Hugely successful YouTuber MrBeast has become well known for his model of on-screen “Beast Philanthropy”. We take a look at what it is, why it has become controversial & what we should make of it.
MrBeast (real name Jimmy Donaldson) is a hugely successful multi-millionaire YouTube content creator, who has also quietly become one of the world’s most prominent philanthropists in recent years. No, wait – I mean “loudly”. He has loudly become one of the world’s most prominent philanthropists. Because there is very little that is quiet about MrBeast and his empire, built on highly lucrative videos in which he performs elaborate and expensive challenges and stunts.
This week, however, he was making noise for all the wrong reasons, after a video in which he celebrated “helping 1000 blind people to see for the first time” drew criticism from many corners (including those who have previously been on board with his brand of “Beast Philanthropy”). Critics claimed that the tone of the video was crass and that it came across as “charity porn”, but MrBeast and his supporters defended it – arguing that it was motivated by a genuine desire to do good and had resulted in a clear improvement in the lives of a lot of people.
So what should we make of this? Do these criticisms of MrBeast’s philanthropy simply reflect an underlying disdain for the kind of YouTube content that has made him so rich, or is there more to them? Should we applaud MrBeast for at least trying to do good, even if we don’t love the way in which he chooses to do it? Or is the model of philanthropy he promotes actively harmful, and therefore something we need to be wary of?
Let’s take a look at the arguments. And in the spirit of being charitable, I’m going to start by outlining some of the arguments we can make in favour of MrBeast’s Philanthropy.
He is actually doing some good, even if not in an ideal way
The most basic argument we can make in defence of MrBeast is that if we put aside all the wider debates, fundamentally he has used his money to help 1,000 people get eye surgery they might otherwise not have been able to afford. In doing so he has undoubtedly transformed their lives for the better, so we should give him credit for that. And this a pretty compelling argument to be honest. I certainly haven’t paid for one life-changing medical treatment for anyone recently (let alone 1,000) so I would fare poorly on any like-for-like comparison.
Of course, this is a line of argument one could take in defence of any act of philanthropy (assuming it isn’t totally ineffectual), as usually at least some good is produced. However, it clearly shouldn’t be seen as a Get Out Of Jail Free Card against all potential criticism. It should be possible to acknowledge that philanthropy produces good in the world whilst still being willing to scrutinise how it is done, what motivates it and the wider context in which it sits. (Which is fortunate for me, as I would be out of a job otherwise!) And that is very much the case here, as I don’t have too many problems with what MrBeast has done; the concerns (which we will come onto shortly) are more about why and how.
He is modelling the idea that if you are wealthy you have a responsibility to give
Another thing one might say in favour of MrBeast is that at least he is giving. There are plenty of rich people around the world who give little or nothing; surely they deserve far more of our criticism than someone who gives away large quantities every year and promotes the idea of generosity as a responsibility? Again, to my mind there is a fair amount of substance to this line of argument. I have plenty of thoughts and views about how philanthropy can and should be done better (as you may have noticed by now), but I still fundamentally think it is better that someone like Mr Beast has chosen to give away his money (and, indeed, has stated plans to give it all away during his lifetime) rather than keeping it all for personal consumption.
Now before anyone reading this gets too irate, yes, I am aware that some people argue that philanthropy is not in fact better than consumption – either on the grounds that it receives tax subsidies and thereby drains money from the public coffers, or on the grounds that philanthropy is a modern day version of “bread and circuses” and allows the wealthy to deflect just enough attention from underlying issues of inequality and injustice to enable the status quo to be maintained. We will, in fact, cover some of that in a minute. However, I will state at this point that I don’t find those arguments a compelling reason to think that having no philanthropy at all would be better for society desirable than having it, whilst also accepting its imperfections and trying to make it better (which is my preferred option).
And judging from his tweets following the recent furore, MrBeast himself certainly seems confused (and a bit put out) by the idea that he should come in for more criticism than other rich people who aren’t giving:
Twitter – Rich people should help others with their money
Me – Okay, I’ll use my money to help people and I promise to give away all my money before I die. Every single penny.
