Education & Workforce Development and Philanthropy

Please pass the popcorn - and the cash: Not-for-profits hope film encourages more donations

March 5, 2007

But can a movie to be released March 9, "The Ultimate Gift," inspire the masses to give money to charitable groups?

Not-for-profits hope so, although the idea that an emotion-driven Hollywood film can translate into a thoughtful and deliberate giving plan remains to be seen.

"Donor education is a very difficult thing to get done. This may be a good start," said Gene Tempel, executive director of the IU Center on Philanthropy.

The movie is based on the book of the same name by Jim Stovall, a blind author, motivational speaker and head of Tulsa, Okla.-based Narrative Television Network. His book has been a favorite among estate planners, trust officers and other financial advisers who buy it for their wealthy clients.

The movie version of the book brings the message to a broader audience, which is one reason charitable groups are so pumped. And it doesn't hurt that "The Ultimate Gift" has star power, too.

James Garner plays a billionaire who laments spoiling his children. He singles out one of his grandchildren for his fortune-if the young man can complete a series of projects the grandfather outlines for him in a video played after his death.

Among them is a challenge to find a handful of people in financial need and to give them a small amount of money. The grandson also has to give of himself-volunteering his time to help a number of people. The trust-fund-pampered young man is forced to consider what's most important in life-happiness or money.

It's turned out to be a powerful feel-good movie. Previews have raised about $25 million for not-for-profits nationwide, said Katherine Brooks, of The Ultimate Gift Experience, a Web site created to provide resources for transferring wealth and teaching philanthropic values [www.theultimategift.com].

The film was first screened locally last October, as part of the Heartland Film Festival. It was also shown Feb. 28 at AMC Clearwater Crossing, in one of the last of some 300 private screenings nationwide. The February showing was co-hosted by Fifth Third Bank and Central Indiana Community Foundation. Money managers, financial planners and past donors were among those invited. The two screens were sold out.

"We have about 500 people coming. It's amazing," Rob MacPherson, VP for development at CICF, said before the showing.

That the film operates on an emotional level is not a problem, MacPherson said. "I think all charitable giving is an emotional response."

Passion isn't a bad thing in the process of estate planning, he said. It helps people clarify their values. Only after a person has identified his or her own values can he or she sit down and forge a satisfying giving plan, MacPherson added.

IU's Tempel said whether the film translates into donations will depend on follow-up by estate and financial planners who recommend the film to their clients.

In a study the IU center conducted in 2005 for Bank of America, households with incomes above $200,000 or assets of more than $1 million amounted to just 3.1 percent of all households-but were responsible for more than two-thirds of charitable giving.

The wealthy give largely to organizations serving a combination of interests, such as United Way. A large percentage of their gifts goes to education, arts and cultural organizations.

Brooks, of The Ultimate Gift Web site, said the lesson of the movie is not just about forking over money. "It's about the giving of your time, giving of your talent" through volunteering.

That theme has become attractive to some schools. Brooks had just gotten off the phone with the ministry of education in Toronto, Canada, which wants to use the character-building book in public schools.

"The Ultimate Gift" film has a local connection in Brooks' brother, Paul Brooks. He's CEO of Zionsville-based Helixx Group, and was co-executive producer of the film. He helped round up financing for the $10 million film. Brooks said he knew there would be interest in the film, given how the selfpublished book sold 4 million copies with hardly any marketing.

"Our strong sense was that there was something very powerful here," he said.

It likely won't hurt, either, that co-star Abigail Breslin recently was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the movie "Little Miss Sunshine."

"That's just one of those pieces of luck," he added.
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