NBC's Philandering Philanthropist: Where Is the Rest of the Story?

09/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I've been watching NBC's The Philanthropist and wonder if the show will turn a corner anytime soon and start following more closely the philanthropy of the man who inspired the show -- instead of mixing MacGyver and The Amazing Race.

Tonight is the eighth episode of the action drama, which is modeled after the real-life experiences of American entrepreneur Bobby Sager, who retired from a successful business to use his philanthropic resources and business acumen to change communities and lives of those around the world. This show, however, chronicles the adventures of a wealthy, philandering businessman who jets around the world closing business deals while ministering to the "misfortunate" on the side.

The first season is not yet over so I may be premature in judging the show. However, from what I have seen, The Philanthropist suffers from a misunderstanding of philanthropy and perpetuates the Global North's stereotypes.

I hope NBC will look to Bobby Sager's example for inspiration to evolve the character of Teddy Rist -- the main protagonist. I agree with NBC's portrayal of philanthropy as an activity that creates heart-pounding excitement and a sense of adventure. But viewers should know they don't need a million dollars and a private jet to make a difference in the lives of people in their own community and around the world.

The main misrepresentation about philanthropy is you need a bottomless bucket of money to participate in it. Having Teddy throw cash around in each episode discounts contributions of all philanthropists and sends a message to viewers that you can only make an impact if you have so much money you stopped counting it long ago. In my experience as both a philanthropist and working in the field of philanthropy, I see countless examples of how philanthropists are changing the world, with the tools and resources they have, and with far less than unlimited of dollars at their disposal.

The money is a tool representative of lessons learned, knowledge gained and an exchange made in partnership with those who, more often than not, have the solutions to address the issues they are experiencing. Money symbolizes a relationship -- not a substitute for a relationship. Real philanthropy is a two-way exchange, not one-way or top-down. The show fails to show the mutual assets of partners in the philanthropic exchange and does not portray transformative philanthropy that changes the causes of problems instead of just doling out money for a quick fix of the symptom.

In the third episode Teddy travels to Paris to close a deal with a French rail company that would open access to mines in Eastern Europe. He uncovers a vast sex trafficking ring with ties to the man he is there to do business with. The women are portrayed completely as victims, waiting for a Prince Charming character with loads of money to free them from their captivity. It only tangentially focuses on the poverty and hopeless among those who are caught in the snares of predators who realize profit and opportunity via the pain and suffering of others and totally glosses over the market for this heinous industry. In this episode men decked out in tuxedos, in a casino within a five star hotel, are fueling the third most profitable illegal business trade -- sex trafficking -- only exceeded by the profits made by selling drugs and illegal weapons.

Another episode takes place in Burma where Teddy frees a man from slave labor so he can donate a kidney to his ailing daughter. I was waiting for the episode to end so I could learn more about how consumer activism could force changes in corporations who utilize exploitative labor practices. However, after the show ended there was no further information on these issues -- just the credits.

Philanthropists are not those who show up "just in time" to rescue people in need. Philanthropists are each of us with a love for humanity and justice, who leverage our relationships, spheres of influence, the internet, and money -- whether it's $10, $100, $1,000 or more -- for lasting change.

I will be watching to see where The Philanthropist ends up. Will Teddy broaden his conceptions of what it means to give? Will he realize his James Bond-style sexism that has no place in the life of a man who wants to bring equality to the world? Will NBC give viewers more inspiration so they can turn off the TV and start creating their own versions of The Phlilanthropist?

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