Stunt philanthropy is what happens when influencers, other celebrities and people who aren’t famous at all use entertaining videos to encourage support for a charitable cause.
When their stunts go viral, it can lead to massive public engagement that raises lots of money and draws new attention to previously less visible causes.
Why stunt philanthropy matters
The biggest early success with stunt philanthropy online was the ALS ice bucket challenge.
People taking the challenge uploaded short videos in which someone dropped a bucket of icy water on their head. They then posted these clips on their social media accounts, tagging others to do the same and to donate to the ALS Association. Participants ranged from high school students to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Even Donald Trump took the challenge, before his presidency.
The campaign raised an estimated US$115 million in 2014 for research tied to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – a fatal neurological condition for which there is no cure.
More recently, stunt philanthropy has become associated with a single infuencer: Jimmy Donaldson. By late 2022, when he was 24 years old, the entrepreneur who calls himself “MrBeast” had more followers on YouTube than anyone else, ever.
Donaldson calls himself “YouTube’s biggest philanthropist.” He has gained more than 150 million YouTube subscribers through his entertaining stunt videos, such as recreating a game show version of the popular Korean Netflix series “Squid Game” and giving the winner $456,000.
He relies on corporate partners like Honey, TikTok and Quidd to pull off the stunts that have made him a celebrity.
Donaldson’s stunt videos have helped him earn lots of money for himself through advertising and the sale of socks, water bottles and other merchandise. He has created his own candy company, Feastables, which he celebrated with a stunt video that featured his own replica of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
He now runs a global burger chain that partners with local restaurants and reportedly made $54 million in 2021 alone.
Building on his formula for creating viral content, Donaldson also creates stunt videos that raise awareness and money and amass needed goods for Ukrainian refugees, African orphans a wide array of other causes.
In addition to partnering with companies, Donaldson also teams up with nonprofits for his philanthropy-themed stunts. https://www.youtube.com/embed/TJ2ifmkGGus?wmode=transparent&start=0 In early 2023, Donaldson collaborated with SEE International to facilitate 1,000 cataract surgeries.
In May 2023, Donaldson worked with Hearing the Call to provide hearing aids to 1,000 people across the U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, South Africa, Malwai and Indonesia and donated $100,000 to organizations that promote education in sign language. The video his team made publicizing this campaign showcased the delighted looks on many of the faces of people getting the hearing aids.
Alongside posting these videos on his main YouTube channel, Donaldson has created a separate Beast Philanthropy channel. Among the videos posted is one that celebrates giving supplies to underfunded schools, sponsored by Sun-Maid, a raisin producer, and another that showed homes being rebuilt in Kentucky following tornado devastation, sponsored by Nord VPN, a tech company.
Some people have questioned Donaldson’s motives for his eye-catching charitable acts, while others have raised ethical concerns about the way he uses footage of people in need for online entertainment.
It’s much easier for public displays of charitable giving to go viral today because of social media, but there are precedents from pre-internet days.
From 1966 to 2010, the entertainer Jerry Lewis raised millions of dollars for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and spread awareness about the disease with help from his famous friends during annual 24-hour telethons.
And Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson convened a celebrity supergroup to perform the charity relief song “We are the World” in 1985 to raise money for African famine relief – following an example set by British musicians a year earlier.
It’s hard to predict what the future holds for stunt philanthropy, but it seems to me that it’s probably here to stay. That is why I will continue to keep studying how social media can influence charitable giving.
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