Clowning Around with Charity: How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children

New report from Eat Drink Politics exposes McDonald’s charitable activity as a marketing tool to deflect critics


Pop quiz: Who do you think funds the hundreds of Ronald McDonald Houses around the nation? McDonald’s right? Sort of, but not really. While McDonald’s gets 100 percent of the brand benefit from Ronald McDonald House Charities, the burger giant only provides about 20 percent of its funding globally. At the local level, it’s closer to ten percent, with some of that money coming from donation boxes at McDonald’s outlets, that is, from customers.

Confused? Wondering how a corporation that raked in $27 billion last year can be so stingy with its own charity? You’re not alone. In my new report, “Clowning Around with Charity: How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children,” I show how McDonald’s enjoys a huge public relations and marketing boost relative to how little money it donates. In fact, Ronald McDonald Houses report that the name causes many people to assume that McDonald’s provides 100 percent of the charity’s funds – and that this “common misperception” is “absolutely confusing.” In other words, the McDonald’s brand may be more of a liability than it’s worth.

Little could be more important than giving families a comforting place to stay together during such stressful times. The cause’s importance, and the extent to which McDonald’s is serving versus exploiting that cause, is all the more reason for gaining a better understanding of the corporation’s involvement.

Despite McDonald’s claims of philanthropic generosity, the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric. The report’s findings include how McDonald’s philanthropic giving is 33 percent lower than leading corporations and that McDonald’s spends almost 25 times as much on advertising as on charitable donations.

I also examined how McDonald’s targets children in schools under the guise of charity. For example, at events called McTeacher’s Night, teachers serve as free labor for McDonald’s while parents buy fast food to raise money for schools. While a great way to boost sales for McDonald’s, the return for schools can equal as little as $1 per student.

Why pick on McDonald’s philanthropy? Because the burger giant uses charity as a shield against critics, to distract from its harmful business practices. Over the past several years, public health advocates and groups such as Corporate Accountability International have called upon McDonald’s to “retire Ronald” in light of the mascot’s insidious marketing toward children. In response, McDonald’s says no way, because after all, “Ronald McDonald is the heart and soul of Ronald McDonald House Charities”  and provides “educational” messages to children in schools about exercise and nutrition. But by sending Ronald into schools, McDonald’s not only defies common sense (who gets health advice from a clown?) but is also violating its own voluntary pledge not to market in the school setting.

McDonald’s philanthropy does not take place in a vacuum and should be viewed with a critical eye given the serious health risks children face today. McDonald’s charitable activities are mostly self-serving and have significant negative ramifications for public health and policy. While McDonald’s pretends to be “giving back,” it continues to lobby against policies to reduce junk food marketing to children and refuses to pay its workers a living wage, despite growing protests.

We are in the midst of a public health crisis among adults and children alike. We can no longer allow McDonald’s to exploit charity as a vehicle for marketing a junk food brand to kids and as a shield from criticism for the corporation’s central role in today’s epidemic of diet-related disease and other problems.

Read press release here.
Read executive summary here.
Read full report here.

Read USA Today coverage: McDonald’s slammed over Ronald McDonald House giving.

The report was produced in collaboration with Corporate Accountability International and the Small Planet Fund.

34 Responses to “Clowning Around with Charity: How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children”

  1. Suz says:

    Most companies and large donors give to charities for a variety of reasons, many times, the cause they are giving to is a minor consideration. Naming rights, public relations, etc. are all important factors in the decision making process. This also works to benefit the profile of the charity, so it is a symbiotic relationship. RMH is a charitable organization separate from McDonald’s. I look at their name on the charity as the benefit they receive for their donation. Of course, I don’t expect them to be the only funder of the RMH charities. Just as I don’t expect the Thomas Family to be the only ones funding St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. If the cause is truly the most important part, then individuals and businesses would give anonymously instead of accepting recognition for their donations.

    • Sue Murphy says:

      In response to Suz, the name of the hospital is St. Jude’s, not the Thomas Family Hospital. Most people do believe that McDonalds funds the Ronald McDonald House. Nor is St. Jude’s responsible for decimating the environment, contributing to chronic health issues, nor bearing responsibility for the deaths of billions and billions of farm animals. I don’t view this as a legitimate comparison.

    • Emi says:

      I disagree with Suz from the perspective of a parent of chronically sick children who’ve been referred to stay at RMH’s during long stays/visits at the childrens hospitals. I was led to believe that McD’s supports them at much higher levels and only uses the customer donations for “helping” them run the houses. If they really wanted to help, they could. And I might recommend they open twice as many houses near Children’s hospitals because there is never enough room.

  2. Alex says:

    Why judge on how much someone is giving, as long as they are?? McDonald’s doesn’t have to do this, they choose to. The donation boxes at registers are a good idea too! Most people wind up losing spare change anyway, why not dump it in a giving box? …Yes they are poisoning people with their food, but that’s another story.

