Like his boss, Ulman is energized by adversity. Tacked to the wall of his cube is a photo-copied quote from Ken Berger, the head of Charity Navigator, an influential ratings and watchdog group. “It is just going to devastate them,” he said in an Associated Press article.
“It” is the federal investigation against Armstrong, which Livestrong staffers have tried to compartmentalize. “We can’t predict what’s going to happen in the world of cycling,” Ulman says. “We have to stay focused on fulfilling our mission.”
THAT MISSION HAS EVOLVED considerably. In the early years, Ulman says, the foundation awarded grants for research on both testicular cancer and cancer survivors. The grants were small, in the low six figures or less, and were aimed at scientists pursuing cutting-edge ideas.
“For a young researcher it was great,” says Julien Sage, a Stanford professor who received a total of $150,000 from 2004 to 2005. “I had no data, just an idea.” Small, speculative grants like his, he explains, are essential to young scientists who are developing the data they need to apply for more substantial government funding.
The main reason for the shift, Ulman says, was scale. The American Cancer Society raised $900 million last year. And the National Cancer Institute awards nearly $2 billion a year in research grants. Ulman says Livestrong was too small to make a difference in such a big pond. “We started to realize that there’s literally billions of dollars in cancer research, and we asked, Is that the best use of the money we’re raising?”
Point taken. It’s worth noting, though, that the Michael J. Fox Foundation had about the same revenue as Livestrong in 2008—$40 million—and gave away $33 million of that in grants for Parkinson’s research. The Susan G. Komen foundation also does a huge amount of pink-ribbon “awareness” work, but it still dished out $145 million in breast-cancer research grants over the past two years. With Livestrong gone, there is no equivalent private funder for testicular-cancer research.
Sage says that the kind of contribution Livestrong was making is still needed. “It’s a mistake to stop supporting basic research, because there are a lot of things we can learn,” he says. “There are still people who die from testicular cancer, and we need to look for better ways to treat them.”
Ulman doesn’t see it that way. “We are all about people,” he says. “Most organizations are about the disease. They’re about trying to solve a disease, and we are about trying to improve the lives of people that are battling the disease.… What can we do today to improve their lives? As opposed to saying we’ll fund research that in 15 years might help somebody live a little longer.”