The Scoop on Loot: What I think the Apple+ Comedy Gets Right About Philanthropy

Posted by Tara Roth on

The Goldhirsh Foundation team and I recently started watching Loot, the Apple TV show starring Maya Rudolph as Molly Wells, a recent divorcee who jumps into her foundation’s charitable work as an antidote to her pain. Of course, it is a fictional television show – and a very funny one at that – but I appreciate the show's depiction of the social impact sector. In advance of the finale airing this Friday, I am reflecting on three key things that Loot gets right about philanthropy.

1. Social capital can, and should, be leveraged for good

Institutional philanthropy redistributes resources to advance the broader public good. While this support usually comes in the form of monetary grants, other types of capital can also advance progress. Loot captures this dynamic perfectly. As a wealthy, powerful person going through a very public scandal, Molly commands media attention. When she gets serious about her foundation’s work, she realizes that she can use her influence with the media for good.

The surprise gifts that Molly bestows upon unsuspecting nonprofits in the show are a nod to McKenzie Scott’s generosity – not to mention the larger tech-billionaire-divorcee-turned-philanthropist plot. Scott has given away an astounding $12.5 billion in the span of just a few years. Yes, first and foremost, nonprofit organizations need tangible financial support to do their work. But the halo effect that comes from being funded by an organization or a person with social capital, whether the real McKenzie Scott or the fictional Molly Wells, can be just as significant. Giving an organization its first grant, that initial ‘stamp of approval,” can be transformative. That is why investing financial, human, and social capital in founders and their innovations is a key part of how we accomplish our mission at the Goldhirsh Foundation.

2. Money can’t fix everything

Through both Molly’s personal and professional ups and downs, Loot makes clear that not all problems can be solved with money. In one of the first episodes, Molly and Sofia Salina, the foundation’s Executive Director, meet with a local city councilmember to discuss zoning changes needed to advance a shelter project they are working on. Molly brags that she has a lot of resources at her disposal that she can use to make this project happen, to which the city councilmember quips that “money can’t fix everything.”

It’s true. Money is only one element needed for social change, and foundations represent just a component of that bigger picture; in 2021, foundation grants comprised just 18.7 percent of all charitable giving according to Giving USA. Philanthropy can’t act alone. Deep social change necessitates collaboration across sectors that often operate in silos. Watching the show, I am reminded of how important it is to not just open up our checkbooks but also our calendars and contact lists. Philanthropy, government, and business must work in partnership with nonprofit organizations and those with lived experience to identify, define, and address systemic problems.

3. Work should be immersed in data, statistics, and listening

This collaborative work is even more effective when we have a common understanding of the problems that we are facing. For that reason, I appreciate how Loot highlights the impact of philanthropy that is immersed in data and statistics. When Molly first joins her foundation, she books a slate of interviews to prove how serious she is about the work. Sofia helps her to prepare, handing her a large stack of binders filled with analytical information. Later, she drills Molly about contextual data, such as the monthly cost of housing in Los Angeles.

Objective measures should both inform what we fund and help us critically evaluate our own impact, like how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation tracks its effort to eradicate malaria around the globe or how the Omidyar Network pioneered impact investing by demonstrating that it was possible to invest in social good and make a profit. At the Goldhirsh Foundation, we’ve based our LA2050 initiative on 68 metrics that help us to understand how Los Angeles is faring and determine what we fund through our LA2050 Grants Challenge.

The show also highlights the importance of listening to and centering those with lived experience of the issues. At Molly’s first event with her foundation, the opening of a women’s shelter, she hands out inappropriate gift bags and makes herself the center of attention. As a result, she’s chided for her tone-deaf behavior. Afterward, Molly and the foundation pivot and make a concerted effort to focus more on the organizations they support.

In my experience, the best foundations are the ones that shine a spotlight on their nonprofit partners. The real stars of this work – the mentors working with students at after-school programs, the nurses administering shots to patients at community clinics, the volunteers picking up trash at the beach – may not ever win awards at fancy galas, let alone be featured guests on Hot Ones. But as I tune into the season finale, they are the people that I will be thinking of. Now, what’s the cliffhanger going to be?