Cancer Charities face problems

Cancer is big business, on both sides of the Atlantic. But, with some major cancer charities reporting a fall in income, signs are the once-generous public are not so inclined to donate today. Now, they want to know where their money is going and demand accountability as to what it funds. Once, fundraising  involved friends getting together and raising funds voluntarily – today it involves a massive input from huge teams housed in modern offices, with paid staff, and technology used to maximise every possible money-raising opportunity.

And, when American Cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, founder of the massive

Charity named after him, was caught out (after years of painstaking investigation), of a massive and sophisticated doping operation, everyone thought that was it for this huge charity.

Armstrong, famous for being 7-times winner of the Tour de France cycle race,  generated a massive amount of funding for his charity. VIPs fought to shake his hand and be involved. It all seemed like a fairy story, until one day everything fell apart as he was caught using performance-enhancing drugs to enable him to win races.

Overnight sponsors scrambled to dis-associate themselves and avoid fallout, and it was expected that the charity would close. But, a lot of good people were involved, and realising that the principles behind what the charity was doing were sound, they fought to keep it alive; not to lose what had helped so many with cancer.

First to go was any involvement with Armstrong himself; those with the charity are open about what happened, but prefer to focus on what they are doing now and for the future. Gone is the glitzy HQ in Austin Texas, and a much smaller staff concentrate on the ‘new’ mission statement here:

Armstrong, a cancer survivor, had built his eponymous charity up from scratch, starting in 1997; eventually Livestrong grew into an inspirational global brand that distributed 2.2 million of its iconic yellow wristbands in 2010 alone. That year, according to the foundation the charity served more than 608,000 people with help and information in their fight against cancer.

In 2012 its fortunes started to crumble after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency exposed Armstrong’s  history of doping and deceit in professional cycling. Since then Livestrong has endured  years of revenue decline. But, today rhe charity is seeking to reinvent itself, and Livestrong is a smaller, leaner organisation, focussing on better serving cancer patients, not just reversing declining financial trends.


Armstrong was nowhere to be seen during Livestrong’s recent “relaunch” in Texas, when the charity announced plans to end its one-on-one cancer support services, helping patients deal with insurance, counseling and medical trials. Instead, it will spend $5-6 million annually to support entrepreneurs developing products to improve treatment and patient care.  Currently its website focusses on de-mistifying cancer care, and provides practical tips based on nutrition and exercise.

This makes sense.  There are charities out there that do a good job of supporting survivors, but the message needs to be emphasised that survivors must look after themselves, ensuring they stay as healthily as possible.

Recently the charity gained $17 million from the sale of its former headquarters, and with that money in the bank will focus more on corporate and venture-capital partnerships to support its grants and gifts, such as smart phone applications helping patients organize treatment records or connect with multiple physicians.

A decade ago, Armstrong’s towering presence alone could draw money as he dominated the world’s most famous cycle race or flew around the world meeting celebrities and political leaders at global cancer forums. Back in 2007, it was Armstrong’s late-hour lobbying that pushed Texas lawmakers to pass a $3 billion cancer research fund.

Now, the charity has had to completely re-think its strategy, but this may be no bad thing, as it concentrates on being a major force, lobbying on behalf of U.S. patients for better cancer care.

What’s happening in Britain?

Recently many cancer charities have come in for stick.  Since 2013 the UK’s cancer survival rate has dropped to the bottom of the European table, and now World Health Organisation says we’ve dropped further down to 29th out of major countries.  As a UK survivor, it can seem ‘brand awareness’ has obscured the reason the charities were set up.

If Livestrong can overcome such a massive set-back, is it time for our cancer charities to take a step back and listen to survivors ?  e.g. do we want mega-TV advertising campaigns, or should charities focus on what might be important to us, such as cutting waiting times, or lobbying for better post-treatment care?  Recently important figures in our world have been asking what are major charities doing – and been worried about their lack of patient-focussed direction.