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A Listing I'd Like to See for a TV Documentary We Should Want to See

March 31, 2009

(Bruce Trachtenberg is executive director of the Communications Network, a stand-alone 501(c) dedicated to helping advance, promote, and encourage the adoption of effective communications practices in philanthropy. This post, like his previous post, has been cross-posted to the Comnetwork blog.)

I had a dream the other night that I opened my newspaper to the television listings page and saw this description:

Great Giving: The Quest to Make a Difference -- We all know the role government plays in providing for the public's needs. But how much do Americans really know about private money -- whether from individuals or foundations -- which is given away to help individuals, families, and communities, and also solve larger root problems we face as a society? Who are the people who have given, what has motivated them, and what have they accomplished? Those are among the many questions explored in this 90-minute documentary film that focuses on the history, legacy, limitations, and future potential of philanthropy, a force for good that continues to shape our nation and, by extension, the world.

Familytv I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by the dream. Recently I'd been chatting with Gail Freedman, a filmmaker and friend, who has been on a quest the past several years to make just such a documentary, and which PBS is committed to airing nationally. While Freedman began work on Great Giving several years ago -- and its form and focus have evolved and sharpened -- she is convinced that the film is even more relevant today than when she first conceived of the idea. The question, though, is whether she'll be able to complete the project because of fund-raising challenges she faces. But more on that later.

Freedman is among those who can readily cite facts and figures about the lack of public knowledge about philanthropy. Yet she believes that deeper understanding of how philanthropy works, and doesn't, could lead to greater progress through greater public engagement -- especially in times like these, when we face unprecedented challenges. But by and large, philanthropy still operates "beneath the public's radar" and other than within insider circles themselves, "there is no forum for a broader discussion and broader comprehension of its potential."

Using the power of storytelling, Freedman's project is meant to remedy some of those gaps in knowledge and engagement in several ways. First, the film itself will go beyond the rather thin and scattershot coverage of philanthropy we're all used to. Instead, she intends to present "several in-depth case studies of philanthropic passion, innovation, and in one case, hubris, that are representative of the diversity, scope, significance, and potential hazards of giving." These stories, she adds, are meant to "illuminate larger truths about our history -- and by inference, about our present and our future."  In its current incarnation, Freedman's film has a narrative arc rooted in the past, but keenly relevant and resonant in the present. She quotes Winston Churchill: "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see."

She’s chosen to "mix things up" and combine stories about iconic figures whose names have become synonymous with giving alongside others who are relatively little known and less understood, but equally important (from Julius Rosenwald to Madam C.J. Walker to George Pullman -- Pullman being a textbook case of philanthropy gone wrong). Freedman hopes the film will convey both what philanthropy really can do to make a difference in the nation and the world, and what it can't do -- i.e., the limitations of private giving for public purposes.

Next she has plans for a range of public outreach to complement the televised film. These involve the Internet, special edition DVDs, print materials, etc., as well as an extensive program of screenings and special events all over the country. Curricular materials may also be developed for use in schools (K-12), colleges, universities, and by NGOs, in America and around the world.

"My goal," says Freedman, "is to produce a film and create opportunities for a range of complementary activities that can help galvanize public discussion, debate and awareness around this essential 'third sector' that is so crucial to our society and culture, and yet surprisingly little understood. I know that a television film alone cannot change things, of course -- but a television event can be a public catalyst for new perceptions and action."

Freedman is an award-winning independent filmmaker who has produced, directed, and written a wide variety of projects for independent distribution, as well as PBS, network television, cable, and syndication; and she also creates educational and nonprofit work.  In fact, the commissioned films she makes for foundations and nonprofits have given her an added "insider's" view and have enriched her insights. Her most recent production was Generation Rx, a documentary for MSNBC that aired in early March 2009, about the current epidemic of prescription drug abuse.

Ironically, and as noted, the one thing that's holding Freedman back from finishing the project and getting it on air is money. Completion funding has been hard to come by, even though she only needs about $300,000 -- a relatively small sum for such a large project. Gifts and grants so far have come from a mix of corporate, individual, and foundation donors; but in reality, only a handful of foundations have stepped forward.

So right now, that's her dilemma. She has a lot of terrific material already "in the can," and she knows how to spin a great yarn and engage the public -- but she needs help. There's no argument that such a project could foster greater awareness of philanthropy in America and help spark a long overdue national conversation about its value and importance to our society and the world.

She's giving it all she can. Maybe you can help, too. It's not just in her interest that this project should get finished, but ours, too. If you are interested in discussing her project, e-mail Freedman.

-- Bruce Trachtenberg

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