Twitter – MrBeast bad
— MrBeast (@MrBeast) January 30, 2023
He is making philanthropy mainstream
One could also make a positive case that MrBeast is having a huge impact when it comes to popularising philanthropy with a new generation of people. Millions of children and young people who probably wouldn’t have even heard the word “philanthropy” otherwise have heard it thanks to his videos. There is, of course, a debate about whether this is a good thing or not, since you might have concerns that all of these kids will grow up with an unhealthy and warped concept of what philanthropy is. We’ll consider that argument below, but for now let’s assume that there are positive aspects to MrBeast’s philanthropy (perhaps in terms of emphasising the value of giving, the importance of empathy and human connection, raising awareness of issues etc). Then the fact that he is getting these videos seen by millions of people is a good thing isn’t it? I spend my whole life making content about philanthropy and I sure as hell don’t get 100 million people paying attention to it, so if MrBeast is able to use his massive audience reach to get people paying attention to this stuff, then on one level I can only take my hat off to him.
Maybe his model of giving is actually better for some people?
A thought which occurred to me when watching the “curing blindness” video that caused all the recent controversy, is that for some of the people in the video (especially the US teenagers), the fact that MrBeast is paying for their treatment and turning up to surprise them on film might actually make it better than any other possible way they could have got that surgery, because they get a memorable celebrity encounter as well as life-changing medical treatment. Now I’ll stop right there and admit that this is a relatively shaky line of argument, as in order to work we have to assume that any given recipient is not only a fan of MrBeast but is happy to be cast in the role of one of his “beneficiaries” (which even some avowed fans may object to). However, for some this won’t be a problem at all. And in these cases, If MrBeast did his philanthropy more quietly and impersonally (as some critics argue he should), it would arguably be less effective because the recipients would be missing out on a personal encounter with a celebrity that is in itself something that adds value to their lives.
It has long been popular to get famous actors and sports stars to do hospital visits etc for charities, so the idea that meeting a famous person brings an additional value to the recipients of philanthropy is hardly a new one. Perhaps the difference, though, is that these other celebrities are usually aware that if they turn up with film crews or photographers they will be accused of turning what should be an altruistic act into a PR opportunity, so they often try to be a bit circumspect (although not always, it should be said!) In MrBeast’s case, however, if he didn’t film the whole thing that would defeat the central point of generating content for his channels, so the charge of being exploitative is much more difficult to avoid.
It could be a lot worse…
It may sound like a slightly negative argument, but another thing we can say in favour of Beast Philanthropy is that there are plenty of far worse things that children and young people could be watching on the internet (and often are). Would I rather my kids watched a load of YouTube videos based on a slightly problematic, trashy, donor-centring notion of philanthropy, or would I rather that they watched Andrew Tate videos or content promoting self-harm? That’s not a very difficult choice to make, if you ask me. Of course I know that this comes dangerously close to ‘whataboutism’, and that defending something simply by pointing out that another thing is worse is a pretty lame tactic. However, I also think it is worth bearing in mind this wider context when we’re all piling into MrBeast for making slightly crass videos about giving lots of money away.
So that was the case for the defence of MrBeast. Let’s take a look now at the case for the prosecution.
This is just reputation laundering/philanthropy-washing
If we leap straight to the most cynical argument, some claim that MrBeast’s philanthropy as a whole is just a means to launder his own reputation or to deflect criticism. This is, of course, not a criticism specific to MrBeast, but rather one that can be applied to philanthropy more generally; and which has gained a lot of popular currency thanks to Anand Giridharadas’s 2018 book Winners Take All and the debate that has followed from it. Let’s unpick what it actually means in this instance, though.
If MrBeast’s philanthropy is solely a means of reputation laundering, that implies that his reputation was distinctly negative before – but was it? He seems to be pretty popular from what I can tell, and most of the coverage of him up until very recently was largely about how he has managed to make such a vast sum of money in a relatively short space of time, rather than being particularly critical. Of course, MrBeast might well see his philanthropy as a means to boost his reputation – as many donors before him have – but that isn’t the same as laundering it (and is arguably relatively harmless, and even potentially valuable from a fundraising point of view, even if you find it a bit gauche). I also tend to question the assumption that philanthropy is some kind of foolproof PR or reputation management tool, as increasingly outing yourself as a philanthropist seems to bring just as much criticism as it does praise.
Is MrBeast engaging in “philanthropy-washing”, then? I.e. using his prominent giving to deflect attention from potential criticism of something else. If so, what might that something else be? Often philanthropists have been accused of a conscious effort to use their philanthropy as a means of social control, to do just enough through their giving to silence dissent undermine the momentum for radical change and thereby allowing a capitalist status quo to be maintained. That certainly seems to be what Anand Giridharadas and some other critics think is going on here (see this rather conspiratorial YouTube documentary for a good example) – but personally I think it is a bit of a stretch to suggest that MrBeast has some sort of carefully-thought through strategic plan to use Beast Philanthropy to mask the iniquities of global capitalism. It’s more credible, to my mind, to claim that he might be trying, at least in part, to deflect attention from the particular way in which he has made his money. However, even that presumes that he thinks there is some sort of problem with it, or that he is worried that the weight of public opinion is against him. Now, personally, I don’t particularly care for his videos (or more generally for the whole genre of YouTubers he represents) but that doesn’t mean I think his money is “tainted” in the way that I think the fortune the Sackler’s made selling opioids, or money made through the sale of weapons is. And I also come back to the point that he seems to be actively popular with a lot of people, so I’m not quite sure why he would feel the need to use philanthropy to launder his reputation or to deflect criticism.
