Debating NBC Drama The Philanthropist

Last month the Council on Foundations CEO Steve Gunderson released a public statement condemning the new NBC drama The Philanthropist. I followed up the next day with my own review of the premier and argued that it was really quite good.

Now, thanks to the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal and The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Steve and I will get to debate our views in person on July 21 in Washington DC. Plus, we’ll be joined by the show’s co-creator, executive producer, and writer Tom Fontana as well as Chronicle of Philanthropy reporter Ian Wilhelm. The Hudson Institute’s Bill Schambra and Chronicle of Philanthropy editor in chief Stacy Palmer will co-moderate the discussion.

One of my core arguments in favor of the show is that philanthropy as a profession tends to use complex jargon and an academic approach to the field as a way to insulate ourselves from “the mainstream” and identify ourselves as “insiders”. It seems to me that if we want philanthropy to be embraced as a cultural norm, shows like The Philanthropist, even if they are far from perfect, are important entry points into our field that are accessible to everyday Americans.

So my question to you is what do you think the important elements are for a show that strives for mainstream acceptance while maintaining philanthropic integrity?

You can find more information about attending next week’s debate here.


  1. Pretty soon, you will be guest starring…as yourself. 🙂 How’s that for integrity?

    I still haven’t watched the show; I have class on Wednesday nights. I will keep my eyes and ears peeled for a transcript or other media from the debate.


  2. I think it’s great the bunch of you will be talking about this … and maybe Tom Fontana will get some good plot lines as a result. But I wonder what you mean by “mainstream acceptance” and “philanthropic integrity” in the context of a tv show, which unless it becomes a documentary, will always have to stretch the truth.

  3. Autumn,
    You can watch the full episodes online here.

    Bruce, I mean what are the important elements of a show that is mainstream without “selling out” or watering down the message so much it is worthless.

    For instance, the show So You Think You Can Dance is a huge commercial hit, but is now being cited as a major factor in exposing america to traditional forms of dance. This is quite different than the exploitation that many other reality shows shoot for.

  4. My recommendation to the producers of The Philanthropist: let’s see our hunky protagonist find ways to engage like-missioned funders who can help leverage his efforts across a broader spectrum of need.

    I assume that this guy became a business titan because he is smart, creative and resourceful. How ‘bout if he uses those business skills to build funding collaborations to address the problems he identifies. How ‘bout if he facilitates some nonprofit mergers and acquisitions to help bring programs that work to scale.

    By making this guy a smarter philanthropist, the writers will shine more light on the practice of effective philanthropy in the modern world and less on the escapades of a naïve do gooder with the best of intentions who has yet to use all the arrows in his quiver.

    If they are not already doing so, I suggest that the writers consult some real philanthropists about the state of the business.

  5. Kyle Reis says:

    Thanks Sean – I look forward to this debate. What resonates for me is this notion of trying to (finally) get the general public interested in philanthropy. If shows like The Philanthropist pique the public’s curiosity, perhaps they’ll be motivated to learn more about what ‘tactical’ philanthropists and foundations really do to try and make the world a better place. Some of the brightest people I know have no clue what I do for a living despite myriad attempts to explain. These coffee table conversations used to be extremely demoralizing. The ignorance has been so universal over time, however, that I’ve finally grown numb to it…and that’s a sad state of affairs. Perhaps a dose of reality-suspect primetime fun and adventure will be just the right catalyst to true philanthropic enlightenment. Best, Kyle

  6. At the risk of over-commenting on this topic, it occurs to me that we’re really expecting a lot more from a popular television series than might be possible.

    Some of the comments of what we’d like this show to do probably are better served by a documentary. And, ironically, that’s something foundations could fund and help get produced if enough agree that this would be an effective way to help a larger number of Americans learn about philanthropy, its history, and its ongoing contributions to our society.

    At the risk — this time of repeating myself — I wrote about one such project that PBS is willing to air (if it gets produced) here:

  7. Thanks Bruce. I love the point that if foundations aren’t happy with The Philanthropst they should fund their own show!

  8. OK, I’ll jump on the “risk of overcommenting” wagon with Bruce. While it would be good for foundations to fund their own story, my fear is that it won’t make it to primetime for a mainstream audience.

    I think that NBC has a good start and I applaud their efforts. I would love to see them hook the audience and, with some storyline tweeking, move to educate them with a truer picture of the challenges faced by real philanthropists.

    Perhaps we are so inside the tent, that we don’t see the dramatic potential of what we do on a daily basis. I’m not willing to give up on the potential of “The Philanthropist” just yet.

  9. Kyle Reis says:

    A colleague suggested that perhaps NBC should shed light on the some of the real issues being addressed in the show, e.g., human trafficking. That got me curious about whether they were in fact already doing this and sure enough, they have an outreach section with profiles of several nonprofit organizations working on this issue, including one called The Human Trafficking Project: As Holmes would say to Watson: “Interesting, very interesting.”

  10. Catherine Jahnes says:

    It has been entertaining reading about the debate over the effectiveness of The Philanthropist in getting the general public excited and more knowledgeable about the field. Here is my big idea: give viewers a chance to get involved! Most of my original ideas were less than realistic. However, what if… nonprofits could post videos on YouTube which are then voted on or “favorited” by the general public. NBC then donates advertising time during The Philanthropist to those nonprofits whose videos were most popular. Nonprofits win because more people hear about their particular mission and issue of interest. NBC wins because more people watch the show to find out if their favorite videos won. It is a small step, but imagine the fun that people could have learning all about the types of things philanthropy supports.

  11. Kyle Reis says:

    Sent the wrong link, sorry. Here’s the right one:

  12. Catherine, I love the idea. Think about how ads like this one would be received!