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The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently ran a story about charities that are using provocative, even profane, language in order to grab the attention of teenagers and twenty-somethings. The Chronicle story takes an approving tone in its assessment of these charities’ use of language to target an audience that is distracted by multiple social media.

Three of the foundations featured in the article have missions to educate teenagers and twenty-somethings about cancer: the Canadian charity F--- Cancer, I’m Too Young for This! Cancer Foundation, and the Keep a Breast Foundation.

F--- Cancer uses the f-word throughout its website, including on its “shout out” wall where people can post expressions of anger about their cancer experiences; I’m Too Young for This! Cancer Foundation reaches young cancer patients through its weekly webcast The Stupid Cancer Show and other web-based and in-person educational programs; and the Keep a Breast Foundation aims to raise awareness of breast cancer through its “I Love Boobies” bracelets and t-shirts.

While all three use provocative language to grab the attention of young people, among them they range from the profane f-word to the colloquial “boobies.” Some shock advertising is more shocking than others. Are these uses of provocative language all equally acceptable?

To consider the appropriateness of such language by foundations and how we should think about where to draw the line in the use of such language, I spoke with civility expert Pier M. Forni, author of the newly published book The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in the Age of Distraction and director of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project. I asked Dr. Forni about whether the good works of these foundations is worth the erosion of civility that accompanies the use of provocative and profane language. Dr. Forni began by raising the question of effectiveness:

I think that we have to wonder, is this kind of advertising effective? That, of course, is the crucial question. The answer is, I'm not sure, but we should look into it. I wonder if something more imaginative would work as well. . . . Resorting to this language is certainly an indication we are baffled at finding new ways to promote the message.

Matt Zachary, founder and CEO of I’m Too Young for This! Cancer Foundation argues that his foundation’s use of language is effective for its audience:

We still say “Give Cancer The Bird” and host our annual patient conference at a casino in Las Vegas.... We can understand how certain people may take issue with our tone but it is not our goal to please everyone. Our target market is the angry young adults of Gen-Y who’ve had their life uprooted by cancer. They need permission to be pissed and an outlet to express those feelings in a positive way. The key is to know your audience. We use language that connects us with our constituency and we’re very effective at both reaching them and impacting their lives for the better.

Mr. Zachary’s claim about the effectiveness of his foundation is borne out by the tens of thousands of cancer patients reached by its information-filled Stupid Cancer Show webcasts and other programs. In the case of his foundation, provocative language catches the attention of young cancer patients but then draws them into a serious conversation.

However, there are other foundations that have targeted Generation Y with a health message without resorting to profane language. The Truth, for example, reaches out to young people with an imaginative anti-smoking message that uses games and clever videos such What’s in a Butt? to reach its audience. (However, even The Truth sometimes hints at profane language, as in the title to its game Kiss My Glass. Perhaps it’s just impossible to target Generation Y without some of this language?)

Dr. Forni suggested to me that there may be a line beyond which no foundation should cross:

There is a difference between saying cancer is stupid and uttering a profanity. . . . Whoever puts out a message for public consumption that reaches thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people has an implicit responsibility to use the powerful tool of communication that they have at their disposal.

Foundations like I’m Too Young For This Cancer! Foundation combine effective programming with language that provokes but doesn’t go beyond the limits of acceptability. On the other hand, foundations like F--- Cancer have gone too far—even if they were to offer a range of programs as effective as those offered by I’m Too Young for This! Cancer Foundation. The erosion of civility just isn’t worthy of the public’s charitable dollars.

NOTE: This piece was updated on November 22, 2011, at noon EDT.

8 thoughts on “Foundations and the f-word”

  1. Theresa says:

    Perhaps, Mr. Forni, hasn’t had a young adult in his life who has been diagnosed with cancer. As a young adult, I can tell you I am not ready to die. I have an entire lifetime to still live. I have children whom I want to see graduate, get married and have children of their own. I have a husband I want to grow old with. I still have many dreams of my own.
    There are a multitude of words, thoughts, phrases that go through your head and out your mouth when you have cancer. Personally, i[2]y’s “giving cancer the bird” is pretty tame. Cancer wasn’t an invited guest in my life. It has taken everyday of my life since May 4, 2010.
    I view your article as an opinion. You have yours and I have mine…and they are just that, opinions. I guess, until you have experienced cancer yourself or have a young spouse, mother, father, sister or brother between 18-39 diagnosed, you will never understand the importance of a group who can empower you like i[2]y.
    Certainly, over the last 18 months, i[2]y has provided me with more support, opportunities to socialize and talk with other people just like me than any other professional organization or foundation.

  2. Aggie says:

    I am a young leukemia survivor who went through close to three years of pain, treatment, death scares, and a long recovery. I, like everyone else here, have felt the blazing anger at the disease and the isolation of being in the demographic that is so overlooked.

    That being said, I have to question why the philanthropic organizations that target young adult survivors choose to use the profanity angle. While I don’t necessarily agree with the author’s last statement, I do understand her point. Why are we, as a generation of cancer survivors, choosing to differentiate ourselves in this way?

    I work in philanthropy, and some of the first things donors look for in choosing to support my institution are professionalism and integrity. Profanity conveys neither of those qualities. Furthermore, major gifts come in from a significantly older demographic. Why would we not be respectful of that?

    Please don’t get me wrong. I’ve cussed like a sailor around my family, friends, and medical team. I drop an f-bomb whenever I hear of someone newly diagnosed or who has lost their battle. But this is within the context of my personal relationships. A philanthropic organization simply has different responsibilites in maintaining a public image and solid donor relationships.

