Ellen DeGeneres, a Gay Woman, Comedian, Fundraiser, and Philanthropist
by Lauren Grace Wygal
Ellen DeGeneres (1958-) was raised in Louisiana to a modest, average family (Spence 2017). Her life was normal but not without many challenges growing up. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and she survived abuse at the hands of a trusted family figure (Biography.com). She not only faced backlash from members of her family for her sexuality—but also a massive amount of the public. Despite many trials, Ellen has risen to become an icon of kindness and humor. She is known for her dance moves and compassion for others. She has written books, acted, performed, and connected those in need with life-changing aid. She ends every show with, “be kind to one another,” and lives this in her everyday life.
Ellen grew up wanting to help the world around her. She was always passionate about helping others and especially animals, so she pondered careers such as a veterinarian (Biography.com). She grew up poor (Montag 2018). Her older brother was actually the well-known “funny” one, and not many predicted the fame and success that would follow Ellen’s comedic presence (Biography.com). In 1980 one of Ellen’s friends asked her to do a stand-up routine for a local benefit event (Spence 2017). This event, was the mere beginning of Ellen combining her sense of humor and heart for others.
Ellen received support from her mother both financially and morally when she began performing stand-up routinely in 1981 (Biography.com). Ellen’s mother also gave her support in her life when others close to her were offended by something she had no control of—her sexuality. Ellen was asked to move out of her home upon coming out to her father and step mother (Spence 2017). Her mother, however, began reading what she could on homosexuality in order to understand her daughter better (Spence 2017).
After years of performing, she appeared on The Tonight Show where she was “the only female comic to be invited by Johnny Carson to sit on the famed ‘couch’ during her first visit” (Biography.com). Ellen began making a name for herself in the 80’s appearing on ‘The Tonight Show’, ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’, ‘Good Morning, America!’ among others (Harnish 2017). Her own sitcom ‘Ellen’ launched in 1994. In 1997, Ellen came out on her sitcom and in real life. This was the “first lead in sitcom history to openly acknowledge her homosexuality on air” (Biography.com). Advertisers withdrew, some stations refused to air the episode, and eventually the show was cancelled just a year later (Biography.com). While she was supported by her mother and most of her audience and even earned an Emmy for the coming-out episode, Ellen lost so much for simply owning her truth (Biography.com). Being the target of many cruel jokes and criticism did not stop Ellen from continuing on.
Ellen was the host for many awards shows such as the Grammys, Academy Awards, and the Emmys (Biography.com). She even was briefly a judge on American Idol (Biography.com). In 2003, The Ellen Show came to life and since then has earned many awards (Biography.com). 2003 was also the year Ellen voiced Dory in Finding Nemo which was a wildly successful animated movie (Biography.com). Ellen brought so much success with this that there was even a sequel in 2016 called Finding Dory (Biography.com).
In January 2016, she won “Favorite Humanitarian Award” at the People’s Choice Awards where her speech encouraged her audience to really ponder “humans’ natural capacity for kindness” (Harnish 2017). Elllen donated the $200,000 prize for this award to St. Judes. In November of 2016, Ellen was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Ellen was overwhelmed with joy and emotion as Obama even quoted one of Ellen’s lines in Finding Nemo during his speech. President Obama referenced the movie’s quotation, “just keep swimming” in connection to Ellen’s ability to inspire the world to keep pushing forward in life despite the trials that inevitably come. This quotation is about perseverance which is both the theme of Finding Nemo and also the life of Ellen DeGenerous. While she has received many awards for her shows and performances, this award is by far the highest honor Ellen has earned. She has written several books over the years such as “The Funny Thing Is” and “Seriously, I’m Kidding.” In these books Ellen continues to share her truth and in the process encourage others to live a life of kindness.
Ellen may have faced major backlash for coming out publicly, but the story did not end there. Ellen continued to remain true to herself which allowed to create a personal, public vision of a lesbian (Dow 2010). The exposure to a loved public-figure who is a lesbian created visibility for the LGBTQ+ community that had not yet been done (Dow 2010). Ellen was a trailblazer in remaining unapologetically herself and never failing to lift up others in the process.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
Fundraisers seek out and raise funds for individuals and charitable missions all over the world. Often partnering with fundraisers, philanthropists are individuals that give graciously of their own resources. Philanthropists use their wealth and equity to give to others, and fundraisers make the connection to the causes. Ellen, however, is both. She is a fundraiser and a philanthropist. Ellen believes individuals shouldn’t live in fear because of money and has put that mission into motion (Montag 2018).
She gives her time and resources, but even more so advocates for and connects resources to people in need. The Ellen Show is known for the tear-jerking stories of individuals across the world, and the resources that Ellen connects them with. She has been a prime example of the beauty in partnering with companies in order to do the most good possible. Ellen teamed up with Shutterfly in 2012 where they began the mission of providing aid to those who need it. As of 2016 Shutterfly has donated over $5 million to those in need on The Ellen Show.
Ellen has also teamed up with other corporations such as Walmart to gift those in need. For example, Ellen surprised one Georgia man who founded his own non-profit focused on literacy with $25,000 (Braverman). This individual thought they were just lucky enough to play a game with Ellen, but she had already devised a plan that included both comedy and a large check. Ellen has helped connect underserved students with college tuition, families in need with money to rebuild homes or pay medical bills, and so many more deserving individuals with resources that have changed their lives. Over $50 million has been given because of Ellen. If that wasn’t enough, The Ellen Show also has its own Go Fund Me page where viewers can go to donate to a variety of causes.
