Oprah Winfrey

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Winfrey, Oprah
Oprah Winfrey (1954- ) is the first black woman billionaire. Financial success enables her to "make an important difference in people's lives." (Oprah.com) The Oprah Winfrey Foundation "support[s] the inspiration, empowerment, and education of women, children, and families around the world"(oprah.com). The foundation also funded the building of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Oprah's Angel Network raised over $80 million to provide scholarships to needy students, funded over 200 Habitat for Humanity homes and built schools in thirteen countries. Winfrey's campaign for abused children resulted in the signing of the National Child Protection Act, a registry of child abusers, also called the “Oprah Bill.” Oprah was the first black woman to host a nationally-syndicated television show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the first black woman to own a production company, Harpo Productions

Biographical Highlights

In her words, Oprah Winfrey's philosophy of philanthropy demonstrates her commitment to giving: "Think about what you have to give, not in terms of dollars because I believe that your life is about service. It's about what you came to give the world, to your children, to your family" (Harpo Productions).

One of the most recognizable faces of the past two decades, Winfrey has received world acclaim in the realm of entertainment. She established Harpo Studios, which produced the Oprah Winfrey Show, which ran for 25 years and reached more than 40 million viewers. In 2011 Oprah debuted the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), a joint venture between Harpo and Discovery Communications. This was the first time in history that a network was named after an individual. This venture also launched oprah.com, which averages 43 million views per month and has 7 million members (oprah.com). Oprah also launched a magazine called O, The Oprah Winfrey Magazine in 2000, which has over 2.35 million readers each month.

Listed in Forbes Magazine, in 2003, as the first African-American woman billionaire (Forbes.com), Oprah has proven to be a great humanitarian and an avid supporter of philanthropic causes, particularly in the areas of education, children, and women. Winfrey's canny ability to relate to her audience is evidenced through her compassion and empathy as she listens to the stories of others. Through openly bearing her soul, she has exposed traumatic episodes from her own life on nationwide television. This experience was a catalyst in creating a bond between herself and her viewers. Perhaps it is from this early pain that viewers see the roots of Oprah's dedication to philanthropy.

Historic Roots
Oprah Gail Winfrey was born January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Her father, Vernon Winfrey, was a twenty-one-year-old enlisted man. Her mother, eighteen-year-old Vernita Lee, remained unmarried after Oprah's birth and tried to adjust to single parenthood. Oprah was sent to live with her grandmother and was under her care for the first six years of Oprah's life. She developed a passion for reading that brought to light her oratory talent and ability to shine on stage. At the age of six, Oprah moved to Wisconsin to live with her mother and would spend the next seven years there (Academy of Achievement, "Oprah Winfrey Biography"). While living with her mother, Oprah experienced trauma, causing her to act out. Therefore, her mother sent Oprah to go live with her father, Vernon, in Tennessee. Winfrey's strict demeanor had a positive impact on his young daughter. In her commitment to school, Oprah found success, winning awards for speech and debate and securing a college scholarship at the age of sixteen.

After graduation, she entered Tennessee State University, majoring in radio and television broadcasting. Hired by local television station WTVF, Winfrey became the youngest and first African-American female anchor. This title of "the first" would follow Oprah throughout her career. In 1976, Oprah moved to Baltimore, Maryland, for a position at the ABC affiliate as a co-anchor. Here she met Gayle King, a woman that would remain an essential part of Oprah’s life. Two years later, the station offered Oprah an opportunity to co-host People Are Talking, a morning talk show (Garson, p. xii).

In a significant career move, Oprah moved to Chicago in January 1984, to take a position as the host of AM Chicago. Competing against the top-rated talk show of its time, Winfrey proved she was able to attract a broad audience, and in 1985, AM Chicago was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. That year, Oprah also landed her first significant acting role. Her work in The Color Purple earned her nominations for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe award. Just one year later, The Oprah Winfrey Show went national, and, in 1988, Oprah became the first black woman to own her television and film production company, Harpo Productions, which bought the rights to The Oprah Winfrey Show. This show aired for 25 years and had more than 40 million viewers. In 2003, Winfrey became the first black woman billionaire.

In 2000, Oprah launched her magazine O, The Oprah Magazine, which has become one of the leading women’s magazines. In 2003, Oprah became the first black woman billionaire. In 2008 Oprah and Discovery Communications joined together and created the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). OWN debuted in 2011, and part of this collaboration involved the creation of oprah.com. In 2018, Oprah signed a contract with Apple’s streaming services to create content for documentaries, book clubs, and a TV series (forbes.com/profile/oprah-winfrey).

