Is Atheist Money Too Controversial for the American Cancer Society?

The American Cancer Society may have turned down a potential half-million dollar donation because it came from a non-theistic organization.

I'll say this clearly, right up front: The American Cancer Society did not explicitly reject a massive donation offer from a non-theistic organization on the basis of it being a non-theistic organization.

That was not the stated reason given for rejecting a matching offer of $250,000 from the Foundation Beyond Belief and the Todd Stiefel Foundation to sponsor a national team in the upcoming Relay for Life. (An offer that, as a matching offer, was likely to bring in a total of half a million dollars for the American Cancer Society.) Nobody at the ACS has ever said, in words, "We don't want our organization to be associated with atheists. It's too controversial. We don't want atheist money." And when asked if this was the case, they have denied it.

It's just difficult to reach any other conclusion. In the place of clear explanations, there has been an ongoing series of evasions, imprecisions, conflicting answers, moved goalposts, apathy, and even hostility.

Here's the deal. A few months ago, Todd Stiefel -- philanthropist and founder of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, which provides financial support to atheist and other nonprofit and charitable organizations -- approached the American Cancer Society with an offer. He wanted local atheist groups around the world to participate in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life program, as a national team, under the banner of the humanist charitable organization Foundation Beyond Belief. In order to make this happen, he made a generous offer: a $250,000 matching offer from the Todd Stiefel Foundation, which, as a matching offer, was likely to bring in a half million dollars to the American Cancer Society.

And he was stonewalled.

The offer was initially approved, and the Foundation Beyond Belief even brought on an intern to manage the program. But then the American Cancer Society stopped responding. Repeated emails and phone calls from Stiefel were not returned for over a month. And the eventual responses from the ACS ranged from apathetic at best to hostile at worst. As Stiefel told AlterNet:

Reuel Johnson of ACS was completely disinterested in the matching gift. He made no effort to try to gain the money and attempted to ignore that the offer was even made. When I brought it up to him, he referred to it as merely "fine" and then started complaining about how it was a hassle to ACS to have to try to track the challenge. Of course, it should not have to be a hassle; they have an automated system to track team and individual performance. I don't know why he acted like this, but something clearly was amiss. 

After many go-arounds, Stiefel was finally told no. He was told that the Relay for Life program was focusing on corporate sponsors for the National Team program, and was no longer including nonprofits in the program. Despite the massive size of the offer from the Stiefel Foundation -- and despite the fact that several nonprofits are currently participating in the program, including Girl Scouts of the USA, Phi Theta Kappa and DeMolay International -- the ACS insisted that nonprofit participation in this program wasn't cost-effective, and would no longer be welcome.

Every attempt to find an alternative form of participation for the Foundation Beyond Belief was stymied. Stiefel offered to participate as a corporate team, since the FBB is a 501(c)(3) corporation. This offer was rejected. Stiefel asked if they could simply be put on the drop-down list of national team partners (which, again, does include several nonprofits). This offer was rejected. Stiefel even offered to have the FBB participate as a National Youth Partner -- they have a network of hundreds of non-theist youth groups who were eager to participate. This offer was rejected, in an especially contradictory series of statements, first telling Stiefel that the youth program was being accelerated, then saying it was being de-emphasized.

The American Cancer Society was certainly happy to accept a $250,000 donation from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation and/or the Foundation Beyond Belief. They made that very clear. They just weren't willing to let them have any sort of national participation in the Relay for Life. They could participate at the local level only. (You can read more detailed background on this story, including comments from both Stiefel and the American Cancer Society, at the Friendly Atheist blog, here, here, and here.)

Now, in case you're wondering if this is standard behavior, find someone who works as a development director for a nonprofit. Ask her what her response would be to a $250,000 matching offer from a philanthropic foundation. And ask if her organization would be drooling, celebrating wildly, and bending over backward to make it happen -- or if they would be evading, delaying, dodging, deflecting, changing their stories, treating the potential benefactor with irritation and dismissal, and finding an endless series of excuses for not accepting the offer?

And now ask: Why did it unfold this way with the American Cancer Society and the Foundation Beyond Belief?

Is it because the Foundation Beyond Belief are atheists?

For those who might be thinking this is just paranoia, a bit of context: Anti-atheist bigotry is an unfortunate reality. And even among people and organizations who aren't personally bigoted, atheists are still frequently seen as bringing unwanted controversy. Atheists put up billboards saying simply, "You can be good without God" -- and people freak out. Atheists march in a Christmas parade -- and people freak out. Atheist veterans march in a Memorial Day parade -- and get booed to their faces. Atheist students in public high schools try to organize groups -- and get routinely stonewalled by their school administrations. Atheists try to take out ads on buses -- and the bus company changes their policy and stops accepting any ads from religious organizations, just so they don't have to run ads from atheists. Atheists get threatened, hounded from their communities, disowned by their parents, denied custody of their children, when they come out as atheists. Atheists customarily get treated as if association with them is a potentially controversial embarrassment at best, a dangerous toxin at worst.

