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Has the American Cancer Society Been Caught Covering Up a Rejection of Atheist Money?

The ACS has been stung by accusations of anti-atheist bigotry in its fundraising. Is it making things worse by trying to cover its tracks?
 
 
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"What really hurts in matters of this sort is not the fact that they occur, because overzealous people in campaigns do things that are wrong. What really hurts is if you try to cover it up." -- President Richard M. Nixon, August 29, 1972

The American Cancer Society is not happy. It insists that it is not discriminating against atheists. It insists that its recent decision to deny the Foundation Beyond Belief a national team in its upcoming Relay for Life -- and its decision to reject the $250,000 matching offer that would have gone with it -- had nothing to do with the fact that the FBB is a non-theist organization. It insists that it had already decided to do away with non-profit participation in the Relay for Life on a national level, and that the FBB's request just happened to come at the time when it had made that decision. And they really, really want atheists -- and believers who are equally outraged by this controversy -- to stop bugging them about it.

The problem is this: The facts don't match their story.

Actually, the facts strongly suggest a coverup. An online trail clearly shows non-profit organizations with national teams in the Relay for Life, and shows the ACS actively soliciting non-commercial organizations to participate in the program -- right up until the original AlterNet article about the FBB controversy appeared. At which point, the national teams of these non-profits abruptly had their status changed to "Youth Affiliates." And the online trail clearly shows that several non-profits are still participating as Youth Affiliates with national teams in the Relay for Life -- a form of participation that is still being denied to the Foundation Beyond Belief, with no explanation from the ACS. (Supporting documents for this story are available on the author's personal blog.)

What's more, the American Cancer Society's attempts at damage control have included contradictions, distortions, deceptions, and flat-out misinformation: about the Foundation Beyond Belief, about Todd Stiefel (the atheist philanthropist whose family offered the $250,000 matching offer in the first place), even about AlterNet. And its attempts at damage control have turned into an ugly attempt to blame Stiefel and the Foundation Beyond Belief for raising the issue in the first place. (Conflict of interest alert: While I have no direct relationship with Stiefel other than for the purposes of writing this story, his foundation supports many atheist and secular organizations, some of which I'm professionally connected with.)

Something Fishy This Way Comes

The story was fishy from the start. When atheist philanthropist Todd Stiefel contacted the American Cancer Society and offered a $250,000 matching offer to support the non-theistic charitable organization Foundation Beyond Belief's participation as a national team in the ACS's Relay for Life, his offer was initially welcomed and approved. But then the American Cancer Society stopped responding: repeated emails and phone calls from Stiefel were not returned for over a month, and eventual responses from the ACS ranged from apathetic at best to hostile at worst. Finally, after many go-arounds, Stiefel's offer was declined, and he was told that the ACS was no longer including non-profits as national teams in the Relay for Life. Requests for the FBB to participate as a National Youth Partner were also rejected -- in a contradictory series of statements, with the ACS first telling Stiefel that the youth program was being accelerated, then saying it was being de-emphasized. (Further details are in the original AlterNet story about this controversy.)

So do these statements from the American Cancer Society match the facts?

To make it very clear -- since some mangled versions of this story have been floating around the Internet -- the American Cancer Society did not turn down the $250,000 from the Todd Stiefel Foundation. They were, and are, perfectly happy to take Stiefel's money as a straightforward donation. They just aren't willing to let that money be connected with the Foundation Beyond Belief having a national team in the Relay for Life. An arrangement that, until this controversy unfolded, many non-profit groups enjoyed... and that under the Youth Affiliate program, many still do.

It's not totally implausible to think that the American Cancer Society really had been phasing out non-profit participation in this program. And it's not totally implausible to think tvhat, at the time Stiefel contacted the ACS with his offer, the word about this policy change simply hadn't yet filtered down to the people he was in contact with.

Except.

