Acton Institute Powerblog

The Best Kind of Charity

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A post by Leslie Sillars over at Signs of the Times takes ABC’s show, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” to task. His difficulty, essentially, is this:

is this charity in any reasonable sense of the word? It looks like the best kind of charity—unmerited favor for someone in need, out of the blue—yet, ABC makes buckets of money on the program, Sears and the other sponsors get loads of exposure, and Ty and the rest of them are portrayed as angels of mercy (never mind their salaries). Yet, what does it cost them? In the context of what it costs to produce a hit network series, $200,000 is chicken feed.

Are we supposed to then believe that the participants of the show are being exploited? Their situation seems roughly comparable to that of college athletes in major sports. A similar argument is put forth in that context, in that schools make millions off the players, while they get “just” a college education out of the deal.

Perhaps Sillars is right, ABC’s show shouldn’t be strictly considered “charity.” But perhaps it is an example of business “done right.” The Acton Institute has always contended that “doing business and doing good are not at all mutually exclusive.” Yet Sillars seems to suggest that it is somehow wrong for someone like Ty to make a living helping people.

There’s a mutually beneficial exchange going on with the show, and even Sillars doesn’t contend that the participants aren’t made better off. It’s just that “the benefactors themselves have, shall we say, less than charitable motives at bottom.”

This interpretation of the motives of the network, the show, and even the individuals involved is pretty darn cynical, to the point of being unfair. Of all the reality shows on television, it would seem to me that “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” while far from perfect, is one of the least worthy of critique.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Les Sillars

    Fair enough, Jordan, although I’d want to clarify that I didn’t suggest it was exploitation–if that’s exploitation, sign me up. Nor am I objecting to Ty’s ability to make money helping people. I was pointing out that, in matters of charity, motive and sacrifice matter to God; maybe they should matter to us when we assess them. And perhaps we as viewers should be cautious in our enthusiasm when shows portray themselves as purely altruistic ventures when that seems, at best, unlikely. OK, fine, call me cynical. Finally, I’d suggest that this show is worthy of critique, not because what it does is that objectionable (it’s not, and it is certainly far better than the competition) but because it presents itself as something it isn’t–a show about giving something for nothing.

    (ps–my wife would be mortified to learn that, in a public forum, I’ve become a “she”)

  • Thanks for the thoughtful reply. My sincere apologies about the pronoun mistake…I’ll edit the post to reflect the truth of your identity!

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  • Deb Evans

    In response to Jordan Ballor’s comments about criticism of the show Extreme Makeover, Home Edition because the network, the sponsors, and the cast members make money:
    True. True. HOWEVER, my family had a chance to participate in a makeover that the show did this past August in our county. My daughter volunteered her time as a massage therapist. My husband volunteered his time with the police department. And I just helped with odds & ends, wherever they needed me. By the end of the week, I can honestly say we had become FRIENDS with some of the key production people for the show. And we had significant conversation with 3 of the 5 cast members. We also WATCHED them all week, on the set, OFF camera, behind-the-scenes and found, to our surprise, a genuine and sincere caring for the family and a real enjoyment of what they were doing. The head location manager said to my husband “I’ve worked for quite a few Hollywood shows, and this cast & crew are like no other I’ve seen. And the work we get to do here is so rewarding. In 20 years I know I’ll look back & say this was the best job I ever had”. We saw so many of the people from the show LOOKING for ways to help other neighbors, off-camera and on their own time. And may I say that Ty Pennington is a very sincere, quiet (believe it or not) and HUMBLE guy. Being PART of a makeover made believers out of us!!! We will never forget our experience.

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