Do Not Let Them Eat Cake!

April 15 is an important date on the calendar. In the United States, it’s the deadline for people to file their federal tax return. It’s also when one charity will hold its eighth annual “Let Them Eat Cake” fundraising event.

The charity promotes the event as “Philadelphia’s Wedding Cake Design competition for professionals, students and those who love to bake to create.” Originally conceived by the charity to attract brides-to-be, the occasion now attracts over 1,000 foodies who pay a minimum of $40 each to taste the creations.

This sounds like a great idea for a fundraising event, right?

Wrong!

Cake by yenna via FlickrIn this case, the idea of “Let Them Eat Cake” has a major problem: In runs counter to the host organization’s own mission!

The event benefits City of Hope, a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center that conducts independent biomedical research, treatment and education in the fight to conquer cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening diseases.

As is well-known, consuming sugar can be a life-threatening issue for those suffering from diabetes. Over consumption of sugar can help lead to Type II-Diabetes. Compelling research demonstrates that over consumption of sugar contributes to the growth of cancer. This is why organizations like the Center for Advancement in Cancer Education advocate a low-sugar, low-fat diet.

My wife is an Ovarian Cancer survivor. So, it stunned me when I saw an anti-cancer charity promoting the eating of processed sugar and fat. Indeed, City of Hope has placed the consumption of fat and sugar at the very heart of its upcoming fundraising event without any disclaimers or caveats.

I had to understand the thought process behind the event. I had to know if I was missing something. Therefore, I called and spoke with Christopher Fanelli, Event Coordinator at the Philadelphia Development Office of City of Hope and the event’s organizer.

I asked Fanelli to explain how his anti-cancer, anti-diabetes charity reconciled its event theme with its organizational mission. He indicated that there was no issue to reconcile. He stated, “Everything in moderation.” He said that the event successfully raises money and builds awareness for City of Hope “in a fun way.”

When pressed on the idea that the event stands in opposition to the organization’s mission, Fanelli said, “I don’t believe it does it at all. It points people to what our mission is.”

Ok, the event “points people” to the organization’s mission. I probed that point.

“Will the event feature any healthier dessert choices?,” I asked.

“No,” responded Fanelli.

“Will any healthy-eating leaflets or information be available at the event?”

 “No.”

“Will any information be available at the event that explains the dangers associated with eating too much sugar or fat?”

“No.”

Fanelli then went on to explain once again how this fun event raises money and awareness for City of Hope.

I then asked, “So, are you really suggesting that the ends justify the means?”

“Yes, you can say that,” he replied confidently.

In other words, all City of Hope cares about is itself. It wants our money. It wants us to be aware of the organization so we’ll give it our money. It wants to stage a fun event to get our money. Unlike the organization’s medical and research staff, the public’s health is of no concern to the development professionals. As Fanelli agreed, “The ends justify the means.”

I’ll freely admit that I enjoy a nice slice of cake from time-to-time. I even like the “Let Them Eat Cake” fundraising event concept. I just object to the event being hosted by a charity that supposedly exists to fight cancer and diabetes. If the local animal shelter hosted the event, I’d have no problem with it. My problem here is that the event runs counter to at least a significant portion of the mission of the organization.

The event is so at odds with the City of Hope mission that I wonder if it rises to the level of being unethical. What do you think? Please take moment to respond to the poll at the end of this post. I invite you to also leave a comment below.

Nonprofit organizations must carefully craft their brand identities. Then, they need to protect those brands. Charities need to live their missions. They must fulfill their missions in all, not just some, of their actions. They also need to be donor centered, showing sincere concern for the well-being of donors.

Above all, when it comes to ethics, we need to remember that history teaches us that the ends seldom justify the means. It’s often just a line that people use to cover-up their mistakes, laziness, lack of creativity, etc.

In the case of City of Hope, it’s time for the organization to bring its events into alignment with the organization’s mission. Maybe then, my wife and I will attend.

Meantime, City of Hope can mitigate the damage of the “Let Them Eat Cake” event by distributing to all attendees a healthy-eating leaflet and information about the dangers of excess sugar and fat consumption.

If City of Hope better educates its event attendees, those individuals will be more likely to make a donation beyond the event, will be better positioned to serve as advocates for the organization, and will be better able to live a healthier lifestyle.

City of Hope is certainly not alone when it comes to acting counter to its mission. Other charities make the same mistake. For example, Susan G. Komen For the Cure has had a partnership with cookie and cake maker Pepperidge Farm and fast-food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken. But, as a leader in the fight against cancer and diabetes, City of Hope should lead by example.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say? 

