An Interview with Salvatore Alaimo, Director of ‘What Is Philanthropy?’

by Nick Kush
What Is Philanthropy?

After reviewing his film, What Is Philanthropy?, I had an opportunity to discuss the film even further with its director, Salvatore Alaimo.  We were able to discuss a wide variety of topics, including how the film has changed his perception on the subject matter.

How did the idea for this documentary come about?  Obviously you have some background in the area as a professor, but was there anything that drove you to undergo this process?

I hatched the idea in the fall of 2008 just before the economic crash, so my timing was not so great.  I had recently finished my PhD studying philanthropy in an interdisciplinary program at Indiana University, so I came away with a depth and breadth for the concept not many people are fortunate to have.  So many people engage in various forms of giving in this country, yet many of those same people don’t seem to have an adequate understanding of the concept, and its role in our individual lives and in society as a whole.  

I certainly didn’t expect people to have the understanding I came away with from IU, but the irony of all this engagement and activity coupled with a lacking understanding prompted me to do something about it.  Writing a book came and went quickly as an idea, so I thought the visual medium would be the most effective way of enhancing our understanding for philanthropy.

What Is Philanthropy?

image via Salvatore Alaimo

With this being your first foray into film, was there anything about the filmmaking process that was especially eye-opening to you?  Did you encounter any major issues during production?

Oh boy, was it eye-opening!  I read books, watched DVDs and took workshops on how to make a documentary.  I also attended two conferences, but all that does not make up for practical knowledge and experience.  The major issue that stood out for me was raising funds to produce the film.  I thought, in retrospect a bit naively, that the world of institutional philanthropy (foundations, corporate giving programs, etc.) would be interested in funding a film that helps educate society on the concept that is the basis for the world in which they operate.  I was only able to secure funds from foundations in which I had a personal connection, thus reinforcing the importance of relationships in fundraising.  

It was disappointing that the others didn’t see this as a good idea that stood on its own merit.  I accepted rejection and expected it, but sometimes it was how it was done that I found undesirable.  I encountered narcissism, lying, rudeness, condescending rhetoric and even flawed review processes.  In the reviewers’ comments for a National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) documentary fund grant rejection, reviewer #1 stated that he or she was “disappointed that Alaimo didn’t include the influence of religion on philanthropy” while reviewer #4 stated he or she “was glad to see Alaimo included the influence of religion on philanthropy.”  The four of them viewed the same trailer and read the same information in the proposal.

One foundation that has supported philanthropy education for decades rejected it because it was a film and they didn’t fund films.  Another well known foundation rejected it because “we don’t make films about philanthropy, we fund films concerning social justice.”  I was startled by the fact that this came from the head of their documentary fund who gave out $50 million per year to fund films, and he didn’t understand philanthropy’s role in social justice.  I recommended some books for him to read and of course never heard from him again.  The best one was from a small foundation that sent me a rejection postcard that said they couldn’t fund my project because “we only support projects that promote philanthropy.”  These are just some of the absurdities I encountered over the 5-6 year production process. Some of them are so bizarre, you can’t make them up.

What Is Philanthropy?

image via Salvatore Alaimo

The second most eye-opening issue was the editing process. While I had a very good professional editor, Jason Woods, I spent countless hours with him supervising the editing process which took 40+ hours of footage and boiled it down to the 86-minute feature film. First, that takes a lot of time and deep thought. Second, the fact that I made sure to have transcripts done right after shooting footage allowed us to refer to the transcripts with time codes to make sure that not only did what people said lined up well but that it also flowed well visually.

Third, I am thankful for my Associate Producer, Cynthia Kay who I sarcastically called “The Hatchet Woman” because she would remind me that I had to cut some footage I at first wasn’t willing to give up. While painful at times, the litmus test was whether it was visually appealing and whether it added anything worthwhile to the content. If not, it was on the chopping block. Looking back I probably listened to both of these wonderful people about 85% of the time and pushed back the remaining 15%. As producer I had the final say but I often deferred to better judgement.

The third one was licensing content.  Licensing is a venerable “Wild West” environment with often times no rhyme or reason to how much content owners will charge.  Sometimes when I explained the nature of the project and the fact that it was not a profit making endeavor people gave me a break on the price or simply let me use it at no cost with the promise to credit it properly.  Then there were the cutthroat organizations like CNN and NFL Films that wouldn’t budge on their outrageous pricing.  I thought this was not smart on their part because receiving $3,000 instead of $5,000 was still $3,000 more than nothing, and it was “found money.”  But, apparently they don’t look at it that way.  

