Friday, April 27, 2007

Fast-Food Philanthropy

Robert P of BlueNC left a comment on my American Idle? blog post that really got me thinking and encouraged me to sharpen my critique of the Idol Gives Back effort.

Robert said:

The only positive thing I would say is that it raised $50 million for the poor and starving that wouldn't have been raised otherwise. We gave, and it won't mean we don't continue giving what we can to other charities, it was a new give.

American Idol is pure sugary schlock, which this year is in big trouble because it has no decent singers. I think the LEAST they can do is use their popularity to raise awareness amongst a whole generation of teens and preteens that have no idea what the word "Ethiopia" stirs in the minds of their parents. And, it's better than watching another Sally Struthers commercial....


My response:

I've struggled to crystallize my thoughts about why the Idol Gives Back effort left me feeling so hollow. I feel that they are creating fast-food philanthropy. When you are hungry, sometimes a Big Mac hits the spot, but what they were doing with Idol Gives Back feels to me like an attempt to create a diet based on vitamin-fortified french fries.

I was bothered by the shameless commercial promotion, the sterotypical emotional appeals, the awkward and inappropriate intermingling of pop culture, celebrity extravaganza, and momentous suffering.

I also believe that philanthropy should involve knowledge and due diligence. While I am sure that there are a number of worthy charitable organizations involved, how do I know that the $50 million they raised will be put to good use? The fact that Coca-Cola, Fox News, and snack food manufactuers are endorsing the effort does not inspire my confidence. In my opinion many of these corporations are doing tremendous disservices to society in the course of their normal business. If a junk food manufacturer funds nutrition programs, is that really a net positive? If the owners of Fox News create a few hours of charitable and potentially inspiring programming, must I cheer?

Participating in fast-food philanthropy makes us feel better for a moment, but what if we feel like we've done our part and yet neglect the true core issues? I am reminded of the post 9-11 celebrity telethon. That emerged from a heartfelt and genuine outpouring of national grief and good will, but how many of us know how the money was spent? Was our energy mobilized wisely? While we were crying and listening to 9/11 benefit CDs, our government was ramping up for an ill-conceived war, suspending civil liberties, and gutting the legal foundations of our country (cf, habeas corpus). We can't just "phone in" our civic obligations. It takes a lot more work to look beyond our narrow self-interest and become educated about what is going on.

In the end, I actually hope that I am wrong to be so skeptical about this event. Nothing would please me more than to learn that suffering was alleviated in a sustainable way, that a child had her eyes opened to activism by this effort, or that a great leader emerges from a community that was served by the charitable effort. But until that happens, I am left with the cynical feeling that the girl whose favorite book was Captain Underpants seems like the perfect metaphor for the whole endeavor. It is progress that she can read at all when previous generations were illiterate, but if we are content with merely that accomplishment, we are ultimately letting her down.

Labels: , ,

2 Comments:

Blogger Robert P said...

The fact that Coca-Cola, Fox News, and snack food manufactuers are endorsing the effort does not inspire my confidence. In my opinion many of these corporations are doing tremendous disservices to society in the course of their normal business. If a junk food manufacturer funds nutrition programs, is that really a net positive?
It's interesting you bring this up as an analogy. My wife is in the MPH/nutrition program at UNC and we discussed this for several hours a few nights ago. I actually came down on the ABSOLUTELY NOT side of this argument, which makes me think I should rethink my American Idol stance maybe.
The question is whether or not you lend legitimacy to these organizations through participation.
I'll have to think some more on whether or not the American Idol fundraiser falls into that category.

As for the schlockyness of the fundraiser, I don't have a huge problem with that. After all, I've been to casino nights, there are black tie & boots events, Opera nights, etc. To each their own, it's just not my bag.

I do agree that there is a certain fund it and forget it aspect.

Anyway, you've given me food for thought (pun intended).

7:00 AM  
Blogger Tom @ GiveMeaning.com said...

Thanks for your post. I can only imagine the negotiations that went on behind the scenes between the orgs that are to receive this money and the producers of Idol Gives Back.

As is the case with many big appeals (e.g. Make Poverty History, Live8 etc), the actual highlighting of individual charities in a piece like Idol Gives Back would be fraught with the brand managers of those charities squabling over how they are represented, worried that they would lose a percentage of the pie, as opposed to think about how the pie is increased from mass-media events like Idol Gives Back.

Idol is one of the most valuable pieces of television programming on the network, certainly much more watched than the late-night and weekend appeals put on by the big international charities.

The fact that IGB's appeal speaks and incites action amongst a group of people most likely not otherwise conscious of the plight of African Countries is indeed a good thing. And while it leaves people to get that "quick satisfaction" that placates their need to do more than "phone it in" the reality is that for many citizens, this is all they are capable of.

I have lamented the fact that most all big appeals have little to no meaningful feedback. Long ago, I coined the term "Return On Generosity" to refer to the fact that without this measure, most of us are unlikely to remain invested.

What's wrong with Fast-Food Philanthropy is that the producers have forgotten to include the "toy in the happy meal" that makes one want to come back and collect the other toys on my next purchase.

I hate ending on such a stupid analogy but hey, I'm hungry and I'm in need of some fast-food.

6:28 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home