In recent months, female philanthropists have been making a lot of headlines. One of the women that has stood out has been Dolly Parton, who recently received the COVID-19 vaccine that she generously funded. Parton has a long history of philanthropy even if that is not what first comes to mind when you hear her name.
She has been a generous philanthropist since the very beginning of her career and this legacy deserves recognition, especially considering her humble upbringing. Parton was born in one of the poorest counties in the country and her economic struggles taught her the importance of giving back.
The Major Components of Dolly Parton’s Philanthropy
One of Dolly Parton’s most significant philanthropic endeavors has been the Dollywood Foundation, which launched in 1988. This foundation was designed to fund improvement in her hometown and has developed several successful programs.
For example, the Buddy Program was the first program started by the foundation. This program provides $500 to each person who graduates from high school in the town. The dropout rate subsequently dropped from 35 to 60 percent as a result of the program.
Another extremely successful program under the Dollywood Foundation umbrella is Imagination Library, which sends a free book to each child each month until the age of five. While the program started in Parton’s hometown, it has since expanded to North Carolina, Ohio, and the District of Columbia.
In the last few years, Parton seems to have accelerated her giving. In 2016, for example, she launched My People to support households that were impacted by wildfires in Tennessee. The program still exists to support rebuilding efforts and provide vital assistance to area firefighters.
The year after, she began a more formal relationship with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center when she donated a million dollars to honor her niece, who was treated for leukemia at the center’s children’s hospital. Last year, she again gave a million dollars to Vanderbilt to help speed research for a COVID-19 vaccine. This money went directly toward funding the Moderna vaccine and played an important role in getting this option to people in need quickly.
The Guiding Principles of Dolly Parton’s Philanthropic Giving
Overall, the Dollywood Foundation has made an impact on an incredible number of people, especially in Parton’s hometown. Her upbringing puts her in a unique position to understand how her money can make the most impact and she has consistently demonstrated a commitment to giving back to those who need it the most.
She has taken several different routes to philanthropy, embracing everything from benefit concerts to scholarships depending on the immediate and overarching needs that she identifies. Because much of her philanthropy is centered in Tennessee and especially the Smoky Mountains, it does not often get national recognition, which is what makes the stories about her receiving the vaccine she helped fund so heartening.
Within Parton’s music, she demonstrates a deep understanding of the American struggle. Her hit song 9 to 5 is a perfect example of this struggle. The song underscores the futility of the American dream for many and the improbability of the common narrative of going from rags to riches by showing how hard it can be just to get by in the United States.
In the song, she sings about working hard and still having little to show for it. Even with a lot of hustle, there is not always a great reward. She learned this lesson as a young girl and she continues to sympathize with Americans who work full-time jobs yet still do not earn a living wage. Her philanthropy is intentional and meant to relieve this struggle and give people access to more opportunity, especially through education.
A Commitment to Giving with a Strong Sense of Humility
Perhaps because of the principles that underlie her giving, Dolly Parton has demonstrated incredible humility. She largely avoids praise for her giving, which is perhaps another reason why her philanthropy has not received a lot of mainstream attention, not to mention the fact that she focuses on matters that mean the most to her and the place she grew up rather than those that get media consideration.
One of the best examples of her humility came at the beginning of 2021. A bipartisan agreement in Tennessee resolved to erect a statue of Parton in front of the State Capitol in Nashville. This statue would take the place of a controversial confederate figure. Rather than embracing this recognition of her philanthropic commitments, she asked legislators to reconsider.
Given the current state of the world, she said, it does not make sense to put her on a pedestal. In fact, she seemed to suggest that it would be insensitive to recognize her in such a way when the money could go toward the basic needs of Tennessee citizens still struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic.
However, she also said that she would remain open to the honor in the future, and especially after she dies, provided that it is still the wish of the citizens of Tennessee. This humility only further demonstrates the remarkable nature of her character and the fact that her priorities are focused on the needs of the people.
Featured Image courtesy Timothy Wildey | Flickr