Nonprofits Portrayed in Popular Culture

Thanks to dozens of Blue Avocado readers who sent in examples of nonprofits in popular culture, here's a quick look at the mostly-fake world of nonprofits on the big and small screens.

Queen Latifah in "Life Support" is a refreshing exception to how nonprofits are typically portrayed in popular culture. As Ana in this 2007 film, she works her butt off at Life Support, an AIDS education nonprofit, but neglects her family and endangers her own health (sound just a little familiar?). Through Ana, we catch glimpses of what we know community nonprofits to be: fiercely committed, under-staffed, and essential life support to their clients and the community writ large.

In contrast, nonprofits are more usually invisible, stereoptyped, or off-camera employers of minor characters. For example, in "The West Wing," Mary Louise Parker played the director of a women's rights group deeply enmeshed in policy work. Several "Curb Your Enthusiasm" characters interact with NRDC, a nonprofit where producer Larry David's ex-wife is active in real life. References to the real-life Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center as well as to the fictional California Arts Center pop up in "The L Word."

Nonprofit issues . . . but not nonprofits

But mostly what we learn about nonprofits in popular culture -- and not just in mainstream culture -- is wrong twice over. First, while the issues that nonprofits address are nearly ubiquitous in popular culture, the nonprofits dealing with them are inversely invisible.

Alcoholism, family violence, corporate wrongdoing, alienated youth, mental illness, racism, environmental degradation, and more are everywhere in popular culture. "Sex and the City" character Samantha contracts and even raises money for breast cancer, but we never glimpse the breast cancer organization she supports. Rapper Kanye West indicts the diamond industry in his music video "Diamonds," but doesn't allude to the organized fight against that industry's abuses. Russell Crowe's character in the film "A Beautiful Mind," suffering from schizophrenia, slowly gets to a functioning place, apparently without the help of mental health professionals or organizations.

Second, when we do see people working in nonprofit fields of endeavor, we see them divorced from any institutional context.

We don't get to know nonprofit people except as minor characters acting as props to depict the services they offer. It's as if we saw the many lawyers on television, but we only saw them in court, never in their offices interacting with their coworkers or their clients. Or if we saw police on the street, but never in the precinct house. We encounter social workers visiting clients (in "Grey's Anatomy," for instance), but we never see them at their desks working the phones, in the conference room struggling through staff meetings or fuming in the bathroom over busted love affairs.

Stereotypes at the extremes

Screenwriters often simply use us as backdrops: Nonprofit fundraising galas and museum/gallery openings are frequent locations for plot devices unrelated to nonprofits: lovers meet for the first time, spies swap briefcases, or an assassin targets a politician. In "Rush Hour," Jackie Chan has a fight at a museum exhibit opening, allowing him to do martial arts stunts with giant Chinese antique vases. Julia Roberts (as a wealthy society matron) and Tom Hanks (as a U.S. senator) meet at such a gala in "Charlie Wilson's War." Fundraising galas make good backdrops, but they reinforce the stereotype of wealthy socialites "playing" at charity causes.

The exact opposite of the glittering gala is the other archetypal image of nonprofits: soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Blue Avocado readers pointed out that homeless shelters figure in the films "Dave," "Scrooged," "Gabriel," "The Soloist," and others. This author's favorite "Star Trek" episode (City on the Edge of Forever) features a young, idealistic soup kitchen operator with whom Captain Kirk falls in love.

"Life Support" is not the only exception to the standard fare, but it is one of the few. "The Cider House Rules" takes place largely in an orphanage run by Michael Caine as the crusty but soft-hearted director/doctor. In a rare scene involving a charity board, he gets his way around the stuffy, wealthy, stingy board members. In "Role Models," Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott are sentenced to 150 hours of community service in a clone of Big Brothers Big Sisters -- where they meet a whacko but savvy director, and find redemption for themselves (oh, and for the kids, too).

Hugh Grant does some phone calling for Amnesty International, and also works for a few minutes at a soup kitchen in the film "About a Boy." These scenes show Grant as self-absorbed, showing off his skimpy volunteer work, but the truth is that it was another way to meet girls. In the 1990s cult TV show "Twin Peaks," doomed prom queen Laura Palmer was a dedicated volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels. Will & Grace go to see a ballet performance, but they hate it.

