MrBeast's charitable efforts have helped thousands. But is his approach to philanthropy problematic?
With millions of subscribers, Jimmy Donaldson's charitable videos have made him very wealthy
Tiffany Ferguson often finds herself conflicted when it comes to her career.
"I wish that my livelihood didn't depend on getting clicks [and] getting people's attention, because it's really hard to compete in the attention economy," the California-based vlogger and social media commentator told Tapestry. "Sometimes it's tempting to go for more clickbait or go cover more controversial topics, or just find a gimmick that'll get more people to click."
Ferguson is a digital creator, and her videos on YouTube critique and comment on internet trends. One of the creators she has set her sights on is also one of YouTube's biggest celebrities: Jimmy Donaldson, also known as MrBeast, whose viral videos have stoked a wide range of reaction, from acclaim for their altruism to controversy for perceived exploitation.
Donaldson's videos have garnered over 26 billion views on YouTube. While his success began with viral stunts, such as counting to the number 100,000 on camera, most of his content is now focused on charitable actions.
His philanthropic videos have included giving a homeless person $10,000 US, and funding cataract surgeries for 1,000 blind people. In his most-viral video with more than 424 million views, he recreated the hit Netflix series Squid Game to give one winner the chance to win $456,000. Unlike the fictional TV series, no one was injured in Donaldson's version.
All these videos are revenue streams for Donaldson. He claims the money he gains is used towards more charitable causes.
Getting young people into philanthropy?
MrBeast's video style has earned him massive popularity among young people. "He's such a maximalist in terms of optimizing content and viewer retention," Ferguson said. "His motifs are all very loud and bright. And the way that he builds his content down to like the second? He knows he has to do quick edits to keep people engaged."
And his charitable videos are certainly designed to be entertaining.
Eddy Hogg, a senior lecturer in social policy at the University of Kent, U.K., said that such charitable spectacles are just a continuation of what has come before him, except this time it's through the prism of YouTube's engagement driven model.
"It is part of a long tradition of the charity telethon, the idea that celebrities encourage people to give to causes often in quite spectacular ways, whether that's sitting in a bathtub full of baked beans or jumping out of an airplane," he said.
At the same time, Hogg sees Donaldson as a disrupter of sorts.
"The big, spectacular things that he's doing, they make good content on YouTube and he can then use that content to make money using YouTube's algorithms to do more spectacular philanthropy," Hogg observed. "In that sense, it's something really quite new."
Moreover, Hogg claimed that MrBeast's approach to philanthropy is helping young people to engage with charity.
"On the whole, what he's doing is taking philanthropy, taking charity, and doing it in such a way that is, granted, spectacular," Hogg said. "But [he] is also role modelling and showing the young people that charity can be fun and can be exciting, and that you can help people in all sorts of different ways."
Charity as ''philanthro-tainment'
Others argue that Donaldson's charitable actions do not address the core issues that create inequity within society.
After the video where MrBeast paid for cataract surgery for 1,000 people, he was criticized for not addressing wider issues when it comes to access to health care in some countries.
Matthew Wade, a lecturer at the La Trobe University, Melbourne, says that Donaldson is not a figure of a modest altruist who gives purely for the benefit of others.
"He is not some coldly utilitarian, effective altruist who calculates exactly where he's giving might have the greatest impact in terms of lives saved, but he gives with an eye to what is entertaining, what makes for good visuals [and] what is an ideal kind of recipient that will play well with the audience," Wade said. "He likes the responses that he gets from people."
Wade acknowledged that MrBeast provides audiences with happiness or pleasure at seeing people in unfortunate circumstances receiving help.
"Donaldson says that just by watching these videos you are contributing to charity... If you keep watching, we can continue these really generous acts. And so it's that dual sense of that vicarious pleasure and feeling oneself to be part of a movement," Wade said.
Donaldson certainly does engage in more conventional philanthropy. His organization Beast Philanthropy has advocated for causes like humanitarian aid in Ukraine and alleviating food insecurity in Donaldson's hometown of Greenville, N.C.
Despite his general admiration of the vlogger, Hogg said that he understands how this model of philanthropy could be seen as harmful.
"I think that the different videos that MrBeast has done are to some extent problematic and others less so," Hogg said. "He's made more efforts to situate and contextualize what he's doing within kind of wider discussions around poverty."
Wade is more ambivalent, citing the cataract video as an example of what some perceive as a crassness at the core of MrBeast's video output.
"We assume that charity always needs to be done in this really low key, self-effacing, dignified kind of way," he said. "[But] a MrBeast video is to entertain and to reach as broad an audience as possible, and the video is intentionally quite devoid of any reflection, any social commentary, and are really stubbornly apolitical."
In fact, the head of Beast Philanthropy, Darren Margolias, calls what they do "'philanthro-tainment," according to Wade.
WATCH: Why planting more trees is not enough (even when MrBeast does it)
Under this model there is never going to be a MrBeast video that explores more divisive territory, Wade argued.
"I don't think there will be a video that features MrBeast establishing a methadone clinic for long-term opioid-dependent users of drugs. There's never going to be a MrBeast video in support of the reproductive justice movement — these are just causes that won't resonate with the massive audience that he's trying to accumulate," he said.
CBC Radio reached out to Donaldson for comment but did not get a response.
Donaldson's content finds itself in a double bind, as fellow YouTuber Tiffany Ferguson notes: his videos are somewhere between pure giving and adept brand management.
"It's strange this, to me, facade of 'I'm just giving to be a good person, I'm just giving to help people,'" she said.
"Clearly he's considering what's going to perform the best, what's going to get the most views and likes and therefore AdSense revenue brand deals to grow his channel."
- This story has been updated to state that Matthew Wade works at La Trobe University, Melbourne, not the University of Canberra.May 29, 2023 10:35 AM ET