Navigating licensing was a very interesting experience and often times riddled with absurdity like in fundraising.  Often companies give licensing to a person or department that has a larger core function, so when you contact them you’re not a priority, even though again it’s “found money”!  I was warned by an expert not to try to license music on my own and foolishly didn’t listen.  I changed my mind after a few months on my own and hired Diane Prentice Music Clearance in California. She worked the deals for the music from Patti Smith and Ziggy Marley.  I highly recommend her.

What Is Philanthropy?

image via Salvatore Alaimo

How did you coordinate the schedules of so many established figures?  I imagine their schedules are all pretty hectic.

I think what helped was the fact that I honestly didn’t have a specific deadline or timetable, but of course wanted to finish production as soon as possible.  Some of these people are very busy, so scheduling was challenging at times.  We had to book Senator Charles Grassley about six months in advance, and my cameraman was sure we would be cancelled as we waited outside his DC office.  The phones were ringing frantically that day and a group of interns were answering calls one after another.  

The Senator arrived on time, greeted us and told us that the day was one of the busiest in his political career.  That afternoon he had to submit a report from the Senate Finance Committee on healthcare to President Obama because later that evening the President would go on national television to talk about healthcare legislation.  I am forever grateful to the senator for keeping our appointment.  

What Is Philanthropy?

image via Salvatore Alaimo

For the interviews with Mike Farrell, Nell Newman and Evelyn Lauder we needed about 3-4 months advance notice.  The interview with Alex Smith took a while to get confirmed because of his busy schedule as an NFL quarterback.  His mom had to vet me first to make sure I was legitimate and then she connected me directly with Alex.  We spoke on the phone and he invited us to interview him in his home.  He was a gracious host and overall a great guy.  

For Civil Rights Leader Dr. William G. Anderson, that took a long time because I had no way to reach him.  I had to look up some records to find out his most recent place of employment and make the request to that employer that they contact him and let him know I wanted to speak to him and why.  After about six months I heard from him and we set up the interview in Detroit.  

Ironically, one of the most challenging schedules to work around was my own in being a full time professor.  So, much of the work was done in the summer, on weekends or on days when I didn’t teach.  I am proud to say that over that 5-6 year period I never once cancelled a class or had a substitute teach one of my classes. That combined with not getting funding right away probably extended production to that length.

One of the major points of emphasis in What is Philanthropy? was to capture the concept of giving from many different points of view.  Do you wish you had covered another angle of the discussion or gone further into one you had mentioned in the film?

That’s a great question and a tough one to answer.  The main issue was trying to provide a treatise on such a broad subject and do it justice in under 90 minutes.  I wished I had been able to include some of the other religions I contacted but scheduling or their desire to not be on camera impacted that.  One area I wish I had squeezed in there was more content from the perspective of the recipient.  There is an entire special feature dedicated to it, but looking back it would have been nice to include a bit more of it in the feature film.

What Is Philanthropy?

image via Salvatore Alaimo

Where do you see the concept of giving heading in the coming years?  Have you notice a serious shift or change in the way people are lending their talents and resources?

The research on the Millenials and the intensifying competition for resources hints that relationships and associated giving that is considered meaningful from givers will be more important in the future.  Giving can’t be just looked upon as a transaction but instead has to have much more meaning.  I think that organizations vying for surplus goods, volunteer time and/or funding need to be mindful of this and offer meaningful experiences for givers that also help their needs.  

The other part of giving is the advent of social entrepreneurship.  More people are coming forward these days with creative and innovative ways to address social problems.  They’re challenging the status quo, pushing envelopes, and testing new ideas which I think is healthy for the sector and society as a whole.  My only hope is that through these transitions we move our perception of philanthropy beyond being something just for the wealthy and beyond just the giving of money.  I intentionally devoted significant time in the film to advocacy and social activism because I maintain those are forms of giving, too.

What Is Philanthropy?

image via Salvatore Alaimo

Making a film is never a lonely endeavor.  Who was your biggest supporter during this process?

Financially, I was the largest supporter with $70,000 of my own money and that doesn’t count my time.  I then had to raise the additional $70K because the total cost was about $140,000.  A special fund from the WK Kellogg Foundation, thanks to one of their Board members, and the Tassell-Wisner-Bottrall Foundation were the next largest financial supporters.  I also received some monetary and in-kind support from my employer, Grand Valley State University.  

If we were to segregate out the sources by category, individuals were the largest group.  There were many people who gave smaller contributions but the film couldn’t have been made without their collective effort.  Then there is the moral support and encouragement from friends and family.  I’ll admit there were a few times I thought about giving up but they helped me persevere.

The documentary has circulated a few film festivals and was even broadcast on PBS since its completion.  What’s that experience been like for you?

