It’s been six years since Lance Armstrong last rode in the Tour de France. It’s been three years since the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency banned Armstrong from cycling and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles. And it’s been two years since Armstrong sat with Oprah on national television, at last admitting to allegations that had dogged him throughout his career: doping, performance-enhancing drugs, bullying, cover-ups. It was the final unraveling of the great underdog-becomes-champion-becomes-American-hero-story—“one big lie,” Armstrong called it.
Yet there he was, among the 20-strong peloton, riding the climb at Alpe d’Huez and the laps of the Champs-Élysées in the waning days of July, back in the Tour de France.
Well, sort of.
Armstrong was actually riding a day ahead of the Tour, wearing not his customary yellow U.S. Postal Service jersey, but the dark blue getup of Le Tour – One Day Ahead 2015, a charity ride aimed at raising 1 million pounds for British cancer charity Cure Leukaemia. Armstrong had been asked to ride by One Day Ahead organizer Geoff Thomas, a British former soccer-player-turned- cycling-enthusiast who had himself survived cancer. Thomas had flown to Texas and personally appealed to Armstrong, convincing him to participate despite the expected pushback.
And pushback there was. Brian Cookson, president of Union Cycliste Internationale, called Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France “undesirable” and “disrespectful.” The Bretagne-Séché team tweeted that Armstrong was stealing “media interest from riders like ours who never cheated.” Tour rider Geraint Thomas said he and other cyclists were still “paying the price” for Armstrong’s misdeeds, and that he “couldn’t care less” what Armstrong was doing.
For Geoff Thomas, it was a calculated risk. On one hand, Armstrong has always been a lightning rod for controversy. Livestrong, the cancer charity he shaped into a household name, lives on after Armstrong’s 2012 departure, but the organization’s declining revenue—Charity Navigator reports a steady drop from more than $27 million in 2010 to just over $15 million in 2013—neatly coincides with the cyclist’s fall from grace.
On the other hand, publicity, good or bad, is still publicity. And Thomas believed that Armstrong’s presence would do more good than harm. “Lance is going to be paying for his past for a very long time,” said Thomas in a One Day Ahead press release. “But I just saw an opportunity that would allow him to help others. If it magnifies the need for new drugs, new therapies that can save lives, who can argue with that?”
Risk and Reward
Such is the dilemma nonprofits face in working with celebrity endorsers. As high-profile public figures, celebrities are under constant scrutiny. Small mishaps—some errant foul language here, an out-of-context comment there—end up on TMZ, amplified and endlessly analyzed by the media. Other celebrities self-destruct without warning (see: Mel Gibson, Michael Vick, Hulk Hogan), and if the celebrity has ties to a charity or cause, it can lead to a negative, if not always fair, association—even if the organization acts quickly to control the damage.
“The primary danger of an organization or cause associating with anyone—be they a celebrity, staff member or volunteer—is the risk that the person may not exhibit behaviors that are consistent with the values of the organization,” said Colleen Dilenschneider, chief market engagement officer for marketing intelligence agency IMPACTS, and a member of the board of directors for the National Aquarium in Baltimore. “This is a particularly pronounced risk when working with a celebrity. The same prominence that promises to shine a spotlight on a cause equally risks a negative association should the celebrity end up on the wrong side of the law or a social issue. Organizations need to be as mindful and diligent when researching a celebrity endorser as they are of their executive leadership.”
There are other, lesser, downsides as well. There are legal pitfalls surrounding the use of celebrity names and likenesses. And contacting, courting and communicating with celebrities requires resources that not all nonprofits can muster. “The hardest part is getting your foot in the door and getting them to actually do something in the first place,” explained Lucy Morillo, president and CEO of Miami Children’s Health Foundation. “Believe it or not, working with celebrities is very time consuming. There are a lot of moving parts that need to be dealt with, mostly logistics. But more importantly, celebrities are always busy and are always up to something, so you always need to be mindful of their schedule and try to pencil in whatever important events you want them to support at least five months ahead of time.”
Still, despite the risks and challenges, nonprofits of all sizes continue to partner with celebrities—and with good reason. Research by Rutgers University-Camden professors Erica Harris and Julie Ruth found in a sample of more than 500 celebrity-affiliated charities an increase in public financial support, mainly due to increased credibility. “A brand that is able to break through the clutter of marketing messages by being associated with a well-known, attractive and sometimes expert endorser is typically perceived to be more credible and more likable,” said Ruth in a Rutgers press release. “Both of those aspects—credibility and likeability—add value to a brand, which in turn makes it easier and more likely that consumers would choose the particular brand. We believe it’s a fairly similar process for celebrities and nonprofit organizations, as reflected in donations.”
And while some would dispute those findings—a 2014 study by three British university professors concluded that awareness of celebrity advocates for well-known charities was relatively low—they don’t account for reach. Even if celebrity affiliation doesn’t lead to a direct boost in fundraising, it can have a major impact on visibility for certain causes, creating a trickle-down effect for charities. Dilenschneider noted that the American Red Cross and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two large nonprofit organizations, have a combined 3.6 million Twitter followers. Taylor Swift alone has 61 million. “In addition to their incredible reach, celebrities often serve as conduits to breakthrough markets, including underserved and emerging audiences,” added Dilenschneider. “In these instances, an organization may try to leverage the celebrity’s access and influence to inure to its benefit.”