Monday, November 2, 2009

Philanthropy on Television: The Good and Bad

A good sign that something is popular is if television begins to cover it, develop shows about it, and most of all, lampoon it. This is exactly what is happening with philanthropy; first with the debut of two new shows about philanthropy and then a whole week of plotlines that feature giving and volunteerism.

The Philanthropist debuted over the summer in the U.S. and generally showed philanthropy in a positive light. While the show implied that the “normal” methods of philanthropy work too slowly and without enough impact, the protagonist tried to do good work and was heroic in his intent. You could have worse role models.

The Foundation, which debuted in Canada a few weeks ago, is different. It’s a dark comedy and spotlights the worst examples found in philanthropy: rare cases of fraud and wrongdoing. The protagonist uses his foundation nefariously in whatever manner necessary to get ahead.

Sure, it’s not a great portrait of charity. But just like the Philanthropist, it’s over the top. WAY over the top. Nothing in it bears any resemblance to a real organization, fundraiser or donor. Criticizing The Foundation for its portrayal of charity is like criticizing The Office for its portrayal of office behavior and relationships. They’re both meant to lampoon aspects of our society.

Philanthropy and fundraising are big time now, and that brings both negatives—like the Foundation—and positives, such as the recent iparticipate initiative from the Entertainment Industry Foundation. During the week of Oct. 19-25, more than 60 primetime television shows featured giving and volunteerism in their plotlines. That’s an exciting development given that philanthropy isn’t exactly a staple of mainstream television.

So we’re going to have to take the bad with the good, and honestly, the plotlines in the Foundation don’t even compare to some of the controversies we’ve seen in real life. The sector has a long list of ethical traditions and safeguards, beginning with AFP’s Code of Ethical Principles and Standards. We don’t need to be defensive about anything.

So let’s appreciate the attention philanthropy is getting and enjoy (if you can) what shows like the Foundation are meant to be: spoofs.

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