Joan Kroc

In one of the largest charitable gifts ever, the estate of McDonald’s heiress Joan B. Kroc dropped a one-time cash donation of $1.6 billion into The Salvation Army kettle.

Mrs. Kroc, the widow of Ray Kroc, the milkshake salesman who founded McDonald’s Corp. in 1955, died of brain cancer in October 2003 at the age of 75. Joan KrocBefore her death, she specified that the donation be earmarked to build and operate community centers around the country.

The bequest stipulates that haf the money go toward construction of 30 to 35 new centers, which would provide recreational and educational facilities to the public. The other half is supposed to go into an endowment, from which the interest will be used to help offset operating costs.

The Kroc donation to the Salvation Army is an all-cash, lump-sum gift. As Mrs. Kroc sold many of her McDonald’s shares years ago, the donation will have no direct impact on McDonald’s stock. Her husband, Ray, left her his estate, with no restrictions that she give any portion of it to The Salvation Army. Over the past decade, Mrs. Kroc has made smaller donations to the organization.

The vision behind Mrs. Kroc’s bequest began to take shape in the late ’90s when she approached The Salvation Army with $92 million and the idea of building a community center in San Diego. She saw it as a potential prototype for many more such facilities. Called the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, it opened in 2002 and includes a gymnasium, a skateboard park and a performing-arts center.

Mrs. Kroc clearly wished to give The Salvation Army the means to spruce up and expand its facilities. “What she siad to The Salvation Army was: ‘I don’t want it to look like The Salvation Army,'” recalls Dick Starmann, a co-trustee of Mrs. Kroc’s estate. “She meant that with affection.”

The Krocs’ relationship with The Salvation Army dates back to the 1950s when Mr. Kroc was getting his burger empire started. During the Christmas holidays, he drove down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue in a station wagon dispensing his Golden Arhes’ coffee and apple pies to bell ringers. Later, when he moved the San Diego, Mr. Kroc worked as a bell ringer alongside popcorn magnate Orville Redenbacher. Mr. Kroc died in 1984. Today McDonald’s is the world’s largest restaurant chain, with more than 30,000 outlets.

The Salvation Army learned of the donation in the weeks following Mrs. Kroc’s death. The money, which could exceed $1.6 billion, was be divided among the organization’s four geographic territories.