As Oprah’s Big Give wrapped up its first season on ABC Sunday night, the big winner was Stephen Paletta, a technology entrepreneur from New York, whom the judges felt best negotiated the obstacles to effective philanthropy that they had put in his way.
He ended up walking away with a cool $500,000 for himself and another $500,000 to give away (the contestants did not know there would be a cash reward for the winner until the last moments of the show).
While Mr. Paletta did perform admirably given the parameters of the show, Big Give was a loser for the professionals who run nonprofit organizations and foundations.
Television offers a great opportunity to educate and to make people passionate about causes — especially when a philanthropist and television personality as popular as Oprah Winfrey is sponsoring the lessons.
But the 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.
The premise of Oprah’s Big Give was that 10 people were given bundles of cash they had to give away in ridiculously short time periods with all sorts of weird restrictions that changed each week. Part of each challenge was for the players to use their cash as a multiplier, and they were judged, in part, on how they got noncontestants to participate.
Their efforts were judged by several high-net-worth individuals who have developed their own philanthropic endeavors: the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver; Malaak Compton-Rock, the founder of StyleWorks and the wife of the comedian Chris Rock; and Tony Gonzalez, a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs football team.
Notably absent from this group was a professional foundation officer or any person skilled in evaluating effective giving.
My irritability with Oprah’s Big Give developed after watching week two of the show and went up and down as the show progressed. In that episode, contestants were each given $4,800 and a car and just 48 hours to find a worthy cause and turn the original dollars and the car into something more.
A few of the contestants banded together and did a wonderful job raising money for a children’s home. At the end, they gave the cars to the home to help with transportation needs.
However, one of the contestants, Angelo, identified a veteran wounded in the Iraq war whom he had hoped to help, but instead he embarrassed the veteran and squandered Oprah’s resources.
Angelo persuaded the manager of a local TGIFriday’s restaurant to give the veteran free meals once a week for a year. Angelo then gave the veteran $4,600 of the cash. Then, inexplicably, and as the cameras rolled, Angelo gave the car — a brand new Ford Edge, worth more than $35,000 — to the restaurant manager, as the veteran looked on in disbelief. Angelo later explained that it was important to reward donors to “inspire” others. In a just result, the judges kicked Angelo off for his poor effort and judgment.
While I am sure the producers were overjoyed that they got an “aha” moment — the kind of moment that reality television thrives on when a person does something truly idiotic and self-destructive — I was in disbelief.
Unlike, for example, in Hell’s Kitchen, where the result is a trendy Los Angeles couple being told that the flank steak they ordered is burned beyond recognition, here more than $35,000 in charitable giving had gone up in smoke. At a feeding center for the needy in my neighborhood, that money would have provided a meal to 105,000 people. And what is worse, the veteran got a pittance.
If I was irritable in week two, I was fuming by the end of week four.
In that episode, the Maloof brothers, wealthy Las Vegas entrepreneurs and owners of the Sacramento Kings basketball team, gave each contestant $100,000 to give out in just 24 hours. The catch was that the seven remaining contestants could not give out more than $500 to one person or $10,000 to one place, and they could not give cash.
The losers that week were truly pathetic.
Kim was so directionally and geographically challenged that she could barely find a charity to which she could give the bulk of her money.
She ended up buying some toys for a pet shelter and giving away free gas to people, on a first-come-first-serve basis, rather than even attempting to figure out for whom a tank of gas would be truly helpful. She left more than $80,000 on the table.
The other loser in week four, Eric, promised the family of a deceased police officer that he would pay for the funeral but then got busy and missed it. Eric left $70,000 unused.
Even the winner in week four, Stephen, did not come out smelling like a rose. He ended up spending all of his $100,000, but he did so by going to a low-income neighborhood and, to beat the time limitation, giving away random appliances and home electronics regardless of the needs of the household. Getting a new refrigerator is not so great if your electricity is about to be turned off.
In other reality shows, the opportunity cost is low: If the contestant screws up, they don’t get something that never was theirs to begin with. But here, Oprah allocated the money for charitable purposes and it was wasted – mostly to give drama to the show so it had high ratings.
So if Oprah puts the show on for a second season, here’s what she should do if she wants to teach a serious lesson about charitable giving.
At the end of each episode, she should introduce a real hero — a trained foundation officer, perhaps, or an accomplished nonprofit leader — to save the day and make the money work.
Something like Supernanny, where an experienced child-care provider pulls the hapless parents and undisciplined kids back from the brink and creates order out of chaos.
If our hero had three golden rules for the contestants, here’s what they would be based on:
* Listen carefully. Too often donors have a preconceived idea of what needs to be done. Gifts of time or money are ineffective if they don’t match an actual need.
* Understand that general-support grants are like gold. They give an organization maximum flexibility and place resources where they are needed most. Some of the best philanthropy on Oprah’s Big Give was when contestants helped out with needs for the kinds of things donors usually hate to pay for — like salaries and utility bills. The decision to give the cars to the children’s home was something that deserved a lot of praise because it probably was something the organization would have trouble acquiring any other way.
* Move beyond the quick fix. Most contestants on Oprah’s Big Give looked to find a person in need, help them with an immediate problem, and move on. Effective philanthropy often does require a quick fix, but it can’t end there. Smart donors must spend part of their resources on understanding the problems that cause the immediate need and then develop a long-term action plan to solve the underlying issue. This requires them to focus on a few causes and, ideally in collaboration with other donors, devote resources to a mix of research, advocacy, and direct services.
If anybody has earned the right to experiment with philanthropy, it is Oprah Winfrey. She has given tens of millions of her own money away and another $51-million through her Angel Network foundation.
She has clearly inspired others to give as well.
So while her show sometimes gave me heartburn, I admire her for starting a serious discussion about the meaning and effectiveness of philanthropy among average Americans.
For those of us who depend on philanthropy and especially for those who dole it out, the conclusion of Big Give seems like an opportunity to take a hard look at our own work. After all, we don’t want our judges — the boards of directors who oversee charities and foundations —to send us packing.
Joshua Horwitz is executive director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, in Washington.
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