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