Charitable Giving | September 2014 | By Sam Oches

The House Ronald McDonald Built

As McDonald’s ramps up its corporate social responsibility efforts, it’s trying to figure out a way to put the 40-year-old Ronald McDonald House front and center.
Fast food restaurant giant serves customer needs through charitable foundation.
Ronald McDonald House Charities christened its 300th House, in St. Louis, in September 2010 with Ronald McDonald and former CEO Jim Skinner. Ronald McDonald House Charities Global

Four hundred and fifty million dollars. That’s $450 million—nearly half a billion dollars. It’s a big chunk of change, approximately what McAlister’s Deli and Auntie Anne’s each did in system-wide sales last year.

It’s also, according to company estimates, about what Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC), the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that is McDonald’s charity of choice, raised in 2013 to support nearly nine million children and families in need of medical care globally. While it might seem puny compared with McDonald’s U.S. sales alone—nearly $36 billion in 2013—it’s an enormous amount for an organization founded 40 years ago as a way to help families stay together while a child is undergoing medical treatment.

And for McDonald’s, it’s the cornerstone of a corporate social responsibility (CSR) plan that aims to position the company not just as a better steward of the environment and of consumer nutrition, but also as a global corporate entity with the power to enact long-term social change.

“McDonald’s brand ambition of good food being served by good people by being a good neighbor is part of our DNA,” says J.C. Gonzalez-Mendez, senior vice president of global corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and philanthropy for McDonald’s, as well as president and CEO of RMHC. “But it’s not only employing local people, buying local resources, and paying local taxes; it’s also making significant changes to the community, because today, consumers expect McDonald’s to be part of the solution of societal problems that are not necessarily addressed by governments or other entities.”

Consumer expectation has been a big reason why McDonald’s in the last two years has tinkered with its menu—Chicken McWraps, build-your-own-burger kiosks, and the Dollar Menu & More among

its projects—as it stares at sluggish quarterly results and finds itself stuck between customer demand for value and the pressure to improve menu nutrition and quality.

And it’s a big reason why, this year, in honor of year No. 40, RMHC will double down on the message it’s delivering about the work it and McDonald’s are doing to help children and families in need all over the world.

“I don’t think we’ve done a good job at leveraging both brands,” Gonzalez-Mendez says. “I don’t think McDonald’s has leveraged RMHC, and I don’t think RMHC has leveraged McDonald’s as much as we could. Very few people know this information. … We need to tell the story.”

“Global in our mindset, local in our execution”

RMHC was founded in 1974 in Philadelphia with support from McDonald’s regional manager (and future McDonald’s USA CEO) Ed Rensi; Leonard Tose, owner of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles; Eagles general manager Jim Murray; and Fred Hill, the Eagles tight end whose daughter, Kim, had been diagnosed with leukemia. The group partnered with renowned Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia oncologist Dr. Audrey Evans and opened the first Ronald McDonald House, which was partly funded through proceeds donated from the sale of McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes.

Today, RMHC has nearly 300 local chapters in 58 countries and regions around the world and is a three-pronged effort. Not only do local chapters help fund the building of Ronald McDonald Houses, which are facilities close to children’s hospitals where patients’ families can lodge during care, but they also support Ronald McDonald Family Rooms—centers for rest and regrouping within the hospital—and Ronald McDonald Care Mobiles, which are 40-foot-long, 8-foot-wide vehicles built to deliver pediatric health-care services to kids in need all over the world. By the end of this year, there will be 337 Houses, 200 Family Rooms, and 52 Care Mobiles around the world.

“We serve about 8.9 million children and families annually,” Gonzalez-Mendez says. “That sounds like a lot, but there’s a lot of need, obviously. Unfortunately, there are a lot of families we have to turn away because we just don’t have the space.”

The nonprofit operates as a wholly separate entity from McDonald’s and is supported by corporate partners such as The Coca-Cola Company, Southwest Airlines, AT&T, and Ecolab. Gonzalez-Mendez says RMHC also leverages the McDonald’s system, or what the company calls the “three-legged stool”—franchisees (more than 5,000 globally), employees (about 1.8 million), and suppliers (thousands around the world)—to support the cause.