Why, if this program was really being discontinued for non-profits, did Relay For Life National vice president Reuel Johnson not know about this change, and not tell Stiefel about it when he first contacted the ACS with his offer? It's plausible to think that the word might not have filtered down to the web designers -- but how likely is it that this significant institutional change wasn't known about by the national vice president of the program?

Why -- as this document shows -- did the ACS have other non-profit organizations listed on its website with national teams in the Relay for Life... as recently as October 1? Why, in fact, did the ACS website show it actively soliciting non-commercial organizations to participate in the program -- again, as recently as October 1?

Why did the ACS wait until after the original AlterNet article about the controversy appeared to make the changes on its website, changing nonprofit "National Teams" to "Youth Affiliates"?

Why didn't the ACS notify the nonprofits with existing national Relay for Life teams about this policy change? Why was this change made so abruptly that organizations had to find out about it from the original AlterNet article and the ensuing controversy? Why are there, as of this writing, still non-profit organizations -- including the Jaycees and the National Funeral Directors Association -- publicizing their national Relay for Life teams on their websites? (According to an email from the NFDA, they were only notified about the ACS discontinuing non-profit participation in this program last week.)

Why did the ACS brochure for the 2011 Relay for Life -- revised 4/11, just three months before FBB contacted ACS to join as a national team -- indicate that non-profit clubs and organizations could join as national teams?

And -- very importantly -- why is the Foundation Beyond Belief still being denied participation as a Youth Affiliate with a national team in the Relay for Life? As of this writing, the Youth Affiliate program is very much alive and well, with several national teams in the Relay for Life. And the Foundation Beyond Belief is connected with over 400 student organizations, through connections with the Secular Student Alliance and the Center for Inquiry. Yet, despite repeated requests to participate with a national Youth Affiliate team in the Relay for Life, they are still being turned down for participation in this program. And the American Cancer Society has yet to explain why.

In many ways, the youth program is the crux of this story. The American Cancer Society keeps repeating that they didn't turn down the $250,000 donation from Stiefel -- they simply turned down the FBB's participation as a national team in the Relay for Life, since they were already discontinuing non-profit participation in this program. But Stiefel and the FBB have repeatedly asked about participation with a national team as a Youth Affiliate. These requests have been met with silence. Specific questions about it from AlterNet were generically directed to the ACS's most recent publicity statement on the controversy -- a statement which did not in any way address this issue. And follow-up questions to the ACS asking for a specific response to this issue were met with a flat refusal to comment further on the matter.

The timing seems very fishy indeed.

As does the American Cancer Society's response to the controversy. The publicity statements and press releases from the ACS have been inconsistent at best, deceptive and even flat-out dishonest at worst. They have included attempts to impugn the reputation of Todd Stiefel and the Foundation Beyond Belief, and to blame them -- and the atheist community -- for speaking out about the issue in the first place.

The most recent publicity statement on this matter from the American Cancer Society asserted that "Mr. Stiefel and the Foundation Beyond Belief have not told us if they are willing to consider working with the Society in any manner other than as a National Team Partner." In fact, Stiefel has specifically and repeatedly offered to participate as a Youth Affiliate -- an offer that has been met with silence. The ACS statement asserts that they "remain committed to discussing with the Foundation Beyond Belief ways in which we can work together, encouraging the group's participation in Relay For Life and in the Society's mission to save more lives from cancer." In fact, according to Stiefel, contact with him from the ACS has been apathetic at best and hostile at worst, with only one person attempting to contact him, and with only one phone call and two emails. The ACS statement asserts that they "discontinued Relay's National Team Partner program for clubs and organizations." In fact, they are continuing participation from clubs and organizations as Youth Affiliates -- but are denying this form of participation to the Foundation Beyond Belief, without any explanation. (Further details about the misinformation in this publicity statement are available on the Friendly Atheist blog.)

What's more, more than one statement on this controversy from the ACS have been not-so-subtly scolding the atheist community for speaking out on the issue: chiding them that "it's going to take all of us fighting together to end cancer," saying that "the public debate that has ensued, we believe, undermines the shared passion both organizations have for our mission of saving lives from cancer," and treating the matter as an annoying distraction, saying, "We need to get back to work."

