Full belly laughs: How a comedy influencer is feeding thousands

One of YouTube’s most popular influencers, Jimmy Donaldson, is using his fame to help fight hunger – and millions of people are watching. So far, through his Beast Philanthropy channel, Mr. Donaldson has distributed over 1.1 million pounds of food.

Beast Philanthropy Productions/AP
Jimmy Donaldson, better known as MrBeast, holds a turkey during a giveaway at Pitt County Fairgrounds in Greenville, North Carolina, Nov. 7 2021. Mr. Donaldson uses 100% of the proceeds from his Beast Philanthropy channel to increase food access.

The line of cars started forming at dawn. It was early November in Greenville, North Carolina, and drivers waited in a line that stretched for miles to pick up Thanksgiving turkeys – 10,000 free frozen birds to anyone who asked.

Who was behind this act of holiday kindness? A community foundation, perhaps? Or a food charity with deep pockets? Would you believe it was a young man who once spent 50 hours buried alive or went through the same fast food drive-thru 1,000 times?

Jimmy Donaldson – the widely popular YouTube video maker who goes by MrBeast – has built, alongside his fun viral stunts, an unusual charity playbook that leverages his fame and skills with the goal to end hunger. Philanthropy as entertainment.

“I want to feed millions of people on a monthly basis, tens of millions one day,” he tells The Associated Press. “I’m not stopping. I’m 23. I’ve got decades left in me and we’re not going anywhere.”

Mr. Donaldson – who has over 150 million subscribers on his combined YouTube channels – created the Beast Philanthropy channel last year at Thanksgiving and it donates 100% of its advertising revenue, brand deals, and merchandise sales.

Beast Philanthropy has distributed over 1.1 million pounds of food, currently helps feed nearly 1,000 households in the Greenville area on a weekly basis, and delivered over 9,000 hot meals for victims of Hurricane Ida in Louisiana.

The turkey giveaway – on Nov. 7 at the Pitt County Fairgrounds with almost 700 volunteers – featured turkeys donated by Jennie-O, which got plenty of shout-outs. The 4-minute video has been watched some 5 million times.

The event had music, student volunteers dressed in turkey costumes, local firefighters, and police officers doing turkey dances, and plenty of turkey-themed jokes. Some $266,000 worth of Jennie-O turkeys were handed out, the single largest donation in the company’s 80-year history.

“He’s entertaining and he makes giving back and these philanthropic tie-ins really cool to be part of,” says Nicole Behne, vice president of marketing at Jennie-O, whose kids are MrBeast fans and who attended the giveaway.

“It was incredible to see what the power of MrBeast can do to help not only the community members in need, but just to inspire others to give back with their time.”

Kevin Scally, chief relationship officer at Charity Navigator, the world’s largest nonprofit evaluator, says MrBeast is part of an encouraging trend of social media influencers using their power to fight homelessness or raising COVID-19 relief funds.

“It’s actually quite brilliant for him to partner with food companies or technology companies, to be able to essentially act as a bit of an advertisement, but also able to leverage those funds to then actually do good in the world,” Mr. Scally says.

Mr. Donaldson has been combining doing good with humor since he started making YouTube videos a decade ago. He’ll feature videos of volunteers cleaning beaches or oceans alongside ones that investigate whether 50,000 magnets can catch a cannonball (spoiler alert: no) or recreate a non-lethal “Squid Game.” His main audience is in the 14-20 demographic and they’re learning how to have fun while helping.

“Jimmy is teaching an entire generation to be kind and more thoughtful, and I think that that’s going to have a massive impact in and of itself going forward,” says Darren Margolias, Beast Philanthropy’s executive director.

Mr. Donaldson’s rise to become one of the top YouTube personalities has been fueled by his decision to invest in himself. At the beginning, he described himself as “this awkward guy with a bunch of acne that no one cared about. I didn’t have any money, but I just kept going.”

A decade ago, users had to pull thousands of views a month to get monetized on YouTube and Mr. Donaldson spent years rejected by the platform, until he was about 16. Then, he says, it was “game over.”

“From literally the time I started making money at 16 until now, I just reinvested everything I made. One dollar a day turned into two and then three. And then eventually I was making $10,000 a month then a $100,000 a month, then $1 million a month,” he says.

“I just want to make the best YouTube videos possible. I don’t really care about living in a mansion or driving a Lamborghini,” he adds. “I live to create content and I want to entertain people.”

He’s developed some rules along the way for success. “When it comes to going viral, the ultimate key is to give people something they can’t find anywhere else,” he says. “There are crazy things you can do that take effort, but don’t require a lot of money. Everyone can put in effort. You just do something that hasn’t been done and you go all out.”

He and his team rely on a revenue system that rewards views. YouTube puts ads on videos on its platform and it shares half the revenue with the creators. Mr. Donaldson says his videos average between 40 million to 100 million views and a 15-minute MrBeast video might mean three or four ads embedded in each. Ad revenue might not be much on each view, but at such volume it adds up.

He plows the ad money back into the operation and sometimes reaches out for brand sponsorships like Jennie-O. Other sources of revenue include his merchandise sales and profits from his ghost kitchen MrBeast Burger line.

“In our case, we reinvest it all. So year over year, whatever we make, we just spend it on videos and the next year is higher. And I just keep doing it and I just pray it keeps working,” he says.

The Beast Philanthropy channel doesn’t attract the same viewership as some of his other channels but it’s growing as more videos are added. Mr. Donaldson welcomes any brand that wants to team up with him to end hunger, saying “it’s a win-win as long as people are getting help.”

“It gets interesting because by watching the videos of us feeding people, you’re allowing us to feed more people,” Mr. Donaldson says. “So I want to see how big can we get that? Can we get it pulling views like my main channel?”

Mr. Margolias and MrBeast Philanthropy plan to widen out from eastern North Carolina. According to a filing with the IRS, the group intends “to rapidly expand throughout the country and eventually around the world,” using mobile food pantries in underserved communities. It’s ambitious but don’t count them out. At its helm is a guy who’s not materialistic and is a self-described hyper-obsessive workaholic.

“Jimmy doesn’t do anything like anybody else does, which is an amazing blessing to work for him and also a very stressful job because we’re always growing,” Mr. Margolias says. “I absolutely love it. But every time we accomplish something, Jim’s like, ‘OK, what do we do next?’”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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