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.

Ten things I’ve gained and learned from nearly a year of blogging

I started this blog in January this year because I enjoy writing and wanted to take it more seriously. I also felt that I had something to add on topics that weren’t being covered anywhere else.

The experience has been rewarding, exciting and unexpected:

  1. Interviewing my fundraising peers has developed valuable and insightful relationships with colleagues across the profession.
  2. The blog helped me develop an online portfolio of writing, which will support my ambitions as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.
  3. It’s directly led to a paid commission in the charity trade press.
  4. I’ve been involved in influencing policy at the Institute of Fundraising.
  5. The fact I have an online platform of my own has made it easier to quit social media – something I’ll be writing more about in future.
  6. It’s given me something to think about and work on while on maternity leave.
  7. When writing a blog, it’s important to have a unique angle. I have plenty of opinions on GDPR, for example, but didn’t feel like I had anything new to add to the existing conversation.
  8. I’m grateful to my employer for being supportive of my writing, and am glad I discussed this with them at an early stage. In addition, it’s important to maintain a distinction between my writing here and the work I do for my employer.
  9. It’s led to surprising outcomes. My writing on blockchain was picked up by a Reddit thread that’s critical of Bitcoin (r/buttcoin) and led to hundreds of non-fundraisers viewing my site. And it turns out I was quoted on Breitbart over a year ago (I only discovered this yesterday, not being a regular reader of Breitbart for reasons which are hopefully obvious, and I’m not going to link to their article!). Thankfully, though, no trolls.
  10. The fundraising community is incredibly friendly, supportive and civil online.

So, if you’re thinking of writing and adding to the conversation on fundraising, charities and/or life in general, I would definitely encourage you. I’m excited about how my work as a fundraiser, my writing, and my ambitions in general develop over the next year.