[Publisher’s Note: The legendary quote, often attributed to Marie Antoinette, has been translated as: “Let them eat cake.” However, a more accurate translation would be: “Let them eat brioche.” In any case, the wife of King Louis XVI never uttered the line. Historians attribute the quote to Marie-Therese, the wife of King Louis XIV, a hundred years earlier. I just thought you should know.]

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26 Responses to “Do Not Let Them Eat Cake!”

  1. Cake/sweets are ok in moderation (like all things in life). I don’t see where this event is promoting overeating or unhealthy lifestyles. Would you feel the same if they served cocktails at a gala event? Cocktails are OK in moderation – are they not? I say let City of Hope have a fun event, let people make their own decisions about participating they eat and let them have cake.

    • Stephanie, thank you for sharing your thoughts. My problem with the event is that it is not about moderation. We’re not talking about serving a simple dessert after a meal. In this case, cake IS the event. Far from promoting moderation, the event promotes lots of cake eating. City of Hope has choices when it comes to finding a theme for its events. It could have had a fun, healthier event. The organization chose not to do so. Instead, it chose to center an entire event around a food that contains sugar, fat, and probably transfat. Those are not ingredients that are healthy for anyone. They are even worse for those who have or have had cancer. Instead of promoting the eating of cake, City of Hope should advance its mission by promoting foods and activities that fight disease rather than contribute to it.

      As far as cocktails go, I think I’d be fine if City of Hope served them at a gala. However, I would certainly object if the Betty Ford Center held a wine tasting or cocktail tasting event. I would also be fine if City of Hope served a small portion of lean beef, chicken, or fish at one of its galas. However, I would object strongly if PETA served such food items. It’s about context and mission alignment. Nonprofits have a responsiblity to live their missions.

      Finally, you mentioned that people can make their own decisions about participating. You’re right. As the husband of a cancer survivor, I won’t be supporting the City of Hope. I’m giving my money elsewhere.

  2. I first must ask if you have ever attended this event to make such a blanketed statement? Secondly since it seems you have not and I have over the years they have featured both sugar -free and gluten free wedding cakes. The samples given are at best are 3 ounces to the fondant foodies and brides whom come to enjoy an evening while supporting a very good cause. So shame on you for distorting an event that you have never even attended .

    • Beth, thanks for taking the time to comment. As I indicated in my post, I interviewed Christopher Fanelli, Event Coordinator at the Philadelphia Development Office of City of Hope. I gave him ample opportunity to comment, describe the event, and respond to my concerns. I specifically asked him about any healthy alternatives that might be at the event. He did not indicate there would be sugar-free and/or gluten free options at the event. However, if those were the only alternatives, I’m not sure my feelings would be any different. Artificial sweetners are, at best, controversial ingredients from a health stand-point. And, gluten is not the issue here.

      While each sample may be only 3 ounces, attendees will be tasting a great number of cakes. A little taste here, a little there. It adds up.

      The bottom-line is that City of Hope has choices when it comes to event planning. There is no reason the organization can’t have a fun fundraising event that promotes healthy living thereby aligning with the organization’s mission. You say City of Hope is “a very good cause.” I applaud your passion and support for the work of City of Hope. I also tip my hat to the medical and research staff at City of Hope. My only wish is that the development staff would be equally aligned with the mission of City of Hope as the medical and research staff is. What’s wrong with that?

  3. Michael,
    You made some interesting points that should be considered by the organization. The health findings you mentioned do indicate they are counter to the mission of the organization. However, I believe those findings are fairly recent, and it sounds like this annual event has been going on for some time and become a traditional event that started before the findings came out.

    Knowing what is now known, I do feel it is unwise for City of Hope to continue this event. It would be like the American Cancer Society raising money with a cigar smoking event, Alcoholics Anonymous holding a wine tasting event, or the American Heart Association having a deep fried food tasting event.

    • Richard, thank you for your kind comment and careful thinking on the subject. While I don’t know for certain if you’re correct about the timeline, you very likely could be. I recognize that it’s even more difficult for an organization to terminate a successful event than it is to eliminate a fresh idea that has never been implemented. However, events should always be evaluated on an annual basis. Organizations need to ensure that events remain as effective as they can be. And, nonprofits need to ensure that they remain relevant and mission-aligned as times change. By the way, I like your hypothetical examples.

