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March 06, 2014

Industry with Heart

Avon Products Inc.: Standing Together and Speaking Out

by Karyn Reagan

Click here to order the March 2014 issue in which this article appeared or click here to download it to your mobile device.


Company Profile

  • Founded: 1886 
  • Headquarters: New York, N.Y.
  • Top Executives:  Sheri McCoy, CEO
  • Products: Beauty, fashion jewelry, apparel and home care

The Avon Foundation rallies support to raise awareness and find solutions for two causes affecting women worldwide.

The history of Avon reveals a heart for women that spans the generations. Just over 127 years ago, long before women were filling roles in the corporate world, 95 years before the first woman was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and over three decades before it was legal for women to vote in the United States, Avon was offering women a way to create and manage their own businesses. What David H. McConnell started in 1886 as a door-to-door sales company with an offering of a small line of perfumes has grown to an international corporate icon continuing to offer women a chance at economic independence.

Fast-forwarding from those small beginnings into the mid-20th century provides a picture of Avon as a mature company with the same heart for women’s issues upon which it was founded. In 1955 Avon entered the world of corporate philanthropy by establishing a foundation. It serves as a perpetual reminder of the heart of the founder revealed in his quote from long ago: “to meet fully the obligations of corporate citizenship by contributing to the well-being of society and the environment in which it functions.”

According to Carol Kurzig, President of the Avon Foundation for Women, the Avon Foundation began as a small, private, corporate foundation funded by Avon Products and has grown to be the largest corporate-affiliated philanthropy focused on women’s issues globally. Since it launched the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade in 1992, Avon philanthropy has donated more than $815 million for breast cancer research and access to care programs. In 2004, the foundation adopted a second cause that women around the world told Avon was critical to them—reducing domestic violence and gender abuse. Avon philanthropy has donated an additional $57 million to organizations and projects focused on preventing partner violence and assisting victims.

“Meet fully the obligations of corporate citizenship by contributing to the well-being of society and the environment in which it functions.” —David H. McConnell, Founder, Avon

Its Breast Cancer Crusade began when Avon United Kingdom created one of the first cause-marketing programs in the world by selling pink ribbon products in 1992. By the next year the Avon campaign was adopted in the United States and in dozens of other Avon markets. Now more than 50 Avon countries support the Breast Cancer Crusade, and every October Avon introduces new breast cancer awareness programs and fundraising products.

According to the YWCA of Greater Baton Rouge, La., a grant they received from the Avon Foundation Breast Health Outreach Program made access to care available at the right time for one woman they helped. “Leisha was 41, a single mother, and starting a new job,” a YWCA staff member says. “Without health insurance and facing a diagnosis of breast cancer, she was devastated. Then Leisha found our Avon-funded ENCOREplus program. Our outreach coordinator got her the help she needed. Leisha survived her breast cancer and is now an advocate, teaching other women about the importance of early detection.”

Creating awareness in addition to raising funds for women’s causes has always been an Avon philanthropic priority. Back in 1992 breast cancer was not widely discussed. Creating awareness about the need for early detection and quality care was critical to improving outcomes in the early days of Avon’s Breast Cancer Crusade. Today, Avon-funded research brings attention to domestic and partner abuse and indicates that increasing discussions about this topic is vitally important to ending violence and teaching women and men how to build healthy relationships.

Participants in the Avon Walks for Breast Cancer join for many reasons, whether as survivors of breast cancer themselves, to support a loved one battling the disease or to honor someone who lost the fight.

Walking for the Cause

The Avon Foundation is well known in the U.S. for its Avon Walks for Breast Cancer. Since 2003 the foundation has conducted a series of Avon Walks annually, which attract tens of thousands of participants and more than a million donors. Currently, walk participants in eight U.S. events raise an average of $2,400 each and walk a marathon and a half (39.3 miles) over a two-day period.

