February 27, 2015

The End of ‘Parks and Recreation’ Is Sad for Philanthropy

Whether you’re a cultishly devoted fan or you stumbled anywhere online this week, you probably know that “Parks and Recreation’s” tender, closure-filled finale aired Tuesday night on NBC. Elegies abound, paying tribute to the show’s rich and complex relationships, consistent laughs, show-don’t-tell feminism, and enduring significance for its fans.

But I will miss “Parks and Recreation” for a reason so nerdy even Ben Wyatt—congressman, husband of the show’s heroine, Leslie Knope, and inventor of the ninth-highest-selling multiplayer game in history—would approve.

“Parks and Rec” was the only show to give philanthropy a turn in the prime-time spotlight, making it funny while taking seriously its increasingly prominent role in society.

The show had a unique capacity to spin bureaucratic straw—notarizing paperwork, backroom negotiations with local legislators, small-town complaints—into comedy gold for seven seasons.

To explain the work of philanthropy from the angles of grant makers, staff, and the public required the same deftness and sophistication the writers obviously brought to other seemingly boring topics.

One of the small, idiosyncratic delights of the show has been the plotlines that showcased the increasingly complex role of philanthropy amid the microcosm of government, business, and individual citizens that was Pawnee, Ind.

In the season finale, Donna, the most conspicuously well-to-do of the core characters, devotes the money she set aside for lavish trips with her schoolteacher husband, to establish a fund that will supplement gaps in public education.

Though a brief flash-forward at the very end of the show, Donna’s involvement in philanthropy reflects a slightly exaggerated reality: Public schools are struggling to cover not only supplementary activities but basic curriculum. It’s a punchline when Joe, her husband, reports that his school has eliminated “math club … and math” … but not by much. Donna’s turn to philanthropy with a program called “Teach Yo’self,” is a supercharged merger of DonorsChoose and Khan Academy—“after-school programs in geography, science, you name it … giving teachers whatever they need.”

I’m sure for the sake of time and comedic risk, the writers had to cut Donna’s internal debate about starting a charter-school network or subsidizing public schools, but the writers could probably devise a fabulous treatment of that trend.

Yet philanthropy as a source of humor and social commentary popped up several seasons earlier, when Ben, former city auditor, goes to work at the charitable-giving arm of Sweet­ums, the monolithic candy corporation that anchors Pawnee’s economy.

The jokes were probably too inside-baseball for anyone who doesn’t regularly read, say, The Chronicle of Philanthropy. In just the first episode introducing the Sweet­ums Foundation (“Correspondents’ Lunch,” Season 5, Episode 15), the show managed to mock:

• Excessive overhead: Ben’s office has “more mahogany wood than currently resides in the Amazon rainforest,” and catering includes caviar, oysters, and Fondue Friday.

• The use of charity to temper a corporation’s bad PR (“I need you to select your first charity by tomorrow. Sweetums’s public image is at an all-time low. … There’s a rumor going around that the chocolate is made out of rat parts. What are you gonna do? It’s where all the flavor comes from!”)

• The difficulty of sifting through the morass of grant applications. Out of sheer exhaustion, one character ends up picking a legal-aid organization that serves the KKK.

Later in Season 5 viewers were “treated” to the awkward scenario of attempting to schmooze a self-involved, miserly boor simply for the sake of his substantial giving capacity.

Ben and sidekick Andy Dwy­er approach repugnant cologne magnate Dennis Feinstein for a major donation, to which his initial response is, “I don’t like charity. Feels like I’m giving money away and getting nothing in return” (Episode 18, “Animal Control”).

No need to raise hands if this thought, narrated by Ben, has ever crossed your mind: “Ah, he’s disgusting, but I want to take his money and give it to needy people, so I’m just gonna keep on smiling.“

Or if you’ve ever accompanied a prospect on a night out, hoping to cultivate his or her interest in your organization, only to get your soft pitch shot down with some version of Mr. Feinstein’s, “Snooze. You ever been fox hunting? I have my own foxes flown in from Russia.”

I’ll say it: As a fundraiser, that’s a trauma-inducingly familiar interaction.

Even its most endearing portrayal of philanthropy still managed some jabs about the donor class’s cluelessness: When Andy meets Lord Edward Covington, head of a British foundation (during a Sweetums pitch meeting to take its signature music-education program international), the two bond over a love of remote-controlled helicopters and ice cream. Lord Covington blithely identifies the entire London skyline as his family’s holdings, along with Scotland (“Have you heard of it?”), a castle, and a hedge maze “so vast, I got lost in there for two days.”

Yet all this wealth just leaves the boyish king adrift, as he admits to Andy and Ben: “I don’t know what I’m doing. … I started this foundation in order to do something good with our money, and I’ve heard hundreds of charity pitches, and I honestly don’t know whether they’re good or bad.”

Lord Covington agrees to fund the international expansion of the after-school program purely because he likes Andy, whom he also asks to stay and help him direct his giving. Just to recap: Andy is able to help a fabulously wealthy man give away money because they both like toys and ice cream and thus are bros.

Sometimes it works out almost sweetly enough to be manufactured in Pawnee: When 2023-era Donna decides to start her educational-funding program, her first call is to her “Parks” friend April, who, as a foundation professional is able to ramp up the grant-making mechanism with the can-do urgency reserved only for those mentored by Leslie Knope.

Admittedly, there was a missed opportunity to examine the role of philanthropy in the public parks that lie at the center of the show’s conceit. Leslie attempting to balance a private foundation naming her pet park of the moment would have been an amusing scenario and a relevant one.

Along the way, however, the “Parks and Recreation” gang managed to acknowledge that philanthropy is part of the negotiation of public good and private desires. Personality quirks, self-interest, and wonky passions all influence the day-to-day life of nonprofit professionals and donors, albeit in subtler and less familiar ways than your typical law firm or cop force. As the sitcom that always intended to be a workplace comedy with heart, there was no better showcase for the foibles of our good-hearted profession.

Amy Schiller, who has worked as a major-gifts fundraising consultant, campaign director, and political organizer, is a PhD candidate at the Graduate Center of CUNY.