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Whither Livestrong? 5 Questions for...Leslie Lenkowsky

October 18, 2012

After years in the public eye, first as a world-famous athlete who won the grueling Tour de France, the crown jewel of international cycling, a record seven consecutive times, and subsequently for his central role in a still-unfolding doping scandal, American Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor, resigned on Wednesday as chairman of Livestrong, the cancer charity he founded some fifteen years ago. Hours later, Nike, one of Armstrong's biggest sponsors, dropped him as a spokesperson -- and was soon joined by half a dozen other Armstrong sponsors.

Earlier today, PND spoke with Leslie Lenkowsky, professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, about the Armstrong scandal and its likely effect on Livestrong. Lenkowsky, who writes and speaks frequently about nonprofit management and governance issues, has served as a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, as president of the Hudson Institute and the Philanthropy Roundtable, and as CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Lenkowsky_headshotPhilanthropy News Digest: Which surprises you more: Lance Armstrong's decision to step down as chair of Livestrong, formerly known as the Lance Armstrong Foundation, or the fact he waited till now?

Leslie Lenkowsky: That he waited until now. In fact, leadership of the organization has been passing from him to others for quite a long time. Stepping down now inevitably makes his decision look like it's related to the doping accusations. Since he is planning to stay on the board, he would have done better to make the transition earlier. But in many nonprofits, founders have a way of staying a bit too long.

PND: Close association with a celebrity can be a slippery slope for an organization, especially when the celebrity's name is on the letterhead. Do you think Livestrong's efforts to broaden its appeal beyond Armstrong will be enough to keep it from seeing a significant drop in its revenues?

LL: Yes. Livestrong has a very diversified base of support, lots of members and chapters, good national partners, and, most importantly, a well-developed set of programs. It has long since outgrown its association with Armstrong, and while his troubles may weaken his value for the organization's events and in other ways, they won't produce a significant drop in revenues.

PND: What does Livestrong need to do to minimize the damage from its association with Armstrong?

LL: Continue doing what it has been doing: creating a strong nonprofit organization. Strong and clearly independent board leadership is especially important right now.

PND: This year, we've seen two major funders of cancer research, Livestrong and Susan G. Komen for the Cure, take very public hits in the media. Will the negative publicity around Livestrong and Komen affect the work and reputations of other cancer-related organizations?

LL: No. Cancer is a serious problem that affects large numbers of Americans. The problems of Komen were very different from those Livestrong has faced, and the organizations themselves operate differently from others in the field. So, I don't see a spillover effect.

PND: Will Lance Armstrong ever again be an effective spokesperson for Livestrong and cancer research more generally?

LL: Yes. Despite the accusations of his using performance-enhancing drugs, Armstrong did, in fact, survive cancer -- remember, at the time he was diagnosed his treatment was very experimental -- and he has gone on to live a productive life. Even if his victories are now tainted, having competed in the Tour de France at all is no small accomplishment for a cancer survivor. That is Livestrong's core message, and he still embodies it.

-- Matt Sinclair

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