“As a breast cancer survivor and an Avon Representative, it is very important to be as supportive to the cause as possible. I hope that our efforts will help save lives by early detection and hopefully eliminate this disease some day.” —Nancy N., participant, Avon Walks for Breast Cancer

Nancy N. has participated several times in the Avon Walk in Boston as well as the one in Charlotte, N.C. “Besides having great products at reasonable prices, I love Avon for the important causes that we support,” she says. “As a breast cancer survivor and an Avon Representative, it is very important to be as supportive to the cause as possible. To coin a phrase, I Walk [in the Avon Walk] because I can. I hope that our efforts will help save lives by early detection and hopefully eliminate this disease some day.”

According to Kurzig, each event starts off with an emotional early-morning ceremony, featuring participants telling their breast cancer stories before the walking begins. The well-planned weekend includes a small army of 200–300 volunteer crew members who camp out with the walkers in pink tents for two nights to be available to help them if needed.

“About five years ago we started a youth crew for kids ages 10–15. They must apply, write an essay and raise money to be considered for the team,” she explains. “Those selected are invited to cheer walkers on, hand out lunches and water, help set up tents, etc. Most of them are motivated by a personal breast cancer story, often a mom who is a victim or a survivor of the disease.” Youth crew teams have raised more than $25,000, and one young crew member is chosen as one of the four speakers at each Walk’s opening ceremony, along with a survivor, a family member and a member of the general crew. “There is not a single story that doesn’t bring tears to our eyes,” Kurzig says. “The spirit of community at the Walks is incredible.”

In 2005 Avon launched global walks, building on the U.S. model. About 50 Avon countries produce an Avon Walk Around the World for Breast Cancer annually. Almost 2 million walkers have participated globally, raising critical global awareness and funds, but most Avon global markets raise the largest portion of their philanthropic funds through the sale of their cause products. These Avon cause products have generated more than $370 million since 1992, and individual markets determine how to best support breast cancer and domestic violence programs in their countries with the funds they raise.

Improving Care Globally

For the 20th anniversary of its Breast Cancer Crusade in 2012, Avon launched a Breast Cancer Clinical Scholars Program. “We brought 24 doctors from countries all over the world to one of our Avon-funded medical centers to provide them with advanced training in a field of specialty related to breast cancer,” Kurzig says. “The original idea was to conduct this program in honor of our Crusade’s 20th anniversary, but the countries from which the doctors came have provided such compelling reports of the impact the training has made in their communities that we felt the need to repeat the program and will host another 24 international doctors again this year. The doctors are able to return to their countries and educate other doctors about the strategies and techniques learned, improving care for their patients and advising the Avon Breast Cancer Crusades in their home countries.”

A new Avon program in 2014 will be centered on metastatic breast cancer. “We are leading a new Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance. Its initial project will be a study to identify and assess the services provided, treatments pursued and the gaps that exist in the care of metastatic patients,” Kurzig says. “We are collaborating with 16 breast cancer advocacy organizations and five pharmaceutical companies to look at what else can be done to better serve and treat patients whose breast cancer recurs.”

Another new initiative is the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge to accelerate production of innovative devices, tests or treatments for breast cancer. Avon is partnering with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Center for Advancing Innovation to foster the creation of business plans to actualize some of the most promising research funded by Avon and NCI over the last decade. More than 60 teams have responded to the challenge to carry out one of 10 innovative projects. “Ten finalist teams will be revealed in March,” Kurzig says, “and they will work on the projects until June when one winner will be chosen to take their project to fruition.” The projects range from diagnostic tests to possible new treatments.

Sounding the Alarm

In 2004 the Avon Foundation felt it was capable of taking on a second cause. “Consulting firm McKinsey & Company provided pro bono services to us to discover what cause would resonate most with Avon’s representatives and consumers around the world,” Kurzig says. “The research indicated that domestic and gender violence and dating abuse are among the top three causes of concern to women in every Avon market.” Since this cause is consistently identified as important to women all over the world, and because Avon is a company primarily for women, the choice made sense. McKinsey also suggested that this was a cause in which Avon could make a significant difference, because, unfortunately, there are so few organizations currently providing funding in this area.