Films we'd like to see

Hey Hollywood! Can't you do us better than that? We want to see:

  • George Clooney as the development director for a community housing organization. He falls in love with the frumpy-and-committed housing programs director (America Ferrera) and together they build another 2,000 units of affordable housing.
  • Will Smith as the larger-than-life board president of a disability rights organization . . . battling City Hall for funds, battling community prejudice, and distributing Board Cafe articles at board meetings.
  • Kathy Bates as the powerhouse nonprofit CEO with a mysterious past who leads an anti-toxics organization, going door-to-door with volunteers in a polluted Latino neighborhood one day and testifying in Congress the next. Over time we learn that her father (James Earl Jones) and her mother (Meryl Streep) rescued her from a spaceship that crashed in a nearby landfill.

Of course we know that film and television don't depict reality, and we'll keep on watching and enjoying it. At the same time, we can be more aware of what images and stereotypes are subtly projected into our collective consciousness. And within our own worlds, we can tell the stories from our work and our lives that will educate and inspire our families, friends, co-workers, and even ourselves.

We couldn't do justice to the many responses we got from Blue Avocado readers on this question, so here's the place to chime in. What pop culture films, video and music nonprofits get your votes for best and worst?

Comments (24)

  • Some of the worst examples are from science fiction. There is frequently a scientist who does battle with an ill-informed, if not solely expedient, board of directors. Research that began with altruistic purposes becomes the pawn in a struggle to reap the greatest economic benefit. Or, the scientist is evil, and therefore on the edge of madness, a result of ego and desire to rule the world or solve an incurable disease.

    Jun 16, 2009
  • The Broadway musical Avenue Q has a character who makes a lot of money through selling pornography online and uses it to help start a school. Hmmm.

    Jun 16, 2009
  • Terrific article this morning on nonprofits in popular culture. This is the first time I've seen anybody tackle the subject. It's an important one, and you've done it with energy and grace. Thanks.

    Jun 16, 2009
  • The one that should receive first place in invisible role of non-profits is 'In Pursuit of Happyness'. The entire premise of the film is about how this guy is a self-made man through grit and determination...and yet throughout the story we see he and his son relying on shelters, food, etc. And, I thought to myself, I wonder if he ever donated back to those places once he made those millions...?

    Jun 16, 2009
  • GREAT POINT!

    Jun 16, 2009
  • "Calendar Girls" is a great movie that depicts fairly realistically a group of grassroots community activists. This plucky group of women undertake the grinding, time-consuming, often frustrating, sometimes rewarding task of raising funds for a cause they believe in. Families are neglected, husbands are frustrated, but the women persevere, and after their big success, the women go to an awards ceremony where they get to have great fun (for once) jamming with a group of rock musicians. This movie is a hoot -- middle aged women who take it all off for an artfully designed calendar, sold to raise funds for a cancer centre. Best line of the movie: "we're going to need considerably bigger buns", after attempting to strategically conceal one of the characters large breasts behind a tray of buns.

    Jun 16, 2009
  • Because of the plot mechanics this is *all spoiler,* but in Definitely, Maybe, Isla Fisher ("April") ends up working at an international human rights nonprofit -- although I forget which one. Over the course of the movie she drifts from copy girl on the Bill Clinton campaign to international backpacker to professional do-gooder. In a twist ending (for a rom-com...) the main character, played by Ryan Reynold's (of Van Wilder but also the new and great Adventureland) realizes that she's the one after he completes the paperwork for his divorce with the mother of his child. She gets the job, the guy and (presumably) the adorable step-daughter.

    Jun 16, 2009
  • Here are some I remember, but don't think they all paint the sector in a positive light:
    1) Sandra Bullock in Two Weeks' Notice (with Hugh Grant). She was a lawyer at legal aid and a community activist.
    2) Isla Fisher in Definitely, Maybe (with Ryan Reynolds) at the end she's got a career at ? Amnesty? WWF? some biggie
    3) Joey Lauren Adams in Big Daddy (with Adam Sandler) - she's some sort of legal aid lawyer or something
    4) Role Models - with Sean William Scott and Paul Rudd - they're forced in community service with a Big Brothers-esque organization
    5) Molly Shannon in Year of the Dog - she becomes an animal rights activist and does work with a humane society
    6) kids movie Hoot - not really an organization, but the whole thing is about conservation
    7) never saw it, but The Gift, right?

    That's all I can think of. I'm a movie addict and have worked in the sector for years, so I tend to notice when it shows up in movies. And it's not often. =)

    Virginia, Volunteer Vancouver

    Jun 16, 2009
  • Tyne Daly was a social worker in child protective services in the TV show "Judging Amy". Her daughter on that show was a judge in children & family court.

    Jun 17, 2009
  • But we loooove to the emergency rooms in the inner city hospitals.

