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Responding to Outside Magazine's Article on Livestrong.org

The February 2012 issue of Outside magazine has a critical assessment of LiveStrong, Lance Armstrong’s anti-cancer foundation and I feel obliged to respond to it.

The first criticism is that LiveStrong no longer donates to cancer research efforts and instead has transitioned itself into a role as kind of information conduit for people fighting cancer. Livestrong is now primarily a cancer awareness-raising charity.

The problem is that some of the charity’s supporters still promote Livestrong as a cancer research charity. That, of course, is wrong and supporters should depict Livestrong's mission honestly and forthrightly.

Livestrong began phasing out of hard science research funding in 2005 because the charity's board didn’t feel like it could make a big enough dent in cancer research. Armstrong survived two bouts with testicular cancer.

A second problem, says the author of the article, Bill Gifford, is that Armstrong wears Livestrong around him as a kind of armor against the darts being thrown his way by the likes of 60 Minutes, Sports Illustrated, the Outside article, and others. Many people expect Armstrong to be indicted by a Los Angeles grand jury for illegal doping and probably perjury.

Gifford’s secondary point is that Armstrong and Livestrong are so inextricably linked that any marketing effort on behalf of the charity directly and distinctly benefits the man. And so the goodly chunk of money that Livestrong pumps into branding and marketing pumps up Lance Armstrong as well.

Finally, Gifford and others have charged that Armstrong and his associates have materially benefited from Livestrong.com, a “content-farm” that looks suspiciously like Livestrong.org.

Let me address those one-by-one.

As I’ve said before, I’m in no position to say whether or not Armstrong doped.

However, Livestrong’s repositioning as a cancer-awareness charity strikes me as a result of the strength of the charity’s branding. The word ‘Livestrong’ doesn’t sound like a testicular cancer research charity. It sounds like a rallying cry.

The Livestrong board could have left the cause as a testicular cancer research charity. But the fact of the matter is that testicular cancer presently has one of the highest cure rates of all cancers; better than 90 percent.

And while testicular cancer isn’t exactly an orphan disease…roughly 8,000 Americans are diagnosed with it every year... that number is dwarfed by the approximately 225,000 women every year diagnosed with breast cancer.

So the Livestrong board faced a choice; be the charity of choice for a form of cancer that doesn’t affect a huge number of people and isn’t terribly deadly, or become something bigger. (A third option would be to become a generic anti-cancer research charity. But given the landscape of cancer charities that’s probably a fool’s errand).

I won’t fault Livestrong for the direction it took.

As for the criticism that Livestrong over-brands itself, I’ll fall back on the defense of nonprofit marketing mounted by Dan Pallotta in his book ‘Uncharitable.’ Pallotta says, in effect, that marketing works. Who among us doesn't believe that if anti-tobacco forces marketed with as much budget and skill as the tobacco companies do that we wouldn't substantially reduce smoking?

Why, then, do nonprofits and their supporters expect to get same marketing results that for-profits get when nonprofits spend pennies on the dollar for their marketing?

Now, the issue of Armstrong benefiting from Livestrong’s branding is tricky. But at its core the issue is a version of ‘founder’s syndrome.’ As any nonprofit consultant worth her salt can tell you, the ultimate test of a charity’s long-term viability is whether it can escape the shadow of a charismatic founder.

Given that, Livestrong might be better served by making that break with Armstrong sooner rather than later.

Finally, the whole Livestrong.com deal seems shady.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Check your spelling. LifeStrong or LiveStrong, that is the question!
Paul Jones said…
Thanks, friend.

I really could have used you at 11pm the night before I posted that!
Unknown said…
Mr. Paul Jones. I really enjoyed reading your article. So much that I read it twice. I do find there is some ambiguity from the reader's perspective. For example, you never touched on the unethical Livestrong.com benefiting livestrong.org

With my level of knowledge on the subject, I don't know the difference between the two of them. Is the .com domain a separate entity? What is unethical and what is a content-farm?

Can you explain in case you have other readers experiencing the same ambiguity.

Your loyal reader,

Derek

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