Although Lance Armstrong last week dropped his fight over doping charges, Livestrong, the $50-million charity that officially bears his name, is just starting its battle.
Mr. Armstrong, who has denied charges from sporting officials that he used substances to boost his performance in the Tour de France, the Olympics, and other cycling races, has long been the charity’s most visible spokesman, and his racing successes have become an important symbol of what people who have had cancer can accomplish.
Now, however, Mr. Armstrong’s value in attracting funds and publicity could tarnish the organization’s message to cancer survivors about empowerment and healthy living.
If that occurs, Livestrong could become the latest charity to find out that an association with a celebrity can have costs as well as benefits.
For example, the Tiger Woods Foundation, which supports youth-development programs, saw contributions fall by 45 percent—and total revenue by 33 percent—following revelations in 2009 about the golfer’s personal life and the break-up of his marriage.
Likewise, after the best-selling author Greg Mortenson was accused of misusing funds and exaggerating accomplishments of the Central Asia Institute, which promotes education in Afghanistan and Pakistan, donations to the group declined by 30 percent, as did total revenue. The attorney general of Montana (where the institute is located) conducted an investigation, and last spring Mr. Mortenson had to repay more than $1-million and resign as executive director. The board of directors was also told to step down after a transition period.
Once doping charges against Mr. Armstrong became public, many people began to wonder whether a similar fate lay in store for Livestrong. However, that seems unlikely for two important reasons.
The first is that Livestrong has long been developing an identity distinct from Mr. Armstrong’s. For a decade, it has had a full-time president and an appropriate-size board whose members have included figures of national stature independent of the organization’s founder.
Livestrong’s annual revenue comes from a mix of donations, special events, and earnings from the sale of products, including the popular yellow wristbands. Contributors include corporations and foundations, as well as a large number of individuals (including some who have created endowments in the name of relatives and friends who have had cancer). The organization has also set up and operates a variety of programs, often collaborating with groups such as the YMCA and government agencies.
As board chairman and its chief public face, Lance Armstrong has been an important part of Livestrong. But the group appears to be far more than a reflection of its famous founder. In fact, despite Mr. Armstrong’s mounting legal problems, Livestrong’s revenue actually grew. Although contributions nose-dived in 2010, for example, other sources of income rose, leaving the organization better off at the end of the year than it was at the beginning.
How long that will continue remains to be seen. If Mr. Armstrong’s loss of his championship titles makes him less valuable in attracting supporters, Livestrong may need to rethink how and when it capitalizes on the celebrity of its founder.
But judging from the initial reaction to Mr. Armstrong’s decision not to contest the doping charges, he still enjoys considerable support. After he announced that he had given up the legal battle, the heads of both the American Cancer Society and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids pledged to keep working with Mr. Armstrong and with the organization.
That suggests the second reason the damage to Mr. Armstrong is not likely to be disastrous for Livestrong: He really is a cancer survivor. Far from just lending his name to the organization, Mr. Armstrong embodies its message.
Apart from his fame as a bicycle racer, he not only overcame the disease (using a treatment that was experimental at the time) but also went on to live an active and productive life, both in and outside sports. Even though his athletic feats are now tainted by allegations, his life story is not and can still be used to inspire those whom Livestrong hopes to reach.
However, when stars lend their names to causes with which they have little personal involvement, the risk that their problems will also become the charity’s is greater. Although Tiger Woods had immense prowess as a golfer, he had no claim to expertise in helping young people; to the contrary, the personal escapades that got him in trouble raised doubts about his commitment to his own family.
Even worse, at the heart of the charges against Greg Mortenson was that he invented the experiences that led him to establish the Central Asia Institute, making it easier to believe that his desire to help girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan was not genuine.
For Livestrong, Mr. Armstrong has been an effective spokesman not only because he was famous but also because he was authentic. More typically, however, stars mostly bring their fame to the charities they want to help, and when those individuals fall or fade, little of value is left.
Celebrities can be useful to charities because they are visible and well liked. They can attract attention—and resources—to causes that might otherwise lack them. But in the wake of the doping charges, it may be that Lance Armstrong’s reputation will benefit as much from his involvement with Livestrong as the organization will from its ties to him.