    Jun 17, 2009
  • I recently saw a movie on the Hallmark Channel - "Safe Harbor" - with Nancy Travis. It is about a couple that started a nonprofit for troubled teens. It actually seemed realistic to me as a foster parent, and working in the nonprofit sector for a long time - both the struggles and benefit of their program to others.
    Debbie
    California

    Jun 17, 2009
  • My favourite was the NYPIRG episode of Law & Order--even though the NYPIRG activist was the victim. The detective visit to interview the (stylish and statuesque) staffperson in her (gorgeous and massive) new york office was like a fantasy from my cramped office, the student activists with meticulous management of expence receipts that made it easy to track down the students' last activities was even funnier in its idealism! At least the dorm room with vegan posters was pretty accurate.

    Jun 18, 2009
  • haha! So true. Having worked for one of the state PIRGs, I can say that that episode was sooooooooooo off.

    Aug 05, 2009
  • Anonymous

    I canvassed out of the 9 Murray st. office... to be fair, the place was pretty well kept, although clearly not as fancy as the episode. Like the episode we did have a red-haired, vegan canvasser named Andy, I think the episode might be based on him, since he canvassed the hell out of the towns the writers for the show live in.

    Jun 03, 2010
  • Watching "Mixed Nuts" as part of our December staff party was a tradition at the 24/7 crisis line I directed. It is hysterical, though some of the humor may be lost if you have never worked a crisis line. The dedication and quirkiness of the staff, the struggle to keep the agency afloat, all set in a great comedy. Steve Martin as an executive director is a hoot, Madeline Kahn was the best.

    Jun 19, 2009
  • Was the school for the deaf in Children of a Lesser God a non-profit?

    Jun 19, 2009
  • Jan,Great post I loved the insight and many examples!! It just goes to show why the majority of people still don't see the nonprofit sector and nonprofit professionals realistically. I'm an intern at ASCEND: A Humanitarian Alliance, I'm studying Public Relations and nonprofit management. I plan to go onto graduate school to obtain an MPA with an emphasis in you guessed in nonprofit management.The majority of the time when I tell people my career goals the response I receive is, "Well can you even make any money doing that?" It's crazy that the nonprofit sector is the fastest growing sector in the US and people still think it's run solely on volunteers. Although thousands of people volunteer, of course they have hired staff!I think a lot of this misconception is due to the poor portrayal of nonprofits in the media, as you've explained in your post. Thanks for the article!Barbara FullerASCEND Alliance Internhttp://ascendahumanitarianalliance.blogspot.com/

    Jun 19, 2009
  • Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen are in a film called Beyond Borders that is an INCREDIBLY intense film about international relief efforts. It is a dramatic portrayal of what must be incredibly difficult work and I think does a good job showing the many challenges and temptations when organizations are working to offer help to people in crisis but have to content with corrupt governments. There is a love story integrated as well, but it spans many cities and countries - a great film.
    -Laura, Development Professional in Austin, TX

    Aug 11, 2009
  • Any of the older crowd remember Sidney Poitier's small-budget film, THE SLENDER THREAD? Got me hooked on community service, this film about one call to a suicide-prevention crisis hotline.
    Now I lead an all-volunteer "animal welfare" organization struggling to illuminate for ordinary people the real relationship between how we treat animals, and how we show compassion for people. People KNOW it, but they don't want to think about it.
    I would love to see a movie in which a group working on animal welfare issues is funded, with a healthy reserve, and has skillful, committed board members who are not ALL clients of the programs. It could be a fantasy, yes ..... escapism sometimes works!
    Thanks for another terrific discussion, BA!

    Aug 27, 2009
  • Somehow missed this great article earlier. How about Quantum of Solace (the last James Bond film with the bad guy's environmental organization and its deceptive solicitations), Dead Poet's Society (private school), A Man for All Seasons (resulting in the Church of England), and Oliver (orphanage)? I'm surprised The Philanthropist wasn't mentioned even though it was cancelled. And one episode of Seinfeld was titled "The Foundation" (established by the parents of George's dead finacee).

    Dec 15, 2009
  • Anonymous

    I really liked this line "Second, when we do see people working in nonprofit fields of endeavor, we see them divorced from any institutional context."

    Nov 15, 2011
  • Anonymous

    There have been several movies and stage plays that have explored the world of community theatre, but none is as funny as "Waiting for Guffman" (1996).

    Apr 17, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Though there isn't much else to recommend this one, Dolphin Tale does a decent job of showing a nonprofit's workings. There's even a couple of scenes in board meetings! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolphin_Tale

    Apr 20, 2012
  • Anonymous

    The Netflix series "House of Cards."

    Apr 16, 2013

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