So it's not unreasonable to think that an individual might be personally disinclined to have any dealings with atheists... or that an organization might want to avoid any public association with atheists, for fear of blowback. In fact, just a year and a half ago, the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union rejected a donation from atheist organizations... not because they personally had anything against atheists, but because, "the majority of Mississippians tremble in terror at the word 'atheist.'" (A decision that, to their credit, they later rescinded.) If the freaking ACLU is reluctant to be associated with atheist money because it's too controversial, it's not unreasonable to think the American Cancer Society might be as well.

But is that really the case? What, exactly, does the American Cancer Society have to say about all this?

Not a lot. When AlterNet contacted the American Cancer Society to comment on this story, Reuel Johnson, the primary person Stiefel had been dealing with over this matter, declined to be interviewed. Instead, the ACS gave this response:

Over the past several months the American Cancer Society has engaged in discussions with Todd Stiefel and the Foundation Beyond Belief regarding a very generous donation offer. We have repeatedly tried to come to an agreement regarding the offer but have been unable to do so. The public debate that has ensued, we believe, undermines the shared passion both organizations have for our mission of saving lives from cancer.

To be clear, the American Cancer Society turned down Mr. Stiefel's request that the Foundation Beyond Belief become a National Team Partner in our Relay For Life program. We have not turned down his offer of a donation to our mission, and we certainly don't want to discourage his or the Foundation Beyond Belief's participation in Relay For Life. We are grateful for their interest in saving lives from cancer.

We recognize that there are areas where our programs need improvement, and we work continuously to do so. For more information on the Relay For Life National Team Program, please call 1-800-227-2345 [or visit //].

Please note: At no place in this response is there an actual answer to the straightforward question they were asked: "Why, specifically, did the American Cancer Society turn down the Foundation Beyond Belief's participation as a National Team Partner in the Relay For Life program, and the $250,000 matching offer accompanying it?" And at no place in this response is there an answer to the other straightforward question they were asked: "Were the FBB's participation and the matching offer turned down because the Foundation Beyond Belief is a non-theist organization?"

Those are simple questions. Those are reasonable questions. Those are questions that deserve answers. And this response ignored them. Only when pressed for direct answers to these questions did the ACS finally give a substantial response:

The Relay For Life National Team Partner program is aimed primarily at commercial corporations and their employee bases nationwide. Over the years, several non-commercial organizations have participated in the Relay For Life National Team Partner program; however, those engagements have not proved to be operationally efficient or cost effective for us. So we made the decision earlier this year to phase out the non-commercial part of the National Team Partner program. We have notified the participant organizations and are working with each of them to ensure their continued participation in Relay For Life and the Society's mission. For this same reason, we had to respectfully and regretfully decline the Foundation Beyond Belief's request to form a nationwide team.

The Society has not turned down the Foundation Beyond Belief's generous donation offer and encourage the group's continued participation in Relay For Life.

Okay. Fine. A little baffling, given the size of the donation that was being discussed... but not entirely unreasonable.

Except that it's in direct conflict with their first response.

Their first answer to this question: "We tried to figure out a way for the Foundation Beyond Belief to participate in this program, but weren't able to come to an agreement."

Their second answer: "We're phasing out participation in this program from non-commercial organizations."

Those aren't the same thing at all. In fact, they're directly contradictory. If the American Cancer Society was already phasing out participation in this program from non-commercial organizations... then how is it that they tried, for months, to find a way for the Foundation Beyond Belief to participate in it?

And more to the point: If the ACS really is phasing out participation in this program from non-commercial organizations... why didn't they just say that when the proposal was first made? It would have saved everyone a lot of time and heartache. FBB: "The Foundation Beyond Belief would like to sponsor a national team in the upcoming Relay for Life, with a matching offer of $250,000." ACS: "You know, we greatly appreciate your very generous offer, and we'd love to have you participate, but we're phasing out participation in this program from non-commercial organizations. Let's find another way that that the FBB can participate in this program, or find another public program that the FBB can participate in." End of a nice, simple story. Instead of the beginning of an ugly, convoluted one.

And when questioned about this matter by AlterNet... why didn't they give this answer the first time around? Why did they initially respond with a vague, evasive, generic non-response that ignored the questions actually being asked?

Given all this... does it seem likely that "We're phasing out participation in this program from non-commercial organizations" is really the answer? Or does it seem like an excuse hatched after the fact to cover a situation that had become an embarrassment?

I realize this is harsh. I want to be fair here, and I want to be clear. So I will say it again: The American Cancer Society did not explicitly reject a massive donation offer from a non-theistic organization, on the basis of them being a non-theistic organization.

It's just difficult to reach any other conclusion.

And in case you're thinking, "Why do those mean old atheists have to pick on the American Cancer Society? Why are they publicly embarrassing such a noble organization? Why do they have to make it all about them?" ask yourself this: If this were happening with any other organization -- if it were a Jewish charitable foundation, an African-American one, an LGBT one, that had tried to give the American Cancer Society a $250,000 matching offer and had gotten shot down -- would you be responding the same way? Would you be mad at the Jews, the African Americans, the queers, for calling attention to it? Or would you be writing enraged letters to the ACS, saying, "WTF? My aunt has cancer, I donate $500 a year to the American Cancer Society -- and you're turning down $500,000 because the money comes from a segment of society that some people don't like?"

Are atheists really that tainted?

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Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.