Documentary fuels discussion on philanthropy

Courtesy/GVSU Alpha Tau Omega

Courtesy/GVSU Alpha Tau Omega

TJ Kimball

Philanthropy is not just for the wealthy. Anyone can give.

That’s the message that Grand Valley State University assistant professor Salvatore Alaimo hopes to send students home with through his new project. His film, titled “What is Philanthropy?,” seeks to inquire into the essence of an ancient concept.

“Philanthropy is part of the bedrock of democracy.” Alaimo said. “Part of the freedom we have in this country is the freedom to give.”

The movie will play at the Mary Idema Pew Library in the Multi-Purpose Room Monday night at 6 p.m. and is sponsored by the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation.

“The visual medium sparks meaningful thought and critical discussion; and that’s the ultimate goal of the film.” Alaimo explained. “Philanthropy gets a free pass when it comes to people thinking critically about it. Yet, it’s because it’s so important and that there’s so much at stake in society that we should have a conversation about what’s really going on.”

The work is a result of Alaimo’s unwavering commitment to his vision. He’s sunk six years and a personal belief into this project, and the effort is one that is likely to inspire others to look deeper into the driving forces of the world.

“I hashed the idea two weeks before the economic crash of 2008,” Alaimo explained. “It wasn’t the best timing.”

The film took five years to complete, with the primary obstacle being a consistent source of funds. For a project that’s based around investigating different forms of generosity, the irony wasn’t lost on the good-humored professor.

“If I was to produce a documentary about carpentry and I approached the national carpenter’s union and association, I’m pretty confident that those organizations would be very excited about their field and their profession,” he said. “I thought the same would be true about philanthropy, but the truth is that two-thirds of the institutions rejected the idea of raising such a discussion.”

While the reluctance of some organizations to expose their inner workings is certainly a red flag, Alaimo said his biggest surprise in creating the movie was all the incredible people he worked with through doing it.

“Two of the film’s camera men are alumni from GVSU’s film school, with a third one (who) is currently working as a technician in the school of communications.” Alaimo said. “WGVU also helped us shoot some of our footage at their studio in the Eberhard Center. I’ve been really proud to have strong support from Grand Valley. There’s no way anyone could do this by themselves.”

From mother’s milk to multinational non-profits, donating blood to international trade, Alaimo said the movie looks to investigate a characteristic of human connectedness that too often gets coined as taboo. In a world with ever-increasing text messaging and selective isolation, he hopes his project will reignite an exchange rooted in our universal need to connect.

“I’ve been married to this project for six years now, and at this point I just love seeing people come out and watch it and walk away with something,” Alaimo said. “Formal institutional philanthropy has hijacked the term and created a narrow perspective. It’s time that we broke loose from that and expanded our minds and horizons.”

Alaimo said he aims to engage in a discussion often overlooked, and his challenge of personal introspection is one that audiences can genuinely gain from, he added.