Opinion: Hot Issue - Should Breakthrough have taken the £1m from Cereal Partners?

Last week, Breakthrough Breast Cancer rejected a £1m deal after its staff voted against the idea over concerns about the firm's joint owner Nestle's baby milk marketing practices in poor countries.


This is, perhaps, a more straightforward decision for an organisation such as the World Development Movement than it is for others.

It's apparent that Nestle wants to reach the affluent female market - hence the recent Trinny and Susannah-led ads - and the issue of breast cancer has resonance with the same audience.

The breast connection - mother's milk in the poorest countries of the world and breast cancer - is too inappropriate for Breakthrough Breast Cancer to countenance.

As far as we are concerned, Nestle should be condemned for its reputation on promoting its formula baby milk in some of the world's poorest countries to the detriment of breast feeding. They are also one of the big coffee companies accused of exploiting growers.

Consequently, Nestle would not get anywhere near our front door, and probably wouldn't even try to, due to our ethical fundraising policy.

But, it cannot be easy to turn down such a big sum - other charities appear unable to do so and find ways of justifying it to themselves, their staff and supporters. Therefore, Breakthrough Breast Cancer deserves to be commended for its stand.


£1m is a drop in the ocean in terms of Nestle profits and a small price to pay for fixing a tarnished reputation.

The endorsement of the company by a breast cancer charity would have sent positive messages about Nestle, which, in the light of its baby milk marketing policy, it may judge that it does not deserve.

This relationship would have benefited Nestle far more than it would Breakthrough Breast Cancer, and it was completely correct for the charity to deny the company such a PR coup.

This debate belies a bigger issue of corporate social responsibility.

It is all too easy for companies to talk the talk, but in reality many cannot be trusted to self regulate. Until there is global, legal framework to keep the activities of multinational companies in check, some will continue to hide behind their CSR departments.

Some big companies seem to me to be under the impression that charitable organisations are so strapped for cash that profits are more important than principles.

For Breakthrough to have accepted the cash might have harmed their reputation in a way that cash can't fix. It realised that, and credit to it.


...but. Breakthrough Breast Cancer must, of course, have the freedom to refrain from taking funds if it feels the source of the money would compromise the charity's ethos in the eyes of its supporters.

It is a choice for the charity. It is, however, extremely unfortunate for the sector that Breakthrough Breast Cancer's decision in this case was then publicised, and has, thereby, turned the process of offering support to a charity into a risky exercise for interested companies, which cannot be helpful.

There is a need to improve the information available on some of these controversies. Nestle defends its practices very strongly, with point-by-point rebuttals on the accusations around its practice on baby milk substitutes.

In most countries where it does business, it is viewed as an exemplary corporate citizen and Nestle features in key indices such as the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.

It would bear some investigation as to whether the attitudes that persuaded Breakthrough Breast Cancer to make its choice in this case are based on accurate, current information.


Partnerships, including cause-related marketing links, have to be accountable to and supportive of the partnership's ultimate beneficiaries.

Assuming Breakthrough Breast Cancer's decision resulted from evaluating the effect of the partnership on preventing breast cancer, it is completely defensible.

However, there is a murkier issue here. There is the fear of losing NGO brand value through association with 'difficult' companies, which may have nothing to do with the 'real' damage done to stakeholders' interests.

Corporate-NGO partnerships are increasingly important to the third sector, but there's precious little guidance on how best to enter into them.

Without such guidance, civil society risks an unpleasant catch 22 - damage your credibility through dubious, boomeranging business partnerships, or damage your financial base for fear of a media backlash that will stymie all future business partnerships.

Without effective evaluation, we risk the recurrence of incidents where it's never clear whether the ultimate driver of such decisions is for the good of the NGO, or the good of the people it's supposed to benefit.

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