An Open Letter to Lance Armstrong (UPDATED x 3)

05.7.2009 | 12:13 am

UPDATE 1: After writing this post, I re-read the ESPN piece and noticed the following quote from Lance:

“It could be a combination of people that have a shared interest in Livestrong and want to see Livestrong promoted around the world and believe in what we’re doing.”

It’s a vague, confusing quote, but could mean that instead of using LAF funds, he’s actually considering gathering together an independent group — not leveraging LAF — for the funds. If that’s the case (hard to tell because of other statements in the article, which he did not correct in his Tweet pointing to that article and rejecting only the final line of that piece), then this entire post is null and void, and I will promise to restrict my posts to stuff I know something about. Which, let’s face it, would definitely mean fewer and shorter posts.

UPDATE 2: Early this morning, the ESPN article was updated with the following:

“While as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, the Lance Armstrong Foundation would not be able to fund the day-to-day operational expenses of a for-profit endeavor,” Katherine McLane, communications director for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, said in a statement Wednesday evening. “We would certainly look for ways to develop a dynamic partnership to support the cancer mission and cancer survivors.”

This answers my concerns; I’m no longer worried that the money we raised could go toward a cycling team bailout instead of toward fighting cancer. Which means I wrote this letter (instead of the jokey piece I had in mind) and lost most of a night’s sleep (yes, really: I could hardly sleep at all last night because of this) over nothing.

Which is a huge relief.

I’m leaving the post up, however, because I still think one of the points remains valid. Specifically, if the cycling team is branded “LiveStrong,” they need to be very, very careful of appearances; most people won’t realize there’s a difference between the charity and the cycling team.

FINAL UPDATE: I just got the following email message from Katherine McLane, Communications Director at LAF:

Hey there! Read your posts this AM and wanted to let you know that the confusion is a result of a reporter drawing his own conclusions and running with them. At no point did Lance suggest pulling out the LAF checkbook! Clearly he was talking about finding sponsors and raising funds to keep the team afloat. Like I explained to the AP, we’re a non-profit organization and OF COURSE we’d love a world-class cycling team spreading the cancer message. We, quite literally, can’t buy that kind of exposure – because we’re a 501(c)(3)! Would we look for other ways to partner with them and support them? Absolutely!

My final thoughts:

  1. It’s very cool of the people at LAF to reach out and respond like this. Everyone I’ve talked with there has been incredibly helpful, and it’s clear they’re dedicated to this fight.
  2. This post was still worth writing, but I’m glad it was unnecessary in this case.
  3. I’m still totally on board for helping LAF raise money to fight cancer.
  4. I need a nap.

Dear Lance,

I just finished reading “Astana facing money trouble” over on ESPN. The story has two main points. One of them is that Astana has not been paying the team or staff lately. Which definitely sucks. A lot.

The other point in the article is that you’re considering the option of turning the team into Team LiveStrong for the rest of the season, funding it — if I understand correctly — out of the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

Before you do that, Lance, there are a few things I want you to consider.

Do Not Do This Just Because You Can

Turning Team Astana into Team LiveStrong would be easy to do. You’re on the team, and you have the money. Back in September, I even postulated that this is what you would (and should) do.

But that ESPN article has got me worried.

In it, you said:

“I’ve spent every day of the year with my soigneur [massage assistant] Richard, a Polish guy. He’s got a wife and two young kids at home and doesn’t get a paycheck,” Armstrong said. “I can pay his check, which will probably happen, but there’s 30 other staff in the same position and is that frustrating? Yeah. Very. This is not fair.”

Reading this, it sounds like one of your motivations for using LAF funds for this team is because you don’t like the thought of team staff going without paychecks.

This will sound callous, but that’s not a good enough reason. If the LiveStrong cycling team is about helping friends pay the bills, well, I’ve got friends who are hurting financially too, and I’d rather help them than your masseuse.

When I donate my money and time — and ask hundreds of other people to donate their money and time — it is because I have made a specific ethical decision: It’s more important to me to spend my money and time on fighting cancer than anything else. I have decided to use my money and time — both in short supply right now, thanks — to fight cancer. To save lives.

I have not decided to use my money or time to save your friends’ jobs.

It may sound like I am now condemning the Team LiveStrong concept here, but I am not. I’m for it, provided that the team mission is crystal-clear and measurable. And that mission must be the exact same one I’ve already committed to: fight cancer, help those who are fighting it themselves, and raise awareness of cancer detection and treatment options throughout the world.