The American Cancer Society has even been impugning the reputation of this publication -- privately, behind the scenes. Upon publication of the original AlterNet story, AlterNet received an email from DeMolay International, a non-profit organization that had been mentioned in the original story and was concerned about its contents. According to this email, "the spokesman from the American Cancer Society says there are a lot of inaccuracies in the article." (Follow-up emails to DeMolay asking what specific inaccuracies the ACS had accused AlterNet of propagating were referred to the ACS.) But none of the public statements from the ACS seen by this writer have made any mention of inaccuracies in the original AlterNet story. And when directly asked by AlterNet -- twice -- what these supposed inaccuracies were, the American Cancer society declined comment. Inquiries on the matter were generically directed to the latest ACS publicity statement on the controversy. Further inquiries, pointing out that this publicity statement didn't actually answer the questions being asked, were met with the response that they were "not expecting that any other statement or comments will be forthcoming."

(For the record, this writer has been informed there were two inaccuracies in the original story: the offer of $250,000 in matching funds came from Todd Stiefel's family, not from his foundation, and the correct name of his foundation is the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, not Todd Stiefel Foundation. Neither of these inaccuracies is germane to the crux of the story, but this writer regrets them nevertheless.)

In other words: The ACS has been telling organizations privately that they can dismiss the AlterNet story because it's inaccurate... but is unwilling to make that accusation publicly, or to publicly state what exactly about the story was inaccurate.

And that's very fishy indeed.

Could It All Just Be a Misunderstanding?

It's possible that this whole controversy really is just a case of poor institutional communication. It's possible that the American Cancer Society really was planning to phase out non-profit participation in this program. And it's possible that internal communication about this policy change was poorly handled: so poorly handled that word about it didn't filter down to the right people -- from national vice presidents, to web designers, to the organizations participating in the program -- until it was too late, and the snafu had occurred.

But that isn't what the pattern points to. The pattern looks much more like an attempt by the American Cancer Society to cover their tracks in the face of a firestorm of outrage and bad publicity; an after-the-fact effort to make it appear as if their hastily cobbled-together cover story had really been their plan all along. The pattern strongly suggests that the ACS didn't want to be associated with the Foundation Beyond Belief in such a public manner on the national stage. It suggests that they delayed, dodged, and found an excuse to deny this participation. And it suggests that they expected this excuse would be accepted meekly, and that the matter would just quietly go away.

If so -- they guessed wrong.

The American Cancer Society has been getting an enormous amount of flak over this controversy. Shortly after the original AlterNet story broke, the ACS Facebook wall was deluged for days with expressions of disappointment and outrage -- by religious believers as well as atheists. Many ACS donators declared their intention to withdraw any future financial support. Even now, three weeks after the story first appeared, the complaints are still coming in.

So what now?

It seems unlikely that this situation with the American Cancer Society and the Foundation Beyond Belief is fixable. The ACS is clearly battening down the hatches and entrenching itself in its position. And even if it reversed its position and granted the FBB a national team as a Youth Affiliate in the Relay for Life, it seems unlikely that the atheist community would trust it enough to enthusiastically participate. The damage has been done.

So here's the point.

It is not usually this hard to give away money. Especially not $250,000. Especially not a $250,000 matching offer -- with the potential to raise a total of a half million dollars. But donations from both Todd Stiefel and the Foundation Beyond Belief have been turned down before -- in some cases, with explicit statements that atheist money was too controversial to be associated with. So it's not a wild stretch of the imagination to think this could be happening here.

Atheists, however, are becoming a real community. They are becoming visible, vocal, organized, and readily mobilized. They are becoming a force to be reckoned with. And they want to use this power for good. They want to contribute to society. They want to participate in it. They want, in some cases, to give away a quarter of a million dollars to help fight a terrible disease. But they are not willing to do so as second-class citizens.

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.
 
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