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Guest blogger Emily Garrett is an intern with the Case Foundation.
Last week, the Hudson Institute hosted a discussion entitled “How Philanthropic is The Philanthropist”? The Philanthropist is NBC’s summer series where the main character Teddy Rist, a “globe-trotting corporate mogul who drinks too much and respects women too little,” leaves his cushy corporate office and does some good in impoverished, but exotic settings. This is not philanthropy in a traditional sense, with foundations, grants and programs, but rather Rist’s own well intentioned outside-the-box version of wealthy hands on philanthropy. So, is this really philanthropy?
This was the question posed to the audience and four-person panel at last week’s discussion. The panel included the show's producer Tom Fontana, Council on Foundations CEO Steve Gunderson, The Chronicle of Philanthropy senior writer Ian Wilhelm, and Principal of Ensemble Capital Management and author of Tactical Philanthropy blog Sean Stannard-Stockton.
The panel began with a session, in which each panelist explained his view on the show and how it related to philanthropy. The Philanthropist reaches an average of 5.5 million viewers each week, and Gunderson is concerned about the impression viewers are getting of philanthropy. In his release on the subject, he stated that philanthropy requires:
...a thoughtfully constructed course of action, a sound business plan, a record of achievement and skilled staff. The due diligence demanded of both the grantee and the program officers of the foundation involve long hours in meticulous preparation, months or years to implement solutions, and thoughtful ongoing metrics to track results...
None of which Teddy Rist utilizes.
Stannard- Stockton, however, argued that The Philanthropist is a TV show, meant to engage and entertain viewers. Not that traditional philanthropy isn’t exciting or entertaining, but watching grant-writing on the small screen is not the most enticing way to find viewers. Though I personally haven’t watched every episode, those I have watched included eye catching locations, enough craziness to sell the show, and yet still a positive message. Though Rist often picks saving individuals over saving countries, many of us might make the same decisions if we were actually in his shoes.
At one point in the discussion, Gunderson proposed that the show, as written, might do a disservice to professional philanthropy; members of Congress watching the show, seeing Rist in his planes and fancy suits, might decide that foundations and charity organizations don’t need tax breaks and government help. Fontana seemed appalled at this suggestion. I certainly hope our government does not think TV necessarily mirrors reality or uses it as motivation for policy. Imagine if Grey’s Anatomy, ER, and Scrubs are deciding health policy...
I tend to agree with Stannard-Stockton. I don’t necessarily want to watch a TV show that mirrors exactly what I am or could be doing in real life. To me, the point of watching TV is an escape from reality (or at least my reality), and The Philanthropist provides that escape AND makes me feel like doing good in the world, even if it’s not exactly how Teddy Rist would do it.