CEO Q&A: Doug Ulman, CEO, Livestrong (Extended)

Doug Ulman, CEO of Livestrong, speaks with Kimberly Maul about the economy's impact on the nonprofit and the benefits of working with an icon

What are the biggest business issues for Livestrong right now?

Clearly, as an organization in the social sector, one of the biggest issues is always the economy. Philanthropic organizations have really faced some stiff headwinds in the past few years, given the global economic downturn. All of the organizations in our space are dealing with that, which is sort of a constant. In addition, for us, it's always about innovating and trying to figure out how to better serve people and families affected by cancer.

How does PR and communications play a role in working with these challenges?

It's a constant strategic priority for us in an effort to communicate effectively our mission and impact. Using PR, the media, and other marketing and communication strategies and mediums is critical for us to ensure that our supporters and our grassroots movement really understand the impact that the organization is having as a result of their support.

As CEO, how often do you work with the communications team?

Multiple times a day. We work very closely together. Obviously, with social and traditional media, the world is moving so quickly. As an organization, we want to be as transparent as possible and be sure we're always over-communicating, both internally and externally. A few hours doesn't go by on any given day that I'm not in touch directly with our communications team.

And how do you use social media?

Personally, I've been using Twitter for the most part. We are also using our own website, blogs, and Facebook, as well as other sites. I'm also using Gowalla, which is a location-based social network. Along with Twitter, those are my two favorites and the ones I'm using on a daily basis.

Working with Lance Armstrong, Livestrong has an interesting situation with him as the leader of the organization, as well as factoring in his cycling and personal life. How do you balance working with such a well-known founder?

Lance is the founder of our organization, the chairman of the board, and really the beacon of hope and inspiration for our mission. We're so fortunate to have someone who is not only visible, but also so passionate about the cause as a leader and advocate. He is constantly on social media and is continually promoting the programs of the Foundation and talking about the impact we're having. Very few causes have that level of visibility, as well as such a strong brand.

Are there any challenges dealing with the downsides, such as the scandals that have come up recently involving Armstrong?

By having a highly visible individual in this day in age, with blogs and the amount of media being produced on an ongoing basis, there's always a potential risk. However, the benefits of Lance's founding this organization, his commitment, and his role as chairman far outweigh that.

October 2 was Livestrong Day, a global event. How do you handle worldwide communications around that?

So much of our work is done through this grassroots Livestrong movement. On October 2, we have literally hundreds of events. This year, there were 1,100 in more than 60 countries. We provide the individuals that are managing those events with tools to help get the word out about their activities. We then promote them through our social media and traditional media channels. It really is a very grassroots day where people are celebrating the issues of cancer survival. It's an inspiring time of the year.

What are your 2011 goals for Livestrong, both as an organization and, specifically, for its communications?

We want to constantly improve our communications and better target the audiences we're trying to reach. We need to get in touch with more cancer survivors and their families so we can provide timely support and navigation services. We also must reach policymakers so we can continue to be a leading advocate for the needs of people fighting cancer.

For us, it's a constant process of improvement. We're always looking for the newest tools. We're constantly pondering what will be next in terms of social media and what tools can we leverage that are out there now, many of them free of charge.

What are some communications keys for the nonprofit sector in general?

Nonprofit organizations have really benefitted from some of the new communications tools available. The entire sector will be helped tremendously if we can all be more transparent and over-communicate with those who have invested resources in our mission.

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