Oprah Winfrey has become one of the most admired American television icons of her time. Her advancement as a woman of color has paved the way for many to follow. In addition to her many "firsts," Oprah has won numerous awards for her personal and professional work. She was awarded the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award in 2002, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, and the 1986 Woman of Achievement Award from the National Organization for Women. Time Magazine also named her as one of the "100 Most Influential People of the Twentieth Century." Other awards received by Oprah include two People's Choice Awards, The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' 1998 Lifetime Achievement Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, the International Radio-Television Society Foundation Gold Medal Award, the National Book Foundation's fiftieth-anniversary gold medal, the NAACP Image Award (four years running), and the NAACP's 1989 Entertainer of the Year.

In 1987, Winfrey established the Oprah Winfrey Foundation as a way to "support the inspiration, empowerment, and education of women, children, and families around the world" (Oprah.com "About Oprah"). Given her history of abuse, Oprah initiated a campaign for a national database of child abusers in 1991. In December 1993, President Bill Clinton signed "Oprah's Bill," which became the National Child Protection Act, an act establishing a national registry of convicted child abusers.

In 1997, Oprah created two segments of her show that would make dramatic differences in the lives of many individuals. In an attempt to increase reading among her viewers, Winfrey created the Oprah Book Club. The club invited viewers to read a selected book and discuss it on the show. The second segment created in 1997 was Oprah's Angel Network, a campaign focusing on three philanthropic programs, the first was collecting spare change in the "Worlds Largest Piggy Bank" to fund scholarships for The Boys and Girls Club of America. The second was volunteering time and funds to build homes for those in need with Habitat for Humanity, and the third was encouraging individuals to create their "own miracle[s]" by making a difference in the lives of others (Oprah.com "Oprah's Angel Network").

Oprah’s Angel Network raised more than $80 million, established 60 schools in 13 countries, supported women’s shelters, created scholarships, and funded over 200 homes through Habitat for Humanity. The Angel Network distributed its final grants in 2010. In December 2002, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls broke ground in South Africa, an endeavor supported by a $40 million gift from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. The Academy opened in 2007, and in 2019 the 8th class entered the Academy. “Her vision is that the Leadership Academy will help develop the future women leaders of South Africa” (Oprah.com). Winfrey also made significant contributions toward institutions that further education, including large gifts to several historically black colleges and universities. Recipients include the United Negro College Fund, the Harold Washington Library, Chicago Academy of Arts, Chicago Public Schools, and her alma mater, Tennessee State University.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
Winfrey's motto of "intent and service" is apparent in her commitment to philanthropy. Oprah has said she values her financial success because it enables her to "make an important difference in people's lives" (Winfrey 1997, 242). The first recipient of the Academy of Television Arts and Science's Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, she donates at least 10 percent of her annual income to charity. In 1987, she established a private charity, the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. A crusader for women and children, the foundation has awarded thousands of grants to nonprofits that support the inspiration, empowerment, and education of women, children, and families around the world. She has contributed millions of dollars across the globe toward education for underprivileged but merit-worthy children.

The Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program provides scholarships to those who have a desire to give back to their communities. Reaching across borders, Oprah partnered with the South Africa Ministry of Education to create the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, which opened in 2007 and as of August 2019, had their 8th class enter. Oprah's Angel Network formed alliances with other nonprofit organizations and contributed millions to their efforts. Contributions were made to the Habitat for Humanity, allowing volunteers to build 200 homes. Free the Children received enough to build thirty-four schools in ten countries. Among the many who contributed to Oprah's Angel Network are Paul Newman's nonprofit organization, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, and others.

Key Related Ideas

African-American philanthropy: Black philanthropy was critical to the poor and played a crucial role in developing the first black schools, banks, and insurance companies. It has been an essential component of virtually every black protest movement in history. The accomplishments of the civil rights movement have affected the lives of every other minority group in America and set a precedent for judging the claim to equal rights for these groups. Additionally, understanding black philanthropy as being both informal (through countless small and large acts) and formal (through volunteering at and giving to nonprofits like the church) can widen the use of a more inclusive definition of philanthropy. (Brake and Nissan "Black Philanthropy") https://thevaidgroup.com/hnwdonorsofcolorreport/

Child welfare: Concern with the health and education of children.https://www.childwelfare.gov

Coalition-building: Constructing or convening alliances of organizations, people, or groups interested in accomplishing specific goals. For example, often, nonprofit organizations with similar missions or interests collaborate on initiatives, such as Oprah's Angel Network's support for Habitat for Humanity helped both organizations create opportunities for children and the disenfranchised.