This is philanthropy-as-content; it is ostentatious and crass
The main criticism that seems to have been levelled at MrBeast in the context of the current kerfuffle is that his video about giving to help cure 1000 people of blindness was just quite tacky. Critics point out that this is not the first time, and that his approach to philanthropy has always had the aesthetics of a slightly low-rent game-show. Having watched a few of his videos I have to agree, but to me the even bigger problem is that it is all so ostentatiously about him. I know that is blindingly obvious, and that making this point about someone who makes a living as a YouTube creator probably makes me sound quite naïve, but in the context of thinking about the norms that we have traditionally seen as desirable in philanthropy it was very striking.
Historically, it has always been seen as the done thing to at least try to make it look as though your philanthropy isn’t all about self-aggrandisement. The medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides, for instance, delineated 8 “levels of giving” within the tradition of tzedakah (going from best to worst), and the top levels were ones in which neither the giver nor the recipient know each others’ identity. (Arguably MrBeast might make it to level 4 at best: “Giving to a recipient unknown to you who knows you”). Likewise the 17th century preacher Thomas Fuller mocked those who gave showily, writing:
“I have observed some at the church door cast in sixpence with such ostentation, that it rebounded from the bottom, and rung against both sided of the bason, so that the same piece of silver was the alms and the giver’s trumpet; whilst others have dropped down silent five shillings without any noise”.
We can’t be certain what Fuller would have made of philanthropy in the age of YouTube, but it seems safe to say that he wouldn’t have been that impressed.
The broader point is that the narcissistic nature of these videos leads them to convey an unhealthy model of philanthropy. They give the impression that philanthropy is all about wealthy lone saviours swooping in and spraying money around to recipients that they have personally chosen; instead of acknowledging that most philanthropy is about the fairly considered distribution of resources through a range of expert non-profits who do their best to ensure that those resources get to the areas of greatest need.
In a way, of course, MrBeast is merely a victim of his medium here. He is competing in an attention economy, where he needs to get people clicking on his videos and then keep them there, so whatever version of philanthropy he offers needs to be compelling and photogenic. Unfortunately, a lot of what actually goes on in the philanthropy world would make for a remarkably boring YouTube video (as anyone who has sat through a 4 hour grant committee meeting could attest). It is unsurprising, therefore, that Beast Philanthropy puts the focus on individual person-to-person interactions and surprise gifts that are likely to elicit highly emotional reactions. But just because that makes for good content, it doesn’t mean that it makes for good philanthropy. The danger, however, is that the former will always trump the latter when we are talking about this kind of performative giving, and a generation of younger people who grow up watching these videos will end up with a very warped view of philanthropy.
This approach to giving disempowers and dehumanises recipients.
One of the biggest problems with MrBeast’s philanthropy videos, to my mind, is the view of the recipients of philanthropy that they convey. In them, those suffering from poverty or illness are presented as basically bit part players (or Non-Player Characters to use some appropriate gaming terminology), whose main role is simply to offer an opportunity for our hero-protagonist to demonstrate just how benevolent and good he is. This is another idea with a very long lineage. In the medieval period, for instance, the prevalent view of poverty was that the distribution of wealth in society was pre-ordained by God, and the role of poor was largely to provide opportunities for the rich to salve their consciences and cleanse their souls through almsgiving. Much later, in 1908, the writer Jerome K Jerome brilliantly lampooned a similar set of views that were still depressingly common, in a short story called “The Angel and the Author” where the main character (a buffoonish self-proclaimed philanthropist) merrily proclaims:
“Really, seeing the amount we give in charity, the wonder is there are any poor left. It is a comfort that there are. What should we do without them? Our fur-clad little girls! our jolly, red-faced squires! We should never know how good they were, but for the poor? Without the poor how could we be virtuous? We should have to go about giving to each other. And friends expect such expensive presents, while a shilling here and there among the poor brings to us all the sensations of a good Samaritan. Providence has been very thoughtful in providing us with poor!”