One innovative domestic violence project funded by the Avon Foundation is the Global Communications X-Change. “This is an innovative global digital library for identifying and sharing messages and campaigns focused on ending violence against women,” Kurzig says. “Materials and resources are exchanged via the X-Change website, allowing anyone to find or share materials to help create awareness and reduce violence against women worldwide.” The Avon Foundation provides grants to organizations with the best materials identified by an independent panel of judges each year from all those posted on the X-Change.

“Another 2014 project is a partnership with Vital Voices and the U.S. State Department to launch Domestic Violence Justice Institutes,” she says. “Many countries have laws against domestic violence, but often they are not well known or understood. Often they face challenges from cultural traditions, or are not well enforced.” These institutes will offer a four-day program conducted by U.S. and international experts to train and unite judges, prosecutors, district attorneys and law enforcement officers to help them better understand how to implement laws to save lives in their communities. The four countries to receive the first institutes in 2014 are South Africa, Mexico, India and Nepal.

Starting the Conversation

“The results of a recent survey we funded revealed that 70 percent of people know someone who is in an abusive relationship, but most are not talking about it,” Kurzig says. As a result of the survey findings, the Avon Foundation is funding the development of a training curriculum, including videos and role-playing that will be offered to schools, workplaces and anywhere people gather to encourage them to start talking about domestic, gender or dating abuse. These materials will be available by the end of 2014, with the goal of educating people about how they can encourage victims to feel free to talk about what they are experiencing.

“Imagine witnessing [domestic violence] as a child. How do they express themselves? I want to be a voice for others. Especially now.” —Shaundre, Avon Representative and domestic violence survivor

Shaundre, an Avon Representative and domestic violence survivor, says she and her family experienced domestic violence firsthand. “Imagine witnessing this as a child. How do they express themselves? I want to be a voice for others. Especially now. My 9-year-old son is the pride and joy of my own life.”

Kurzig says that the Avon Foundation is continuing its efforts to bring awareness of this issue to the forefront. “In March, the results of the Annual Domestic Violence Census funded by the Avon Foundation will be released by the National Network to End Domestic Violence. The Census reports how many individuals were helped by domestic violence service programs throughout the U.S. and how many service needs went unmet due to lack of resources and funding,” Kurzig says. “Like so many of the programs we fund, the Census will increase awareness of the issues surrounding abusive relationships, which will hopefully create a basis for providing help and ultimately lead to change.”

Another important Avon Foundation initiative is providing peer counseling on university campuses in order to assist victims of abuse and help alert young women to signs of potentially abusive situations. “In response to alarming reports of abuse and violence committed on campuses, we have funded the creation of model guidelines for colleges to adopt in an effort to reduce and better respond to dating abuse and violence,” Kurzig says. The guidelines alert the institutions and students to the danger of “The Freshman 15.” That term is commonly related to the 15 pounds of weight gained in a student’s first trimester of college. “But it also relates too well to the danger to young women in those first 15 weeks of school,” she says. “New students often don’t know anyone and are vulnerable to the potential for controlling and abusive relationships.”

Taking It Personally

Kurzig notes that both Avon employees and representatives often mention Avon’s philanthropic heritage and commitment as a point of pride and a reason for joining and remaining with the company. “Direct sales is a person-to-person business and is one of the earliest models of social networking,” she says. “Many representatives report that their customers, friends or family members are touched by the two causes we support.” Since one in three women around the world will be a victim of domestic, gender or dating violence, and one in eight will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, most women are personally affected by these causes and welcome the chance to make a difference by embracing the mission of the foundation.

Kathleen T., a breast cancer survivor and Avon Representative who participated in the Avon Walk in Boston, says she is proud to work for a company that is actively involved in women’s health issues. “The support that Avon gives to the needs of women with breast cancer is very important.  As a representative of the largest corporate supporter of the breast cancer cause, I know that my contributions to the cause are part of a much more powerful support system when I walk in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.”

Since its inception, Avon has been forging new territory to offer opportunity and hope to women. “Avon is the company for women,” Kurzig says. “We take our commitment to women’s issues very seriously and in both causes we currently support, we are committed to working as hard as we can to find solutions that will change and save lives.”