I have now seen three episodes of the new reality show Oprah's Big Give. It's good that Oprah isn't full of herself, isn't it? To be fair, she probably doesn't want to confuse it with anybody's else's big give.
The basic idea behind this show is more than admirable. It's quite spectacular, actually. A group of people are given the opportunity to touch the lives of people in real need. They are given resources, tools and time to figure out a way to be as generous as possible with a person or family each week. This is not just a gift to the one in need. It is a gift to the contestant, to meet and understand the depth of need and to feel the real and palpable emotions that come with giving. The audience, by extension, reaps that benefit as well.
It is when you put all of this into the context of a competition that the concept goes horribly awry. The person who is the nicest, who raises more money than the other contestants wins. And of course to get there, each person is judged on his or her actions and one philanthropist is voted out each week.
I'm guessing that I have a unique perspective because I ran a non-profit organization for nearly a decade, because I serve on the board of national nonprofit (where I am the co-chair of the fundraising committee) and because my partner and I have the good fortune to be able to give generously to a few organizations we care deeply about.
Each week judges critique contestants' philanthropic works. Think about that for a minute. Each week, someone gets made to feel really, really bad about making another person feel really, really good. We hear things like "You only raised $5,000,″or my favorite "You got lost en route to your family's house and lost valuable time."
These contestants have just returned from these remarkable experiences -- helping in whatever way they could. The notion that you can measure the value of a generous act based largely on the total dollars donated is terribly short sighted and sends a message quite contrary to the one I expect Oprah intended.
Many of us know from experience that an afternoon working in a soup kitchen can have more lasting impact on the volunteer than had that same individual written a $500 check. It's not just about the money. It's about showing someone you care, it's about reaching out in some real and tangible way, it's about generosity in the broadest sense of that word.
Imagine if you are a family that has been touched by one of the contestants voted off. I would be pissed off. Don't you tell me that Mary wasn't generous enough! Don't you tell me that Bob didn't spend enough time with me? Who the hell are you to judge anyway?
It's something so right that just feels so wrong.
I know it's too late and that the series is already in the can. And I know no one thought to ask me when the show was in development. But HAD THEY ASKED ME, I would have recommended a very different "big reveal" at the end. Or should I say "Oprah's Big Reveal."
Don't select a "winner" at the end. Surprise all the contestants, bring them all in and split $1,000,000 among them. As I recall, the contestants didn't know there was a prize anyway. So $100,000 would be quite nice thank you very much. Maybe Oprah could use some of her ga-zillion dollars to bring in some of the families helped throughout the series. Be sure to include some families that were helped by those voted off. Use it as an opportunity to celebrate everyone who participated.
That would be your opportunity to make sure that no one who gives big ever feels small.