Updated April 12, 2014
Last week, The first week of April, 2014, the restaurant chain Chili's was promoting a Give-Back Day, promising 10% of receipts would go to an organization called the National Autism Association. On Sunday, Chili's cancelled the event. Here's the story.
First, Yay, Chili's! This restaurant chain has a solid track record of supporting both regional and national philanthropic campaigns, through various days or longer campaigns. The most impressive of these is Chili's support for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.
Typically, the Chili's fundraising campaigns run like this: : "we'll give a percentage of the [duration of campaign] receipts to a charity". I think this is great: it's a low-cost, low-stress way for a charity to raise funds, and it's a win for the participating restaurants by building traffic and ties to communities. (By the way, Chili's is owned by Brinker International; locally, regionally, and nationally, the Brinker restaurants do a lot of this sort of fundraising. Well done, Brinker!)
It's April, that is, Autism [Something] Month. [Something] could be Awareness, or Acceptance, or even ... but I digress.
At any rate, in April, lots of organizations and businesses and so on do autism-related events and fundraisers. And Chili's had a previous unplanned social media win, when the story about Arianna Hill's distress over a "broken" cheeseburger, fixed by server Lauren Hills at a Midvale, Utah, went viral.
Evidently earlier this month, somebody at Chili's had the bright idea to have one of their Give Back days, at a national level (all 1,279 restaurants) with the proceeds to go to an autism charity. For some reason, Chili's selected the National Autism Association as the recipient. I am not going to speculate about how or why the chain selected NAA, the fact is, it did. What Chili's appeared not to grasp is NAA's belief is that some (if not all) autism is caused by vaccine injury, and can be ameliorated by pseudoscientific or downright dangerous treatments.
On April 3, Paul Szoldra, writing at the Business Insider, broke the story: Chili's Is Fundraising For A Notoriously Anti-Vaccine Charity. Now, I don't think of the Business Insider as a notorious vaccine-activism publication. Paul Szoldra doesn't leap to mind as a public health advocate or an advocate for vaccines.
Szoldra's story was surely the one that got the protest ball rolling. I first heard about Chili's planned donation Thurday April 3rd, through an email alert, but didn't really pay attention until I read Szoldra's story.
Ken Riebel of Autism News Beat interviewed Chili's public relations office on April 4, who were apparently gobsmacked by the protests against NAA.
“Right now we are coming up with what we are going to say about it,” a corporate spokesperson told AutismNewsBeat. She promised to call back when information becomes available.
Michael Simpson at Skeptical Raptor detailed exactly how anti-vaccine and anti-science the NAA program is, at Don’t unintentionally fund an antivaccination front organization.
Chili's Facebook page erupted with thousands of comments, both pro and con. Sadly, I did not take a screenshot of the original post, which has since been deleted.
On Facebook, Voices for Vaccines posted a call to action, and gave the Chili's corporate public relations office phone number:
Some of the twitter activism shared this photograph, using the hashtag #sideofmeasles.
After hearing from people, Chili's posted the following on their Facebook page early Friday morning:
At Chili’s Grill & Bar, we’re about making every guest feel special and pride ourselves in giving back to our communities. When choosing a charitable partner for our Give Back Events, both locally and nationally, we are committed to supporting organizations dedicated to helping children and their families.
The intent of our 4/7 National Give Back Event is not to express a view on this matter, but rather to support the families affected by autism. Our choice to partner with the National Autism Association was based on the percentage of donations that would go directly to providing financial assistance to families and supporting programs that aid the development and safety of children with autism. We sincerely appreciate all of the feedback we've heard on this topic.
The phrase, "donations that would go directly to providing financial assistance to families and supporting programs that aid the development and safety of children with autism" made me curious about NAA's financials, so I researched and wrote National Autism Association Structure and Financials. tl;dr? NAA doesn't give much of its budget to providing "financial assistance" to families, and when it does, it's for unproven therapies.
On April 5, Emily Willingham, writing at Forbes, published a withering critique of NAA's "science" and closed with the following admonition:
What [Chili's does] make abundantly clear with their choice–and their doubling down–is that being aware of autism doesn’t help autistic people at all. And eating at Chili’s on Monday won’t help autistic people, either, although it looks like it’ll help the NAA. And those are two very different outcomes.
