From the Ice Bucket Challenge to MrBeast — does ‘stunt philanthropy’ make the world a better place?

MrBeast wearing a football jersey leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of the tunnel.
YouTuber MrBeast leads the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of the tunnel prior to an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, in Tampa, Fla. Photo by Kevin Sabitus via AP

The business of philanthropy and fundraising has undoubtedly evolved alongside the growth of social media. The power influencers and content creators wield online can lead to pretty incredible outcomes for charitable causes. Look no further than what the “ice bucket” challenge achieved for ALS research, for example.  

The marriage of online entertainment and fundraising has a name: It’s called “stunt philanthropy.” The phenomenon began, some experts say, with the ice bucket challenge in 2014, and is now standard operating procedure for many influencers — most notably a YouTuber who goes by the moniker of “MrBeast.”

MrBeast, or James Donaldson as he is known in real life, is arguably the poster child of stunt philanthropy. With more than 215 million YouTube subscribers, he is one of the platform’s largest content creators — and a self-described philanthropist (Donaldson, in addition to his YouTube channel, runs a 501(c)3 called Beast Philanthropy, which raises funds to “alleviate hunger, homelessness, and unemployment”). His videos often involve elaborate and costly stunts and challenges designed, in some instances, to attract attention to various charitable causes.

Patricia Illingworth, a professor of philosophy and business at Northeastern University and author of “Giving Now: Accelerating Human Rights for All,” considers Donaldson in her philanthropy and ethics courses, and says the YouTube star may not be the force for good that many — Donaldson included — make him out to be. 

Stunt philanthropy “typically involves a show of some kind to captivate the attention and money of donors,” she says. “Although many nonprofits use these strategies, MrBeast has scaled them, and at the same time increased the harm that follows from them.”

For as many people as there are praising Donaldson’s work, there appear to be just as many criticizing him for capitalizing on the suffering of others for monetary benefit.

“The purpose of philanthropy and charity is to promote the public good, and nonprofits — arguably — should do so in a way that does not cause harm,” Illingworth says. 

The harms associated with corporate philanthropy, in particular, are well known. Add social media to the mix — the smoke and mirrors of online marketing — where organizations and creators are incentivized to chase views in order to maximize profits, and those harms may be amplified. 

One of the strategies that many fundraisers use is what is called “poverty porn,” which is the depiction of, for example, sad, suffering or emaciated children in order to trigger empathy and donor contributions. 

“Donors are thereby manipulated into giving, and receivers are depicted in ways that undermine their right to dignity,” Illingworth says. “Very often they also exacerbate what’s called ‘white savior syndrome.’”  

The discourse surrounding white savior syndrome can be slippery terrain. Specifically, white saviorism is rooted in the belief that certain individuals are superior to those they perceive as in need, particularly Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). “White saviors” may be acting from a place of superiority without realizing it. 

Donaldson’s most recent philanthropic “stunt” involved building 100 wells that would provide up to 500,000 people in Cameroon, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda and Zimbabwe with clean drinking water. As with previous causes, the effort garnered praise and criticism in equal measure, with critics, including a Kenyan politician, noting Donaldson’s video of the project perpetuates the stereotype that Africa is “dependent on handouts and philanthropic intervention.”

Illingworth warned against conflating “virality” with effective or meaningful charity.  

“It is certainly true that manipulating donor empathy will draw donations to a particular charity, but the charities to which the money is donated may not be of the best, or most deserving,” she says. “It’s important that nonprofits use money effectively, to promote the good and respect human rights in the process.”

“Given the amount of suffering and poverty in the world, donors should exercise due diligence with respect to what nonprofits they support,” Illingworth adds. “They should not give based on how good the show is, or how funny MrBeast is. Highlighting the weakness, suffering, sadness, and horror of people’s lives to raise money violates their right to dignity and harms them. It also treats them as a means to an end, a mere mechanism to generate donations.” 

For those interested in vetting charities, Illingworth suggests looking at organizations that conduct charity reviews and research.  

Giving Tuesday, she says, is the perfect occasion to practice due diligence when giving.

“Lots of nonprofits raise money without such strategies,” she says. “Donors can turn to meta-charities, such as Give Well, to identify the best nonprofits.”

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at t.stening@northeastern.edu. Follow him on X/Twitter @tstening90.