News analysis: CRUK eclipses all in cancer sector

CRUK's Tesco-like dominance of the cancer charity arena has raised some disquiet, writes Mathew Little.

In the year of Make Poverty History and the tsunami appeal, it is strange that Charities Aid Foundation's authoritative Charity Trends report warns of waning public support for international causes.

Still the most popular destination for donations, overseas causes nonetheless suffered a dip in real terms of 7 per cent in their voluntary income for 2003/04.

Their main rival for the public's generosity is a cause far closer to home: cancer. One in three Britons will get cancer and one in four will die from it. There has been a 30 per cent increase in the incidence of cancer since the 1970s, although death rates from the disease have fallen by 12 per cent in the same period.

Cancer charities experienced a startling 19 per cent rise in donations in 2003/04, peaking at £580m. Almost all charities in the cancer sector shared in that prosperity, and three new cancer charities entered the Top 500 list, including the Prostate Cancer Charity at number 363.

Breakthrough Breast Cancer

According to Charity Trends, breast cancer charities enjoyed the most visible success, increasing their voluntary income by almost twice the rate of other cancer charities. Breakthrough Breast Cancer increased its income by more than £3m in 2003/04.

But the CAF figures show one behemoth imperiously bestriding the sector - overshadowing other cancer charities and famous brands such as Oxfam and the RSPCA alike. Cancer Research UK posted voluntary income of £306m in 2003/04, up from £243m the previous year. The charity now generates more than twice as much fundraised income as its nearest rival, the National Trust. And the gap is growing.

On almost all the gauges of fundraising, CRUK tops the tables. Its shops are the most profitable, contributing more than £60m, and its legacies the most lucrative, swelling its coffers by £115m. And its fundraising events are the most popular - Race for Life, the women-only 5km run, attracts half a million participants. As if to crown its dominance, the charity won the gold award at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival last week for its 'Being Here' campaign.

Richard Taylor, one of CRUK's two joint fundraising directors, attributes the rise to increased brand penetration since the 2002 merger of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and the Cancer Research Campaign. And he says that, despite its size, the charity has developed a closer relationship with supporters. There are now 1,000 local committees, forming a formidable community fundraising arm to complement the national TV advertising campaigns and events.

"Pre-merger we were seen as quite remote and academic, but I think we've shifted quite considerably," says Taylor. "We have clearer information and more connection with volunteers and supporters. We are more relevant and modern."

The charity also has the resources to invest in fundraising - around £100m a year for the past three years. Taylor will not reveal CRUK's pre-audited fundraising figures for 2004/05, but says the charity had a "great year".

But is such Tesco-like market dominance healthy for the sector as a whole?

On the surface, CRUK's ascendancy does not seem to be having an adverse effect on other cancer charities - CAF reports that all cancer charities seem to buoyed by the swelling tide of donations. Indeed, breast cancer charities grew at a faster rate in 2003/04 than CRUK. Taylor says CRUK is not trying to compete with or marginalise other cancer charities.

But there are murmurs of disquiet from some smaller organisations that can't hope to compete with the ubiquitous CRUK brand. Chris Head, chief executive of the Bristol Cancer Help Centre, says CRUK's huge media profile means that research overshadows the day-to-day work of providing emotional and practical support to people with cancer - a task growing in importance now that more people are living longer with the disease.

"Research is important, and the success of research charities such as Cancer Research is vital for all of us - but research is not the whole picture," he says. "Caring for cancer patients does not grab the headlines in the way research results do. What Cancer Research is doing won't affect cancer patients for 20 years.

"We have a slight concern that the very visible single-brand promotion is not always helpful," Head adds. "CRUK carves up the media calendar of awareness days and weeks. It can buy its way into big fundraising events such as the London Marathon, and smaller charities find it hard to get a look-in. At the end of the day it's about people with cancer, and there is virtue in collaboration. The single dominant brand could overshadow that."

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