Lance Armstrong’s Foundation Seems Unharmed by Doping Charges

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Photo by Eugene Wei

August 9, 2012; Source: USA TODAY

What happens to a nonprofit when its founder, icon, and inspiration gets involved in a legal imbroglio? That may be the challenge to the Livestrong Foundation, whose founder, the champion bicycle racer Lance Armstrong, is fending off doping allegations. USA TODAY writer Brent Schrotenboer writes that Livestrong is still alive and functioning but suffering some hits during Armstrong’s legal battles.

Schrotenboer suggests that the foundation may face some blowback, due partly to the investigations and partly to Armstrong’s plunging popularity (“nearly three times more Americans dislike Armstrong than like him, according to Q Scores, a company that measures the likeability of personalities”).

The challenge is that Livestrong was founded not just by Armstrong but because of Armstrong’s story—his survival and recovery from testicular cancer and his victories in the Tour de France. As he defeated the rest of the bicycling world, those victories elevated Armstrong to American superman status. But like the impact of the controversy surrounding the shaky veracity of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea book on his Central Asia Institute, once Armstrong’s story is chipped, his nonprofit might be wounded.

In terms of individual donations, Livestrong appears to be doing well notwithstanding the doping charges, with the number of donations to the foundation this year up more than 20 percent over the previous two years. Like Mortenson and CAI, Armstrong tends to use the foundation as a “public relations shield,” a counter to the stories about his surreptitious doping as told by informants and whistleblowers.

So far, as measured by donations, the Livestrong Foundation has gotten past the 2010 prediction of Charity Navigator’s Ken Berger that the doping investigation would be “devastating” for the organization. Like Mortenson, Armstrong has legions of die-hard acolytes who will not countenance criticism of the man. In addition, unlike Mortenson, the only evidence against Armstrong is the statements of outsiders, former teammates and others, some of whom have been labeled as having relatively slimy reputations; legions of official drug tests have never showed Armstrong with banned drugs in his blood. The criticism of Mortenson came from CBS’s “60 Minutes” and award-winning author Jon Krakauer, sources somewhat less impeachable than some of Armstrong’s critics.

It has always been our experience, consistent with Berger’s prediction, that charities with titular heads who are taking it on the chin for charges implying moral or ethical turpitude usually end up taking a big whack themselves. Is Livestrong the exception to the rule? Or is it that most people simply don’t believe the charges against Armstrong, a household figure to many American households who stands out as an American champion facing down any and all comers in his athletic endeavors? —Rick Cohen

  • Scott

    Critics of the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the LIVESTRONG brand perhaps don’t understand how much both mean to so many people affected by cancer. No, you can’t separate them cleanly from Lance Armstrong the human being – and a lot of us simply have no interest in doing that, anyway. Lance personifies human resilience.

  • Ken Berger

    What I actually said to the reporter is that it MIGHT devastate the organization and that I hoped it did not!

  • rick cohen

    Dear Ken: Apparently, Armstrong has a quote that he attributes to you from August 2010 hanging on his wall that says, “”It is just going to devastate them,” That’s in the USA Today article as well as a quote you gave to the reporter for this article, which reads: “The fundamental premise upon which people give to charity is trust,” says Ken Berger, CEO of Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog. “It’s the life’s blood of a charity: the trust of the public. And if a charity is built on the reputation and founding of a person that the public begins to lose trust in, then, by extension, it can potentially threaten the organization as well.” Taking the first quote attributed to you, I would have said what you said and not added the “might.” But then, assuming the trajectory of Armstrong’s foundation’s trajectory stays strong, have we discovered a class of nonprofits for whom accountability is really all tied up with the persona of the iconic founder/director, all the other indicators be damned. I think of Mortenson’s CAI only because as you had it on Navigator (and so did everyone else), it sort of looked good, but when the revelations about Mortenson’s fabrications came out, his acolytes hung in with him, at least until the Montana AG’s report, and even then, the Montana AG’s report didn’t put CAI out of business. If and when the doping charges against Armstrong get proven in court (this could be a repeat of the fruitless litigation against Roger Clemens), will his foundation suffer hugely or only moderately as his acolytes hang in with him.

    Glad to have you reading the NPQ Newswire, Ken.

  • Ken Berger

    Dear Rick,

    The USA Today article mentions an earlier article that did not quote me correctly. In this article it includes a quote that is accurate. As you mention above, it includes the words “POTENTIALLY threaten”. That is my only point here, I have never been claiming to know definitively how things will play out and, in this case, hope the nonprofit can stay strong.