Then there are the customers. About 70 million people visit McDonald’s every day globally, including 27 million in the U.S., and this population helps activate RMHC in local communities through volunteerism.

“We have 305,000 volunteers that help us provide services that our families truly need,” he says. “I’ve seen [RMHC] grow dramatically over the last few years, and within the next three years, we see it growing by as much as 40 percent because the need is there and because we have tremendous partnerships with companies like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and many others.”

To grow, RMHC will need to ramp up its fundraising; chapters cannot build a house until 80 percent of the capital needed is in the bank. And Houses, Family Rooms, and Care Mobiles don’t come cheap. Care Mobiles, for example, cost about $500,000 to get on the road. Gonzalez-Mendez says 89 cents of every $1 raised is used for the organization’s core programs, as well as for grants to groups providing health care and college scholarships for students in financial need who have demonstrated leadership and community involvement.

Fundraising for RMHC is multifaceted. Along with the corporate sponsorships, money is raised with help from RMHC Group Give fundraisers, which are driven by individuals who can set up online donations around certain causes; Coinstar’s Coins That Count program, through which people can donate their change to RMHC at Coinstar machines in grocery stores; and, of course, McDonald’s restaurants, which contribute funds through Happy Meal sales, the annual National Give a Hand Fundraiser and RMHC Day of Change, and the ever-present, in-store donation boxes. Around $28 million was raised through the donation boxes in the U.S. in 2013 alone, Gonzalez-Mendez says.

“Against what a lot of people may think when they see McDonald’s as this big, multinational, huge company, we’re really a local company,” he says. “We’re global in our mindset, but local in our execution. We are a community-based entity. [More than 80] percent of our restaurants are individually owned by local owner-operators, and they’re businesses that employ local people that buy local sources and are within the local churches and the local schools. And we encourage them to be involved.”

Demonstrating the local qualities of a brand like McDonald’s is one of the primary ways companies are climbing onboard the growing CSR movement, a movement that is increasingly dictating much of the quick-service industry’s strategic growth.

“Pressure to be a good neighbor”

The general idea of CSR has been around for generations. Companies have cut checks to charity for decades, both as a way to invest in their communities and to leverage the goodwill generated by the gesture in promoting their business.

Today, however, CSR has taken on newfound relevance in the age of Millennial purchasing power, social media, and intense competition. Experts say companies’ CSR activities—which could include environmental, nutritional, social, and philanthropic efforts, among other things—are more critical today than ever before in influencing customer behavior.

“Consumers today are extraordinarily savvy about what companies are doing,” says Alison DaSilva, executive vice president of Cone Communications’ Research & Insights Group and expert in CSR trends. “You can learn about a company’s products or services, or issues they are supporting or not supporting, so easily because of social media.”

According to a 2013 Cone Communications study, 89 percent of consumers agree that they are likely to switch to a brand that is associated with a good cause, while 85 percent consider a company’s social and environmental commitment before making important decisions.

CSR’s next generation hasn’t been lost on McDonald’s. CEO Don Thompson created Gonzalez-Mendez’s position—bringing together CSR, sustainability, and philanthropy—in 2012 in an attempt to better focus the company’s efforts so it can have a more widespread impact. McDonald’s published its first-ever “CSR & Sustainability Report” in April, outlining positive steps made in 2012 and 2013, and created its Corporate Social Responsibility & Sustainability Framework, which establishes goals for the coming years. The Framework includes a commitment to more sustainable sourcing, restaurant recycling, and energy efficiency, among other things. All of the CSR planning is designed around five core pillars: Food, Sourcing, Planet, People, and Community.

But while sustainable sourcing and energy efficiency may be relatively new territory for McDonald’s, the investment it’s made in RMHC—the core of its Community pillar—is rooted in four decades of hard work.


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