Whatever you think about McDonald’s and how its extremely well-marketed fast food offerings are contributing to rising rates of obesity and diabetes, or about how little it pays its workers, you may have still felt the company has something to recommend it due to the Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC). Ronald McDonald Houses can be found near hospitals and provide accommodations for parents with sick children.
As it turns out, while McDonald’s gets 100 percent of the credit for the good work that the RMHC does — the red-haired clown is a familiar, and controversial, symbol of the fast food giant — the company only contributes about 20 percent of the budget for the charity. A just-released report by Corporate Accountability International, Eat Drink Politics and the Small Planet Fund goes so far as to contend that McDonald’s charitable activity is a front and “a marketing tool to deflect critics.”
McDonald’s is certainly glad to take the credit for keeping the RMHC houses open. In reality, the company only donates an average of 20 percent of the RMHC revenue. Local Ronald McDonald Houses even have disclaimers on their websites that note how little they receive in donations from McDonald’s itself and encourage community donors to give.
With profits of $27 billion last year, there’s no question that McDonald’s could be as generous as it wished to and certainly with the charity that wins it plenty of kudos. As the report, Clowning Around with Charity: How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children (pdf) details, McDonald’s philanthropic giving is actually 33 percent lower than that of corporations including Yum! Brands (Taco Bell and KFC) or Coca-Cola.
A good share of donations to RMHC don’t come from McDonald’s but from its customers. In 2012, more than $50 million that McDonald’s gave came from donation boxes in its fast-food outlets, meaning that customers are furnishing 1.5 percent as much as that provided by McDonald’s itself.
Meanwhile, McDonald’s spends almost 25 times as much on advertising as on charitable donations.
McDonald’s “Philanthropy” Also Takes Place in Schools
The Ronald McDonald Houses aren’t the only way that the company uses what are described as charitable programs for its own ends. Events called “McTeacher’s Night” turn teachers into “free labor” as parents buy fast food to raise money for schools. While these events are said to be fundraisers for schools, the reality is that McDonald’s only donates about 15 to 20 percent of the proceeds from McTeacher’s nights. Schools end up making as little as $1 per student from these McDonald’s branded fundraisers
As the report points out, the company’s “persistent targeting of school children violates its own self-regulatory pledge to not advertise in schools.”
Another Reason to Retire the Red-Haired Clown
What McDonalds should do is to, the report recommends, “rename the Ronald McDonald House Charities organization it controls and stop licensing its brand to local chapters and houses to enable these entities to change their name.”
McDonalds should also (finally) retire Ronald McDonald, something that many have called on the company to do for years. McDonalds has actually been using the existence of the Ronald McDonald Houses as a reason not to retire the red-haired clown because “Ronald McDonald is the heart and soul of Ronald McDonald House Charities” and is a figure who provides “educational” messages to children in schools about exercise and nutrition.
Not surprisingly, McDonald’s has been aghast to read the claims of Clowning Around with Charity: How McDonald’s Exploits Philanthropy and Targets Children (pdf) and pronounced the report’s findings so “shameful and misleading” that we “hesitate to even dignify it with a comment.”
It must be emphasized that the report by no means questions the service that the Ronald McDonald Houses do. Rather, it calls on McDonalds to ‘fess up and be far more transparent about what it contributes and what it does not to a charity that’s very name links it to the fast-food giant. Families with children in the hospital for a few days or for many need a place to sleep and rest, whether there’s a statue of a red-and-yellow garbed clown greeting them or not.
Photo via RonaldMcDonald-HC/Flickr