Late on Saturday afternoon, the Chili's Facebook page posted the following message, as reported by Michael Simpson (I again failed to get a screenshot, and the post has since been deleted):
Chili’s Grill & Bar Hi all- Thank you all for your thoughtful questions and feedback about Monday’s Give Back Night. We want you to know all funds raised on 4/7 will go directly to support the Big Red Safety Box Program, which provides free toolkits to help autism families prevent and respond to wandering-related emergencies https://nationalautismassociation.org/big-red-safety-box/.
Mr. Simpson went on to discuss why that sop to advocates of public health is insufficient.
The problem is that no one controls what’s in that “toolkit”, meaning it could still be carrying an outlandish antivaccination statement. Moreover, such a directed contribution means that the National Autism Association now has more money to spend on other efforts, like promoting the pseudoscience that vaccines cause autism. How is this a “compromise”? How is this anything more than continuing support of an organization that actively promotes harm to children by providing information to the public that may reduce the the number of vaccinations, leading to more outbreaks of diseases that were once conquered in the USA.
Robert T. Gonzalez, at the influential io9 site, wrote,
Chili's is, of course, free to donate its money wherever it damn well pleases – but you have a right to know where your money is going. And on April 7th, it'll be going to an organization that has no qualms drawing connections between vaccines and autism.
Commentary at Facebook and on Twitter continued through Saturday.
Mid-afternoon Sunday, April 6 2014, Chili's posted the following to their Facebook page:
Chili's is committed to giving back to the communities in which our guests live and work through local and national Give Back Events. While we remain committed to supporting the children and families affected by autism, we are canceling Monday's Give Back Event based on the feedback we heard from our guests.
We believe autism awareness continues to be an important cause to our guests and team members, and we will find another way to support this worthy effort in the future with again our sole intention being to help families affected by autism. At Chili's, we want to make every guest feel special and we thank all of our loyal guests for your thoughtful questions and comments.
Note: As of 11:30 am Sunday April 6, there are 3,130 comments on the post above.
Sunday afternoon, The National Autism Association published the following to their Facebook page:
Thank you to all of our supporters, and thank you to Chili's for taking a chance on us. Though NAA has changed our mission and efforts in recent years to focus on autism safety, namely wandering prevention, controversial views about vaccines remained on our website. Because of guest feedback about these views, Chili's has opted to cancel tomorrow's event. We respect their decision and ask everyone to please speak words of love and kindness. NAA has evolved as our children's needs have evolved. Our Big Red Safety Box Program very much helps protect children and adults with autism from wandering-related emergencies. We will continue to provide boxes as funding becomes available. Again, thank you for your support and your positive messages that represent our entire autism community. #Love #Hope #NeverGiveUp
► Please note: Chili's leadership team has made the difficult decision to cancel Monday's Give Back Event. Chili's remains committed to supporting the children and families affected by autism and so this decision was not made lightly. As you know, Chili's wants to make every Guest feel special and that includes listening to feedback from their Guests about this event.
Monday morning, there were a number of articles published in the mainstream press, covering Chili's decision and giving Ms. Wendy Fournier, NAA's president, outlets to give her side of the story. Ms. Fournier's protestations that NAA "isn't anti-vaccine" aren't very convincing, but that's a matter for another post.
So what happened?
I don't think this had anything to do with autism. I suspect that there's a large swathe of the American community who is fed up with vaccine-refusing parents, pseudoscience, and the ensuing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease. And they spoke. And Chili's listened.
Sources before Chili's cancelled the Give Back event (I'll be adding to these silently)
- March 26 2013, Liz Klimas, The Blaze The Touching Story of a Restaurant Fixing a "Broken" Cheeseburger for an Autistic Girl.
- April 2, 2014 , Chili's press release How Fixing a "Broken Cheeseburger" Brought Chili's Compassion to Light Viral act of kindness inspires nationwide Give Back Event benefitting the National Autism Association Monday, April 7
- April 3, 2014, Paul Szoldra, The Business Insider, Chili's Is Fundraising For A Notoriously Anti-Vaccine Charity.
