Philanthropy in Shondaland: A Hollywood Producer Turns to Giving

 photo: DFree/shutterstock

photo: DFree/shutterstock

African-American Hollywood producer-writer Shonda Rhimes has been on our radar for a while. We mentioned her in our look at the "Top 20 Philanthropists of Color" and said that on the heels of her eight-figure gift to the new Smithsonian African-American museum, Rhimes should be watched for greater giving in the coming years.

Born in Chicago's suburbs, Rhimes went to Dartmouth and received her MFA from the University of Southern California. After working in the features world, she pivoted to television and began a decade-and-a-half relationship with ABC, creating hit shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, which dominated the Thursday night primetime block. Rhimes is the first African-American woman to create and executive produce a Top 10 network series and many have lauded her "colorblind casting" approach. Now 48 years old, Rhimes recently inked a Netflix deal reportedly worth $25 million per year for her and her production company Shondaland. For all her efforts, Rhimes' net worth has been pegged at $120 million by some estimates. 

On the philanthropic end, besides her Smithsonian gift, Rhimes made another big donation through her recently minted Rhimes Family Foundation, which has given at least $1 million to the Obama Foundation. As we've mentioned, the new Barack Obama Presidential Center has received support from major Hollywood players, including J.J. Abrams and his wife Katie McGrath.

We were curious to learn more about the Rhimes Family Foundation, which keeps a low profile. I recently made contact with Rhimes and her foundation to find out more about what made the Hollywood super-producer turn to philanthropy, and what she hopes to focus on through her emerging foundation. 

Rhimes explains that as a person of color with means who works in arts and entertainment, she feels that it's important for her to model philanthropy and create opportunities of art and inclusion. Rhimes officially established the Rhimes Family Foundation in 2016, whose mission is to support the arts, education and activism, with a focus on promoting cultural inclusion, fighting for equality, and standing up against bigotry of any kind.

As she puts it, "It's not lost on me that 100 years from now, some child will look up at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy building and see that it is called the Rhimes Center for the Performing Arts and know that it was built by a black woman." The Debbie Allen Dance Academy, based in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles, is one of the organizations that Rhimes supports via her family foundation. 

The foundation's grantmaking also supports the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and IAMA Theatre Company in Los Angeles, funding the Rhimes Unsung Voices Playwriting Commission, which supports underrepresented writers of color who have not yet had a play professionally produced. "I think it's hard for any playwright to find opportunities," Rhimes told the Los Angeles Times. "If people aren't being included, then I'm going to find a way to make sure they're included. I'm going to find a way to make sure they have opportunities."

The Rhimes Family Foundation has also supported Beyond 12 in Oakland, whose mission is to "dramatically increase the number of low-income, first-generation, and historically underrepresented students who graduate from college."

Expect the arts to loom large for this funder. Rhimes notes that while the arts are an important part of our lives, opportunities to experience them are on the decline in schools and communities. Additionally, she believes that the need for inclusive growth and learning opportunities continues to rise. Rhimes says that the foundation’s goal in the coming years is to continue to find partnerships that allow them to support and grow programs in exciting ways.

The Rhimes Family Foundation is pretty new, and is still evolving. It's interested in hearing of new partnership opportunities. The person to connect with there is Executive Director Lindsay Rachelefsky at lindsayrachelefsky@shondaland.com

Related: Meet the Top 20 Philanthropists of Color