Two colleagues of mine, Ryann Miller and Caity Craver — both from DonorTrends and both a generation younger — recently shared with me this email exchange they had. The topic: TV "reality shows" based on giving away big sums of money.

Perhaps you’ve seen these programs. I haven’t. But I will admit that decades ago in the late 50s I did enjoy The Millionaire — this fictional drama followed the lives of everyday people about to be given a million dollars, tax free, by the wealthy (but never seen) John Beresford Tipton, through his representative, Michael Anthony. Now, I must say, no pretense was made that this was the way philanthropy actually worked. I didn’t even know about "philanthropy" … I was about ten. I did nag my parents, unsuccessfully, to write to Tipton.

But I digress. I guess the theme has legs. And Ryann and Caity make some serious observations about whether pop philanthropy suits the spirit of the times.

First, Ryann writes …

Hi all,

Not sure if anyone else caught this, but Fox has a new reality show that is based on a UK show called Secret Millionaire. I watched it last night. I never watch reality tv. I liked this show. It’s cheesy, not well done, predictable, and unsustainable, but finally, philanthropy meets reality tv! The premise is that a millionaire (or a couple) who are millionaires go ‘undercover’ for a week, live on welfare in poor communities near-ish to their home. They talk to people all week, get to know the community, live hand to mouth, and at the end of the week, must give away at least $100,000 to anyone or people who the millionaire thinks is/are deserving.

There is no shortage of artificial cheesiness, but still, it was emotional. To see a Katrina survivor get some $ to rebuild, or the woman who spends her social security check on food to feed her makeshift homeless shelter get a fat check, to see the millionaires say that they were getting more out of this than the recipient, was touching.

I was wondering if this is related to the baby boomer need to be a part of the final destination of the donated money. That philosophy of ‘I’ll give, but take me there and show me what you do and who and how it has an impact.’ Or, is it just the next chapter in reality tv’s long and annoying story?

A few years ago, I noticed that the concept of ‘bearing witness’ was really starting to hit charities (especially int’l development and enviro, from what I saw). This seems like the next step, but also the inverse (see first, then give, as opposed to give first, then see).

Did anyone else see it? Does anyone think this sort of thing matters, in terms of public awareness? Or is it just where philanthropy and popular culture meet, even if it’s fleeting? I suppose it helps that all the people being helped are American, and since in these tough economic times people tend to give more to local organizations and human services.

Ryann

Here’s Caity’s response:

As the Reality Queen, of course I saw it. Once again Jason returned from work to find me crying my eyes out on the couch. All he had to do was look up at the TV and knew it was either Extreme Home MakeOver or another show just like Secret Millionaire – they all get me.

While I thought this was a good concept – surely some of the multi millionaires could afford to cough up more than $100K. They boast in the beginning that they can drop upwards of $5K on dinner alone – couldn’t they increase their average gift?

The other instance of philanthropy and reality tv was Oprah’s Big Give. What I liked about this premise was that ‘ordinary’ people had to perform extraordinary acts to help those in need. For example, one team raised over $250K to pay off a mortgage. All of the money was raised from small gifts in the community and a few large ones from community businesses.

This required the teams to become evangelists and engage those around them. That’s what the Secret Millionaire is missing – the engagement of more than the millionaires and the recipient.

Thanks for raising this – I’m glad to see that they’re running out of themes that embarrass and hurt people and are now forced to create shows that actually help people.

Caity

So what do Agitator readers think? Do these "reality" shows have any socially redeeming value? Do they foster false hope? (I never forgave my parents for not writing Tipton.) Do you think they make people more inclined to give? Or are most viewers, like me, really fantasizing about being the recipient?

And what happened to the good old days when you could be inspired to give by watching a Cousteau special, or Carl Sagan, or hell, even a Bob Geldoff concert?!

Tom

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