  3. Pat says:

    Good point Sue. McDonalds not only poisons the bodies of our children
    And their minds with untruths, but is also continually spilling false information to make themselves look good just like so many
    Other corporations in this country. The more they are exposed for who
    They really are the better.

  4. Chris Hamilton says:

    Let us not forget that McDonalds is the company that invented the factory farm.

  5. Kenny says:

    So let me get this straight. They give money, help out lots of families, mine included, when their children are sick. According to you.. They don’t give enough. Also they benefit from recognition. So if a company benefits from charity they should be put in their place? I don’t care if all they did was the collection boxes. Their doing something to help those in need. No one forces you to go to McDs. You go their of your own free will. As a beneficiary of their generosity I hope they continue to do well. You’re basically saying: McDonald’s benefit from giving money to sick children and their famines. Who do they think they are helping sick children like that?

    • Dave says:

      Sorry Kenny, they harm the world more than they help it, especially when you consider that the “food” they serve is making America sick. Add in all the fuel needed to plant the crops, harvest them, get them to the cows, pigs and chickens, then the transporting of those animals to slaughter houses, then the processing of them, then packaging and trucking it to the stores. Billions of gallons of oil/fuel. Add in all the chemicals needed to grow the corn, all the antibiotics needed to raise the animals in such close quarters, all the growth hormone they have to give them to get them to grow as quick as possible. Then add that to the amount of cruelty that is inflicted on these animals. Then there is the corn syrup added to every single menu item, which is toxic to the human body. Add it all up and the environmental damage far outweighs any good their “charity” does. If you eat McDonald’s knowing these things, you are a sociopath, straight up.

      • Tony says:

        Just don’t eat there! For goodness sake if you are so preoccupied with it why don’t you stop eating there and just start a charity of your own?

        • LogicalLe says:

          Amen! If you don’t like McDonald’s, DON’T EAT THERE. I wasn’t aware there was a law in our country forcing people to consume fast food? WOW… We all have choices on where to eat and how to eat. It’s not your business if I choose to eat at McDonald’s, just as it’s not my business if you choose to eat a raw food diet out of your own garden.

          Also, as a parent who has benefited from this charity and the name recognition that comes from McDonald’s founding this charity, it irritates me when people who know nothing – or have ever experienced – the help this charity provides.

          Michele’s flaws are that she never looks at both sides of a coin. Her obsessive hatred of McDonald’s has blinded her to some facts, such as McDonald’s pays 100% of the administrative costs for global RMHC so that almost 100% of YOUR donations go directly to the charity. How many other companies or charities do this? I urge you to look into the administrative costs and funding of ALL charities. If more companies covered the admin costs, then more charities would have the money to give directly to programs.

          Thank you to RMHC for the help they have provided my family when we needed it most. And thank you McDonald’s for covering the costs of the administrative part of the charity so that ever dollar, dime & nickel can go to the programs to help families.

          • michele says:

            The report takes into account McDonald’s funding of RMHC global’s administrative costs.

          • Joseph says:

            Really, Michelle? Then how come YOU didn’t mention it? That would only have been fair, but it might have painted McDonald’s in a more positive light, and we couldn’t have that, could we? I’m no fan of McDonald’s, but this article is an incredibly one-sided hatchet job. People with brains know McDonald’s doesn’t fund 100% of their charity, and every rating I’ve ever seen of the best charities to donate to has Ronald McDonald House near the top.

          • michele says:

            it’s in the report, which is 34 pages long. This is just a summary.

          • Joseph says:

            ….and so sorry I misspelled your name. One “L”. Oops.

  6. [...] For full article — Find out here:… McDonald’s #ExploiterExposed #Exposed #FastFood [...]

  7. Tricia Hedahl says:

    McDonald’s fought my neighborhood to put a restaurant across the street from a cancer survivor’s memorial and a childhood obesity clinic. The drive-through would have dumped cars onto a critical bicycle route. Their major reason for that site being the only location they’d consider: Its proximity to a Ronald McDonald House. Thankfully our council listened to hundreds of neighbors who opposed McDonald’s and their obscene tactics.

  8. Casey says:

    As a parent working hard to teach my kids to love food that loves them back, I don’t need McDonald’s undermining that by using schools to market to kids. Sending Ronald into schools to teach kids about “giving back” is hypocritical when they are contributing so much to the high rates of diet-related disease. I am glad this report helps distinguish between the good of Ronald McDonald House Charities and the harm of McDonald’s the corporation. As Dr. Yoni Feddhoff put it:
    “while there are no laws prohibiting the use of charity as a sales driver for corporations, when it comes to products whose consumption are linked with illness, society has already drawn a line. Tremendous social service or not, it seems doubtful that society would accept a Marlboro Mission for the homeless, or a Budweiser Burn unit in a local hospital – let alone agree to cobranded sales with cigarettes or beer companies to raise funds for those endeavors – and yet that’s precisely what we see with McDonald’s.”