Navigating film festivals was an interesting experience for me.  The film made it into four of them, but I had submitted it to almost 50 festivals.  That is an indication of how competitive film festivals have become.  Even the smaller ones are receiving hundreds of submissions. This cost can add up quickly, too because each has an application fee typically ranging from $30-$75.  You really have to be strategic on which festivals to submit to and read their criteria carefully.  You also have to have a line item in your budget for it.  I knew going into making the film that it was a topic that not everyone would understand and/or embrace.  

The documentary film world tends to like international films and films that have more of a narrow focus.  I think that’s why this film was sort of in no man’s land with the world of institutional philanthropy not caring about it and the documentary funding and festival worlds not embracing it for being possibly too educational and/or too broad.  But, I am grateful for the four festivals that selected it and I attended all of them to be there for the discussion sessions after the screening.  

What Is Philanthropy?

image via Salvatore Alaimo

Plus, it was great to see the other wonderful films, meet other filmmakers and hear their stories. What is Philanthropy? made its PBS debut last December here on WGVU in Grand Rapids, Michigan and I am hoping other PBS stations will broadcast it as well.  I have submitted it to National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA) in hopes of securing national distribution to the PBS network.  If that doesn’t come through I will target the stations in cities where there are connections in the film or substantial footage such as San Francisco, Atlanta, and Indianapolis.  I have suggested broadcasting it on November 15 which is National Philanthropy Day.

What’s the biggest takeaway from this entire ordeal?  Has anything that your contributors shared change your perception of philanthropy or at least a section of it?

The biggest takeaway is that my respect for filmmaking has expanded a lot.  When I reflect on what it took to make this film and observe other filmmakers work so hard to get their films out there, often not making much or any money, I applaud them for believing in their projects and the messages they convey.  I can’t attribute changing my perception to any single contributor but collectively they expanded my perspective for the various ways people can give even beyond what I learned in that PhD program.

I imagine the documentary comes up every so often during one of your lectures.  Has the film changed the way you teach the material?

Coincidentally, one of my graduate students recently viewed the film and told me she thought it was almost completely representative of one of the graduate courses she took with me.  I honestly never consciously put them together but knew I wanted colleges and universities to use it for teaching and learning.  I do every once in a while tell stories from the making of the film that are relevant to our course topic for a given evening.  The students seem to enjoy them, and I am happy to share them.

What Is Philanthropy?

image via Salvatore Alaimo

Now that you are finished with this project, do you have any information regarding any future projects that you’d like to share?  Would you want to move on to other topics?

People have asked me when I will make the next one.  I hesitate to produce another film at this time because I am still spending time helping my distributor promote the current one.  New universities, public libraries and individuals are purchasing it each week, so I hope sales will continue to be steady over a long period of time.  The film is in five countries now, but I hope its international reach will grow as well.  Also, I’m not sure I want to put myself through that fundraising experience again.  

Beyond that, every aspect of making the film was enjoyable.  I travelled to places I had never been to before met some great people, worked with wonderful professionals in my crew and now there is the satisfaction of having a finished product that is being view and used for teaching, learning and family entertainment.  Then of course my full-time position at the university makes time a challenge.  I have thought about producing a short documentary on the Caregivers Sewing Group in What is Philanthropy? Everyone that sees the film is touched by that group of elderly women sewing clothes for children in the foster care system.  The social aspect and the skill of sewing I think together make their story very interesting.

Another idea is a documentary on what it is like to be a descendant of a U.S. President.  I think it would be fascinating to speak to children and grandchildren of presidents and see how that has impacted their lives.  So, these are just considerations for now.

What Is Philanthropy?

image via Salvatore Alaimo

If you so wish, you can purchase your own copy of What Is Philanthropy? by visited the Indiana University Press.


Thanks for reading!  What are your thoughts on my interview with Salvatore Alaimo?  Comment down below!

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Ekene Ejiofor Olaedo September 21, 2017 - 6:04 pm

Nice one I must confess. Please where can I download the movie. I don’t think I’ll find it in movie stores here in Nigeria.
Please read this review I wrote titled: ‘Eva Green: The Actress who plays the Villain Role too well for comfort’ and please reblog and to your readers.

Critical Optimist September 21, 2017 - 12:10 pm

Hope to see more posts like this in the future. Nothing beats a film maker talking about film making. Keep it up!

Nick Kush September 21, 2017 - 12:30 pm

I’ll do my best! Just gotta keep making connections in the industry!

Critical Optimist September 21, 2017 - 12:33 pm

Today Salvatore Alaimo, tomorrow Tarantino

Nick Kush September 21, 2017 - 12:35 pm

Lol one can only hope!


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