May 27, 2011

Don’t Judge a Charity by Its Founder’s Fame

Elizabeth Kreutz

Lance Armstrong

The Livestrong Foundation is staring down the barrel of a shotgun. Its heroic founder and chairman of the board, Lance Armstrong—known for his ascendency to the pinnacle of professional cycling after a grueling battle with cancer—may finally have met his match in the form of the U.S. Justice Department.

As a federal grand-jury investigation continues to hear testimony from Mr. Armstrong’s former teammates, increasingly damaging details about his alleged use of performance- enhancing substances gush into the digital universe and water- cooler conversations everywhere.

From a legal standpoint, Lance Armstrong is innocent until proven otherwise; but in the court of public opinion, deliberations are officially under way.

Now it will be up to the foundation to help donors understand a basic lesson: A charity’s founder, no matter how famous, isn’t the measure of whether a charity is worthy of a charitable contribution. And as this controversy unfolds, it is an important reminder to everyone in the nonprofit world about the reasons it’s unwise to count too much on the name and charisma of a celebrity.

To date, the organizations and corporate sponsors associated with Lance Armstrong have remained unwavering in their support for him and the charity he started. A recent tweet from a Nike spokesperson stated, “We are proud to work with [Lance] and support his foundation.”

Yet if it were to be proven that Mr. Armstrong doped during his career, the shockwave from the scandal could be massive and the fallout catastrophic for people with cancer and for all those working with the foundation to find treatments for the disease.

In a heartbeat, a name that is synonymous with heroism, integrity, and strength of will could be eclipsed by images of deceit, hypocrisy, and cheating.

The Livestrong foundation could experience a precipitous decline in support as donors and the companies that support it through licensing and merchandising deals disappear. Simply stated, it's possible that many would avoid giving to a foundation that evoked images of the greatest sports fraud in history.

But that isn’t a smart way for donors to think about giving. Nobody should ever have given to the Livestrong foundation based on Lance Armstrong’s exploits on the bike. Instead, corporations, foundations, and individuals should always base decisions on whether to give on the questions asked of all nonprofits: Are its programs effective, is it achieving its mission, and is it responsibly stewarding financial resources?

As a communications specialist, I am well aware of the power that a brand wields. In fact, I’ve seen this scenario play out before. In 2004 I represented an upstart foundation started by another wildly successful American cyclist: Tyler Hamilton (yes, the same Tyler Hamilton who just appeared on “60 Minutes” and said he had seen Mr. Armstrong use performance-enhancing substances).

Mr. Hamilton rose to prominence in 1999, 2000, and 2001, helping Lance Armstrong secure his first three Tour de France victories.

In late 2003, he started a foundation with his name to fight multiple sclerosis, and as Mr. Hamilton’s celebrity grew, so too did the foundation’s ability to secure donations and volunteers.

A few months later, Tyler Hamilton won an Olympic gold medal in Athens. Everyone associated with Mr. Hamilton and his foundation was floating on air. This victory gave the foundation a publicity bonanza that allowed it to build a pool of supporters and to promote its forthcoming series of charity bike rides around the United States and in Europe.

Then, just one month later, as Mr. Hamilton was soaring to new heights, he failed a series of drug tests and was hit with a two-year ban from the sport.

The still young and undercapitalized foundation was powerless to do anything. It had not yet reached a critical mass of donors and had not existed long enough to sustain itself on the merits of its successes. Within months, most marketing activity for the organization ceased. The Tyler Hamilton Foundation quietly lives on today, but its impact at this point is questionable.

Regardless of how the government investigation into Lance Armstrong unfolds in the coming weeks and months, the fate of his foundation does not need to resemble that of Hamilton’s foundation as long as it:

  • Decouples its brand from that of its founder.
  • Communicates the good works achieved by the foundation because of the many thousands of donors, volunteers, staff members, and cancer survivors who have done their part to make the Lance Armstrong Foundation what it is today.

I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far.

An October 2010 article in Fast Company (written well before the most recent developments in this evolving matter), examined how the Lance Armstrong Foundation lives with a founder that has long been simultaneously its greatest asset and its greatest potential risk.

Under the leadership of Doug Ulman, the foundation’s chief executive, the organization rebranded itself Livestrong in 2009. In addition, it has actively developed promotional strategies that rely less on the cachet of its founder and more on the triumphs and stories of the many thousands of individuals who have been helped directly by its programs and advocacy work.

As the Fast Company article says: "Ulman sees the investigation as a cycling scandal that pales in importance compared to fighting the world’s deadliest disease. But that’s not to say Armstrong's legal trouble doesn't enter into his thinking. 'It’s made me more focused,' Ulman says. 'Twenty-eight million people are counting on us.'"

Faced with the potential of the largest doping scandal of all time, Livestrong so far has been sending all the right messages to its supporters and to the rest of the public. Now it’s time to hope that the rest of the public is savvy enough to recognize that an organization and the good that it does in the world is about much more than one person, even if that one person is the founder.

Rich Polt is principal of Communicate Good, a public-relations consultancy in Baltimore.