Outside of The Ellen Show, Ellen teamed up with Ben Affleck in launching the “Small Change Campaign” (Harnish 2017). This simple campaign provided an avenue for individuals to donate spare change to Coinstar machines in order to benefit Feeding America, an organization dedicated to ending the hunger crisis in the US (Harnish 2017). Ellen donated her Favorite Humanitarian Award money to St. Judes, but her charitable giving to that organization does not seem to be slowing down. Ellen also is known for her viral selfie that resulted in 3 million dollars being donated between St. Judes and The Humane Society (Harnish 2017). Ellen achieved this by teaming up with yet another corporation, Samsung, who pledged to donate $1 for every retweet that her selfie at the Oscars got. Interestingly, this tweet has been an example to other non-profits who are not using twitter to their full advantage (Soboleva et al. 2017).
While there is less information publicly about how Ellen spends her salary, Ellen shows up when she feels called to act for what is right. Statistics on the exact number of dollars that Ellen personally gives is nearly impossible to find, but the list of places she has contributed to is far from short. Ellen’s list of philanthropic interests includes the following: “disadvantaged youths, depression and suicide, animal protection, cancer and AIDs, refugees and human trafficking. (Harnish 2017). Ellen and her wife, Portia, have also adopted a cow from “The Gentle Barn” which is an organization dedicated to “the rescue and rehabilitation of abused farm animals such as cows and horses”(Harnish 2017).
- Ellen grew up without having money. Starting out as a comedian was a big financial risk, and she was without proper resources for herself for a while. She now is on a mission to lift that same burden from anyone that she can. She understands that money doesn’t afford happiness, but kindness goes a long way.
- For many, Ellen may have been their first and only impression of a gay woman. She took the public criticism and turned it into something much more beautiful than ignorance and hate. She has provided representation for the LGBTQ+ community, and has been an example of pure kindness and love for the world. She is the representation this community both needed and deserved.
- Ellen has really provided connections. She is the middle-woman between many large companies and individuals in need. There is not as much information on her personal donations because her work with these larger companies has been so successful that it dominates the media coverage. The lack of information online about her personal philanthropy beyond just the names of causes suggests humility in that she doesn’t do this work for the recognition. She will continue to use her privilege and access in order to expand opportunity for others.
Important People Related to the Topic:
- Portia de Rossi is a successful actress who has starred in many movies and television shows. Portia and Ellen have been married since 2018. For Ellen’s 60th birthday, Portia gave Ellen her own wildlife fund. With a $10 million donation, The Ellen Fund was born. Ellen and Portia together have donated to the Redlands Fire Department when there was need after the Thomas Fire.
- Barack Obama was the first black president in the United States. Obama championed for equality and kindness during his two terms. He awarded Ellen with the highest civilian award possible in 2016, and has appeared on The Ellen Show multiple times.
- Jeannie Klisiewicz came on Ellen’s show in 2008 in need of her own miracle. She stated she needed a job, and was hired on the spot. Jeannie has worked and traveled with The Ellen Show, helping connect families and heroes with much deserved tokens of appreciation.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
The Ellen Fund serves to protect and advocate for wildlife. The fund’s first initiative will be building a permanent and safe home for the The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (EllenTube).
St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital is one of the nonprofits Ellen has helped given millions of dollars to. This organization allows families to receive medical care without having to worry about the cost of treatment. This center has saved so many lives while lifting the financial burden from families.
The Los Angeles LGBT Center is one of many causes Ellen has made donations to. Coming out was a huge part of her story, and she continues to donate to centers that help individuals going through the same thing. Not only is she a face for the LGBTQ+ community, but an active contributor to those who have been marginalized.
Is Ellen more of a philanthropist or a fundraiser? What could both individuals and nonprofit organizations learn from Ellen?
- Biography.Com. 2019. “Ellen Degeneres Biography” Https://Www.Biography.Com/Media-Figure/Ellen-Degeneres
- Braverman, Jason. 2019. “Ellen Surprises Georgia Man, Founder of Literacy Non-Profit With $25,000 During Show” https://www.11alive.com/article/life/heartwarming/ellen-stan-tucker-leap-for-literacy/85-bb674d0a-c357-439a-8d70-25b704e3298e
- Dow, Bonnie. 2010 “Ellen, Television, And The Politics Of Gay And Lesbian Visibility” Critical Studies In Media Communication. 18:2.
- Ellen Tube. https://www.ellentube.com/article/portia-surprises-ellen-with-the-gift-of-a-lifetime-the-ellen-degeneres-wildlife-fund.html
- Harnish, Corey. 2017. “How Ellen Degeneres Is Making the World A Better Place” Better World International Https://Www.Betterworldinternational.Org/Blog/Ellen-Degeneres-Making-World-Better-Place/
- Hernandez, Kristina. 2018. “Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi make generous donation to Redlands Fire Department in wake of Thomas fire” https://www.dailynews.com/2018/01/18/ellen-degeneres-portia-de-rossi-make-generous-donation-to-redlands-fire-department-in-wake-of-thomas-fire/
- Montag, Ali. 2018. Https://Www.Cnbc.Com/2018/05/02/Ellen-Degeneres-Explains-Her-Attitude-About-Money.Html
- Shutterfly.Com Https://Www.Shutterfly.Com/Ellen/
- Soboleva, A., Burton, S., Daellenbach, K. And Basil, D. (2017), "Tweets For Tots: Using Twitter To Promote A Charity And Its Supporters", Journal Of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 34 No. 6, Pp. 515 523. Https://Doi.Org/10.1108/JCM-03-2017-2123
- Spence, Kelly. 2017. “Ellen Degeneres: Television Comedian And Gay Rights Activist” Cavendish Square Publishing
This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.