    • Nicole says:

      Childrens obesity isn’t only due to McDonanlds. It’s up to parents to feed their children. Children of the ’60′s, ’70′s and ’80′s weren’t so fat.
      Although, I agree with the point that Ronald needn’t be the one teaching about giving to others, at least it’s being taught.

  9. [...] Clowning Around with Charity: How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children [...]

  10. Pat says:

    I recently started volunteering at a RMH because of the experience my husband and I had when he stayed at an AstraZeneca Hope Lodge in another state. AstraZeneca is another corporation that backs (with the American Cancer Society) a RMH style house (for adults). Adults were able to receive life-saving treatment in world-class hospitals while avoiding the high cost of housing that would have limited their medical options. Our experience made me really realize the value of the RMH house in our community. Especially when I learned that our local hospital’s NICU unit is the only one to serve families with premature babies who live up to four hours away. These parents, along with the parents and their child who is receiving life-saving cancer treatment get to stay at RMH. I have alot of animosity for many corporations and the harm they do. I don’t eat at McDonalds and would urge that parents don’t feed their children there. But I’ve experienced the value of what their philanthropy provides and suggest that we don’t through the baby out with the bath water. If you don’t like their product – fine. But don’t knock the good they do until and unless you have another option for these families. Incidentally, the support provided by the local community is part of what makes these homes so special. I guarantee if your family were in need of this service, you would criticize less.

    • Nicole says:

      I agree, as a mother of a preemie who had surgery at 5 days old at a Denver Children’s Hospital, Ronald McDonald house was a great option for a breastfeeding mother to be very close by.

    • Laura says:

      Pat, in several places she goes out of her way to praise the service and the support from the local community. For example, the report states: “There is no question the cause is noble: mainly, providing rooms either in or near hospitals so parents can be close to their sick children during treatment. Little could be more important than giving families a comforting place to stay together during such stressful times.”
      Demanding transparency and accountability while exposing the fact that McDonald’s funds a pretty small part of the expense of those much-needed services is not the same thing as trying to undermine RMH.

  11. [...] By Michele Simon • Originally published on [...]

  12. ann says:

    McDonalds should come forward and tell everyone they dont fully fund all of the RM Houses. That way, the public wont be mis-lead. Surely if they make billions every year, they could certainly foot the bill to run the houses. If they wont do that, then the truth needs to come out. Nothing wrong with that -
    With 70% of Americans either overweight/obese – the situation begs fast food chains to reconsider their marketing tactics. Because McD is the largest out there, they also have a great opportunity to make a difference.

  13. [...] am pleased to see so many media outlets take an interest in my recent report, produced in collaboration with Corporate Accountability International and the Small Planet Fund.  [...]

  14. [...] Critical Reading “McDonald’s enjoys a huge public relations and marketing boost relative to how little money it donates.” via Facebook… [...]

  15. [...] Clowning Around with Charity - how McDonald’s exploits philanthropy and targets children. [...]

  16. Norma says:

    I don’t always have much to give to all the charities I like. But, what I do for RMHC, is I collect all the soda, beer, food cans, and pet food cans tabs put them in a bottle and when it’s full I drive it over to RMHC. I have my family, boyfriend, friends, and their co-workers doing this also. As they fill their bottles up they give them to me to turn in. Or when at the Red Cross they sponsor a child, if I choose to I can leave the tabs with them and also help sponsor that child and their family. Maybe it’s a thought for some who want to donate and make sure that RMHC gets what you’re donating.

  17. [...] I described in my recent report about McDonald’s charity (or lack thereof) with Corporate Accountability International and Anna Lappé’s Small Planet [...]

  18. [...] Simon, president of Eat Drink Politics and author of last year’s report, “Clowning Around with Charity: How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children… also sees an incongruence between General Mills’ cause-washing efforts and its more nefarious [...]

  19. Michael Champion says:

    Whilst the RMHC is a good thing in itself, it deflects attention from the fact that McDonald’s markets its unhealthy food towards children. It’s all very well saying “Don’t eat there” but children will pester their parents to do so; McDonald’s is the biggest distributor of toys in the world.
    Also, by calling the houses “Ronald McDonald House Charities” McDonald’s is also raising its own profile- leading to more people eating at its restaurants, higher profits and unhealthy diets (and hence unhealthy children).
    Ronald McDonald (and McDonald’s as a whole) lures children into an unhealthy lifestyle and- dare I say it- to an early grave.

  20. [...] Lose the clown. “Time for a new business model for the 21st century. For starters, retire that outdated and creepy clown. You can be a true leader by stop exploiting children. I guarantee the millennials market you’re after will reward you for it. I know the public health world will applaud you, starting with myself.” —Michele Simon, public health lawyer, president of Eat Drink Politics, and author of Clowning Around with Charity: How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children [...]

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