If, before you sign the dotted line, you and the people at LAF — people I’ve come to admire a lot — put your heads together and approach the problem from the perspective of “Will this help LAF move our current mission forward?” as opposed to “Will this solve a financial crisis for a cycling team?” and you show us — the people who are working hard to make sure LAF has the money it needs to do its work — how a pro cycling team is a good use of our money (hint: having racers wear the jerseys as they otherwise conduct their lives as usual is nowhere near enough), I will continue to support you as strongly as I am right now.

But the case has to be strong, clear, and public.

Do the Math

I can think of only two reasons an organization would sponsor a cycling team: marketing and vanity. It seems possible — even likely — that a LiveStrong cycling team could be great marketing for LAF. It could raise awareness not just for discovering and fighting cancer, but even for raising additional money toward the LAF mission, especially outside the U.S., where cycling awareness is strong, but where LAF awareness and fundraising are comparably weak.

Or, on the other hand, it could be a complete money pit.

The truth is, it’s sometimes initially hard to tell which way a marketing initiative will go.

By the end of a half season, however, you should have good data on whether a LiveStrong cycling team is paying off. If you now decide it’s worth the risk (and can show why you think so), then find out later you were wrong, I will not be upset. You’ve got to take chances sometimes, and sometimes they don’t work out. However, if it’s clear that a cycling team is not at least paying for itself by bringing in increased donations or by accomplishing other LAF objectives more cost-effectively than the money would if used in another way, you’ve got to cut it loose.

I won’t participate in the funding of a multi-year experiment.

Remember and Respect Our Efforts

Here’s something to keep in mind as you consider team expenses: one of the people raising funds for you is my wife, Susan Nelson. She is living with metastatic breast cancer, spread all throughout her body and brain. Her time is precious, and she has spent hundreds of hours (and hundreds of dollars) working to raise close to $9000 for your foundation, making beautiful jewelry and giving it to those who donate.

She has chosen to spend her time this way because she cares deeply about fighting cancer.

If, when she watches the Tour de France this year, she sees an extravagant team bus or hears of lavish parties being thrown by the team, how do you think she will feel about the way she chose to spend her time?

Similarly, I have asked my readers, over and over, to donate generously. And I have asked companies to donate expensive products, in spite of the crummy economy. And they have, because they want to do the right thing, and they trusted that I have chosen a good, effective partner in fighting cancer.

Please, do not prove me wrong.

Lance, you and your organization have earned gratitude and respect from my readers and me for what you have done in the fight against cancer. If a pro cycling team is really the best — not just a convenient — use of that money toward fighting and eliminating cancer, I’ll get behind you.

Just make sure you are doing this to further the mission, and not just because it’s a handy band-aid.


Elden “Fatty” Nelson


  1. Comment by Dave | 05.7.2009 | 12:36 am

    Excellent post Elden.
    When I read that article earlier today, I had similar thoughts about why Lance would risk so much to use the Livestrong brand on a pro bike team. Yes, he and racing go hand in hand, but the fight we all face, is MUCH bigger than it or HIM.

  2. Comment by Fee | 05.7.2009 | 1:25 am

    As always, your integrity remains strong. I admire that you are not afraid to tackle thorny issues and lay the ethical considerations out for all to see.

  3. Comment by Tim D | 05.7.2009 | 1:51 am

    Well said. I read the CyclingNews piece to mean he would us his contacts to put together proper financing to bail out Astana rather than fund it from LAF. I hope I am right.

  4. Comment by VA Biker | 05.7.2009 | 3:07 am

    I’ve always been concerned about the efficiency of LAF, with a fund raising cost (21%) that is higher than any other organization to which I donate money. Funding the pro team out of LAF funds would be the tipping point to no longer have me make donations. I hope Tim D. is correct.


  5. Comment by CampyD | 05.7.2009 | 4:00 am

    The following quote from the article makes it seem like it can’t be done. Sounds like Lance was venting and brainstorming but the bean counters and lawyers will keep it legit.

    “While as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, the Lance Armstrong Foundation would not be able to fund the day-to-day operational expenses of a for-profit endeavor,” Katherine McLane, communications director for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, said in a statement Wednesday evening. “We would certainly look for ways to develop a dynamic partnership to support the cancer mission and cancer survivors.”

  6. Comment by Big Boned | 05.7.2009 | 4:43 am

    VA Biker,
    My wife has the same concern (she worked for 10 years in the non-profit world and thinks the LAF overhead is high), so the majority of our charitable donations go elsewhere. I get LAF what I can but it is a tough sell on the homefront.

