Kroc, Joan

During her life Mrs. Kroc had given away more than one billion dollars towards causes ranging from animal welfare, children's charities, homelessness, nuclear disarmament, and the arts. Her generosity affected thousands of individuals, and many of her monetary gifts were make in privacy.

Biographical Highlights

Joan B. Kroc of Rancho Santa Fe, California was the widow of Ray A. Kroc, the founder of McDonald's Corporation. Mrs. Kroc forged a legacy as one of our nation’s great philanthropists, often donating in secrecy and shunning publicity.

By the time of her death, Mrs. Kroc had given away more than one billion dollars towards causes ranging from animal welfare, children’s charities, homelessness, nuclear disarmament, and the arts. Among dozens of other causes, she donated over $100 million to the University of Notre Dame and the University of San Diego in an effort to establish facilities on these campuses that promoted peace.

Mrs. Kroc passed away on October 12, 2003 of brain cancer and left an indelible mark not only through her gracious contributions, but on every life she touched.

Historic Roots

Born Joan Beverly Mansfield in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1929, Joan Kroc grew up during the Great Depression. Her father was a railroad worker, but shortly after his daughter's birth, the stagnant economy forced him into the ranks of millions of unemployed workers. Music was so important to Mrs. Mansfield, a former concert violinist, that she always managed to find the money for her daughter's piano lessons. By the age of 15, the talented youngster was making a living teaching piano to a class of 38 students (California State Capitol Museum).

In 1945, Joan Mansfield met and married Navy veteran Roland Smith; the following year, she gave birth to Linda, her only child. In the mid-1950s she was playing the keyboards for the dinner crowd at the Criterion Restaurant in St. Paul when McDonalds’ founder Ray Kroc walked in for a dinner meeting. He was immediately taken by the woman at the piano. "I was stunned by her blonde beauty," he wrote in his memoirs (Kroc and Anderson 1990).

However, they were both married, and it would be twelve years before they would meet again—at a McDonald's conference. This time they did not give in to convention. Within six months they had divorced their spouses and married each other.

Her philanthropic ventures began in 1976, when she established an alcoholism education program called Operation Cork (Montgomery 2004). It would be the first of many generous endeavors, because Joan Kroc had discovered that making surprise gifts of immense sums of money was more fun than she could have ever imagined.


Often dubbed “St. Joan of Arches,” the philanthropic spirit of Joan Kroc benefited not only her native community of San Diego, but also countless communities and nations throughout the world. Unlike famous philanthropists like Carnegie and Rockefeller who supported foundations and trusts that distributed funds over time, Mrs. Kroc gave bequests immediately to organizations that proved themselves to her over time (Spagat 2003). This is not the way most billionaires disperse their money in today’s world. Kroc also broke with tradition by giving away extraordinarilya large amounts to social service organizations like the Salvation Army and National Public Radio upon her death.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Many of Mrs. Kroc’s monetary gifts went unnoticed, which was intentional.  Mrs. Kroc never gave money to a cause that approached her, and she often requested that officials use the minimum amount of red tape and not reveal her name to the projects she contributed (Montgomery 2004). 

The announcement of her gift to the Salvation Army may suggest the dawn of a new age in philanthropy as it relates to how donations are dispersed. According to Dick Starrman, her long time spokesman and trustee, “She (Joan Kroc) did what she did very quietly, very purposefully and had a lot of fun doing it.” By essentially liquidating the nearly $2 billion estate to existing charities, Kroc maximized the value of her gifts and minimized the distribution expenses (Montgomery 2004). Ultimately this allowed her to get more of the money to the people she wanted to help.

The following is a summary of Mrs. Kroc’s most recent philanthropic efforts and the organizations her donations supported:

2004: Mrs. Kroc donated $1 million through a bequest to the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, California.

2003: Following her death in October, 2003 it was announced that she had made a $1.5 billion bequest to the Salvation Army for Community Centers. The gift will be divided into four equal amounts and distributed to the four geographic territories that comprise The Salvation Army in the United States.  She also made a $10 million bequest to the San Diego Opera for its production fund which supports artistic programming.  Additionally, she made large bequests to National Public Radio in Washington; the University of Notre Dame; and the University of Sand Diego.  Also, KPBS, a public radio station in San Diego, received $5 million for its endowment from Ms. Kroc.

Ms. Kroc also contributed to the following organizations (not a comprehensive list):

$60 million to Ronald McDonald Children's Charities in honor of her late husband, Ray A. Kroc, the founder of McDonald's Corporation. It is the largest single gift the charity has ever received.

$25 million in 1998 to the University of San Diego to establish the Mohandas Gandhi Institute of Peace and Justice.

$18.5 million to the San Diego Hospice.

$15 million to the citizens of Grand Forks, North Dakota for recovery efforts after the disastrous spring flood of 1997.

$6 million to the University of Notre Dame (Indiana) to create the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

$5 million in 2003 for an endowed lecture series at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego.

$3 million to the University of San Diego for student loans.

$1 million to the Betty Ford Center for the treatment of alcoholism.

$1 million to the San Diego Opera.

$1 million to the Special Olympics.

Multiple gifts to the St. Vincent de Paul Village, which provides assistance and training for homeless people.
Source: University of Notre Dame, Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies (Wolverton, 2004)

Key Related Ideas

The term bequest refers to a gift by last will or testament of personal property. A bequest is the same as a legacy.

Famines are extreme shortages of food that cause people to die of starvation. Since ancient times, droughts have had far-reaching effects on humankind by causing the failure of crops, decreasing natural vegetation, and depleting water supplies. Livestock and wildlife, as well as humans, die of thirst and famine.

