The 21st Century Philanthropist?

Television is a good barometer of society. With a rising social conscience and the call to do good by the likes of President Obama and celebrities like Bono, there inevitably will be a show on this topic. “The Philanthropist” premiered Wednesday night on NBC. It’s not about some rich guy sitting around a conference table listening to different charity requests and doling out checks. It’s 21st century philanthropy — giving by getting involved, not by giving from afar.

Teddy Rist, the wealthy businessman hero of “The Philanthropist” confided that he didn’t want to live life watching from a distance, through a tinted glass. He wanted to get involved — so off he goes to Nigeria, Africa to deliver vaccines in this pilot episode.

The show makes one major statement — the DESIRE to do good does not directly and quickly translate to the ABILITY to do good. The show spends a good portion of the hour unpacking this theme.

The show’s writers have done their research and quickly touch on some of the issues and stereotypes of philanthropy. One’s desire to help others often starts out too lofty and yet too simplistically. There’s an eagerness to act quickly and not to listen. There’s arrogance and self-serving attitudes like “I’m here to help”; well-meaning but demeaning acts; and the inability to inject oneself into another culture. On the flip side, there is sometimes cynicism from the recipients — a weariness about getting help from the outside; a suspicion or feeling that they are just a project to satisfy the ego of the philanthropist.

In real-life, problems and issues are not neatly resolved within an hour; but, this is television of course. Within the hour we see the benefactor thoroughly transformed — all preconceived ideals are stripped away when he gets thrust into the realities of exercising philanthropy in a poverty-stricken, corruption-ridden area of the world. His commitment and character are tested “in the field” because it is hard to fake it there and his authencity is not lost on the people he wants to help.

The shows reveals that doing good is not always easy and it raises the question, “Is it worth it?” For the Philanthropist the answer is clearly, “YES!” He wants to get involved because giving transforms him as much as the people he wants to help. He believes that “happiness is the art of living well” — and not everyone is living well, including himself.

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