  7. Comment by buckythedonkey | 05.7.2009 | 5:38 am

    I’d be astonished if your law would allow such a thing but then again the law has a habit of astonishing all of us.

    I presumed that Lance’s comments meant that he is looking for some large LAF-friendly investors to fund the team have it carry some degree of LAF/LiveStrong branding.

    If I’m wrong then I’m with you. Well said!


  8. Comment by Ingrid | 05.7.2009 | 6:00 am

    Hear hear! As a proud wearer of a WIN Susan bracelet I keep my fingers crossed and hope there will be no doubt that LAF is not meant for maintaining a professional cycling team.

  9. Comment by KM | 05.7.2009 | 6:01 am

    I would still prefer that LAF friendly investors took that money and put it into the LAF instead of a cycling team. But then again, think back to ONCE- a for charity lottery that sponsored a team. Were they successful at raising awareness about the plight of the blind or participants in the lottery? I have no idea.

  10. Comment by Philly Jen | 05.7.2009 | 6:52 am

    Oh, good. Now that we have clarification about the 501(c)(3) funding silos, can we get back to helping Lance think of ways to entice Borat into bailing out Team Kazakhstan?

  11. Comment by Big Mike In Oz | 05.7.2009 | 6:53 am

    “fewer and shorter posts”

    I would amend that to far fewer and significantly shorter, but let’s face it, when has the truth ever gotten in the way of a good story.

    As for the actual article… spot on. We are all shareholders in LAF and are entitled to have our best interests looked after. I became a shareholder on the basis of “my” organisation fighting cancer, not being a venture capitalist for Johan Bruyneel’s bike squad.

  12. Comment by WheelDancer | 05.7.2009 | 6:59 am

    I completely understand that marketing has a cost and I think you have laid out the situation with startling clarity underscoring that your brain is really what’s fat.

    I suspect, supported by the part of the article highlighted by CampyD, that direct funding would not be possible. A cycling team, almost by definition, is a money pit. Team LIVEStrong would be great but not using funds donated for the purpose of fighting cancer. I agree that it would dishonor the contributors to LAF to redirect the funds away from the cancer fight and I think the backlash would would be detrimental both to LAF and, more importantly, the fight against cancer.

    As VA Biker points out, LAF is already not a very efficient charity and sponsoring a team would inspire me to take off my LAF bracelet and look for another target for my donations.

  13. Comment by NH | 05.7.2009 | 7:05 am

    I would be incredibly surprised that Lance couldn’t find a sponsor for the team. Microsoft, Dell, Apple, Exxon. I know the economy is tight, but a sponsor getting Lance’s endorsement would be huge, huge, huge – and would have a direct (and immediate impact on sales). Think about what that energy company must pay for his endorsement. It has to be $10-$20 million, or a smaller number and stock options (similar to Vitamin Water). He tweets all the time about his Blackberry, how much would Apple pay to sponsor if he switched to iPhone, how much would Blackberry pay to sponsor to keep him (their phones have far more global reach – which is better for a cycling team). Hopefully he means using “personal” endorsement contracts to pay for the team (might be a nice tax break??). Or the “Blackberry Live Strong Team”, which could hopefully give BB a bit of a tax deduction because part of the sponsor dollars are sponsoring a charity. (also feel free to copy/replace blackberry with the conglomerate of your choice… pepsi, ADM, TALF/TARP (why just give it to the banks?).

  14. Comment by rich | 05.7.2009 | 7:16 am

    Great post Fatty!

  15. Comment by 331miles | 05.7.2009 | 7:31 am

    Remember that there is the LAF, and there’s the LiveStrong brand — both .ORG and .COM. The COM side is a health and fitness site, and not specific to cancer. I’m not an expert, but my guess is that this would be a .COM venture, but with tiebacks to the cancer care mission of the .ORG side.

  16. Comment by Jenny-Jenny | 05.7.2009 | 7:33 am

    I would be very sad to find out that all this money you have raised for the fight against cancer was used to pay for the team. This was a very well written post and I hope Lance and his people see it.

  17. Comment by Andrea | 05.7.2009 | 8:07 am

    Well said Fatty! I agree that LIVESTRONG would loose a little of its luster should they sponsor a team.

  18. Comment by hubcityrob | 05.7.2009 | 8:47 am

    Excellent summary of what I agree are the critical issues here. I heard about Lance’s comments before they broke here in the States and thought: That doesn’t sound right. I am a non-profit fundraiser by profession and could not help but think of the number of generous, hard-working donors I deal with who, if I were with LAF, would ask the same questions you have raised. It sounds, based on later comments, that outside interests are looking at this, not LAF funds, which I think could be of great benefit to the cause as a whole. Thanks for the post and for what you do to battle cancer.