  3. I really cannot understand the negativity in this article toward a charity that does amazing work to help people understand what they can do to look for cancer not just find it and essentially help save lives. How dare you make statements like that! You are so ignorant. Civility? Erosion of? There is nothing civil about cancer. Only civil charities should get your dollars- wake up lady. The word CANCER pairs well with the word FUCK. GenY will be running your world so get used to it.

  4. Ann K says:

    This article just shows how different the young adult survivor group is compared to the pediatric and over 40 cancer crowd. So to both the author of this article and Dr Forni, I pose to you the following question – If you were diagnosed with cancer as a young adult, and were told in order to save your life, you may never walk again, may have mental or physical disabilities for the rest of your life, or never be able to have children, what would your response be. Aww shucks, woe is me, now what? Or would you get pissed off and do something about it? Frankly, I could care less whether or not you like the provocative language that organizations such as i2y and my dear friend Matt Zachary use to gather attention to our cause. As another friend of mine has said, trying to explain what it’s like to be a young adult with cancer is like trying to explain sex to a virgin – until you go through it, you won’t know what the f*#k I am talking about.

  5. Bethany says:

    Cancer’s not civil, ladies and gentlemen- and honestly, I’m really tired of other people talking about cancer so nonchalantly, as in this article. It is not okay to tell me how to speak about my experience. You don’t have to listen- but I’m angry. Everyone should be angry about this disease. And sometimes anger is not particularly civil or polite.

    This isn’t about shock value. This isn’t about being provocative or profane. This is about young people who are trying to live. To live on their terms. Young people who are trying to affect change.

    I always thought one of the wonderful things about America was our freedom of speech. Don’t stifle that because a few words make you uncomfortable. Change is brought about when a group of individuals is righteously indignant and actually DOES SOMETHING about it! It’s often messy and not very pretty. But cancer is not pretty, especially for young adults. And i2y is standing up and giving us a voice.

    The point of all of this is to allow young adults to speak out, to encourage each other, and to provide resources and help to our community. Don’t stifle that- we’re burdened enough as it is.

    You try living with cancer for three years in your 20s and tell me how it feels. There are a couple of choice words that might come to mind.

  6. David Levine says:

    “The erosion of civility just isn’t worthy of the public’s charitable dollars”. That closing sentence may be the most ignorant thing I have ever read. A year ago, I had a bone eating cancer that left me with 2 vertebrae that needed replacement and a four level fusion at the age of 29. After losing mobility, enduring 6 months of chemo, and facing a future with physical limititations, I am proud to say I survived. Do you want to know the last thing I thought about during this ordeal? Hmmm what charity has enough moral ground to be reccomended by a civility expert. Obviously you or Dr. Fiorni are speaking from personal moral upbringings and not necessarily first hand experience. As a young adult, my first thought when diagnosed was “Fuck this shit that is eating away at the core of my being”. I was reached out to by various philanthropic groups and had the following experiences:
    Lymphoma/Lukemia Society: I recieved a notebook in the mail with info on how to donate and/or recieve financial assistance
    American Cancer Society: I recieveda half dozen calls from an 85 year old volunteer asking if I had recieved my free stocking cap in the mail.
    Stupid Cancer: I recieved personal emails from the founder, director, and a core group of young adult survivors in my area. I was invited to happy hours, football games, etc. It is a core group that understands Cancer fucking hurts. Some days are going to hurt more than others and for those days, they are there for support.
    Fuck Cancer: Held an art show with benefits helping my wife and I cover lost work wages and medical expenses.

    Shouldnt you be open to any organization that is trying to help? Fuck Cancer may use language that you deem innapropriate but if it makes one person that is facing death head on smile, isnt it all worth it? Shouldnt these people have a place where they dont have to ‘be strong and think positive’? All i wanted was a room of like minded patients and survivors that wanted to express their anger, resentment, and disgust towards a disease that rapes and kills young and old alike. You are in a position where you advise people where to donate. How many people did you speak with that have experienced the good that comes from these ‘profane’ outreaches? I would hope that you did your homework on each organization prior to writing the article. Next time, try to not judge a book by its cover.

  7. Stephanie says:

    I think as cancer survivors and patients the founders of organizations like the I’m Too Young for This! Cancer Foundation and those of us who are active in that organization are the best judges of what’s “provocative” vs appropriate, and I love I2Y’s approach to cancer. I love that I have the “adult” version of the I2Y bracelet, and I show people both that it says “stupid cancer” and the tiny image of a hand giving cancer the finger.
    Matthew Zachary is an amazing man who is a cancer survivor, and his organization’s events are exactly what young adult cancer survivors need – they are invigorating and connect us with other people whose lives have been knocked off course by illnesses that had no respect for us – so many of us choose not to discuss it with respect, either. It’s our choice. We’re the ones who are living with it, and whose friends are living with and sometimes dying from it.

  8. Nate says:

    Cancer is not civil. It’s gross, it’s frustrating, and young people affected by it often feel like they are ignored by the medical establishment and isolated by their age among patients and survivors, adding to that frustration. Of course you probably wouldn’t know about that.

    I am almost 31 years old and am a survivor of a cancer more commonly seen among the elderly. I was seriously hours from death. I was in the middle of my life – halfway through a graduate degree, early in my marriage thinking about kids and a career.

    Having a forum where I can forget about civility for a moment (like with i[2]y) is very cathartic. Sure, it may not be for everyone, but judging by the tens of thousands reached and helped by the organization, I would say that a little loss of civility is worth it.

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