Philanthropy saved Elton John’s life. In 1992, the celebrated singer-songwriter started the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) after Freddie Mercury, his close friend and the lead singer of the band Queen, died from the disease, along with other close friends.
These tragedies sunk John into a period of despair, he told Philanthropy.com, but they also led to a self-reckoning that yielded an era of expansive altruism that continues to this day. Over nearly three decades, EJAF has raised $450 million for HIV/AIDS programs across four continents.
“I have lost many dear friends to this terrible disease,” John says on the EJAF website. “In the mid-1980s, I began channeling my grief into efforts to help raise money for the pioneering charitable organizations that formed during those dark, grim years to fund AIDS research and provide vital services to people with HIV/AIDS.”
EJAF has become a significant force in the global health community by funding research into and advocacy efforts for HIV/AIDS, investing in health care programs, and supporting more than 90 charities. The organization aims to break down stigmas, debunk myths, and ultimately ensure everyone affected by HIV/AIDS can receive support and treatment.
These and other efforts have earned Sir Elton this year’s Global Citizen Artist of the Year award. The award ceremony — which is being broadcast and streamed around the world from Dec. 19 — celebrates world leaders, artists, business leaders, philanthropists, and activists who are championing the United Nations’ Global Goals.
Sir @EltonOfficial wants to make sure that no one gets left behind because of HIV/AIDS or COVID-19, and that’s why he’s the winner of the 2020 Global Citizen Artist of the Year award. At #GCPrize, he spoke with @mileycyrus about the amazing work of his foundation, @ejaf. pic.twitter.com/84oZgGE6SV— Global Citizen (@GlblCtzn) December 20, 2020
“It’s so amazing,” John said, of receiving the award. “And I’m extremely grateful for this accolade. I’m so grateful that people know about the Elton John AIDS Foundation and consider it a wonderful organization to contribute to and to work with. But for me, it reminds me of all the work yet to do. We’ve got our foot on the accelerator, we cannot take it off ...
“Thank you very much from a 73-year-old man, who still wants to work tirelessly for this, but I need you young people with me,” he continued. “Young people are the future of the world. We want the young people to pass the message on. And if I’ve got you by my side, then I think we can beat this.”
John is one of the most celebrated musicians of modern history, having sold more than 300 million records worldwide. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, was knighted by the Queen of England in 1998, and received the highest civilian award in France, the Legion d'Honneur, in 2019.
In 2019, the biopic Rocketman brought a glimpse of the rock star’s rollicking life to a global audience.
Throughout all of this praise, John has remained focused on giving back. During the Global Citizen Prize broadcast, host John Legend described the crisis in which John emerged as a philanthropic leader.
“For those too young to remember, it’s hard to believe what happened back in the ’80s and ’90s, when the HIV/AIDS crisis took hold,” Legend said. “Family and friends, coworkers and neighbors, shunned, discarded, ignored, forgotten, and left to suffer — many alone in walled-off corners of hospitals. The stigma was so deep and treacherous and wrong that the ignorant called the virus the ‘gay cancer’ and it delayed testing and treatment for years.”
Speaking to Miley Cyrus during the award ceremony, John reflected on the early years of the crisis.
“I should have been there with ACT Up,” he said, referring to the AIDS activist group in the 1980s. “I should have marched, I should have been much more political than I was. So many of my friends died, so many of my friends still had HIV and AIDS. When I got sober in 1990, I realized I wanted to make a difference not just got for gay people, but for everybody. So I decided from my kitchen table in Atlanta to set up the organization.
“But as the disease had evolved, we changed from being a direct care foundation to mothers-to-child transmission, to orphan care, to targeting marginalized groups all over the world,” he said.
“Our motto is: nobody gets left behind.”
While his main focus over the years has been on HIV/AIDS, John’s approach to philanthropy is broad and ongoing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, John has supported multiple fundraising campaigns, including Global Citizen’s “One World: Together at Home'' broadcast that raised $128 million in COVID-19 commitments. He also hosted the “iHeart Living Room Concert for America,” which raised nearly $8 million for Feeding America and First Responder’s Children’s Foundation.
EJAF also launched a $1 million COVID-19 Emergency Fund to help marginalized communities affected by the pandemic.
Over the years, John has supported more than 64 charities including Oxfam, Save the Children, and War Child, according to the philanthropy tracker Look to the Stars. He has supported efforts to help refugees, the homeless, and people experiencing hunger.
“I really don’t have an ego when it comes to this work,” he told Philanthropy.com. “It’s about getting results, maximizing the effectiveness of our grantees on the front lines, and bringing the right people together to make progress. That’s where I want the focus to be.”
John practices an engaged form of philanthropy. He wants EJAF to continually improve its methods so that it’s having the biggest impact possible, especially at a time when the HIV/AIDS crisis seems to be worsening. Because health care systems are focusing on COVID-19, fewer people are receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS, according to the World Health Organization.
When the pandemic arrived, EJAF immediately pivoted and set aside funds to secure personal protective gear, ensure people received medicine, and provide grants to frontline workers.
This kind of responsiveness is why EJAF received four out of four stars on Charity Navigator’s website for its work.
John, for his part, shows no signs of slowing down and urges others to follow in his lead.
“[Philanthropy] connects us to our humanity,” he said. “It humbles us to work on something that’s bigger than us. I’d say to anyone, do it. It will be the most rewarding thing you can do, and it won’t jeopardize your role as a public figure. It will show people you care about others.”
Join Global Citizen in December 2020 to celebrate the leaders among us who have stepped up against a backdrop of unprecedented global challenges to take action for the world we want — a world that is fair, just, and equal.
The broadcast and digitally streamed award ceremony will also feature inspirational stories of human strength and unforgettable performances that will bring together artists, activists, and global leaders to remind each of us that, together, we will come out of this year stronger. Find out more about the Global Citizen Prize and how to watch here.