  19. Comment by graisseux | 05.7.2009 | 9:06 am

    A cycling team a money pit? If it weren’t for the cycling team, my family and I would never have planned our vacation to Astana next winter.

  20. Comment by mark | 05.7.2009 | 9:48 am

    I think Lance Armstrong is a….well it doesn’t matter what I think. And I realize this was a false alarm. But I’ve been putting my efforts towards raising money for Huntsman Cancer Foundation, which, if you look at how the money gets spent, is much, much better about spending the money on actually fighting cancer. LAF does great work, and I’ve donated money there because you and other friends have asked me to, but they’re not really a beacon on the hill in terms of how the money gets used. Even if they’re not funding a cycling team.

    Just my $.02.

  21. Comment by Clydesteve | 05.7.2009 | 10:52 am

    Glad this was a false alarm. But it was appropriate, Fatty.

    The other thing that has come out are the concerns about the efficiency of the LAF in use of funds. An accusation of inefficiency generally points to high overhead in the form of staff salaries and bonuses.

    I do not believe this sticks to the LAF. Their overhead at ~4% of contributions, is actually pretty low.

    The part where they put a lot of contributed money into non-cancer fighting is actually the bucks they pour into their events, if I am properly reading the details of the BB report that VA biker linked.

    They run 1st class events, and I appreciate that as a participant. I also support a local (Bend, OR) cancer center fundraiser that is pretty much a 3rd class event. And I am happy to do so.

    I believe that incentives the LAF offers at their 1st class events lead to much much higher participant awareness of the cause, and much higher contributions.

    If you raise at least $3000, and get an invite to attend the pre Livestrong ride dinner, you will understand what I am saying.

    Bottom line: I defend the LAF as an efficient charity organization for a)relatively reasonable staff overhead, and b) high, but in my opinion effective event overhead.

    I think the money they invest in putting on excellent events comes back to them in the form of enthusiastic repeat participants.

    See you at the pre-event dinner – Now go out there and raise $3000!!!

  22. Comment by Kt | 05.7.2009 | 11:07 am

    Excellent post, Fats.

    I read the article and thought that Lance was going to leverage his endorsements and his own personal wealth to fund the team, not use LAF funds.

    Which, as the emails from LAF show, would not be possible under current tax law. Hooray for our tax laws in this case! :)

  23. Comment by The D | 05.7.2009 | 12:07 pm

    Thanks for the heartfelt and well thought out initial reaction, which gave voice to what a lot of people feared.

    Thanks also for having the respect for your fellow cyclists and anti-cancer folks to follow up and clarify that these fears have been put to rest.

    Frankly, reading your bit early in the Astana is bust news cycle not only saved me a lot of aggravation, it also reaffirmed my optimism about the people who dedicate themselves to this struggle.

  24. Comment by Anonymous | 05.7.2009 | 12:15 pm

    Excellent post Fatty, especially with the follow up from LAF and elsewhere.

  25. Comment by Rantwick | 05.7.2009 | 12:36 pm

    Fatty, thanks for sticking up for everyone’s efforts, and LAF thanks for communicating back so well. Great post.

  26. Comment by Julie | 05.7.2009 | 1:07 pm

    I love you Fatty. You know, in a totally non-threatening way. :-) It is a brilliant letter, and even if there had been nothing to your concerns after the clarifications, it deserves to stay up, just because it’s so darn well-written. I know what that’s like, when it pours out and you get it just right and you hit that “post” button, nothing like it. And, as you so rightly pointed out, it does still have plenty of relevance, even if they don’t directly use LAF funds. It’s good to remind them not to lose the message in all their machinations about the messenger(s). Bravo.

  27. Comment by Hamish A | 05.7.2009 | 1:50 pm

    That was one of your best posts to date, Fatty. Brilliantly written, heartfelt, open & honest.

    I’m very pleased to see LAF respond and put everyones mind at rest but I’m even more pleased to see you raising the issue in the first place.

    Please, do leave the post in place. It deserves to stay as an example to the ‘journalist’ who ran with the ESPN story without checking his facts what it means to research and take interest in a story beyond drawing a paycheck.

    Fantastic job and a good result.

    WIN Susan!!!

  28. Comment by jobob | 05.7.2009 | 3:24 pm

    Very well done, Fatty. And I cherish my bracelet made by Susan even more so than ever now. Cheers.

