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Picture This: The Story of Philanthropy


It was funny the first time I saw it, and it does make a point. But if Sal Alaimo succeeds at delivering his film on philanthropy, I have high hopes we won’t ever again have to watch people make fools of themselves when asked to speak into the camera and say what they think philanthropy is or does. 

All kidding aside, Alaimo, an Assistant Professor in the School of Public and Nonprofit Administration at  Grand Valley State University, wants to give the philanthropic sector and and a relatively uninformed public, a gift. Simply titled What is Philanthropy?, the film is meant to help  advance understanding, awareness and appreciation of what philanthropy is and does. If nothing, else, Alaimo wants people who don’t already know this — and as research suggests, probably few do — that when good things happen in their communities, and people’s lives are bettered and problems attacked and solved, it’s not an accident. Nor is it always because of a successful government program.  Instead it’s another example of philanthropy at work.

Says Alaimo:

Philanthropy has been a part of United States culture since the first settlers arrived, and almost 400 years later it still remains a largely unknown and misunderstood concept. Even as American society has evolved over time, the act of voluntarily giving for the common good has remained an important part of our cultural identity.  Every day millions of people across this country donate their time, money or expertise to the causes they deem important and worthy of their resources.

Likewise, every day everyone is somehow touched directly or indirectly by philanthropy, whether it be through receiving medical care at a nonprofit hospital, attending higher education, enjoying a wildlife sanctuary, attending a play at a local theater, having a meal in a soup kitchen, or receiving a simple, kind act from a neighbor.

Yet with all this history, growth and attention, what do we really know about philanthropy? What is it? How does it operate? Who participates in it? Why do people give? Why do we have it as part of American culture and society? And why is it important for us to  understand the answers to these questions? My documentary explores these key questions.

As a documentary film maker and researcher, Alaimo believes in being fair and balanced – and in a way that phrase still has meaning.  So, as much as he’s interested in illuminating all the good that can be said about philanthropy, and there will be plenty of that in his film, he feels it’s important to raise questions that merit conversation. For instance: do all the philanthropic dollars go where they are needed most? Is it enough for private foundations to give away only five percent of their assets a year? And while giving is usually considered on the surface a good thing, do some give for other reasons — such as narcissism, even social control?

Asked how he’s defining success for his film, Alaimo says: “The story of philanthropy has not been adequately told to the general public through film. If we have a better understanding of philanthropy, we can better address society’s problems through citizen engagement.”

Anyway, why should I take more of your time trying to explain the film, and why my fingers are crossed he’ll raise the remaining money he needs to finish it, when you can sample some of it here and see snippets of the interviews, the stories of good people and works, he hopes to feature. Maybe, even you, will learn something you don’t know.

To learn more about the project, and see some sample clips, or contact Alaimo, click here.

–Bruce Trachtenberg

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