Make ’em Squirm, Make ’em Listen

(This is a guest post from Beth Reiter, VP for Communications & Marketing, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Beth Reiter

I attended a session this morning that was billed as “cross-sector engagement” (you can see the description and presenters here) It was actually about entertainment philanthropy, so I went with a very skeptical mind. I have a lot of questions about the value of super high-profile charitable efforts. It can be an incredible way to bring visibility to important issues that are otherwise unnoticed, BUT…

I personally take a pretty dim view (blogging *is* about opinion, yes? you were warned) of efforts that I think cheapen the image of philanthropy, lack context for the reasons *why* we have “have-nots” and don’t promote lasting change. Oprah’s Big Give has been widely discussed, celebrated, and vilified in some quarters, so we’ll leave that be. But Extreme Home Makeover always strikes me as such an overblown response to *why* the family in question is living in substandard housing. And it’s a huge ad vehicle wrapped in the mantle of charity. Yuck.

So imagine my surprise when the amazing group of individuals presenting made my case for me. In a really engaging fashion.*

Michael Balaoing, Senior Vice President of the Entertainment Industry Foundation spoke about the work of American Idol Gives Back (insert your own joke here). He showed a powerful video featuring Annie Lennox that was shown on the reality show to raise money for AIDS in Africa. $67 million was raised from that show. A rousing success in any fundraiser’s book. However, he went on to say, “But that was charity. We got people to cut checks. But can we get them to change their mind?” Well said.

He also said essentially that philanthropy needs to get smarter about finding opportunities like this to raise awareness – there’s great potential in partnerships. Which I think was a theme for most of the speakers, which also included Caren Yanis, who manages Oprah Winfrey’s philanthropies and Tonja Brown, who is responsible for a program called Impact Your World at CNN (cnn.com/impact)

But the most powerful speaker was really Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues and V-Day, a movement to end violence against women and girls around the world. She also showed a powerful and entertaining video about the creation of the show and what has been done around the world to date. Let’s just say if “that word” and some of its more slangy equivalents made you uncomfortable, you’d have been in the wrong room. But her point has always been very powerful – if we can’t talk about things, we can’t stop them. It is truly an amazing effort.

But more to the point of this conference – I had wanted to get some dialogue going here about COF’s leadership use of the word “movement” to describe philanthropy. Does that resonate with anyone? I have a hard time with it but maybe I’m too cynical. Eve provided her definition of the difference between a movement and a charity, while subtly getting in a dig at organized philanthropy. She described a hierarchy to charity that requires a giver and a receiver. In a movement, “we’re all in it together.” She went on to say, “Making people jump through hoops for money implies that I have a hoop. I don’t. I just have money.” (general laughter and applause ensued)

We can and should build houses, develop clean water, etc. “but we have to change the culture.” That may not be the goal of most charity, but it is arguably a good goal for philanthropy.

*Note to self: if ever asked to plan a conference session again, remember that upbeat music, slides with only great graphics and NO bullets, lots of video, and audience repetitions of “the V word” make for a really engaging and memorable session.

4 Comments

  1. Sandra says:

    Hey Beth

    I was at the same session and was impressed as well. I think Charles Benton passionate plea that Michael push to have something similar as a general session was pretty moving as well.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for posting. I’m not at CoF this year and greatly appreciate getting to hear about the sessions this way.

    In my 2 years so far in philanthropy after 10 years at nonprofits, I don’t like this feeling of having a hoop – but as a Program Officer I am asked to raise it every docket cycle.

  3. Thanks Jennifer,
    Would you mind reflecting on the experience of “having a hoop” a bit more? Lots of readers here are not on the foundation side and might benefit from understanding why you are asked to raise a hoop and why you don’t like it.

  4. Ani says:

    Hey Beth: I think your first instinct was right. As long as there are people who “got” and people who don’t, there will be givers and receivers. I don’t think that changing the culture has much to do with it. It’s changing a system that allows a $3 billion payday for a hedge fund manager and let so many subsist on a buck a day. Even if we became a “movement,” philanthropy, as Michael Edwards suggests, arises from that system.