Mar 24, 2011

Nonprofit Insiders: What's Your Takeaway From "Secret Millionaire?"

I usually run from reality TV, but for obvious reasons, had to take a peek at ABC's "Secret Millionaire."

The premise, if you've avoided television with even more success than I, is that an actual millionaire gets involved with three different charities, knowing that he or she (mostly "he's" so far) will, in the final few minutes of the show, deliver a fat check to one or more of them.

vegas.jpgThe suspense is all about deciding which one will be the major beneficiary. On Sunday night's episode, for example, millionaire James Malinchak (a motivational speaker from Las Vegas) described having trouble sleeping on the night before he announced his choices.

And the three charities on his roster all looked pretty deserving, based in economically depressed Gary, Indiana. They included an after-school learning program, a community cleanup program, and a kids' basketball program.

So, if lots of Americans watch this show, will it be a good thing for charities? On the whole, I'd say yes -- it introduces the viewers to real community needs at a personal level, shows them how individuals can help meet those needs, and leaves everyone wiping away tears, onscreen and off.

On the other hand, the show skirted the supposedly central issue of how to properly evaluate a nonprofit's effectiveness -- which is increasingly important for donors, who suspect that in many cases they're dropping their money into a bottomless pit. Maybe Mr. Malinchak happened to link up with the three most functional charities on the planet, but from all we saw, everyone within them was hardworking, willing to make personal sacrifices, and happily free from common nonprofit syndromes such as burnout, internal disagreements about methods and priorities, wondering why the staff/board/whoever aren't doing more to raise money, and so forth. How on earth was our check-writing millionaire supposed to choose between them?!

One imagines the producers did a good bit of vetting of the three featured charities. Not to mention that the millionaire in question gets to spend only a few days' worth of time at each charity, so any darker aspects of working there probably had yet to emerge. And would we want viewers to find out that the nonprofits in question aren't as perfect as all that? Maybe not.

Yet it left me feeling that viewers won't get to appreciate some of the truly most difficult aspects of working at a nonprofit -- the persevering through all the dysfunctionalities I mentioned above.

And it certainly won't help donors with that ongoing question of how to choose between worthy charities. As far as I could tell, Malinchak made a fairly personal decision, awarding the biggest check to the group that offered basketball (which Malinchak once played competitively) and whose coach had suffered the loss of several siblings (Malinchak had lost his own sister). When you come right down to it, his decision-making process probably isn't that far away from that of many other donors, millionaires or not.