Portrayals of philanthropy in popular culture

I’m always intrigued when charities and/or fundraising get a mention in mainstream culture. It doesn’t happen too often, and when it does, it’s often superficial. I found this article on Blue Avocado which gives some good examples and notes that charities, their staff, and related issues are often purely used as backdrop, providing the vehicle for unrelated character or storyline development. Unhelpful stereotypes are also pervasive. It’s almost as if writers for TV and film don’t have much experience of charity work!

The Blue Avocado article, however, is from a while ago, so I thought it would be entertaining to look at some more recent instances, which follow below.

I don’t watch huge amounts of TV/streaming services so I’m sure I’m missing other good examples. Moreover, all of the below are from American TV shows; I’d love to hear if anyone has British examples.

Suits (Season 8, Episode 6)

The increasingly preposterous legal drama has a storyline about a dodgy charity. The reason they start investigating the charity is because “most charities spend five percent of their income on fundraising”, but the charity in question spends a shocking 5.3%. There must, therefore, be foul play at hand.

What does this tell us about the charity sector?

From this we can learn that, in America at least, myths about fundraising expenditure – and presumably also overheads – still abound.

Excuse me while I go and bang my head on my desk repeatedly for several minutes.

The Bold Type (Season 2, Episode 1)

I really like The Bold Type. It’s fun and easy to watch, but addresses some social issues with more complexity and panache than your average mainstream TV series.

This episode features an entrepreneur whose company donates menstrual cups to homeless shelters. However, it turns out that the menstrual cups are essentially useless to homeless women, who lack the hygiene facilities required to use them safely.

What does this tell us about the charity sector?

This represents an excellent example of the blindness caused by privilege. Many charities will have faced the headache of dealing with a well-meaning donor who hasn’t done their research and wants to give them something utterly useless. I applaud The Bold Type for recognising some of the complexities involved in philanthropy.

Billions (Season 1, Episode 2)

The bombastic Billions has a strong major donor storyline early on. The brash billionaire wants his name on a performance arts centre and offers to buy out the incumbent donors. He then savagely gazunders them as an act of revenge for a past insult, lowering his offer by $16 million. The centre representative tries to offer some lofty words about the importance of philanthropy, but this is hilariously dismissed: this particular major donor isn’t interested in social good. Revenge, and the social cachet of the naming rights, are all he cares about.

What does this tell us about the charity sector?

From Billions we gain a healthy reminder that all major donors have their own reasons for giving, and we may sometimes get caught in the crossfire of conflicts that we don’t understand.

Times have moved on, a little

Since the Blue Avocado article was published a decade ago, there have been some slightly more nuanced depictions of charities and philanthropy. But as the Suits example shows, unhelpful myths still persist. I don’t know what we can do about this, other than try to get more charity workers jobs as TV writers.

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