- April 4, 2014 Michael Simpson, Skeptical Raptor, Don’t unintentionally fund an antivaccination front organization
- April 5, 2014, Emily Willingham, Forbes Chili's Autism Awareness Problem
- April 5 2014 Marcy Franklin, The Braiser Chili’s to Donate to Anti-Vaccine Crazies, Yikes
- April 5, 2014, Chelsea K The Grounded Parent When Corporations Attempt Autism Awareness
- April 5, 2014, Michael Simpson, The Skeptical Raptor Chili’s stubbornly sticks with its support of an antivaccination group
- April 5, 2014, Michael Simpson, The Skeptical Raptor, Chili’s kind of, sort of revises support for an antivaccination group
- April 5, 2014, Robert T. Gonzalez at io9 Chili's Will Donate 10% of Customers' Checks to Anti-Vaxxers on April 7
- April 5, 2014, Liz Ditz, I Speak of Dreams, Chili's and the National Autism Association: Why I Won't be Dining at Chili'a April 7
Sources After Chili's Cancels Give-Back Event (I'll be adding to these silently)
- April 6, 2014, Liz Ditz, I Speak of Dreams, National Autism Association: Structure and Financials
April 6, 2014, Erin S., Chili's Blog Update on April 7 Give Back Event and Facebook
- April 6, 2014 Drew Guarni, Huffington Post Chili's Cancels Plan To Fundraise For Anti-Vaccination Autism Group (UPDATE)
- April 6, 2014, The Skeptical Raptor, Chili’s does the right thing–severs ties with vaccine refuser group
- April 6, 2014, Age of Autism Heroes! Chili's Supports Safety For People with Autism: Thank you!
- April 6, 2014, Tom Boggioni, Raw Story, Chili’s abruptly cancels Monday fundraiser for anti-vaccination group
- April 6, 2014, Boycott Chili's Facebook page set up
- April 7, 2014, Ashley Lutz, Business Insider, Chili's Cancels Fundraising Event For Controversial Anti-Vaccine Charity
- April 7, 2014 Ken Reibel at Autism News Beat, Chili's Cancels Benefit for Anti-Vaccine Group
- April 7, 2014, National Autism Association Facebook page Chili's Event Cancelled
- April 7, 2014, Aaron Smith, CNN Money, Chili's cancels fundraiser with National Autism Association
- April 7, 2014, Tara Culp-Ressler, Think Progress, Your Baby Back Ribs Will No Longer Support Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theorists
- April 7, 2014, Jolie Lee at USA Today Chili's cancels autism fundraiser over vaccine issue
- April 7, 2014, Michael Simpson at Skeptical Raptor, Chili’s makes the right choice–the wrap-up
- April 7, 2014, Robert T. Gonzalez at io9 Chili's Cancels Fundraiser for Anti-Vaccine Autism Group
- April 7, 2014, Orac at Respectful Insolence, Chili’s gets burned by an antivaccine group posing as an “autism advocacy” group
- April 7, Mike Adams at Natural News, The medical mafia is alive and well in America today,
- April 7, 2014, Mamacita at The Thinking Mom's Revolution A Big Thank You
- April 7, 2014, Mary Elizabeth Williams at Slate Chili’s makes a mess of autism “awareness”
- April 7, 2014, Michael Hiltzik at the LA Times Chili's autism misstep and the downside of sloppy philanthropy
- April 7, Chelsea Rice at Boston.com, Chili’s baby back ribs dripping with autism, vaccines controversy
- April 7, 2014, Jeffrey Kluger at Time Chili’s Burns Anti-Vaxxers — and Probably Saves Some Kids’ Lives
- April 7, 2014, Sharon Hill at Doubtful News Let’s go have a drink at Chili’s! CHEERS
- April 7, 2014, Robert Scott Bell's Media/Youtube Channel, Chili's Maybe Hates Kids -- Nice Double Cross
- April , 2014 Robert Scott Bell's Media/Youtube Channel Chili's Chump Change - RSB 180 April 7, 2014
- April 8, 2014, Liz Ditz at I Speak of Dreams About the National Autism Associations Big Red Box: Contents, Funding, Questions
- April 8, 2014, Orac at Respectful Insolence, The National Autism Association not “antivaccine”? Then why is its president speaking at an antivaccine quackfest?
- April 9, 2014, Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy Chili’s Reception: Restaurant Cancels Event With Anti-Vax Group
- April 9, 2014, Jake Crosby at Autism Investigated NAA Has “Respect” for Pharma Blasting its Fundraising Efforts with Chili’s
- April 9, 2014, Wendy Fournier of NAA, a comment at Autism Investigated