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In 2021, the proposed reality TV show The Activist ruffled a lot of people’s feathers, particularly in the nonprofit sector. The basic premise was that activists and celebrities would compete in challenges to raise awareness for their causes with the hopes of going to the G20 Summit.
Needless to say, the show was cancelled before it aired. Vu Le, writer and thinker behind Nonprofit AF, explained the cancellation best: “Forcing activists to compete against one another in a Hunger Games for the crumbs thrown out by the wealthy. Measuring success through social media engagement. Having celebrities who know little to nothing about these issues judging activists with years of experience. And doing it all as entertainment.”
I’m a journalist and writer; by day, I’m a fundraising researcher. In other words I research individuals, foundations, and companies for our nonprofit clients to help them raise funds for their respective causes. So naturally, I’m fascinated when discussions of philanthropy and nonprofits come up in daily life since I spend so much time thinking about motivations and wealth.
I find it fascinating what people understand about nonprofits as depicted in movies, books, or even social media (fiction or not). My husband will tell you that I am known for yelling at the TV when I see something that does not ring true in the nonprofit world.
When I’m not yelling at the media, I am interested in how philanthropy and wealth show up in fiction and how those depictions can highlight or critique the field that I work in. So here are eight recently published books that explore different facets of the philanthropic world. Some of the books focus on traditional philanthropy and nonprofits; others focus on wealth, patronage and more.
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Trust by Hernan Diaz
Speaking of wealth, Trust provides a multifaceted view of wealth and the rise of the rich and famous in the early 1900s. The book opens with an excerpt of the “famous” book Bonds, written in 1938, that tells the story of a wealthy financier and his elusive wife. But it’s not the only version of the story. Told in four parts, the story and its interpretations of this couple unfolds. What was interesting was the thread about wealth-making and philanthropy. The financier makes a lot of money off of the Black Thursday while everyone else was losing their shirts. His wife has been a patron of the arts, supporting artists and charities, using the money that they got from the market…
It’s an interesting look at the phenomena we are seeing en masse today: billionaires getting wealthier and wealthier as people suffer, and then donating their money back to social services and more to alleviate the suffering.
The Long Corner by Alexander Maksik
Solomon Fields, a washed up journalist, hates his work in the advertising and art world. He feels that he has disappointed his Bohemian grandmother who escaped the Nazis and wanted him to live his life to the fullest. When she dies unexpectedly, Fields quits his job and takes up an interesting opportunity writing a profile about Sebastian Light, a mysterious patron of the arts who has a private resort for artists to create. Light is a strange man who has built a sort of cult of personality with the artists that he supports. Fields is simultaneously drawn and repelled by the resort; is this resort real or is it a show for his benefit? I think the book does a great job exploring the complicated relationship between wealthy patrons and the artists they support.
Benefit by Siobhan Phillips
When Laura gets a fellowship from the Weatherfield Foundation to study at Oxford University, it’s the chance of a lifetime for her. But she feels set apart from her fellow students; they came from privileged backgrounds and she did not. When she loses her job years later, a friend helps her get a job at the Foundation to write its history for its 100th anniversary. But as she dives into the past, she finds the foundation’s wealth is built on slavery and pain. Not to mention, when she reaches out to her former alumni, she finds out that the academic world has a dark side. It’s an important satire looking at the world of foundations and fellowships in academia.
Dava Shastri’s Last Day by Kirthana Ramisetti
Have you ever been curious to know what your obituary would say if you were to pass? Wealthiest woman in the world, Dava Shastri decides to gather her children at her private island by announcing her death prematurely and let them see her obituaries, thinking she’ll be praised for all of her philanthropy. Instead, secrets she wanted to remain hidden are revealed. Can she reconcile her past before her death? Can philanthropy correct past wrongs or does it merely greenwash them?
The Appeal by Janice Hallett
The Appeal is a murder mystery composed of emails, memos, text messages, and other ephemera. Two lawyers are tasked to review the documents by a senior partner because he thinks that the wrong person went to jail and that the killer revealed it in the documents. It opens on Fairway Players rehearsing their play All My Sons; a new person has joined the cast, recently returned from Africa where she worked in healthcare with her husband. But the play becomes more than just a play when the granddaughter of the director and his wife, who plays the lead, is diagnosed with brain cancer. Everyone gears up to raise money to pay for experimental treatment for the young girl. But then things go south when one of the cast members turns up dead. It’s a fascinating look at the pressures of crowdsourcing for health reasons as well as the challenges and risks of international aid work.
Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Nonprofits are supposed to help people, right? Sadly, that’s not always or even currently true. Take My Hand explores the horrible history of forcibly sterilizing mostly Black and poor women in the U.S. Civil Townsend joined Montgomery Family Planning Clinic as a nurse to help provide medical care to the local community in 1975. She becomes close to a local family where she was told to administer injections to their young girls aged 11 and 13, which seems extremely young. But soon she learns that the injections caused more harm than good. The Family Planning Clinic may be causing harm to the very people she wanted to help. Can she make amends?
Give Unto Others by Donna Leon
This is the 31st book in Donna Leon’s incredible Commissario Guido series. Commissario Guido is a vice-commissario of Venetian police. He has has been asked by an old friend of his mother’s for a favor. Her daughter’s husband, an accountant, has intimated that he may have put them all in danger. The old friend asks Guido to find out what might be going on. Deciding against his best instincts, he looks into it, focusing on the husband’s work as an accountant. As Guido investigates, there are hints that there may be something off with the charity that the husband had worked for. This is a great series that examines the world of wealth and charity.
Twelve Tomorrows, “Byzantine Empathy” by Ken Liu
So this short story may not be so recent but it deals with nonprofits and cryptocurrency, which is a subject that I am fascinated by. Originally published in Twelve Tomorrows, edited by Wade Roush, the story explores the idea of using cryptocurrency and Virtual Reality in the nonprofit sector. We know that empathy is critical in getting people to support philanthropic causes, but is there a limit to what empathy can do or what technology can do? What if you used Virtual Reality to see into the perspectives of people who are facing oppression? And you can give cryptocurrency directly to those people? Two former roommates face each other on different sides of the equation of how to make the world a better place.
Hopefully you’ll find these reads to bring up important and necessary questions about the nonprofit world. If you want more fiction books on philanthropy, here’s my list of four additional books, or if you want nonfiction about philanthropy, check out another list of five nonfiction books that I put together.