Monday, January 14, 2013

The Future of Livestrong

As we brace for what by all accounts will be an admission to doping allegations by Lance Armstrong, the inevitable aftershocks will entail many questions about the cancer charity he founded, the Lance Armstrong Foundation (recently renamed the Livestrong Foundation).  Many will ask what the future holds for the foundation and whether it can survive.  From my perspective, the more important question is not whether the Livestrong Foundation can survive but whether it should survive.

The question of whether the Livestrong Foundation can survive is an easy one.  As discussed here previously, the Livestrong Foundation has accumulated substantial wealth over the years and can suffer a serious blow to revenues without even needing to cut expenses. I believe asking whether it will survive is not the right question anyway.  As with any charity, the board should ask itself what its core mission is and whether it is best suited to achieve that mission.  In the case of Livestrong, the importance of the mission, to help address the needs of cancer survivors, is clear.  In fact, the critical nature of the mission is the primary justification given by those inside the foundation for its long-term survival.  However, just having an important mission does not mean the organization should continue.  A board should first ask if any other organizations have related missions (the answer here is obviously yes), and what, if any, comparative advantage this organization has over the others.

Livestrong has clearly considered its comparative advantage in the past.  As reported by Outside last year, the foundation realized that other organizations have a better ability to fund and support cancer research, so they made a conscious decision to focus instead on awareness, advocacy, and education.  It is hard to argue that they did not have such a niche in the past.  Lance Armstrong’s story and his unique ability to inspire countless cancer survivors are not in doubt.  Arguably, that was their comparative advantage – inspiration.  Inspiring cancer survivors and their loved ones also opened the doors to education and advocacy efforts that other organizations could not offer.  For this reason, though, the tarnished reputation of Lance Armstrong is potentially devastating to the organization.  If its comparative advantage was in bringing inspiration that other organizations cannot bring, it is hard to argue that this advantage will persist in light of the controversies surrounding Lance Armstrong.  As reported by the New York Times, the public image of Livestrong seems inextricably linked to Lance Armstrong, despite the organization’s efforts to separate the two.

If the Livestrong brand and its ability to inspire have been threatened by recent controversies, the board has an obligation to step back and revisit the question of its existence.  I am not suggesting that they consider just shutting down.  But, they should ask whether the organization’s resources and programs would better achieve their mission if handed over to other organizations.  There are many worthy cancer charities, cancer research centers, and cancer hospitals that could pick up the mantle of the Livestrong Foundation.  What Livestrong’s board and Lance Armstrong himself need to consider is whether their organization can make better use of its vast resources than others could going forward.  And, if the answer is yes, they should clearly explain this reason to the outside world.  If the answer is no, Lance Armstrong’s public image would no doubt be positively affected by the selfless act of giving up on the foundation he started for the sake of the mission.

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