News and analysis
February 28, 2013

Livestrong Tries to Move Beyond Armstrong Doping Scandal

Some donors have left in the wake of the cycling doping scandal, but others are giving more

Vernon Bryant/KRT/Newscom

Livestrong, the cancer-fighting organization founded by the disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, is taking pains to announce to the world that the charity is not about him and won’t be about him in the future.

“As the world poses the questions, 'Is the Livestrong Foundation bigger than its founder? Will it survive?’ The answer is a resounding yes,” said Andy Miller, executive vice president, to a crowd of 500 volunteer fundraisers, supporters, and advocates during the charity’s third annual gathering. “Our success has never been based on one person.”

Livestrong is at a pivotal moment in its history. Now in its 16th year, the charity says the number of donors has dropped in recent months, so it wants to be clear that its work has nothing to do with the performance-enhancing drug scandal involving Mr. Armstrong.

“Over the past months, I have felt most indignant when our team’s credibility has been called into question as the result of something that had nothing to do with them,” he told the crowd.

But Mr. Miller and his colleagues must contend with not only the outrage of the public over Mr. Armstrong’s misdeeds but the anxiety of Livestrong’s most loyal supporters about the charity’s efforts to disassociate itself from its founder. Many are still drawn to the organization because of Mr. Armstrong’s story of surviving cancer.

An 'Independent Course’

For the past three years, Livestrong endured increased media scrutiny as it fiercely supported its founder before more evidence came to light that Mr. Armstrong used drugs while competing in the seven Tour de France races he won.

The cyclist stepped down as chairman of the organization in October; a month later, the charity formally, and legally, changed its name to the Livestrong Foundation from the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

“We set about charting an independent course forward,” Mr. Miller said.

The charity today tried to demonstrate it wants to do that by:

• Refashioning its logo to include “Foundation” underneath the Livestrong name. Mr. Miller said the thousands of cancer survivors form the “foundation” beneath Livestrong.

• Moving Livestrong Day, which calls attention to the organization’s work globally, from October 2, the anniversary of Mr. Armstrong’s original cancer diagnosis, to May 17, the month and date of the launch of the Livestrong wristbands nine years ago.

• Training its top volunteers in how to handle the controversy. At a session in Chicago, volunteer fundraisers were given talking points for responding to inquires about Mr. Armstrong’s involvement with the organization. Replies could include: “The Livestrong Foundation’s mission is bigger than its founder” and “It was never about one person.”

Michael Dunkle, an oncology nurse near Denver who’s been a volunteer for Livestrong, said he supports the organization’s renewed vision.

“There was some talk originally about, 'Hey, we might change completely and lose the Livestrong name,’” he said. “And that doesn’t make sense. Because we’re obviously branded with that name.”

He added: “Let’s be honest, the logo change really isn’t significant. More than anything, it’s pointing out that 'this is the Livestrong Foundation. Keep that in mind. This is Livestrong. It’s not Lance Armstrong.”

Lingering Loyalty

Not all of the volunteers in attendance wanted Livestrong to detach itself from its founder, however. Laurey Masterton, a two-time cancer survivor who’s in the middle of treatment for a third type of cancer, says she raised $34,000 last year for Livestrong and still considers Mr. Armstrong her hero.

“I don’t want to erase him from what I’m doing, and to me, he’s the main reason I’m involved in this group,” said Ms. Masterton.

She added: “He made the decision to step out, and the organization accepted it. And I just have to believe that they did what they felt was the right thing to do. I hope that there will come a time when he is back, that he is not erased from the whole thing.”

Both Mr. Dunkle and Ms. Masterton still plan to support the organization, despite Mr. Armstrong’s absence.

Donations Decline

Since the charity was founded, Mr. Armstrong’s story has attracted donors and corporate sponsors. Now, Livestrong is hoping its track record raising more than $550-million and serving 2.5 million people with cancer will be the main draw for supporters.

Last year, the group raised $48-million, with nearly half—$23.4-million—coming from 116,000 individuals worldwide. That sum is 2 to 3 percent less than what was raised in 2011, but Livestrong officials say that could be as much about the economy as the scandal.

They concede that fewer people are giving, however, and that the total amount donated didn't drop sharply because the average sum each donor gives has been higher. The bigger average gifts have resulted from an aggressive push to donors at the height of the Armstrong scandal, says Ryan O'Donoghue, development officer at Livestrong.

Asked if there will be a time when Mr. Armstrong will play a role in the organization again, Mr. O’Donoghue said: “Many of us, including donors, see Lance through the prism of the work that he’s done to help people who are affected by cancer, and that’s really what’s important to them. We’re very honest and transparent about what the state is of his relationship with the foundation.”

That said, he added, “You can’t predict the future.”

Send an e-mail to Raymund Flandez.