Stemming from a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of America, the Taco Bell Foundation has always geared its philanthropic efforts toward education and mentorship among youth.
The Irvine-based nonprofit arm of Taco Bell Corp., the largest restaurant chain based in Orange County based on systemwide sales, was founded as a separate 501(c)(3) entity in 1992. It awards grants and scholarships focused on education and career readiness, youth programs, professional development and other initiatives.
The almost 8,000-store taco chain’s charitable group has handed out $130 million in funds since its founding; it says it has impacted over 4.7 million young people in the U.S.
Within Orange County, the local foundation, helmed by Executive Director Jennifer Bradbury, gave $26,000 to the Boys & Girls Club of Central Orange Coast in 2022, among notable local donations.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the foundation, and comes amid a period of sizeable growth, both in terms of fundraising and community giving, officials say.
“This programming that we’re doing has just exploded,” Bradbury told the Business Journal, noting that the foundation has raised a record $40 million this year. That should place the foundation among OC’s top 15 or so largest nonprofits in 2022, by annual revenue, according to Business Journal research.
Boots on the Ground
Nearly 400 different nonprofits received $7 million through the group’s Community Grants Program in 2022, which along with the Live Más Scholarship are where the bulk of the foundation’s funds are directed to.
A major development to Taco Bell’s fundraising, and others in the restaurant industry as well, has been the Round Up program. The campaign prompts guests to round up their order total to the nearest dollar to donate that number of cents to the foundation.
Taco Bell incorporated the program into its restaurants in 2019, along with others like Newport Beach’s Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (NYSE: CMG) and El Pollo Loco Holdings Inc. (Nasdaq: LOCO) in Costa Mesa.
Out of the total $40 million the foundation raised this year, $30 million was generated through Round Up, according to Bradbury. The average donation is 36 cents.
While biannual national fundraisers used to raise $5 million to $7 million a year when Bradbury started at the foundation, bringing Round Up to all the restaurants year-round has raised more than $60 million since 2019. Using the Round Up program and continuing the work with Taco Bell franchisees, the foundation has committed to raising $100 million by 2026.
About 50% of the funds generated from the fundraisers remain in the local community of whichever restaurant it came from. The franchisees help distribute the Round Up donations locally, according to Bradbury.
“It has become a part of a dynamic relationship that goes both ways,” she said. “They are the boots on the ground.”
The Taco Bell Foundation created its educational-focused program in 2015, the Live Más Scholarship. Initially, $1 million from Taco Bell corporate was given to award students based on two-minute videos about their ambitions instead of academic scores or essays.
Bradbury described the program as passion based. She was recruited by the organization in the program’s second year, when it expanded to include Taco Bell employees as well as students. The company employs around 4,500 in Orange County alone, and has some 260,000 employees companywide.
The nonprofit also offers resources in mentorship and networking, alongside teaching various business skills. Bradbury described these additions as “beyond the money resources.”
“Giving away scholarship money is not a novel concept,” Bradbury said. “It’s a necessary thing but there were things we wanted to do differently.”
After seven years, $30 million has been awarded to almost 2,000 students—including 15 from OC.
Over $8 million in scholarships were given to 772 scholars this year.
The foundation plans to give away $10 million in scholarships in 2023.
The Taco Bell Foundation introduced a new program this year to continue supporting young people who have plans to start, or are already running, their own social ventures.
After parent company Yum Brands Inc. (NYSE: YUM) announced a $100 million funding initiative across its restaurant subsidiaries, the Taco Bell Foundation partnered with Virginia-based social entrepreneurship nonprofit Ashoka to debut the Ambition Accelerator.
People from ages 16 to 21 submitted ideas and projects to receive seed funding for their proposed ventures. Out of 300 teams of people that applied, 26 were chosen and granted $1,500. Local winners included Kimberly Uehisa and Daniel Roman, the founders of mobile app Equity Reach Healthcare, or E-ReacH.
There’s crossover from the foundation’s Live Más scholars, with several previous awardees taking part of the accelerator, which was born out of the scholarship program, according to foundation Executive Director Jennifer Bradbury.
Last month, the company hosted those groups at the Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine for a three-day conference to attend workshops for business planning, presentation skills and more led by both foundation and corporate employees.
Headquarter employees, local franchisees and Taco Bell vendors were invited to hear their pitches and be involved in the workshops.
“It’s truly a systemwide, communitywide effort for us,” Bradbury said.
Twenty-one teams pitched their ventures at the Marriott Irvine Spectrum in a science fair format. Five were chosen as finalists to compete for an additional $25,000.
Sparkle Whitaker from Cook County, Ill., won the inaugural pitch competition for The Onyx Incubator, which focuses on providing skills and resources for Chicago youth who have experienced incarceration.