Does ‘The Bear’ have lessons for philanthropy?

WARNING: Spoilers ahead. Big ones. I’m not joking!

Much has already been written about the outstanding new Hulu series The Bear. And as those paying attention are keenly aware, most of the stories fall into one of two categories. They’re either about the rising popularity of the Chicago Beef sandwich (yes, it’s truly delicious!) or the dysfunction of the restaurant industry (Tip your server generously, please!).

Yet, while both subjects deserve every bit of the attention they are receiving, my philanthropy brain keeps circling on another topic that seems to have gone mostly unnoticed by TV critics: The $300,000 windfall that the show’s protagonist, Carmy, stumbles upon at the end of the final episode of Season 1 – an out-of-the-blue gift from Mikey, Carmy’s deceased brother with whom he clearly had a difficult relationship.  (I told you there were spoilers coming!)

I got teary watching it, and I doubt I’m alone in that reaction.  It was such a beautiful gift – the unexpected good fortune, the significance of the amount, the trust Mikey shows in pushing Carmy to follow his dream.  All of it. Just TV perfection.

The season ends with Carmy putting up a sign signaling that he is going to start his passion project – a new restaurant, done his way.  He’s finally been unshackled. Or has he?

Jeremy Allen White plays Carmy Berzatto in the Hulu comedy drama series The Bear.

For me, The Bear’s narrative around Mikey’s gift resonated with some of the most significant trends in philanthropy over the past few years – toward these same types of “windfall gifts,” mega-grants directed by donors to somewhat unsuspecting nonprofit organizations, with only the most minimal discussion, due-diligence or direction.  You might call it “Sur-prize philanthropy.”

Sounds wonderful, right?  So what’s the problem?

At the risk of getting way out ahead of series creator Christopher Storer, I think The Bear’s protagonist is going to run into more than a few problems in Season 2 with his “manna from heaven.”  The challenges Mikey’s gift will present for brother Carmy mirror many of the same pitfalls created when well-intentioned philanthropists have given unplanned, outsized grants to nonprofit organizations of which I’ve been a part.

Let me explain the kind of problems I’m talking about.

First, the very minimal communication between gift giver (big brother Mikey) and receiver (little brother Carmy) might appear to be – at first – a grant-seeker’s dream.  There is no meddling funder trying to control the grant recipient’s actions from afar (or from the grave). But just as Michael lives on, very much present, in Carmy’s head, heart and psyche, the “invisible” philanthropist can sometimes loom larger by virtue of their absence.  And just as Mikey’s ghost impacts almost every decision Carmy makes (including what to serve for “family meal” at the beginning of each shift), I’ve seen executive directors and boards, gifted with such windfalls by absentee grant-makers, spend an inordinate amount of time and energy guessing and second-guessing a donor’s intent or wishes. Ironically, by trying to “stay out of the way,” a donor can sometimes unintentionally invade the grantee’s space even more.

At the Kendeda Fund, we have a saying that describes our approach to understanding a grantee’s vision, aspirations and challenges without meddling in how they are resolved. We call it “Noses in. Fingers out.”

Grantmakers need to get better at navigating (or trying to navigate) a middle ground – developing a relationship with grant recipients based on mutual trust and respect. It should be a place where donor intentions and interests are well understood and clearly communicated – not so they can be taken as un-malleable commandments, but rather so grantees can negotiate, navigate, and ultimately move beyond donor intent. At the Kendeda Fund, we have a saying that describes our approach to understanding a grantee’s vision, aspirations and challenges without meddling in how they are resolved. We call it “Noses in. Fingers out.” I suspect in Season 2, Mikey’s spectral wishes and wants will cast an even larger shadow for Carmy, rather than set him free.

Second, the no-strings-attached gift from Mikey, in actuality, has lots of strings attached — 300,000 of them to be exact.  The sole instruction from Michael that accompanied the gift (“I love you, Dude. Let it rip.”) suggests, like some “unrestricted” gifts from donors often can, that Carmy is free to go for it, to open his dream restaurant.  But Carmy’s reality is far from that simple.  Most notably, he is still saddled with repaying his deceased brother’s $300,000 loan to their Uncle Jimmy.

In Season 1, Carmy’s debt to Uncle Jimmy caused Carmy all manner of indignities and illegalities, from serving up Ecto-cooler to bratty kids, to hosting drug- and gun-filled bachelor parties that ultimately trashed his restaurant.  In reality, Mikey’s gift wasn’t unrestricted at all; and funders ought to beware of the explicit or implicit “requirements” that are often hidden in what might at first appear to be carte blanche grants. Of course, unrestricted grants are the best, and Kendeda makes good use of them with the majority of our grantees, but there are times when, for one reason or another, we do need to place restrictions or limitations on how the resources are deployed.  And in those unique situations it serves us – and our grantees – best to make those conditions crystal clear up front.

Third, and finally, the dysfunction of Carmy’s loveable but challenged team has been well documented.  We might be tempted to think this dysfunction was solely induced by the monetary stress that saddled his restaurant. We want to believe that Mikey’s gift will mean Richie, Sydney, Tina and the gang will be able to work harmoniously, and Carmy’s notorious mood swings will abate. But we all know – instinctually – that isn’t going to happen.

As donors and grantees alike, we know that, more often than not, large gifts tend to highlight and amplify organizational problems rather than resolve them. It doesn’t mean the gift shouldn’t be made. But it does reveal how critical it is for all parties to remain clear eyed and truthful as they prepare for the upheaval a big gift can bring.

Often, before we make a substantial investment that has the potential to be disruptive to an organization, Kendeda and the partner make use of a planning grant. This is not done as a “test” or a means of financial control, but rather as a mechanism for the partner to carefully and thoughtfully prepare ahead of a large cash infusion.  A well-timed planning grant can allow an organization to get back in the driver’s seat – articulating their vision and strategy before an influx of capital. As philanthropists, we don’t have to worry about losing viewers during a boring episode (or two) of a planning grant; and we ought to use them more often before making huge gifts. But imagine if Carmy had been given just a bit of time and space and breathing room for that kind of planning?

I’ll be binge-watching Season 2 of The Bear the moment it hits Hulu for all kinds of reasons. For me, it’s pretty much the perfect show. But one of those reasons will be to see how “the gift” plays out.  I’ll be taking notes as a donor, rooting hard for Carmy and his incredible team to avoid some of the pitfalls I worry are in his future.  And in the meantime, free from concerns about ratings and audience share that that probably keep Mr. Storer up at night, I’ll work in our philanthropy at Kendeda Fund to avoid making the same mistakes.