  4. Interesting post. My dilemma is that I see both sides. I understand your point and you are correct – the event doesn’t align with the mission of the organization. However, I also see the organization’s side of the story: the event is unique, it’s popular and raises funds for the institution. Having said that, they could put an interesting twist on the event and force the cake bakers to make healthy wedding cakes that don’t contain sugar, fat and white flour. That would at least align the event a little more closely with the cause.

    I also don’t think that City of Hope is alone in this situation – I suspect there are many charities that organize events that don’t align with their mission and purpose, but when the event is successful, it’s hard to back away.

    A thought-provoking post for sure!

    • Liz, thank you for commenting. I try to keep my posts interesting with plenty of food for thought, even if that food is cake. :-) I agree with you and Richard about it being hard for a nonprofit to eliminate or alter a successful event. But, at times, that’s exactly what is called for. I like your ideas for improving the event. Taking your idea a step further, the event could be used to educate people about the importance of moderation and about healthy options. Sadly, City of Hope has chosen not to adapt or eliminate the event theme. We’ll see what the future holds.

      As you’ve noted, City of Hope is not alone in this situation. I hope my post will get some of those other organizations to rethink what they’re doing while helping others avoid the problem in the first place.

  5. I did not vote “unethical” because I don’t believe the event causes attendees to act in a manner contrary to the mission; specifically, to consume more sugar than in the absence of the event. It is, however, tone deaf to the point of parody.

    Offense is subjective; cancer survivors and their loved ones are probably more sensitive to the symbolism. Then again, cancer survivors and their loved ones are at the center of the development department’s target demographic.

    Although the mission cannot be effectuated in the absence of donor dollars, “Let Them Eat Cake” is an example of why every tactical move undertaken by an organization must align with its mission.

    • Richard, thank you for your comment. I’ve wrestled with the question of whether or not the event rises to the level of being unethical. I remain torn. However, like you, I certainly do feel the event is inappropriate. And, I do believe that there are more ethical event options for City of Hope. When it comes to ethics, it’s not always a black and white situation; sometimes, it’s about various shades of gray.

  6. I have a very different take on this issue.

    A once per year sugar fest is not going to make someone a diabetic or give them cancer. These are small portions designed to help future buyers make the best decision they can make. It is a once a year event that is very helpful to the wedding planning couple and that is why the couple will pay the $40 each to binge on wedding cake. If the City of Hope did this every weekend or every month, maybe I would agree with your analysis, but I just do not see them promoting an unhealthy lifestyle with this event.

    I can understand your view, your wife is a survivor and you take a look at things from that vantage. I also have family that survived the cancer scare, and I think they would still attend a cake tasting to find the “right” cake for their wedding or a family member’s wedding. I think there are multiple ways to look at this issue and not necessarily a “right” or “wrong” answer!

    Sorry Michael, I voted that it is appropriate! Just my opinion!

    • Rob, thank you for sharing your thoughts. However, there’s no need for you to apologize. You’re entitled to your opinion, even if you disagree with me.

      If the mission of City of Hope was to help brides prepare for their weddings, I would agree with you. However, that’s not the mission of the organization. I have no doubt that the event is fun and probably even helpful to brides searching for the perfect wedding cake or bakery. That’s not the issue. I don’t really have a problem with the event. I simply have a problem with City of Hope hosting it.

      As Richard Freedlund pointed out, “It would be like the American Cancer Society raising money with a cigar smoking event, Alcoholics Anonymous holding a wine tasting event, or the American Heart Association having a deep fried food tasting event.” Or, perhaps, PETA hosting a hot-dog eating contest. They may be great event ideas, but not for those organizations.

      When it comes to ethical decision-making, it is often not a case of choosing between right and wrong. Instead, it’s an issue of choosing the most correct course of action. City of Hope has options when it comes to event planning. There is no valid reason why the organization must stay with the “Let Them Eat Cake” theme. There are more correct event options that better align with the City of Hope mission. That’s why this event is wrong.

  7. Thanks for talking about this, Michael. I agree it’s not serving dessert that is the problem here. It’s the encouragement to eat multiple desserts as the focus of the event that is inappropirate given current findings and the mission of the organization. Some years ago, I did grant work for an organization that deals with the mentally and physically challenged and many of the clients had co-occuring substance abuse disorders. I was gobsmacked when the development team, as a way to involve younger donors, chose to partner with a local bar on an “all you can drink for X amount of dollars” event with 50% of the take going to the bar and 50% to the org. It seemed not only inappropriate, but that they were taking a foolhardy gamble with the org’s reputation since the event, by its very nature, was encouraging people to drink to excess. We’ve all heard the horror stories about what can happen when young people wander home drunk from bars. What would that do to an organization funded, in large part, by taxpayer money if an incident were to occur and the press got ahold of it? Yet, when I suggested in a meeting that maybe this wasn’t a good way to raise funds for this [particular organization, silence ensued. It was astonishing to me that no one else seemed to have a problem with it. Perhaps, Michael, our standards are just a bit different?

