Is Atheist Money Too Controversial for the American Cancer Society?

This piece was originally published on AlterNet. My follow-up to this piece is scheduled to be published early this week.

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 them 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.

Because the officially stated reasons for rejecting this offer have ranged from slippery at best to non-existent at worst. 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 non-profit 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 profoundly 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. (CORRECTION TO ORIGINAL STORY: The offer was actually made by the Todd Stiefel Family; and the correct name of Stiefel’s foundation is the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.)

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 non-profits in the program. Despite the massive size of the offer from the Stiefel Foundation — and despite the fact that several non-profits are currently participating in the program, including Girl Scouts of the USA, Phi Theta Kappa, DeMolay International, the Technology Student Association, and Family, Career and Community Leaders of America — the ACS insisted that non-profit participation in this program wasn’t cost-effective, and would no longer be welcome.

And 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 non-profits). 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 that 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 non-profit. Ask them what their response would be to a $250,000 matching offer from a philanthropic foundation. And ask if they would be drooling, celebrating wildly, and bending over backwards 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 us was 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 that 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. And what they do have to say is vague at best, and self- contradictory at worst.

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 very fair here, and I want to be very 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?

Are atheists really so disreputable, so unpopular, so reviled, that a major charitable organization — a secular charitable organization — would turn down a potential half million dollars in donations, just to avoid being associated with us?

Again: We’ve seen signs of this taint before. Hysteria over our billboards, hostility when we march in parades, student organizations getting stonewalled, bus companies changing policies just so they don’t have to accept atheist advertising, even the freaking ACLU thinking atheists are too controversial to associate with… for this atheist community, none of this is new.

But the American Cancer Society is not a bunch of right-wing fundamentalists in a small Bible Belt town. They are not some publicity-hungry minister looking to score points by fearmongering about the atheist menace. They are not a scared and ignorant local business/ school/ organizational chapter who doesn’t want to stir up the beehive. The American Cancer Society is a mainstream, well-established, highly reputable national organization. It’s hard to think that even they don’t want to be tainted by the controversial association with atheists… to the point where they would refuse half million dollars of our money.

It’s hard to think that. It’s painful. It’s upsetting. It’s disillusioning.

But it’s hard to reach any other conclusion.

Is Atheist Money Too Controversial for the American Cancer Society?

21 thoughts on “Is Atheist Money Too Controversial for the American Cancer Society?

  1. 1

    I would like my stand on the supernatural to be irrelevant but it is the religious that continue to make it an issue. The recent events in Michigan with Dawkins and now this ACS refusal to take money from a group that does not believe in sky faeries, makes it clear that atheist activism must continue. Quietly shuffling to the back of the bus is not going to cut it.

  2. 2

    Boy, have I a surprise for you! The ACS is not the noble institution they portray themselves to be. Please watch

    The ACS is just like any other corporation, greedy and unscrupulous.

    Maybe the Steifel Freethought Foundation would consider donating all that money to Dr. Burzynski instead?

  3. 3

    Actually, it’s very easy to reach another conclusion. It’s likely that every year, the ACS has been receiving consistent donations totalling much more than $500,000 from a number of religious groups who themselves object to association with atheists, and would pull their donations if such association were made official via a national atheist team. This would be devastating to their finances in the long run, and thus it would not matter what the ACS thinks about atheists. It would be a simple question of economics, the politics (you can’t be a team but you can still give us money) merely being an effort to optimize overall donations.

  4. 4

    @Someone: Well, yes, that is the rather obvious answer to the question of “why?” which is inherently raised by the conclusion Greta has arrived at.

    The trouble is, if one says that, it makes them sound to some listeners as if they are paranoid conspiracy theorists with a victimisation complex. It also smacks of making what could be construed as fairly serious allegations without any concrete evidence.

  5. 5

    Usually the 2-3 week lapse for republishing your AlterNet articles doesn’t make much difference on the “freshness” of the material, but it amazes me how this particular issue has kept confounding and complicating itself with seemingly no end in sight. I’m long beyond the lack of recognition for a national FBB team…but I’m not going to be satisfied by the outcome unless the American Cancer Society’s spokespeople halt their succession of lies and cover-ups and provide a straight, honest, regrettable answer for their actions that doesn’t directly contradict the accumulation of facts, evidence, and circumstances that exist.

    In the meantime, someone ought to edit all the news on this into a book!

  6. 6

    Comment #3 describes a very real possibility. Please review that comment. I suggest asking the ACS if the FBB was denied an opportunity to participate because of the chance that other organizations would object and stop donating.

  7. 7

    If the situation in comment 3 was the case, it would have been better for ACS to simply say so rather than spewing a bunch of dishonest bull.

  8. 8

    #3 is not “another conclusion.” It still indicates that bigotry is at the heart of the decision, and the ACS agrees that the bigotry is justified on the basis of the money it brings in.

    Of course, ACS stands to lose as much finding either way if that’s the case. I certainly won’t be donating to them. Judging by their Facebook page, a lot of other folks feel the same way.

  9. F

    Comment #3 is the same conclusion, not a different one. The entire article was about this.

    ACS should simply have been upright enough to say so.

  10. 10

    Maybe this my own grief talking, but it seems to me that the ACS saying that I (as an atheist) am not allowed to help with donations to find a cure for the cancer that killed my mother (who was a Catholic).

