Oprah's Stale Definition of Charity

As the Oprah empire started rolling out advertisements for her latest adventure -- a reality television show called "Oprah's Big Give" -- my inbox and voicemail were flooded by friends and family claiming indignantly, "Oprah stole your idea!" They were referring to Oprah's new show, in which participants compete every week to give away large amounts of her money in a short amount of time -- and in a way that will please a team of judges.

I wasn't that mad. After all, it's not the worst thing to be ripped off by the most successful communicator in the universe and, let's face it, Oprah's "idea people" probably weren't lurking at KGB Bar listening to my friends and I tell stories about slipping $20 bills in young adult fiction books at the Brooklyn Public Library.

You see, two years ago, I started The Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy. Not so secret, but indeed creative, the project consisted of me giving ten of my friends one hundred dollars and inviting them to, in turn, give that money away. Then my whole motley crew gathered together at a bar, imbibed, and told the stories of their forays into guerilla giving (no competition involved). It was so fun in 2006 that we did it again in 2007, and the second time, some of the original recipients gave away their own hundreds. It's become a bit like Pay It Forward, without the annoyance of Haley Joel Osment.

Last year, one of my friends asked pairs of strangers in a bookstore to pick out their favorite books, which he then purchased so they could exchange them. My brother gave his hundred to a friend so he could make the most "tricked out guitar pedal in history." My mom threw change in elementary school playgrounds and gave waitresses giant tips. Another friend bought dessert for strangers. Lots of folks gave homeless people sandwiches, flowers, and plain old cash. But more than their actions, it was my friends' stories of searching for what to do that moved me the most. For weeks, they grappled with ethical questions in an urgent, not theoretical, way: How do we act on our interconnectedness? What is the most effective way to give? Who deserves our generosity?

That was my not-so-secret hope all along. I'm no Oprah, but I did stumble my way into a nice chunk of change when I sold my first book. It was a total surprise; I suddenly felt very alone and undeserving. I was thinking hard about how much to give away, who to give it to, and my brain hurt. Starting The Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy was my way of forcing my friends to share my existential burden, put the fun back in funding, and let go of some of the attachments I was forming to what constituted a viable kind of giving -- writing checks to nonprofits with proven records helping "the poor" in third world countries. I wanted to let the cash drip out of my hands -- no tax exemption, no yearly reports -- and be totally okay with wherever it landed. When my dear friend bought ten copies of the DVD version of the pseudo-spiritual, racist, and classist "self-help" tutorial The Secret, I felt wholeheartedly awesome about it. What did I know? Maybe it would change someone's life. (If you knew me -- I can be rigid, sometimes righteous -- you'd understand that this was a total breakthrough.)

Which is where Oprah and I diverge. I had the opportunity to catch an episode of her now hot-and-heavy show, "Oprah's Big Give," on ABC the other night, and was pretty stunned at how totally attached -- in the Buddhist sense of the word -- everything about this show is. It should be called "Oprah's Right Way to Give" (as if there is one).

Oprah and her producers -- who, not surprisingly, also created "The Amazing Race" -- found some good-looking people with heart-wrenching and/or jealousy-inducing stories to star in the show. No surprises here. The Nigerian immigrant who hopes to become a doctor is totally endearing and has a killer smile. The 22-year-old dot-com millionaire is ingratiatingly effective. Commence competition.

In each episode the givers are plunked down in a new city with a charitable task and a time limit. In the one I caught, they had to give away $4,800 in 48 hours in Denver. Nearing the end, Oprah phoned in a twist -- they also had to give away the Ford SUVs (ahem, product placement, ahem) they had been driving around in. One contestant offered his car to a restaurant manager who had helped throw a fund-raiser for a wounded Iraq War veteran. It was a beautifully spontaneous moment, one giver rewarding another simply because he was moved to do it...

And he was promptly kicked off the show. The judges -- football star Tony Gonzales, Chris Rock's wife Malaak Compton-Rock, and chef Jamie Oliver -- deemed his car giveaway short-sighted; after all, the manager was middle-class, not one of those poor people. (Never mind that another contestant took women with HIV and AIDS out to a fancy lunch and patronized them with visits to the spa.)

In this way, "Oprah's Big Give" reifies a stale definition of charity. According to O and crew, some of us have and some of us have not, some of us are givers and some of us receivers, some of us deserve guilt and some of us deserve free stuff. What was so moving about the trifecta of contestant, restaurant manager, and military veteran was that it disrupted all notions of charity. The veteran has already served us all, now he's being served by the manager and the contestant. The manager helped out the contestant by providing a space for the fundraiser and the contestant turned around and served the manager. Everyone is in service to one another; the service is coming from a genuine, emotional place.

I realize that every "reality" TV show is based on a bogus competition of one kind or another, but the whole notion of judging, in this case, is both callous and unsophisticated. The point of giving is not to win an award or replace the money you've let go of. It's to engage in community, to get outside of your own neurotic head, to challenge your notions of security, happiness, ethics. Away from the cliché plotlines and tension-building camera angles of reality television shows, real giving does come with real rewards, but they aren't monetary. The reward is actually the wonderful realization that you don't need as much money as you thought you did. Your attachment to paychecks, perfection, and Prada melt away in the radiant sun of actually being connected to others and your own empathic heart. The moment a contestant acted on intuition and pure connection in "Oprah's Big Give," he was booted off the show for not calculating or conforming enough.

The show pushes its contestants, plopped down in unknown cities, to maniacally search for people who look needy enough for good photo ops and to satisfy the judges. That's not generosity. That's kind of gross and irresponsible. It's also the opposite of what's actually happening in the field of philanthropy, which is moving more and more toward sustainable change in the form of microlending and bringing the oppressed to the decision-making tables where they can shape less oppressive policies themselves.

As with all things O, I'm sure there will be profound cultural changes brought on by "Oprah's Big Give." More people with money will start thinking about giving it away. For this, I am grateful. But for the reductionist notions of charity and parachute-in philanthropy that the show popularizes, I am not.

One of my favorite moments ever at a Secret Society event was when my friend Jasica talked about buying her friend, Larry, a winter coat. He'd had some hard luck that year and couldn't afford one. Larry spontaneously busted out his shiny, green coat and paraded (think Priscilla, Queen of the Desert goes Alaska) around the bar with a million-dollar smile on his face. He wasn't embarrassed because it wasn't framed as charity. Jasica wasn't self-congratulatory because it wasn't about her. And the whole community wasn't tense because it wasn't about competition. It was about a friend, a coat, and fulfilling a real desire to share.

How's that for a tear-jerker ending, Oprah?