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Much Ado about The Philanthropist

I’m not much of a television viewer these days, other than sports and news, and probably would have missed NBC’s The Philanthropist it if it hadn’t been for the kerfuffle caused by the Council on Foundations. In late June, the COF came out with a statement saying in part: “[THE NBC prime-time program]The Philanthropist is to charitable giving as The Pink Panther is to police work. The show is a romanticized, action/adventure depiction of a powerful businessman’s efforts to find meaning in his life by applying his fortune and acumen to the problems of struggling communities in developing countries. … While some elements may ring true, very little of the first episode conveys the realities of philanthropy.” (Read the entire statement here.)

This statement generated a flood of comments. In his blog, Sean Stannard-Stockton gave a spirited defense of having fun while doing good work at the same time. Bill Schambra blasted the COF—and much of organized philanthropy for that matter—in a Chronicle of Philanthropy piece, saying, “American philanthropy can heap contempt upon The Philanthropist’s short-sighted, sentimentalized, amateurish understanding of charity. Or philanthropy can pause long enough to consider that, in its determined and single-minded drive toward professionalization, it may in fact be systematically cutting itself off from its own deepest wellsprings.” (Read his review here.)

Last week, Schambra and the Hudson Institute hosted another of their interesting debates, this time on The Philanthropist. Guests included Sean Stannard-Stockton, Ian Wilhelm from the Chronicle, and Steve Gunderson from COF. (A video and recording of the session will soon be posted on the Hudson Institute site.)

Another guest was Tom Fontana, writer and executive producer for The Philanthropist. He has a long list of creative credentials and awards, including writing and producing for the television series St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life on the Street, and Oz. Fontana’s ambitions are simple: make interesting television programs that generate ratings. Stuck in a 10 o’clock time slot in the middle of the summer, a recent Philanthropist episode had 5.5 million viewers, which is a lot of people by philanthropy standards.

Fontana’s style is to use real-life experiences—from doctors, detectives, and jailers—to hang his plots. So I think it’s pretty interesting that he would think the adventures of a freelance philanthropist would be sufficiently entertaining for a television action series. It should make those of us hard at work in the nonprofit sector proud to know our field is seen as exciting! And it underscores the rising popularity and social acceptability of charitable giving, which is good for both our work and the people we serve.

By the way, I asked Fontana why he selected the title The Philanthropist, since most Americans who donate to charity and volunteer probably don’t have a clue as to what that word means. Fontana said he didn’t really know, but the producers certainly didn’t test it before they decided to use it. I wonder if the ratings would have been higher if they had chosen a different title?

The panel discussion got bogged down for a while debating the distinction between charity—giving from the heart like The Philanthropist does—and what professional grantmaking does—what we today call philanthropy—focused on research and outcome measurement.

We can all get bogged down if we’re not careful. In the end, The Philanthropist reminds us that most charitable giving is motivated by a variety of reasons, priorities, and values. That’s what makes American generosity so special, and that’s why we need to be careful not to expect all giving to be driven by evaluation and analysis. Come to think of it, that advice may be useful when watching an action-packed TV program as well. This one just happens to touch on a subject that’s near and dear to our hearts.

Topics: Reviews