Dickens Would Be Proud

A philanthropist smoking crack with the homeless people he is supposed to be helping – how could this be good for philanthropy?

We are overjoyed to hear that a new comedy show about philanthropy, ‘The Foundation’, is coming soon to Canadian television. The premise is that an unscrupulous wide-boy (failed property developer) who has married money gets his hands on a substantial foundation, which he uses as a way to get into the best parties (which were not where he smoked crack – that was a moral lapse during a fact finding mission).

True, the central character, Michael Valmont-Selkirk, doesn’t seem to reflect what we are seeing from real-life philanthrocapitalists: he, says the press release announcing the show, “doesn’t want to work that hard while doing it. Or really sacrifice anything. Or spend much time understanding the underlying issues”. Yet it is great news that philanthropy has reached such a level of importance that it is, once again, a suitable subject for satire. Far better to be satirised than treated in the overly-earnest-yet-glib manner of the recent American series, ‘The Philanthropist’. (Come to think of it, perhaps that was an attempt at satire, too.)

The Victorian novelist Charles Dickens was constantly ridiculing philanthropists for their foibles and hypocrisies (click here for our description of his contribution to the Victorian golden age of philanthropy). He was a great believer in effective philanthropy, even acting as an adviser to Angela Burdett-Coutts, one of Britain’s leading donors of the day, but he also believed that there should be scrutiny and challenge.

Dickens was also a great writer. We have no idea if ‘The Foundation’ is any good. But, if it can help to widen the debate, everyone who cares about effective philanthropy should welcome this new contribution to the discussion. We might even learn something. Perish the thought!