The Philanthropist

The new NBC drama, The Philanthropist is… really quite good! Now look, it is easy to criticize the show. It isn’t perfect. But this is prime time entertainment, not a documentary. I’ll probably lose a little street cred in professional philanthropy circles, but gosh darn it I really enjoyed it!

There are two keys to understanding the show 1) At this point, the protagonist is focused on the self expressive element of philanthropy (just like most individual donors are, as I wrote in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy column) and 2) The show makes clear that the protagonist is a novice, who really doesn’t know what he’s doing.

During the intro voice over, Teddy Rist (the lead character) says, “I know a lot of people who are living well, but aren’t happy. But I’m happy. Sometimes my demons chase me. Sometimes I chase them.” Rist’s focus during the show is on delivering vaccines to a village cut off due to a flood. He is particularly focused on one boy who he helped save from drowning early in the show. But Rist doesn’t risk his life out of a pure Mother Theresa-like focus on others. He is “chasing his demons” as the show makes clear when Rist dreams of his own son as he searches for the boy he is trying to save. On the other hand, Rist is not simply motivated to make himself feel good either. He is honestly trying to help. Is he naive? Of course! So are all donors when they first get serious about giving!

The self-expressive element of giving is defined by Peter Frumkin as “supporting the self actualization of the donor.” In his book Strategic Giving, Frumkin argues that this element of philanthropy is routinely looked down upon or dismissed as selfish by institutional philanthropy, but in fact it is a positive self reinforcing cycle that leads to philanthropy benefiting donors and the public. It is a positive thing that philanthropy is beneficial to the donor, not something we should frown upon as if our own giving is somehow more purely sacrificial.

But Rist does so many things wrong! Shouldn’t we criticize the show for all the flaws in how Rist attempts to do good? Of course he makes mistakes. He has no idea what he’s doing and the show knows this. When Rist requires hot coffee before he can evacuate during the flood, the show is making fun of him. When the vaccine is stuck in customs, Rist assumes throwing money at any problem will fix it and so he bribes the customs agent. But the show knows it isn’t that simple and Rist’s plan fails.

Does the show suggest that philanthropy is fun and easy as Council on Foundation CEO Steve Gunderson said in an official statement yesterday? The poor guy manages to do nothing more than move a small bag of vaccines from the airport to a village! He spends $250,000 on a plane ride alone (which gets him dumped by himself in the jungle). He gets bit by a snake. He wanders barefoot in the jungle. Fun and easy? Rist doesn’t solve any huge problems in the show. The show doesn’t suggest that everything is OK now that Rist’s on the scene. He’s one man, naively trying to help, who through force of will and a lot of money manages to score a small victory.

One thing to remember about the show is that because of its title, we view everything through a different lens. But what if we just think about the show as a prime time summer TV show that is trying to pick up an audience bored with reruns? When Rist let’s the boy take his spot on the raft and then dives in the water to save him from drowning, the show is not suggesting that he is some sort of do gooder superhero. James Bond, Indiana Jones, or any other hero of an action flick would have done the same thing.

Are their problems with the show? Definitely. Jeff Trexler criticizes the show for promoting neocolonialism and he makes very good points. Was the fact that Rist sleeps with the local doctor who he brings the vaccines to bizarre and unsettling? Definitely.

Somehow I keep imaging a group from the American Medical Association sitting around watching the first episode of ER and complaining. It’s not realistic! That’s not how an ER room works! Why are those doctors sleeping with each other?!

Come on! It’s a fun TV show. Let’s enjoy it and be glad that once a week American TV audiences will hear the voice over proclaim “The Philanthropist!” as if that’s actually something fun and exciting instead of the idea of philanthropy as a boring, stuffy, serious thing that no sane person would want to be involved in.

16 Comments

  1. Ok…the show aired and the sun rose again this morning. What’s next on the list to fuss over?

  2. I’m glad you watched and reviewed the show, Sean. It actually makes me want to join in on the “philanthro-phun” and watch it too. This show, and the Matthew Broderick musical that you mentioned a while back, may help the nonprofit and philanthropic field, if only to help people who work and report on these real issues.

    Now that these topics have a wider scope of influence, the thought-leaders and social “changents” may be able to leverage the exposure to help further the methods and practices that are in need of attention.

    My two cents :)

  3. Ken Berger says:

    Hey Sean! You state that the fact that Rist slept with the local doctor is somewhat “bizarre”. Wait a minute! Have you been keeping track of the Governor of South Carolina, the Senator from Nevada, etc., etc.

  4. No lost street cred with me, Sean. Always appreciate your thoughts on the art and science of philanthropy, whereever it may be found :)

  5. Ten years ago, the average TV viewer would have thought that a show titled “the Philanthropist” would be about a stamp collector. The very fact that this program is being aired in prime time is an indication that we have moved the needle.

    Sure, it was a bit cheesey and overwrought; but hey, its a start. Let’s hope that our hunky protagonist learns a bit more about effective philanthropy and leveraging grant dollars in future episodes.

  6. Edith Asibey says:

    As David Brotherton and I argued in an op-ed in the Chronicle yesterday, this show might encourage foundations to be more aggressive and artful at telling their stories to the American public. You can read the op-ed at: http://philanthropy.com/news/updates/index.php?id=8675

  7. Ken Berger says:

    I finally got to watch the show last night. The main character reminds me of a cross between Indiana Jones and Bill Gates. It is truly a fantasy ride but so is most of what is on television. At least it has to do with a subject that gets so little air time and is so critically important.

  8. Thanks to all of you for your comments. I’ve just be invited to debate the show at a think tank next month. I hope the show stays good and Rist’s understanding of effective philanthropy improves over time so I don’t have to flip flop during he debate!

