organizations and it allows for us to better our efforts. 7 cents of your dollar goes to paying employees, over head costs and basic supplies that are needed.