Lessons from Lance

Published by Alison McCants on

Lance Armstrong © Judi Oyama

Lance Armstrong © Judi Oyama

For the past few months, we’ve been hearing about Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace and the aftermath of it. Barred from competing again, he has tried to win public opinion to support him in his efforts to compete again, theoretically free from any doping. As fundraisers, we’ll probably always remember him as the man behind those brightly coloured rubber charity bracelets which, love them or hate them, you have to admit they became a big trend. And most of us will also remember him as the fraud that disappointed a large number of people by cheating and then voraciously lying about it.

And despite his ‘bear all’ interview with Oprah Winfrey, he has managed to become a fairly unsympathetic a character because of his years of bullying and the string of litigations. While his role in the charity sector may be over after he stepped down as Chairman of Livestrong, there are some lessons we can learn from his experience.

Part of me actually sympathises with Lance Armstrong. Yes, he lied and cheated and profited from his lies while attacking the integrity of others. But he did survive a very tough cancer diagnosis. He was an inspiration to cancer sufferers, and the fact that he did go on to even train for the Tour de France showed a kind of perseverance that is admirable.


© deeplifequotes

But none of that matters. The fact that he lied tarnishes any of his real achievements. Because he lied, no one can trust him again, so he won’t get a chance to right his wrongs and compete again with a clean sheet (and even if he did, there would always be doubters). I’m not saying whether he doesn’t deserve the lifetime ban, but the fact remains he has inherited a worse lifetime label – as that of a liar.

Basically, our organisations’ integrity is invaluable. And once lost, it’s gone forever. So as fundraisers, we have to be 100% above board in what we say and do.

There is a lot of grey out there, perhaps most notably in response to the question, “Where does my money go?” I’ve seen a number of creative ways charities imply restricted funding while technically not breaking any rules. But as fundraisers, we risk jeopardising our organisations’ integrity every time we try to answer that question in a less than truthful fashion.

An apology after the fact only gets you so far, as Armstrong is learning. So we have to be completely clean. No equivalent of doping in fundraising. That means not intentionally misleading the public about what their donations will do. Not playing with the figures to find a cost of fundraising that we think will sound good (yes, that includes those charities that claim they spend £0 on fundraising – who are they kidding?).

And while the sport of cycling and the Tour de France will probably survive this scandal just fine (especially if they don’t give in on their zero tolerance doping policy by giving Armstrong another chance – as much as some of us might want to see what he could do clean), we bear the greater risk of undermining public confidence in the sector as a whole.

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Alison McCants

Fundraiser with a passion for charities. Currently Alison is Direct Marketing Manager at The Brooke, a leading UK charity dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules (all views are my own). I am a member of the Institute of Fundraising (IOF) in the UK and hold a Certificate in Fundraising Management MInstF(Cert) from the IOF.


Peter Luckeneder · February 14, 2013 at 17:12

Hi Alison,
there are charities out there that technically spend “zero” on fundraising – it’s the ones that have strong partners in the back who finance all administrative costs.

Great article by the way.

Greetings, Peter

    Alison McCants · February 14, 2013 at 23:01

    Thanks Peter! Yes, you are right. There can be charities who spend zero money on salaries for fundraisers, are able to get all overheads relating to fundraising covered by donors. I would still say they’re most likely the exception and not the rule. Very good point though – thanks for commenting!

      John Burns · March 4, 2013 at 00:01

      Even those charities are still spending money on fundraising. They are just fortunate to have a donor who is happy to fund it. The bigger underlying issue with 0% claims and the like is the insinuation that all fundraising expense is bad.

      Excellent article


Deb Nelson · February 14, 2013 at 17:18

Lance has disappointed many – LiveStrong may very well be able to continue its work helping people navigate the cancer treatment industry.

So many lessons learned here – thanks for a thought-provoking article.

Siobhan Aspinall · February 16, 2013 at 02:57

So true Alison. Integrity is all we have. People will forgive the rich and famous for their indiscretions, but once a charity goofs up, the long-term memory seems to kick in for most people.
: )

claire axelrad · February 16, 2013 at 11:38

Nice post Alison. Folks are disinclined to trust charities as it is, so our road is an uphill battle from the get-go. Once undermined, trust is very difficult to recapture. It is very tempting to try to sound better than you are. Ultimately, however, it’s a risky business. And, all too often, it’s not even necessary. Barry Bonds was my son’s hero. He would have been a Hall of Famer even without the super-human accomplishments made possible by steroids. But the temptation to compete with all the other super stars (many of whom were also cheating) was too great. Similarly, nonprofits don’t have to tell us their cost of fundraising was 6% when it was 10%. Nor do they have to tell us they served 50,000 people when they served 40,000 people. The little lies will get us all in the end.

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