Indiana University Press is proud to distribute What is Philanthropy?, an in-depth documentary on the nature of philanthropy throughout the United States. We recently spoke with producer Salvatore Alaimo about the project and he gave us some insight into how the film came to be. Here's what we learned.
Indiana University Press: You’ve produced a feature length documentary on the subject of philanthropy. To borrow the title of your film, what is philanthropy?
Salvatore Alaimo: Great question. The word comes from the Greek root word philanthropia which means in essence, the love of human kind. The more modern definition from Robert Payton is voluntary action for the public good. I didn’t seek to define or redefine philanthropy but yet to expand our perspectives for this broad concept of giving which can come in many forms.
The evolution or devolution of how we frame the concept today in comparison to the ancient Greeks has systematically narrowed our perspectives to mean only the giving of money, only something that the wealthy can engage in or even more narrowly, when a foundation gives a grant to an nonprofit organization. We all come at this concept from our own social construction, so the purpose of this film is to introduce a variety of ways to give and explode some myths about giving all while using the visual medium to educate and entertain the viewers.
IUP: What are the main obstacles to creating this documentary?
SA: I had several obstacles to completing this film. First, I had to do it in my spare time, which was minimal considering I am a full time university professor. I am proud to say that I worked the film around my teaching schedule and never cancelled a class or found a substitute instructor because of a location shoot, screening, or other purpose.
Second, being a first-time film maker I had a learning curve. Reading books, watching DVDs and attending seminars and conferences on how to make documentaries will only get you so far not having a formal education in film and video. So, I had to surround myself with professional crew who had those skills. I communicated my vision for the film to them and supervised their work to the extent that I maintained that vision but also allowed them to make some suggestions, some which I thankfully used. I had to learn new skills, manage a budget, schedule travel, purchase equipment, license content, market the film , and at times at location shoots get on the floor to run cables, all to complete this documentary.
Another function, the third main challenge, was fundraising which was extremely frustrating at times. My assumption was that the world of institutional philanthropy, foundations, would be interested in a visual medium that helps educate the public about the world in which they operate. I was wrong, as the only foundation funds I secured were from those with whom I had a personal connection of some kind. This proved once again that what we feel are our good ideas sometimes don’t stand alone on their own merit. It’s all about relationships. So, while my thick skin can handle rejection just fine, I was troubled with how some of them went about it. I encountered lying, narcissism, rudeness, condescension, inconsistencies in decisions, and more.
Of all the challenges this is the one that would make me think twice before making another documentary. I have no regrets putting $70,000 of my own money into this film, but raising the other $70,000 was at times unpleasant. However, I am extremely grateful to all who contributed to the film because I couldn’t have finished it without them. They took a chance on a first-time film maker and that does not get lost on me.
IUP: You have several high profile guests and interview subjects in this film. What different insights do they offer? How do people from different backgrounds approach philanthropy differently?
SA: People’s backgrounds help shape their giving, and it reminds us how powerful context is in driving giving. Mike Farrell, star of M*A*S*H, for example reminds us in the film that just because he became a celebrity it didn’t mean he gave up his right to engage in social activism. He also reminds us that we’re all social activists by default, but if we do nothing we give up that innate power we have to someone else.
Alex Smith, quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs, has a very interesting story because his foundation was not started because he came out of the foster care system and had a tough time adjusting to life. It’s precisely the opposite, because as a high school student in San Diego, he came from a family that provided a strong support system. When he became aware of this issue of foster care kids aging out at age 18 he couldn’t imagine what they were going through. So his foundation provides full scholarships for San Diego area high school students to attend San Diego State University.
Nell Newman co-founded the Newman’s Own Organics product line, and she explains how our society is moving towards more organic and sustainable farming because it is environmentally responsible and more healthy for us. She points out the growth of farmers markets in the United States. Interestingly enough, however, she says that she doesn’t see educating the public about these issues as philanthropy but more so as part of her job.
Then you have an example of living history with Civil Rights Leader Dr. William G. Anderson, who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Albany, Georgia in the early 1960’s to help get African Americans the right to vote. He reminds us that sometimes our acts of giving come with great risk. In his experience, this meant going beyond willing to go to jail but also risking your life.
Senator Charles Grassley provides the perspective from government, and he has been a leader in attempting to get the nonprofit sector to be ethical and accountable, which politically can be a lonely position. I was struck by the extent these people and others like Evelyn Lauder knew their issues. Evelyn had no notes and talked at length about breast cancer, quoting many statistics and the latest scientific advancements. This reminded me of how important it is for us to research issues and causes when we want to engage in philanthropy.
IUP: What do you think people misunderstand most about philanthropy?
SA: It’s probably a tie between thinking it’s only about giving money and it’s only an activity for the wealthy. Then, beyond that I feel that advocacy and social activism don’t often get included in discussions about giving, but this film reminds us that they deserve attention, too. Our civil society wouldn’t have evolved to where it is today without the advocacy and activism of social movements that have influenced policy, put laws on the books and ultimately shaped our culture.
I had an encounter with a representative of a local community foundation in a city where the documentary was shown at a film festival. During the Q&A session she told me to take out the social activism content, and I was unsuccessful at convincing her it was also a form of giving. We only need to turn to Dr. King for a great example of someone who volunteered his time, risked his life and paid the ultimate price so that people’s rights would be protected and that our society would be better for all.
What I hope people realize from watching the film is that everyone can be a philanthropist. We all can give in our own way.