Charities and the power of brands
by Liz Hester
Lance Armstrong’s decision to step down as chairman of his cancer-fighting Livestrong foundation in the wake of doping allegations isn’t just a blow to the man himself; it’s a blow to an organization with a beneficial mission and a powerful brand.
From Juliet Macur’s story in the New York Times:
“I have had the great honor of serving as this foundation’s chairman for the last five years and its mission and success are my top priorities,” Armstrong said in a statement. “Today therefore, to spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career, I will conclude my chairmanship.”
Armstrong, the seven-time Tour winner who denies ever doping, founded the organization in 1997 after he survived testicular cancer and it sold millions of yellow Livestrong wristbands and went on to partner with Nike to sell millions of dollars of Livestrong gear. Jeff Garvey, the vice chairman of the organization, will become chairman, while Armstrong will remain on the foundation’s board.
Livestrong funds programs that support cancer survivors through diagnosis to life after the treatment. Each year, they spend around $35 million, with $30 million of that going to programming, according to their website.
The foundation, which will celebrate its 15th year in 2012, has raised more than $470 million with 81 percent of those funds going to programs, according to the Livestrong web site. That’s an incredible amount of money, no doubt enabled in part from Armstrong’s celebrity.
How else could you sell 80 million of those ubiquitous yellow silicone bracelets? That’s right, 80 million people shelled out a $1 each to wear their support on their wrists, according to USA Today. And it was the first of what is now a cultural phenomenon.
Livestrong might not be one of the Forbes top 200 U.S. charities, but it’s a well-known brand that’s seeped into the broader culture beyond cycling and cancer charities. The foundation and its founder are intertwined as brands.
This connection complicates Armstrong’s personal legacy (or lifts it despite the doping scandal) and it makes it hard for the foundation. People like to give money to causes that make them feel good and have the potential to elevate their social status. Why else would so many people wear those yellow bands?
At least that’s what I thought, until I read this CNN story. Here are the important lines (some parts have been omitted, so click the link for the full story.)
The organization, which had strongly defended Armstrong’s role as recently as last week, did not ask him to step aside, Livestrong spokeswoman Katherine McLane said.
Armstrong founded the charity in 1997 after his own successful treatment for testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs. He came back from the disease seemingly stronger than ever, winning the first of his seven Tour de France titles three years after he was diagnosed with cancer.
McLane also noted the day of the report’s release that donations to the charity had boomed since August, when Armstrong announced he was ending his legal fight to stop USADA’s investigation.
McClane said Wednesday that Livestrong’s audience — cancer patients and their families — aren’t troubled by Armstrong’s woes.
“The last thing that’s going to enter your mind is news from the cycling world,” she said.
Donations to the charity are up. I think this shows that celebrity can only go so far to help/hurt a brand. People are smart enough to separate the works of the charity from the actions of the founder. It might dilute the story, but the doping doesn’t change the fact the man’s a cancer survivor and started a foundation to help others.
I’m not a fan of cheaters. And this post should in no way be read as a defense of Armstrong’s actions. But I do think it interesting that for all the money spent on brand and research, that it takes more than a founder’s fall from grace to stop people from giving to charity.
And no matter what you think of Armstrong or cycling, cancer survivors and their families deserve all the help they can get.