    Fuck you ACS!!!

    (that was the anger talking)


  11. 12

    The thing is, they can afford to turn down a measly half million. The revenue for the ACS in 2009 was 930 million dollars, of which over 200 million went to fundraising efforts.

    I think the FBB would be better served by giving money for cancer to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (92% of their money goes to cancer) or something like that.

    These numbers are all from

  12. 13

    With all due respect, especially in light of jolo’s note above: This seems much more like a tactic by the subset of atheists who enjoy the attention to make political hay.

    Why did Stiefel even care about donating to such a nationally-known organization as the ACS but to bring attention to himself and FBB? If the real intent is to get money into the hands of cancer researchers, there are dozens of much more efficient ways, and jolo points to one.

    Sorry, this was an act of political theater right from the get-go.

    The statement from Stiefel that would be honest would be, “I wanted to show people that atheists are just as moral as theists by publicly aligning with a nationally-known charity organization, but they turned me down.”

    The result: Some atheists can feel justifiably miffed that their efforts at self-publicity were stymied, and most theists still just don’t care.

    That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying.

    Though I do wish you’d tone down the hyperbole. What happens to atheist in America today is nowhere near as bad as what happens to gays and non-white minorities still, and it really irks me when atheist writers use terms like “back of the bus” for what happens to us.

    There is zero economic or social consequence to being an atheist. The only time we get trouble is when we try to join groups that didn’t want us in the first place. But, again, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stir up that kind of trouble. Just don’t pretend you didn’t know it was going to happen when it does and that it wasn’t your intent from the outset.

  13. 14

    Interesting that they are now deleting comments on FB. It’s obviously past the point where the FBB should consider donating to them, but it would be nice to have them acknowledge their lies.

  14. 15

    Sorry, this was an act of political theater right from the get-go

    And atheists, unlike other corporations and other non-profits, should just shut up and accept second-class status? Fuck that.

    Of COURSE it was political–and it could’ve been a win-win situation if the ACS had played it straight. They screwed up big-time by backing bigotry.

  15. 16


    Nice quote mining!

    You missed this part:

    That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying.

    and this part:

    that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stir up that kind of trouble

    and this part:

    Just don’t pretend you didn’t know it was going to happen when it does and that it wasn’t your intent from the outset.

    Atheists do not have second-class status. That sentiment, expounded by white, liberal, middle-income atheists, is pure and total bs. There is NOTHING that the government or society owes us that we don’t already have.

    * We can earn as much money as we like doing any career we choose.

    * We can express ourselves in any public forum to the full extent of our voices.

    * We can marry any other atheists we wish to, (unless they are the same gender, but then, that’s not an atheist problem, is it?)

    Are there people trying to turn the US into a theocracy? Sure are. But that is not an atheist problem either, it’s a problem for everyone, theist and nontheist alike, who prefers the benefits of a secular government and a strict wall of separation between church and state.

    Atheists are not second class anything. There is no instutionalized attack on our civil liberties, as there has been and is for non-white minorities, women, children and homosexuals.

    Get over yourself.

  16. 17

    What ACS owed us…is honesty and fair treatment. They failed to give us that.

    EVERY corporate/nonprofit group’s donation to ACS is given for the same reason as the FBB donation–to enhance the public image of the corporation. They denied FBB that same return for their money.

    As to institutionalized attacks on our civil liberties, see the wink-nudge endorsement of Christianity over atheism. That’s a part of the reason why atheists cannot, in general, be elected to public office without hiding their identity.

    Sure, it’s not the same as the organized campaign to keep same-sex couples from marrying. But it’s real nonetheless.

    Fuck ACS with a rusty chainsaw.

  17. 20

    10000li @ #13 and #16: You are flatly wrong. There is real bigotry against atheists in the U.S., with real-world consequences. Atheist get denied custody of their kids, explicitly on the basis of their atheism. Atheist students in public high schools trying to organize groups routinely get stonewalled by school administrators. Discrimination against atheists in the U.S. military is widespread and well-documented. Atheists who come out get disowned and kicked out of their homes. Atheist who come out get bullied, harassed, threatened, get their property vandalized. Atheists who come out can lose their jobs. (No, it’s not legal. Neither is theft or murder. And whaddya know? They still happen.) Polls consistently show that atheists are one of the most distrusted groups in the country; they show that people are less likely to vote for us than any other group, less likely to want us to marry into their families.

    If you want supporting data, you’ll find it for most of these facts in my piece, 10 Scariest States to Be an Atheist. You can find it for the pieces not mentioned in that post by, you know, using Google.

    Are things as bad for atheists as they are for, say, African Americans, or women? Probably not — not in terms of economic disadvantage or physical threat. But if I’m being punched in the face, the fact that other people’s arms are being broken doesn’t make my getting punched in the face okay.

    If you and your immediate circle aren’t personally experiencing these things — good for you. You’re lucky. I’m lucky, too. I haven’t experienced most of them myself (although my atheist blogging has gotten me targeted with threats of violence, rape, and death). I live in San Francisco, a part of the country that’s relatively tolerant of religious diversity in general and atheism in particular. But most of the U.S. is not like San Francisco. If you think that no atheists in the U.S. experience these forms of bigotry, I suggest that you are living in a bubble. And I suggest that you step out of it.

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