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  • Writer's pictureAri Betof

Celebrity Philanthropists Who Put Their Wallets Where Their Hearts Are

Updated: Sep 8, 2021

The topic of celebrity philanthropy can give rise to a number of opposing viewpoints: Are they serious about giving? Does it matter? How much can their fame popularize a cause or benefit an organization?

Regardless, there are indeed a number of celebrity philanthropists whose charitable giving seems to demonstrate a particular level of thought, purpose, and engagement. They have made significant contributions to education, social justice, and other causes.

Oprah Winfrey – A philanthropist who needs no introduction

Oprah Winfrey is one of the most well-known and prolific celebrity philanthropists. After overcoming traumatic childhood events, she went on to become one of the most popular and effective interviewers and talk show hosts in history. As a philanthropist, she is particularly recognized for supporting organizations and causes that benefit women’s rights and gender equity, as well as youth education. To date, she has donated hundreds of millions of dollars through her Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation.

Winfrey’s championing of the right of young people everywhere to get an education is one of the cornerstones of her philanthropy, as well as of her professional career in journalism. Some 72,000 people have received new educational opportunities via the Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program, Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, and the many education-focused organizations the foundation supports, including UNCF, Boys & Girls Clubs of East Mississippi, and South LA Forward. Additionally, the foundation’s commitment to addressing food insecurity has led it to provide almost 75 million meals to people in need. 

Dolly Parton – From 9 to 5 to a global force for good

Singer-songwriter Dolly Parton has come a long way from her roots as a little girl from a poor family in Sevierville, Tennessee. Her family had so few resources that her mother made her clothes by piecing together older garments and scraps of fabric. The country superstar would later turn these experiences into a poignant song affirming the love and warmth of family in “Coat of Many Colors.”

Parton’s ability to empathize with everyday working people “barely getting by,” as she sings in her hit “9 to 5,” has turned into a major philanthropic endeavor. She launched her Dollywood Foundation as a way of improving the lives of people in her hometown. Then she established the Imagination Library, which has over the past quarter-century given away well more than 100 million books, sent free every month to families with infants and young children. In 2016, Parton initiated an effort she called My People, designed to help those who had suffered losses due to wildfires in Tennessee. The fund continues as a means of providing support for firefighters. 

In 2017, Parton contributed $1 million to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and more recently a further $1 million to support COVID-19 vaccine research at the school. Parton’s contributions were a major force in spurring the development of the Moderna vaccine, which has protected millions of people from the deadly disease.

Meryl Streep – Oscar winner with a social conscience

Multi-Oscar-winner Meryl Streep and her husband, sculptor Don Gummer, established the New Jersey-based Silver Mountain Foundation for the Arts as a way to fund arts education and other causes. Since its founding in 1983, Silver Mountain has provided millions of dollars in grants to organizations such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and MASS MoCA.

Streep has additionally given $1 million to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and is well-known for her personal philanthropy to numerous other organizations, including Artists for Peace and Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Rainforest Foundation, and Girl Up, which works to educate young women worldwide.

Jerry Seinfeld – Philanthropy is no laughing matter

Jerry Seinfeld may have played a curmudgeon on TV, but the real-life Seinfeld has raised approximately $2 million in support of the arts, education, healthcare, Jewish nonprofit organizations, and more. The Emmy Award-winning comedian has also made notable contributions to Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital, the National Parks Conservation Association, and more. 

Seinfeld and his wife, Jessica, launched the Seinfeld Family Foundation in the year 2000 in order to make substantial contributions to youth education, medical service needs, and the arts. The following year, the couple started the nonprofit GOOD+ Foundation, which focuses on alleviating poverty by offering essential items like clothing and diapers to families most in need. During the pandemic year of 2020, GOOD+ donated $11 million worth of baby care and childcare items, in partnership with frontline essential workers.

In the 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club, based on a true story, Matthew McConaughey portrays a patient who operates outside the legal system in 1980s to help himself and other people with AIDS obtain medications not yet approved by federal regulators. 

Just as determined to reach out to people in need in real life, the Oscar-winning actor started the Just Keep Livin’ Foundation, which has raised more than $1.5 million to assist under-resourced youth. As he was filming the 1993 film Dazed and Confused, McConaughey was also trying to cope with the death of his father. One phrase that came to his attention sustained him: “Just keep livin’.” He would later use the words that had meant so much to him to name his own effort to help others. 

The foundation focuses heavily on education—in keeping with the fact that McConaughey’s mother worked as a teacher—and funds wellness and physical fitness programs that serve thousands of students in dozens of urban schools.

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