Brilliant corporate public relations move, diabolical sleight of hand—or both? Turns out while the rest of us have been guilelessly tossing a buck or two into those donation boxes at McDonald’s (perhaps as penance for indulging in the occasional Quarter Pounder), the company itself has been far less generous. When it comes to its flagship charity, Ronald McDonald House, it’s been downright stingy.
That’s according to a report released this week from a trio of public advocacy and corporate watchdog groups, charging that when it comes to corporate philanthropy, McDonald’s is hardly putting its money where its big, red-lipped clown mouth is.
To be sure, McDonald’s contributes an estimated $5.3 million to $10 million a year to the Ronald McDonald House Charities, and the company reports total charitable giving at around $34 million (combining both cash and in-kind donations).
That sounds like a lot—until you put it in context. Which is exactly what Michele Simon, president of the group Eat Drink Politics, does in her eye-opening report, “Clowning Around with Charity: How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children,” which was also produced in collaboration with Corporate Accountability International and the Small Planet Fund.
McDonald’s contributions to its trademarked charity account for a mere 20 percent, or less, of the money raised by the Ronald McDonald House Charities—in some local communities, that falls to as little as seven percent. (Long story short, the charities are, in fact, structured similarly to McDonald’s itself, almost like a nonprofit franchise operation; many local houses operate with a wide degree of autonomy.)
Even more shocking (or not, depending on how cynical you are), McDonald’s charitable giving pales in comparison to other large corporations, which themselves are hardly paragons of altruism. As Simon details, big companies give, on average, about one percent of their pre-tax profits to charity; McDonald’s gives a paltry .32 percent. In contrast, the average American making more than $50,000 per year gives 4.7 percent of his or her discretionary income to charity.
Yet with those ubiquitous donation boxes affixed to the company’s drive-thru windows and in front of its cash registers, you’d think McDonald’s was lavishing its namesake charity with cash—which is exactly what the company wants you to believe.
“Most people think that McDonald's funds Ronald McDonald House Charities 100 percent,” Simon tells USA Today. “This is a disconnect between what most people think and reality.”
Truth be told, it’s through those donation boxes that McDonald’s customers actually end up giving far more money to the Ronald McDonald House Charities than McDonald’s itself does: Some $50 million in 2012, or about 1.5 times the company’s total charitable giving.
“In attaching the Ronald McDonald name to a vitally important charity, McDonald’s gains an emotionally-loaded marketing vehicle while shielding itself from critics,” says Simon.
Well, sort of. Simon’s report is just the latest in a seemingly endless stream of embarrassing PR for the burger giant, ranging from its overall bungling of charges that it fails to pay its employees a living wage to evidence that it continues to target kids with its ads to another report detailing how its supposedly healthy kids meals are anything but. (Oh, and then there was that story about how it’s trying to bully its way into that town in Australia.)
In short, there’s no dearth of critics of McDonalds, and its involvement with the Ronald McDonald House Charities—however you might characterize it—hasn’t exactly “shielded” it from criticism.
But it may buy the company a bit of love from your average McDonald’s customer, who has no idea that when they drop their pocket change into one of those donation boxes, they’re probably giving far more as a percent of their income than McDonald’s is.