How Livestrong, and other foundations, can withstand scandal
Was it passion for Lance that inspired donors to open their wallets? I would argue that, for most people, it was passion for the cause. So many Livestrong supporters feel a deep commitment to its cancer-fighting mission and reputation for doing good work that they have jumped to the organization’s aid despite, or even because of, Armstrong’s woes.
Regardless of one’s opinions of Lance Armstrong, the man or the athlete, what’s clear is that he established a successful and meaningful foundation. Although he has stepped down as chairman, Livestrong still has plenty going for it: supporters and partners like Nike (which cut ties with Armstrong the athlete); a strong brand (with those ubiquitous yellow bracelets); countless success stories; and leadership strength, depth and continuity. Former board vice chairman Jeffery Garvey has become the chairman, while Doug Ulman will remain as president and CEO.
Mission and management
|Livestrong is sustainable if its mission — to help cancer survivors — remains bigger than the individual who founded it.
This is particularly important in the fickle world of sports. When an athlete or team shines, donors for their cause line up at the door. But when the team stops winning, glory has faded or a reputation has been tarnished, what will inspire people to contribute? Why will they care?
I’m not suggesting that sports foundations downplay their affiliations with marquee athletes. A star’s name and a good cause are a potent mix, and sometimes doing good work can put an athlete on a better path. “Once you’re passionate about something,” says Reggie Smith, president of the NFL Players Association’s Former Players Chapter in Chicago, “you will protect it.”
Rather, foundations need to achieve equilibrium between their missions and high-profile missionaries. How to achieve such balance? It starts with good leadership. A common failure among sports foundations is to look first to family and friends to run the organization. This isn’t always a bad thing. Derek Jeter’s thriving Turn 2 Foundation to help kids has his sister as president and parents as two key board members. The Boomer Esiason Foundation employs his wife as co-chair and son, Gunnar, as a key spokesperson in the fight against cystic fibrosis. But these foundations also list proven, experienced professionals on their staffs and boards of directors. If they are to survive, other foundations will need to recruit a “deep bench” as well.
What do today’s sports foundation leaders look like? Among the essential areas of expertise are business and finance, change management, development/fundraising, governance, vision-setting, and even social media. These qualities can’t always be found in any one individual, whether a friend, family member or not, so today’s foundations and sports nonprofits need to find executives and board members who complement each other and provide the right leadership chemistry.
When these elements are in place, the foundation can sustain itself and weather most storms. If, for example, the founder or figurehead abruptly steps down or faces a wave of negative publicity, the executives and board will be prepared. They can reassure employees, donors and the media that they are in charge, the organization is stable, the mission has not changed, and the cause is still worthwhile. For-profit organizations usually have done leadership succession planning that includes emergency plans for just such occurrences. Foundations should be no different.
As we see with Livestrong, the athlete doesn’t guarantee sustainability. To keep Livestrong thriving, Garvey and Ulman’s team will need to focus less on “Lance’s story” and more on success stories from thousands of others who have beaten cancer with the help of the foundation. Most importantly, they will need to stay focused on the mission and people’s faith in it. By doing so, Livestrong will live on. n
Gregory R. Santore (GSantore@WittKieffer.com) is vice president of the sports leadership practice at executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. A former corporate CEO, Santore works with foundations, universities and professional sports organizations to identify and recruit leaders.