  9. Sean:
    I can’t resist telling you how much I agree with your comments on The Philanthropist (and not with the Council on Foundations viewpoint). Yes the program is entertaining and the scenes tracking through the
    jungle sans shoes was over the top. But the spirit of the program is exactly right and from what I’ve seen and read that’s just how social entrepreneurial donors feel. It may get more unrealistic and dissolve into “action/adventure mode” but maybe not. The Return to
    Khayelitsha video on the blog http://www.nbc.com/the-philanthropist/ production-blog/ shows that the production crew are not in neocolonialism mode.
    I rely on your daily blog to keep me up to date so thank you!
    Janet

  10. Julie says:

    Does everyone have to take everything so literally – really? It’s a fun show, someone is doing great things with their $$. No gangs, no killings and some realization to it, it makes us think that maybe, just maybe, we need to pitch in help, somewhere – be it time or money. I enjoy it for what is, fun and entertainment. Maybe you should too!

  11. Deborah Brancheau says:

    I realize this article is nearly a 4 months old, but just recently NBC decided to cancel The Philanthropist. A number of us fans and supporters of the show are trying to do something about it. We just started a Facebook cause titled “Save The Philanthropist through Charity”.

    The purpose behind this cause is two-fold. First and foremost is to save this show from cancellation. This show is a great example of how two different ideologies (for lack of a better word) – capitalism and philanthropy – can coexist and work together effectively. In fact, the show not only demonstrates philanthropy and giving of oneself but it also shares ideas about how to solve tough social and economic problems by encouraging job stability in war torn and poverty stricken areas.

    The second purpose of this cause is to demonstrate the impact that a show like this can have on its audience. Therefore, we have decided to collect donations on behalf of Human Rights Watch, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world.

    We are asking fans and supporters of the show and of human rights in general to:

    1. Become members of “Save The Philanthropist Through Charity” by visiting: http://apps.facebook.com/causes/380724

    a. As you go through the process, you will be asked to supply your email address. While this is not necessary, it is highly recommended so that we can keep you up-to-date on the status of the cause and the show.

    2. Donate at least $10 to the cause. The money will go directly to Human Rights Watch. If you have any questions about how donations are handled check out http://apps.facebook.com/causes/help?category=Donation+questions .

    3. Urge NBC’s President of Primetime Entertainment to reverse the decision to cancel The Philanthropist by Following the directions for this action: http://apps.facebook.com/causes/actions/2241?cause_id=380724

    You can also find this information at: http://apps.facebook.com/causes/causes/380724/about

    Please take the time to help us save this show. Our cause is also entered in America’s Giving Challenge which ends November 6th! So the sooner you can help us, the more money we can raise for HRW! Nevertheless, we will continue this cause beyond November 6th (until we get the show back on the air) so please join us when you see this message.

    Thank you for your time,
    Deborah Brancheau
    Cause Administrator

  12. Thanks for the info Deborah. I’ve tweeted your comment and added it to my Daily Digest post for tonight.

    Good luck!

  13. trunigafacn says:

    So they say say they were in Nigeria but if you are going to put a show up on the internet you have to do enough research. i mean Nigeria and South Africa are far away geographically so that goes to say that culturally they will have differ too. I just do not get it. They say he is in Nigeria and yet walks into a cultural ceremony that… yes it is fiction but come on, better make u a country than destroy one’s heritage. The actors and actresses are all from the south and the accents…. bad, if it was not for the mafia guy, really he is the only true ‘nigerian’ in the entire cast. as for the language, the songs and the burial of bankole…..at just the track they played was enough to kill the moment. fine terry is helping these people and we get that message but when the shoe says it is made in Nigeria, please make it as Nigerian as possible. This is what make the show not very entertaining, and if they are to go back to Nigeria again, please make it more ‘Nigerian’. I love Terry tho.

  14. Thanks so much for your feedback on the show. However, the show never claimed to shoot in Nigeria. The specifically said they shot in South Africa, Mozambique and Prague. It is too difficult to shoot in a country like Nigeria due to the government corruption and violence in the delta region so most movies and TV shows film in South Africa to depict African countries. If you’d like more information about the level of violence and government corruption in Nigeria check out HRW’s report on Nigeria (http://www.hrw.org/en/world-report/2009/nigeria). This, by no means, is a commentary on Nigerians. This is just evidence that the Nigerian people (especially those living in rural areas and in the slums) are suffering under a corrupt government which the show was trying to expose.

    As for the Nigerian heritage, you’re right in that they did not use Nigerians but I do not think it was their intent to destroy the Nigerian heritage. Anytime a culture or country or person or whatever, is depicted on TV it is never going to 100% accurate. Heck most of the time when they say there in St. Louis, or Seattle, or Washington DC, there really in Vancouver, BC. The point is to look past the accents and at the message. And one of the messages in both the “Nigeria” episodes was that Nigerians still are struggling with government corruption.

    If you’d like more information from HRW about what is happening in Nigeria, check out: http://www.hrw.org/en/africa/nigeria.

  15. trunigafacn says:

    Thanks, it is true what is going on there and and i have read about it, the message is portrayed in the show from that point of view. Thing is people tend to over look other minor details , but they matter to some people. Other than that, I kinda enjoy the show and it will be a pity if it got cancelled. It is something different from the monotony of the criminal justice, party drama kind of shows.

  16. I agree. And sometimes those minor details can really be bothersome. It is good to point them out so that shows like The Philanthropist can continue to improve. We just want to make sure that shows likes this that have important messages to communicate stay on the air.

    We realize they have flaws and that they need viewers like you to keep them honest. Hopefully, if we can get this show back, we can convince them to revisit the Nigeria storyline and introduce some real Nigerian culture. Deal?