It could, of course, be said that the poor and the needy play a similarly useful role for MrBeast, as otherwise how would we know how good he is…?
But even if that is a tad over-cynical, it is certainly true that people suffering from poverty or illness in his videos are presented as if they have little or no agency. They don’t get to define what their problems are or the desired solutions, and their role is mostly just to cry and look suitably thankful to Mr Beast at the right point in the video. Presumably, in the case of MrBeast’s videos, some thought has been given to how people consent to be in them in the first place, but the power differentials at play are going to make that a very unequal conversation. If someone really needs $10,000 and the price of getting it is agreeing to become content fodder for MrBeast, then how free are they actually going to feel to say no? (And these questions of consent are even more problematic in many of the more spontaneous videos that have become popular on TikTok purporting to show “random acts of kindness”, where people are often given no choice at all about whether they appear in highly viral content, as highlighted in a recent Guardian article)
If the recipients of philanthropy are merely there to highlight the goodness of the giver, then the temptation is also to make them look as “deserving”, and therefore pathetic, as possible. This is a problem that has long plagued charity fundraising, where the imagery used to illustrate appeals has often been accused of perpetuating problematic views of issues such as poverty, illness or disability. This has been particularly acutely felt in an international context, where a fierce debate has long raged about whether international aid and development organisations use imagery in their fundraising appeals that plays into negative perceptions of places like Africa and perpetuates a “white saviour” mentality on the part of donors. A number of MrBeast’s videos of work he is funding in Africa bring to mind similar issues and dynamics. And what makes it even more unpalatable is the sense that at least fundraisers are using the images for instrumental reasons in order to raise money for good causes, whereas MrBeast seem to be primarily using them to drive views and likes for his content, which is far less defensible.
Shouldn’t the State be doing all of this?
The final criticism of MrBeast I want to cover briefly here (which ties into the point about ‘philanthropy washing’ above) is the idea that his giving is problematic because it gives a false impression that philanthropy can solve problems that should properly be the responsibility of the state. A lot of people have leapt on this line of argument following the blindness curing video, but is it really fair?
For one thing, the reality is that there just are plenty of gaps in state provision, and even if you would rather there weren’t, isn’t it better that philanthropy tries to address them (at least in the short term) so that people get the help they need? For another thing does funding something philanthropically necessarily imply that you think this is an adequate replacement for (or a preferable alternative to) state provision? Or can you fund activities designed to address the symptoms of problems whilst at the same time calling on the state to take greater responsibility for addressing the underlying causes? I would argue that you clearly can; indeed plenty of philanthropists throughout history have done precisely that. (And for more on the history of philanthropy in the Welfare State, see our guide).
Whether, at the same time as making garish videos, MrBeast is quietly funding a lot of research or advocacy work to try and change government policy on avoidable blindness, I don’t know. (I suspect not, although I would definitely like to see a video of it if he is). And in his defence, he did come close to acknowledging the basic tension in the relationship between philanthropy and the state in one of his tweets where he said “I don’t understand why curable blindness is a thing. Why don’t governments step in and help?” So maybe he is on a genuine learning journey about all of this.
I don’t understand why curable blindness is a thing. Why don’t governments step in and help? Even if you’re thinking purely from a financial standpoint it’s hard to see how they don’t roi on taxes from people being able to work again.
— MrBeast (@MrBeast) January 30, 2023
So, should we hang MrBeast out to dry for purveying “charity porn”, or has he been unfairly maligned? When I read all the news articles about his latest video I definitely assumed the former, but having actually watched it, I’m not so sure any more. I mean, I don’t like it at all, in the same way that I don’t like the rest of the slurry that gets churned out by Youtubers. To me it seemed garish and crass and inane and just quite dumb. However, I’m not really the target audience, am I? And should my dislike for the genre and the aesthetic affect my judgement about MrBeast’s motivations and whether he is having a positive impact on peoples’ lives? Probably not.
There are, of course, plenty of issues with MrBeast’s approach to philanthropy and the influence it might have on a generation of young viewers, as I have outlined above. But then again, there are also reasons to think that what he is doing is not all bad – insofar as he is basically promoting the idea that it is good to help other people, and in the context of all the other messages young people could be getting on the internet I would probably take that (even if I have a few suggestions about how he could do it better).
So I’m inclined to be a bit less critical than I thought I was going to be. Does that mean I’m a fully signed-up stan for Beast Philanthropy? No, of course it doesn’t. But it does mean that I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and see if he learns anything from all this recent controversy in terms of how he approaches giving in the future.