Women and philanthropy: Women's activism, advocacy, and giving were critical to the formation of a formal philanthropic sector in the United States. In particular, "through leadership, volunteerism and charitable contributions, women have built portions of the sector that serve the underrepresented, underprivileged and powerless - namely, women themselves, children, and minority groups. Through these roles, women have not only met their missions of social and public policy changes but have access to traditional seats of power and influence (Shimmel "Women's Use").

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Gayle King (1954 - ): Emmy award-winning journalist and editor of O, The Oprah Magazine and long-time friend of Oprah Winfrey. The two met at WJZ station in Baltimore and have remained friends since. They inspire each other and support each other’s career-defining moments and remain best friends today.
  • Maya Angelou (1928- 2014): Author, poet, actor, producer, and educator. Angelou was an important person in Oprah’s life. Oprah called her “mentor-mother-sister-friend” (Garson, p.180). Awarded with fifty honorary degrees, she taught at universities here and abroad. Her award-winning poetry made her a sought after speaker in the areas of education, entertainment, and politics. Angelou was also an advocate of causes concerning women and children.
  • Mehmet Oz (1960-) Mehmet and Oprah share many interests, such as mental and physical health, as well as spirituality. Oprah hosted Mehemt on her show 55 times and called him “America’s doctor.” They are frequently seen together at functions that support the advancement of health causes for children (Garson, p.168).
  • Nelson Mandela (1918- 2013): Was a South African political activist and statesman who was targeted by the South African government. He was imprisoned without just cause for twenty-seven years. After receiving worldwide attention, Mandela was finally released on February 11, 1990. Upon his release, he resumed his position as president of ANC. After apartheid was abolished, he was instrumental in reforming the South African government and was awarded the Noble Peace Prize for these efforts. Winning the country's first election under the majority rule, President Mandela remained in office until his retirement in 1999. Creator of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, he worked alongside Oprah Winfrey to improve education for African children.
  • Toni Morrison (1931- 2019): Writer, editor, educator, and Morrison was awarded the Noble Prize in Literature. As the author of The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved, she has earned critical acclaim for her work. Morrison was named professor of the humanities at Princeton University, is the first African-American woman to receive this honor at an Ivy League university. Oprah Winfrey starred in and produced the movie, Beloved, based on the writings of Toni Morrison.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Heifer International is a well-established organization dedicated to helping impoverished families address hunger by becoming self-reliant. Donations to the Heifer Project purchase animals for families in hunger-stricken countries or impoverished areas within developed countries. The animals are used by the recipients to produce food (e.g., eggs from chickens and milk from goats) and products that can earn them a living (e.g., sale of a donated sheep's wool). www.heifer.org
  • Susan G. Komen Foundation strives to eliminate breast cancer through the advancement of research, education, screening, and treatment. Since 1982, this organization has “funded more than $988M in research, more than $2.2 billion in education, screening, and treatment, serving
  • millions in over 60 countries worldwide.” The Komen Race for the Cure series is the largest series of 5K runs/fitness walks in the world. Over one million participants walk or run in more than 100 cities across the U.S. and in several foreign countries. WW5.Koman.org
  • Habitat for Humanity International offers information about the organization's programs, history, events, access to local affiliates, and more. This nonprofit organization pairs resources and volunteers together to build affordable housing for those in need. www.habitat.org
  • WE, a charity founded in Canada with a mission to “free children and their families from poverty and exploitation.” WE.org helps children and families all over the world, better their life by lifting them out of poverty and providing education for children. www.WE.org

Reflection Question

Considering everything that Oprah has achieved and accomplished in her life, in what ways has Oprah made the most impact on other people’s lives?


  • A & E Television Networks. "Oprah Winfrey." Biography.com. https://www.biography.com/search?query=oprah+winfrey
  • Academy of Achievement. "Oprah Winfrey." Hall of Business. http://www.achievement.com
  • Forbes.com. "100 Top Celebrities, 2003." Lists. June 19, 2003. http://www.forbes.com/lists
  • Oprah.com. http://www.oprah.com/
  • Garson, Helen S. 2011. “Oprah Winfrey: A Biography” Greenwood: An Inprint of ABC-CLIO,LLC
  • Winfrey, Oprah. 1997 “The Uncommon Wisdom of Oprah Winfrey: A Portrait in Her Own Words” Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group


This briefing paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.