Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why I Liked Oprah's Big Give

The philanthropic blogosphere has been buzzing about Joshua Horwitz's Chronicle of Philanthropy piece, The Nonprofit Profession Lost Out in Oprah's Big Give. After watching the show's finale on April 21st, Horwitz wrote:
"[T]he show ended up featuring amateur and embarrassing efforts at giving. It passed off as entertainment people wasting thousands of dollars of donated money and did little to help the American public learn what it really takes to change the lives of other people. Oprah’s last words on the show Sunday night were to encourage the television audience to “give big,” which is a worthy goal, but the television program failed to show average Americans how they can become effective and strategic philanthropists."
He also felt that, "Notably absent from this group was a professional foundation officer or any person skilled in evaluating effective giving." He suggested that at the end of each episode, "she [Oprah] should introduce a real hero — a trained foundation officer, perhaps, or an accomplished nonprofit leader — to save the day and make the money work."

Alanna Shaikh of Blood and Milk agreed with Horwitz's article, and was annoyed by people who made comments along the lines of, "Why would you ever criticize someone who is trying to do good?" Shaikh wrote:
"I find the tone-deaf comments extremely frustrating. They demonstrate to me that no one is taking charitable giving seriously; that somehow people believe all projects are equally valuable and effective. Give a car to a restaurant manager or an impoverished veteran. It's all the same. It's charity! And charity is good!"
On another note, in her article, The Dark Underside of Oprah's Big Give, Linda Diebel rightly points out that during an episode focused on helping two public schools, "not one contestant turned to another and asked how such bleak Dickensian conditions could exist in American schools in the first place."

I liked Oprah's Big Give, but my expectations weren't that high. I mean, it was a reality show on ABC, not The News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.

Despite the endless Target promo spots, repeated messages that money solves all problems, and the ridiculously big donations by people and businesses who you know wouldn't have stepped up to the plate in the same way if it hadn't been an Oprah project, I enjoyed it. I watched every episode.

Why did I like it?

I liked watching the different kinds of givers.

There are givers who like to give in small ways, like Brandi Milloy, who bought all of a street vendors' roses and gave them away to happily surprised drivers as they stopped at the light.

There are givers who give in big ways, like the winner, Stephen Paletta, who organized, along with contestant Eric Klein, multiple donations and a community gathering for a woman whose husband had been murdered.

There are givers who are good at getting others to give, like entrepreneur Cameron Johnson who was able to raise thousands of dollars with his cell phone and his connections.

There are givers who give to the wrong people, like Angelo Adams, who gave a few thousand dollars to the war veteran he was trying to help, but gave the TGIF owner who hosted Angelo's event, a Ford Edge.

There are givers who give the wrong things, like Sheg Aranmolate who gave a poor family with 24 children (20 who had special needs) a party, when what they really needed was money for food.

There are givers whose ego gets in the way, like Rachael Hollingsworth who fulfilled a dying woman's dream to play the piano at Carnegie Hall, and her own, by singing along with her.

I liked when the giving wasn't about money.

Two of my favorite moments involved Stephen Paletta. In the first episode, Stephen had the wife and children of the murder victim tie notes for their father on helium balloons and release them into the sky.

In another episode, while washing dishes in a soup kitchen, Stephen listened to a fellow dishwasher's challenging life story. When Stephen asked the man how he could help him, he said he had, by listening. (Yes, I know they probably made him say the line over and over again to get the "money" shot).

It reminded me of what makes giving successful, even when the contestants failed.

1. Ask people what they need rather than decide for them.
2. Involve the community.
3. Give time, as well as money.
4. Compassion, respect and attention can be the most valuable gift.

Was money wasted? Yes.

Were there people who could have been helped in more effective ways? Yes.

Will its producers win a Nobel Prize? No.

But, 10 million viewers tuned in to watch the finale of a reality show about people trying to make the world a better place. Some of them went to the Oprah's Big Give web site and clicked on the links to Network for Good or VolunteerMarch to, "donate or volunteer near you."

Can you really say it would have been better if they hadn't watched at all?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:11 AM

    I agree that the Big Give did more good than harm; I'm from the school of thought that says that any attention drawn to an issue helps (kind of the Hollywood line that "there's no bad PR"). After all, even if it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, it got some of them to articulate how it could have been done better, and that helps us look forward to other large-scale efforts. Kudos for rising above the politics of the debate and pointing this out in your post!


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