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A champion charity

Like its founder, foundation for cancer survival thrives

By Andrea Ball

Austin American-Statesman

July 27, 2004

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Seven years ago, the Lance Armstrong Foundation was a fledgling charity with big dreams and a little money.

The nonprofit organization -- founded in 1997 by Austin cycling sensation and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong -- had one employee. It awarded one grant. And it had one mission: to fight urological cancers.

Today, the Lance Armstrong Foundation is an internationally recognized organization with 45 employees that is expected to raise $21 million by the end of the year. Last year, it paid out $3.6 million in grants to 80 cancer-related organizations around the country. It also has a $2.9 million endowment to ensure future income.

It took some growing pains to get this far. The foundation struggled with its mission, faced a changing office culture, and went through several leadership changes.

But those new-kid-on-the-block days are over. At least one charity watchdog group says the Lance Armstrong Foundation is as good as it gets.

"They are doing phenomenally," said Trent Stamp, executive director of Charity Navigator, a New Jersey-based group that evaluates nonprofit organizations. "The Lance Armstrong Foundation is about as tough to beat as Lance Armstrong himself."

Armstrong's high profile career, fueled by his remarkable battle against cancer, has led to a very high-profile life. The cyclist, on the verge of his sixth Tour de France championship, now stars in Nike commercials, appears on talk shows and graces national magazine covers.

That celebrity has been a boon to his foundation. The group expects to earn $7 million this year just through the sale of yellow wristbands engraved with Armstrong's mantra: Live Strong.

And those wristbands are everywhere. Some of Armstrong's Tour competitors, including Italian Ivan Basso, have been sporting them. This week, actor Matt Damon wore one on the "Late Show with David Letterman." And talk show host Jay Leno has been distributing the wristbands to his studio audience since the beginning of July.

If Armstrong clinches a record-setting sixth Tour victory on Sunday, as expected, the foundation will probably reap the benefits, Stamp said.

"They're raising a ton of money," he said. "One can only imagine that if he wins this next (Tour), the money will keep pouring in in record numbers."

From the beginning

Armstrong was 25 years old when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in October 1996.

The cancer, the most common found in men ages 15 to 35, is usually treatable and has a 90 percent cure rate. But by the time the cyclist was diagnosed, the cancer had spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain.

Obviously, he survived.

In 1997, Armstrong volunteers started a foundation to raise money for testicular cancer research. The board of directors was a group of 15 professional and civic leaders. Many were friends and cyclists.

"One of the things that struck me, other than our cancer connection, was how authentic Lance was and how sincere he was about wanting something good to come out of it," said former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, a former board member and a cancer survivor.

Those early days came with uncertainty. The group didn't have specific goals, detailed plans or much experience, said Jeff Garvey, an Austin entrepreneur who has been on the board since 1997.

"When the foundation started in the fall of 1997, we had $10,000 in the bank, no experienced employees and an idea," he said. "It would be going overboard to say we had a mission."

That first year, the nonprofit group held its Ride for the Roses bicycle rally and sponsored a medical symposium. The group raised about $240,000 and had one part-time employee.

Its first office was an 1,100-square-foot yellow house in downtown Austin.

For years, the foundation survived with a few paid employees and dozens of unpaid volunteers. Between 1997 and 2001, the organization went through two executive directors: John Korioth and Karl Haussmann, both cyclists and friends of Armstrong's.

"When he was starting this, Lance turned to the people he knew, his friends," Haussmann said. "We just sort of raised our hands and said, 'We'll help.' "

By 2001, the foundation was moving away from its initial mission. Instead of solely tackling urological cancer research, the group began to focus on surviving cancer, said Doug Ulman, the foundation's director of survivorship.

Modern medicine had created millions of cancer survivors, he said. But there were few resources to help people with the aftershocks of the disease, such as infertility, scarring, depression and family and employment issues.

Today, there are 10 million cancer survivors in the United States.

"We realized we had a larger opportunity than with just urological cancers," Ulman said.

In January 2003, Eileen Oldag -- who for eight years had served as the executive director of Caritas of Austin -- took over as the group's executive director.

Donations continued to climb. In 2003, the foundation received $8.8 million in contributions. The group paid out $3.6 million to 80 organizations focused on quality-of-life issues for people living with and through cancer.

Recipients included the American Red Cross, Children's Hospital of Los Angeles and Indiana University.

In September 2003, Oldag left the organization for personal reasons. In January, the group replaced her with Mitch Stoller, former executive director of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.

Smart growth

The foundation plans to use its money to grow programs and build its endowment, Stoller said. It doesn't expect to increase the staff significantly.

The idea is to give people of every economic status the information they need during and after cancer.

"Lance had a lot of resources when he was going through his cancer," Stoller said. "We want to be able to provide those same resources to, say, someone in West Virginia."

Exponential growth of any nonprofit group can be hard to handle, said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy.

It needs strong management, smart planning and wise spending habits. It also needs to protect its image by closely monitoring fund-raisers in its name.

So far, the Lance Armstrong Foundation seems to be handling its success sensibly, Borochoff said. Its administrative costs are low, and it is using its money to invest in programs.

"It sounds like they are positioning themselves well," he said.

Charity Navigator, which evaluates 3,100 nonprofit groups across the country, gives the foundation its highest ranking, four stars.

Garvey gives much of the credit to the foundation's namesake.

"This is a leader who is the real deal," Garvey said.

Armstrong attends fund-raisers and courts major donors, he said. He serves on the President's Cancer Panel and communicates with foundation leaders. He occasionally stops by the foundation office, where he has a mailbox.

Garvey's assessment: "We would not be where we are today if all Lance did was continue to win Tours de France." But a sixth Tour victory on Sunday won't hurt.

 
 
   
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