  29. Comment by CyclingTips | 05.7.2009 | 6:25 pm

    Well said. Great to see your level of commitment and integrity towards raising money for cancer. I hold that in very high regard.

  30. Comment by kentucky joe | 05.7.2009 | 9:18 pm

    Great online tool regarding charities and where the money goes. LAF could be more efficient but I like their frontman and if it is “FC Approved” then I am on board. It is important to me that my money, given with the intent and spirit of fighting cancer, goes to that cause. Thanks for sticking up for all of us donors who want to help Patients and Families impacted by cancer.

  31. Comment by Jamieson | 05.7.2009 | 9:32 pm

    I read this post early this morning and headed off to work shaking my head. I’m glad after a very long day that I came home to see that not only were there clarifications made, but that they were made directly to you.

    Very happy to see that your concerns were heard, as well as many others that spoke up.


  32. Comment by Dug + an 'o' | 05.7.2009 | 11:09 pm


    I love your blog. I can’t stand LA. Normally, I wouldn’t even tolerate reading a blog of one of his fans – but FC is just so enjoyable. Kind of skip over the Lance stuff, but that’s been pretty heavy as of late.

    IMO, the ACS is a much better charity and for so many reasons, not the least is its non association with LA. Everything Lance does or touches has to be about him at the center. Livestrong/LAF is no different.


    P.S. I have been a loyal supporter of FC gear. I would love if it was possible for Twin Six to offer some other cancer charity funding options in the future. I have many times wanted to comment in this vein and the RE: LAF of above. The timing was never right – and it still may not be right now, but… what the heck.

  33. Comment by TP | 05.8.2009 | 6:32 am

    Dug, he gets stuff done because he is famous. Stuff he does makes him more famous making it easier for him to advance his goals in fighting cancer.

    You disrespect him for trying to achieve more and bigger stuff? I’m just saying…

  34. Comment by TP | 05.8.2009 | 6:33 am

    Fame is a tool. Gotta use it when you have it.

  35. Comment by Greg Solis | 05.8.2009 | 8:11 am

    I do not care wher or how Lance gets the money to fund a Livestrong Team. The point here is it IS about the team. Everybody wants to fight cancer. That’s a no brainer. Having a Livestrong Team furthers that effort as well as, dare I say it, the AMERICAN, as in National pride, Cycling effort. Why do the two have to be mutualy exclusive? Why cant we get an all-AMERICAN team on the Euro circuit? The French are trying to do it so what’s up with the USA?

    Lance and Livestrong will bring millions into the fight against cancer and will also be a big part of lifting Pro Cycling in general to a status at least on par with Golf or Tennis.

    Stop whinning and get with the program. Be a fan of US cycling and while your at it try to get a little nationalistic pride working here.
    Lastly, remember that Lance IS God’s youngest son, so anything he does is blessed. Get it. Good.

  36. Pingback by Fat Cyclist » Blog Archive » Some Days, It Is Good to Be the Fat Cyclist | 05.8.2009 | 10:17 am

    [...] « An Open Letter to Lance Armstrong (UPDATED x 3) [...]

  37. Comment by Clydesteve | 05.8.2009 | 10:26 am

    Dug + an ‘o’ –

    LAF: Program Expenses (that is, fighting cancer) – 74.9%, Admin expenses – 4.4%, Fundraising Expenses – 20.6%

    ACS: Program Expenses – 70.4%, Admin expenses – 9.3%, Fundraising expenses – 20.2%

    Nothing against the ACS, mind you, but it couls be argued that LAF is sacrificing more in proportion to get their donors $$ into cancer fighting programs than ACS. Seems to be more about fighting cancer than about Lance.

    If you were to ever attend one of the pre-Livestrong Challenge dinners and hear the speakers, you might have to revise your position that it is all about Lance center stage.

    Certainly he is a celeb., and certainly he leverages that. But every time I have heard him or spoken to him, he deflects the praise from himself to Doug Ulman and the LAF staff, and the important work they are doing to fight cancer. I have no allusions that he is the most humble man in the world, but he is aware of those around him enough to know that acknowledging those who join with him in fighting cancer is right and appropriate. And he seems to know he is just the celeb with the vision, and others are doing the work and raising the bucks.

  38. Comment by Greg Solis | 05.11.2009 | 10:11 am

    Stop being anal retentive regarding LAF funds. So what if it costs millions to fund the Live Strong Team. So what. That team will rake in Billions over time and do more for fighting cancer than if the snot nosed little prissys get their way and no money is found to fund the team. You whinners are stuck on stupid.


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