After Lance

10.18.12

What Now for Livestrong, Now That Lance Armstrong Has Resigned?

The cancer charity’s reputation has been tarnished by the scandal surrounding founder Lance Armstrong, who stepped down as chairman Wednesday. As Livestrong gears up for its 15th anniversary, can it rebound—and separate itself from the cyclist? Eliza Shapiro reports.

Lance Armstrong issued the decisive blow to his career on Wednesday by resigning as chairman of the Livestrong Foundation. But the fate of the $500 million cancer charity he founded is much less clear.

Some die-hard Armstrong fans and philanthropy experts say Livestrong is solid and that the resignation of Armstrong, whom the U.S. Anti-Doping Association has accused of running one of the most elaborate drug schemes in sports history, may be the charity’s saving grace. They say the doping scandal, which has hit Armstrong and his fans with a nonstop stream of bad news since June, was severely damaging the reputation of one of the world’s largest cancer-fighting organizations, whose yellow Livestrong bracelets have been ubiquitous for much of its 15-year history.

“When people ask why I’m still wearing my Livestrong bracelet, I tell them, ‘I don’t care, it’s still about cancer fundraising,’” says Mariska Mackenzie-Heyboer, a longtime Armstrong fan who decided to run for Team Livestrong in next month’s New York City Marathon after her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year. Mackenzie-Heyboer says she is “trying to set Livestrong above Lance.”

Philanthropy experts say that is what Livestrong must do as well.

The appointment of the charity’s vice chairman, Jeff Garvey, as Armstrong’s replacement is a first step. And Livestrong’s surprising recent fundraising boost is another good sign: the day after Armstrong decided to stop fighting the doping charges against him and was banned from professional racing, Livestrong received $78,000 in unsolicited donations, 25 times more than the $3,200 in donations it got the previous day.

Armstrong issued a press release through Livestrong on Wednesday morning, writing that “to spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career, I will conclude my chairmanship.”

Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman for Livestrong, clarified that Armstrong “will be concluding his chairmanship but will remain as a board member and will continue to serve the organization’s work.” The charity is gearing up for a week of celebrations, including an organized bicycle ride in Austin and other fundraising events, to mark its 15-year anniversary. Attempts to reach Livestrong’s board members were unsuccessful.

But separating Armstrong from the Lance Armstrong Foundation will be a formidable task, says Richard Marker, a philanthropy expert and founder of New York University’s Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education.

“In the long term, the board has to think about how they can continue to pursue the original mission that is still separate and distinct from its founder.”

“The challenge is that Livestrong is so well known, not so much because it gets big support from big funders but lots of small gifts from lots of people who wear the wristband,” says Marker, referring to the charity’s popular yellow bracelet. In the crowded field of cancer charities, he says, there’s a risk that donors might think, “Why don’t we send our money to these organizations that have a cleaner record?”

The stakes are also lower to save Livestrong if it’s truly struggling, Marker says: “You’re in an area where there are lots of other players.”

Marian Stern, a philanthropy consultant and head of Projects in Philanthropy, defines Livestrong’s challenge as ensuring that “people remain aligned to the cause and the mission without being solely aligned to Lance Armstrong.”

“In the short term, Livestrong can hire a good PR consultant who can get them through this,” she says. “In the long term, the board has to think about how they can continue to pursue the original mission that is still separate and distinct from its founder.” McLane, the Livestrong spokeswoman, says the organization would consider hiring an external public-relations firm to help deal with the controversy but has no plans to do so immediately.

“The smarter move” on Livestrong and Armstrong’s part from a PR perspective, says Marker, would have been to “sever ties completely” rather than his remaining on the Board of Directors.

Still, Marker says Livestrong may fare better than some of its charitable peers, such as the Susan B. Komen Foundation and United Way, which suffered public-relations scandals that may have left them permanently tainted.

“Komen is a good example of what you don’t do,” Marker says, referring to the breast cancer research organization’s widely criticized decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings. “The mistake that Komen made was to yield to political pressures, which made its authenticity suspect.”

United Way, the nonprofit national volunteer association, worked hard to reinvent itself after top brass were found guilty of fraud and financial mismanagement in the early 1990s, Marker says. “I think Livestrong will have a difficult time unless they can come up with an entirely different repackaging” that distances the charity from its most recognizable face, he says, noting that United Way still struggled after a thorough rebranding.

For now, Armstrong’s fans are still rallying around him, emphasizing his athletic prowess and inspiration for cancer survivors over his role as Livestrong’s leader.

“Lance—you beat cancer—this is nothing. You have my support and admiration for what you do on a bicycle, but even more for what you do off the bike. Thanks for being a great human being!” writes one of thousands of commenters on a Support for Lance website.

“I just wanted to find a way to say we all understand your decision and totally support you,” writes another. “They have harassed you enough. Keep Strong. Live Strong.”