    • Mary, thank you for commenting and for your willingness to share your story. Yikes! That was quite a story. I applaud you for having the couarge to challenge the thinking at the organization. You suggested that, perhaps, “our standards are just a bit different.” That might be. But, that does not mean we’re wrong.

      I commend you for keeping your organization’s mission front-of-mind when doing your work.

  8. Michael…I agree with you that the event, as it is happening now is inappropriate. What I am disappointed in is the answers you received from the event coordinator. He should have been answering “yes” to all of your mission-related questions. I believe the event could become an appropriate one for City of Hope if they offered healthy alternatives to those who would like to come to the event and support City of Hope and not necessarily binge on cake. I am going under the assumption – even though I know what happens when you assume – that the 1,000+ attendees are not all brides-to-be and their target audience has grown to include those who support the event because they want to support City of Hope. This fact alone is a good enough reason to include healthy alternatives to cake. Also, I can’t believe there aren’t “alternative bakers” who could provide healthy, creative ideas for wedding cakes, ie. tiers of fruit compotes? Just MHO…

    • Patricia, thank you for commenting. There are any number of things the City of Hope development staff could do to bring its cake event into closer alignment with the organization’s mission. You’ve made some worthwhile suggestions. But, is it really necessary for City of Hope to even have a cake-eating event? Couldn’t the staff come up with another event idea that would still be fun and productive? As Bert Adams said in a LinkedIn discussion on the topic, “Creativity is not to be feared.” Unfortunately, I did not get the impression from Christopher Fanelli that any changes will be forthcoming. To the contrary, he does not even see that there’s a problem that needs addressing.

  9. This is an issue charities constantly struggle with. Should Feeding America welcome corporate sponsors like Snickers Bars which offer the “feed the hunger” tagline? The money goes to a good cause, but it’s a bit “in your face” to folks really struggling with hunger. A Snickers Bar is not going to be a healthy, sustaining option for them, nor a good way to stretch their limited food budget. But the “ends justify the means” thinking is rampant.

    In this case, I’m offended by the event’s title in more ways than one: “Let Them Eat Cake”. While at first blush it sounds ‘cute’, if one stops to think about the association to oppression of the masses (who didn’t have bread to eat), it seems a poor choice. Then when one considers the mission to counter obesity (and these are folks who cannot eat cake) it begins to be downright clueless.

    I really don’t care that it raises funds. That’s not a justification for continuing it once the problems associated with it are recognized. It absolutely fails the “alignment with mission” test. PLUS… I’ll wager many of those who attend are “transactional” donors. They come once, at a time they’re looking for their own wedding. Maybe they come again for the cake samples. But they probably do not convert to ongoing, loyal donors with a lifetime value to the charity.

    Poor choice. Inappropriate for sure. Verges on unethical because they know that it’s wrong to say to their particular constituents/clients: “Let them eat cake”. Would be like holding a wine tasting event for a group that treats alcoholism.

    • Claire, thank you for your well-reasoned comment. For City of Hope, the issue is not to have a cake-eating event or no event at all. There is no reason why the organization cannot hold a fun, productive event that aligns with its mission.

      I lead seminars and workshops on ethical decision making. At one seminar, an audience member asked me about an ethical dilemma at her organization. She said that she has a major donor that she wants to appropriately thank for his gift beyond sending a thank-you letter. This donor is the type of man who already has whatever he wants, for the most part. He certainly wouldn’t appreciate another placque, coffee mug, or paperweight. It’s not that he would necessarily dislike any of those items. It’s just that they wouldn’t do anything for him. So, the development professional asked the donor what she could do to appropriately show the organization’s appreciation. He replied that he did not need anything from the organization since he already knew his support was appreciated. However, if the organization was up to it, he could use some help. He was looking for special Waterford bar glasses that the company no longer makes. He couldn’t find them. He wanted them. He told the development professional that he did not want the organization to buy the glasses for him. However, it would be great if someone could tell him where he could purchase them. My seminar participant then asked me what she should do.

