What will Livestrong do?

In recent months, and especially in the aftermath of Lance Armstrong's long-awaited and Oprah-enabled confession, there has been much hand wringing about the future of the Livestrong Foundation.

In recent months, and especially in the aftermath of Lance Armstrong's long-awaited and Oprah-enabled confession, there has been much hand wringing about the future of the Livestrong Foundation. The question “What will happen to Livestrong?” has been reverberating through nonprofit, philanthropic, cancer survivor, and media circles.

But this question fundamentally misses the mark. Now that its high-visibility founder has officially fallen from grace, much of what happens next will be shaped by how Livestrong as an organization responds to this crisis.

Which leads to the real question that people should be asking instead: “What will Livestrong do?”

Here are five critical steps that Livestrong can take to navigate this period of risk and uncertainty. Other nonprofits should pay heed: How prepared would you be if a dramatic event happened that threatened your organization's future?

1.   Do something: So far, the nonprofit has fared well, especially considering the challenging spot it's in. From a crisis perspective, it has made smart moves to deflect criticism and protect reputation, including changing its name, being transparent about its financials, and focusing on how it is helping everyday people battle cancer. But it could do more. The current crescendo of notoriety and speculation could be a historic, get-off-the-ropes moment for Livestrong. It's a chance for the organization to act boldly, instead of being acted upon. What might this look like? Rallying stakeholders with a clarion call to action, setting an aspirational and measurable impact goal, or launching a compelling challenge. Ideas like these would enable Livestrong to remind people what it stands for, reaffirm its unique programmatic focus, and engage a broader array of stakeholders.

2.   Embrace impact: There is no doubt this turn of events is having a negative impact. Although donations to Livestrong reportedly increased after the November 2012 announcement that Armstrong was cutting ties, the organization is now hunkering down. The New York Times recently reported that Livestrong is expecting an 11% budget decrease for 2013. With even deeper declines a real possibility, it will be critical for the nonprofit to right-size its aspirations to match this new operating reality.

3.   Drive differentiation: With so many cancer charities out there, and one of Livestrong's key assets — Armstrong and his personal story — now a major liability, it will be critical for Livestrong to focus more clearly than ever on what makes it different: What needs within the cancer space is it uniquely solving? What are its core areas of expertise? If it went away tomorrow, what would not get done? Now is the time to ensure that strategy and communications are crisply differentiated.

4.   Be transparent: Nowadays, consumers increasingly don't expect organizations to be perfect — as long as they are transparent. For leaders at Livestrong, this means taking head-on the reality of their situation, distancing the brand from Armstrong's personal failings, and keeping the focus on cancer. The organization is already doing this, engaging donors with authentic communications like this email: “We at the Livestrong Foundation are disappointed by the news about Lance Armstrong. However, as we express our disappointment, we must also express our deep gratitude for the drive, devotion, and spirit Lance brought to serving the entire cancer community. He founded our organization. But Livestrong was never about Lance. It's about a woman who needs help preserving her fertility to have a child after treatment…It's about a survivor who needs access to a clinical trial that could save his life.”

5.   Accept reality: There are approximately 1.5 million nonprofits in the US, most of which do not have wealthy, famous founders to attract cash and support. In its brave new post-Lance world, Livestrong will now experience something closer to the daily reality and grind of myriad other nonprofit organizations. This shift will require strong leadership and tight strategic, programmatic, and operating discipline to ensure continued viability.

All of this adds up to a significant opportunity for Livestrong to make its story stand out amidst a swirl of negative coverage and redirect attention to what makes it unique. Many an unsung nonprofit would jump to have a fraction of Livestrong's awareness and exposure. Rocky times lie ahead, to be sure, but with continued transparency, pragmatism, and focus — combined with bold action — Livestrong can shape its destiny and legacy.

Livestrong, at this critical juncture, what will you do?

Craig Bida is EVP at Cone Communications.

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