Learning from The Lance Armstrong Foundation

publication date: Aug 21, 2012
author/source: Kendra Kleiner
A public scandal is one of the biggest risks a charity takes when working with a celebrity spokesperson. Two years ago, when the Lance Armstrong doping accusations came to public light, Charity Navigator CEO Ken Berger predicted that the scandal would devastate The Lance Armstrong Foundation.  Yet, one day after Armstrong publicly announced he would stop fighting those accusations, donations to his foundation were up more than 25-fold. Kendra Kleiner photo

There are two factors that explain why the Lance Armstrong Foundation more than survived his personal scandal. The first is Armstrong's well known personal connection to the cause and the second is the transformational awareness of the LIVESTRONG brand.

Personal connection

It's usually best to recruit celebrities with personal stakes in the cause and a high fan attachment, as they are more likely to work with their charities for a long period of time. In the case of Lance Armstrong, his personal battle with cancer in 1996 led him to form his foundation in 1997. By 1998 the foundation had already distributed a grant.

All of this happened before Armstrong won his first Tour de France title in 1999. After that win, he became known world-wide as a cancer survivor, a philanthropist and an athlete.

"I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities," said Armstrong in the press release announcing his decision.

His statement re-established his connection with his cause and demonstrated that his role as a cancer survivor and philanthropist is more important than his athletic legacy. He may lose his titles, but the connection he built with the public during that time cannot be taken away.

The LIVESTRONG transformation

Stephen Huddart, president and CEO of The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation,  has developed a model for identifying low, medium, high and transformational levels of engagement in three key areas:  awareness-building, fundraising and advocacy. It is Lance Armstrong's awareness building that has had a transformational impact on his foundation and the nonprofit community as a whole.  According to Huddart, a transformational celebrity must "reshape an issue or domain in fundamental ways." That is exactly what The Lance Armstrong Foundation accomplished with its LIVESTRONG brand.

In 2003, The Lance Armstrong Foundation launched the LIVESTRONG brand with the development of www.LIVESTRONG.org. In 2004, the foundation partnered with Nike to produce the now famous LIVESTRONG yellow bands.

"The bands accelerated the transformation of philanthropy from an activity dominated by relatively few people with excess money or time into a form of expression and participation available to anyone, anywhere," explains foundation president Doug Ulman.

At a price of $1.00 per band the foundation sold 55 million in 2005 alone. The campaign was so successful that the brand was parodied by Stephen Colbert and copied by causes all over the world.

With the LIVESTRONG brand, the foundation has created an identity separate from its founder. Armstrong remains the foundation's spokesperson; however, he is now perceived as representing LIVESTRONG and not The Lance Armstrong Foundation. The foundation's brand has transcended that of its celebrity spokesperson and has allowed it to survive Armstrong's personal public scandal. 

Thanks to his well-documented battle with cancer and his determination to help others, his legacy will be that of a philanthropist first (the Foundation raised $500 million in 15 years), a cancer survivor second and an athlete third. His direct connection with the cause allowed his foundation to maintain its credibility even when his own was under fire.

Kendra Kleiner is an administrator with the New Israel Fund of Canada and a graduate of the Fundraising and Volunteer Management Program at Humber College, Toronto. For more information email her or connect on Twitter @beatspertoronto

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