      I was puzzled. I did not understand what the ethical dilemma was. So, I asked her. She then told me that her organization is a drug and alcohol abuse treatment center. Ah! I immediately understood. The donor’s request would not have been a problem for most organizations. But, context matters. It could be considered a problematic request for this particular organization. I finally replied jokingly, “Ah, I see. Your donor is looking for help in finding Waterford juice glasses.” More seriously, I said that I could certainly see a problem if the donor had asked for assistance in finding a rare brandy. But, providing help in finding glasses is not nearly the same level of problem even if not an ideal situation.

      Context matters when considering ethical issues. We also need to recognize that solutions to ethical dilemmas are not necessarily black and white. Sometimes, we have to pick the best option in the gray area. The key is to evaluate all the possible alternative solutions to an ethical dilemma and then make the best possible decision. But, one has to start by recognizing a dilemma exists. Unfortunately, the City of Hope development staff doesn’t even seem to recognize the problem.

  10. Your article pushes a decades-old issue into sharp relief. Charities have come to make their events about throwing the most popular and successful party, rather than engaging the public with their mission. People whose initial encounter with a charity through its events, seldom deepen their involvement with the charity beyond that, Even with good mission messaging at the event, most event attendees leave not with a desire to volunteer or donate on an ongoing basis, but rather with the anticipation of the next great event.

    For the charity, this becomes a continuing cycle of producing events that have little to do with mission and engage the public not as donors, but as ticket buyers. This kind of “transactional” fundraising does nothing to advance advocacy for the mission, but development professionals everywhere soothe their consciences with the assurance that the funds raised support the “real” work of the org’s mission. As you pointed out, a lot of charities with popular but mission-averse or even mission-neutral events choose to cry all the way to the bank.

    You were right in voicing your protest, as it may encourage some people to “vote with their wallets” and not support an event that sends a message counter to the charity’s mission. A more mission-positive event like a run would be far better a choice for City of Hope. Even a mission-neutral event like a fashion show could present a friendlier forum for messaging the mission to attendees.

    • Gina, thank you for your comment. You’ve very nicely summarized the situation and the problem of “transactional fundraising” that is often inadvertently encouraged by nonprofit special events.

      Just to avoid any possible confusion, let me say that while I’m voting with my wallet in the case involving City of Hope, my intention when writing the piece was not to encourage others to follow in my footsteps. For the most part, my blog is read by nonprofit managers and development professionals around the world. The intention behind my post was to encourage City of Hope and other charities to host events in better alignment with their organizational missions. If that happens, organizations will have “a friendlier forum for messaging the mission to attendees” as you’ve correctly observed.

      Thanks again for sharing your terrific insights!

  11. A run in the filthy Philly air? Surely that will cause someone to develop lung cancer! Runs and walks are so overdone it’s ridiculous.

    I think your contention that wedding cake causes cancer is a stretch. Leave the poor lower level development folks alone!

    • Judy, thank you for taking the time to comment. However, I need to point out that I have not suggested that the cake event be replaced with a run or walk. Instead, I suggested retooling the existing event or replacing it with a healthier event. You’ll notice, I even talk about a healthy eating event in my follow-up post: “Do You Know How to Navigate in the Gray Area?

      While the Philadelphia air might cause some health problems for some folks, I just need to point out that most lung cancers are caused by smoking, first or second-hand. I also need to mention that I never suggested that eating cake “causes” cancer. However, eating processed sugar and fat, particularly trans-fat, can help cancer grow. Your lack of understanding about cancer and nutrition is frightening and underscores my point about the problem with the event. When a cancer charity promotes a cake-eating event, it sends the signal that eating processed sugar and fat is perfectly fine. It isn’t. You should probably spend less time commenting on blogs and more time reading the available medical research.

      Finally, you’ll notice that the vast majority of readers here disagree with you about the appropriateness of the event. City of Hope is a worthy nonprofit organization that conducts valuable research and provides compassionate patient care. However, this event is not in alignment with the organization’s mission. City of Hope has options when it comes to fundraising events. The organization should choose a better option.

  12. Your arguments about aligning mission with event purpose are compelling, but your description of this one event is out of context of the org’s full fundraising program. If they have a strong donor recruitment and retention program and this event generates substantial revenue compared to expenses + human resources, then the event is not necessarily out of place. Is the org targeting obese or diabetic people? Or children? Presumably it’s targeting adults who should be able to make their own decisions. Events exist for many reasons. It’s not always about donor recruitment. Sometimes it’s about fun. And raising money.

    • Elaine, thank you for sharing your view. While I understand what you’re saying, I do not believe the ends justify the means. Also, just because an organization does many things well, it should not be given a pass when it does something wrong. Events must be in alignment with the organization’s mission regardless of the objectives for the events.

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