Nuclear disarmament refers to the ongoing reduction and limitation of the various nuclear weapons in the military forces of the world's nations. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 by the United States in World War II demonstrated the overwhelming destructive potential of nuclear weapons and the threat to humanity posed by the possibility of nuclear war. This led to calls for controls on or elimination of such weapons.

Peace building is a relatively new field. The United Nation’s Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has described peace building as the various concurrent and integrated actions undertaken at the end of a conflict to consolidate and prevent a recurrence of armed confrontation.
Philanthropy involves the altruistic concern for human welfare and advancement, usually marked by donations of money, property, work to needy persons, endowment of institutions of learning and hospitals, and by generosity to other socially useful purposes.

Important People Related to the Topic

Because Mrs. Kroc’s huge heart and generous gifts impacted thousands, it is important to note that many more benefited from her work than one could possibly list. The following is merely a sample of the people she affected.

  • Stephanie Bergsma:  Bergmsa, associate general manager of San Diego’s KPBS radio station and the wife of a dying hospice patient, wrote to Kroc to thank her for the hospice she had built in Mission Valley.  The two women became close friends (O’Neill 2004). Their friendship after Bergsma’s husband’s death led to a meeting with National Public Radio’s (NPR) President Kevin Close, a Christmas donation of $500,000 and eventually, an amazing bequest on Kroc’s behalf of more than $200 million to NPR.
  • “Bergy” was a three legged stray dog that Mrs. Kroc adopted and took back to her Rancho Santa Fe mansion where he settled with her King Charles Spaniels.
  • Helen Caldicott:  Caldicott is one of the world’s foremost nuclear activists. Kroc met Caldicott while attending a nuclear disarmament conference in Washington D.C., and within eight months, Kroc had spent over $2 million toward newspaper ads denouncing nuclear weapons and helping distribute copies of Caldicott’s book entitled “Missile Envy.”
  • Kevin Klose:  Klose is President and Chief Executive Officer for NPR. Mr. Klose now has the charge of designing an effective strategy to utilize the more than $200 million Kroc left to the organization, which was twice NPR’s annual budget.  Klose compared NPR to a boat, with the endowment fund as its keel. "The sturdier and stronger and deeper the keel, the straighter you can sail and the more stable you can be," Klose said.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies (University of Notre Dame), founded in 1986 through a generous gift from Mrs. Kroc, conducts research, education, and outreach programs on the causes of violence and the conditions for sustainable peace. The Institute's research agenda focuses on the religious and ethnic dimensions of conflict and peace building; the ethics of the use of force; and the peacemaking role of international norms, policies and institutions including a focus on economic sanctions and enforcement of human rights. In addition to individual research by faculty in a wide range of disciplines, the institute organizes collaborative research projects on these themes (
  • Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice (University of San Diego) draws upon Catholic social teaching that sees peace as inseparable from justice and acts to prevent and resolve conflicts that threaten local, national and international peace. Through education, research, and peacemaking activities, the Institute offers programs that advance scholarship and practice in conflict resolution and human rights (
  • National Public Radio (NPR) is an internationally acclaimed producer and distributor of noncommercial news, talk, and entertainment programming. A privately supported, not-for-profit membership organization, NPR serves more than 750 independently operated, noncommercial public radio stations. Each NPR Member Station serves local listeners with a distinctive combination of national and local programming. Mrs. Kroc was an avid listener of NPR and was very fond of the organization’s impartial news coverage on the war in Iraq (
  • Project Cork was founded at Dartmouth Medical School in 1977 through a grant from the Operation Cork, an arm of the Kroc Foundation. Its mission was to develop a model alcohol curriculum that could be adapted and adopted by other medical schools nationally. To provide consultation to the project and a real life laboratory for exploring what would be entailed in transplanting the curriculum elsewhere, a five-school consortium was formed with a mix of educational institutions: large and small, public and private, old and new, racial/ethnic diversity, and in various regions of the country. A unique body of experience and materials were developed by Project Cork.  At the completion of the initial project, the Joan B. Kroc Foundation created the Project Cork Institute at Dartmouth Medical School to continue serving as a national resource for efforts nationally. Efforts then expanded beyond undergraduate medical education to include issues on the college campus, the creation of Weekend Program for assessment and education for alcohol problems, and an international exchange with the then Soviet Union (
  • The Salvation Army was founded as an evangelical organization dedicated to bringing people into a meaningful relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Its doctrinal basis is that of the Wesleyan-Armenian tradition. It is composed of persons who are united by the love of God and man, and who share the common purpose of the organization—to motivate all people to embrace the salvation provided to them in Christ (

Related Web Sites

The California State Capital Museum Web site, at, provides information on Kroc’s legacy to California as well as a variety of interesting resources covering other remarkable women in the state’s history.

The Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame Web site, at, offers the Peace Colloquy publication and a substantial amount of other publications and research related to religion, conflict and peace building.

The Ronald McDonald House Charities Web site, at, includes a searchable database to find local RMH chapters and information detailing RMHC, its corporate partners, and current grant opportunities.

Bibliography and Internet Resources

California State Capitol Museum. California’s Remarkable Women: Joan Kroc, Millions Helped. 

Kroc, Ray and Robert Anderson. Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s. Mass Market Paperback. 1990. ISBN: 0312929870.

Montgomery, David. “Billions Served. McDonald’s Heiress Joan Kroc Took Her Philanthropy and Super-Sized It.” Washington Post. 14 March (2004). 

O’Neill, Helen. “Fast Food Philanthropy.” 18 February (2004). Washington Times. 

Spagat, Elliot. “Joan Kroc Dies of Brain Cancer.” Associated Press. 13 October (2003). 

Wolverton, Brad. “The $1.5 Billion Challenge.” 24 June (2004). The Chronicle of Philanthropy. 

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.