McDonald's: Exploiting Charity to Deflect Criticism, Reap Benefits

McDonald’s philanthropic activities have largely been self-serving, allowing the fast-food giant to score massive PR points with limited giving and continued marketing to children, a damning new report reveals.

Authored by public health lawyer and Eat Drink Politics president Michele Simon, in collaboration with Corporate Accountability International and the Small Planet Fund, the report released Tuesday, “Clowning Around with Charity: How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children,” puts some common misconceptions about the corporation’s giving—which turns out to be 33 percent less than other leading corporations—to rest.

Case in point: Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC).

The report stresses the important cause and work of the charity that provides housing near hospitals so that families can be close to children receiving medical care. Because of the name, people may assume that they are entirely funded by the corporation. “It’s absolutely confusing,” RMHC of the Ozarks told the report researchers.

But the report calls it “a branded charity that is an extremely valuable PR mechanism.”

The report estimates that the corporation provides only 20 percent of RMHC’s revenue, and some of the money McDonald’s boasts of giving to the charity comes from donations from customers, who actually give 1.5 times more than the corporation.

“In attaching the Ronald McDonald name to a vitally important charity, McDonald’s gains an emotionally-loaded marketing vehicle while shielding itself from critics,” report author Simon said in a statement. “Because of how little the corporation donates to the cause, even local Ronald McDonald Houses told us the McDonald’s name is often a bigger liability than it’s worth.”


“I used to volunteer at a Ronald McDonald House Charity local house,” adds Dr. Richard Bruno of the Department of Family and Preventative Medicine, Johns Hopkins University. “There’s no question that the charities do incredibly valuable work—I talked to families that were so thankful for charities. But for me the tragedy is that these charities are linked to a corporation that is driving the obesity epidemic.”

“McDonald’s is using a charity that helps sick kids to perpetuate a brand that makes kids sick,” he added. 

Another part of the corporation’s self-serving philanthropy the report highlights is the recently scrutinized “McTeacher’s Nights”—events in which teachers work without pay at a local McDonald’s purportedly to raise funds for their schools.  The report estimates that schools receive 15-20 percent of the profits from a three-to-four hour work shift.

But the rewards for the hours of selling and promoting the obesity-linked food turn out to about one dollar a child. Rewards for McDonald’s, however, include free labor and marketing in schools and to kids.

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The scrutiny of McDonald’s charity is warranted, the report states, because it “has evolved to also serve as a convenient distraction from harmful practices,” and the corporation uses PR to direct attention to its supposed generosity while simultaneously engaging lobbyists to “block the public health policy reforms that could prevent many of the very problems McDonald’s contributes to.”

“The time has come to decouple the McDonald’s brand and mascot from charities supported by so many other sources,” stated Sara Deon, spokesperson for Corporate Accountability International.

“It’s shameful for McDonald’s to continue to associate its brand—one synonymous with today’s public health crisis—with an important charity committed to children’s wellbeing,” stated Deon.


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