Forbes magazine recently listed America's most generous corporations. Reading through the list made my heart swell. Check out some of these numbers:

Most generous by total contributions:


Total donated in 2007

Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT)

$301 million

Bank of America (NYSE:BAC)

$211 million

ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM)

$173 million

Most generous by percentage of income donated:


% of operating income donated

Total donated in 2007

Kroger (NYSE:KR)


$57 million

Tyson Foods (NYSE:TSN)


$8 million

Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE:BMY)


$59 million

Best Buy (NYSE:BBY)


$31 million

Isn't it grand? All those millions of dollars -- more than $800 million just from the seven companies above, alone -- going to worthy causes? It's enough to make you want to snuggle up in a warm blanket of capitalism and nod off into a happy slumber.

But wait -- the situation is not quite as rosy as you think!

The dark side
For one thing, big numbers aren't always as big as you think, in some ways. For example, ExxonMobil's $173 million is certainly large in absolute terms, yes, but not so big in relative terms. It's just about 0.24% of the company's operating income. (ExxonMobil raked in a whopping $405 billion in revenue in 2007, and nearly $72 billion in operating income. Net income was a still-eye-popping $40 billion.)

But you know what? I have a bit of a problem with companies giving any money away. Why? Well, because it's not really their money! It's yours -- or mine.

Think about it: A public company is owned by its shareholders. The earnings belong to them, to either be paid out via dividends, or to be used for buying back shares, or to be reinvested in the company, to further its growth. Sure, it's heart-warming that some executives decide to give away some of that money, but might it not be better to just give you your due, and let you give away your portion to any organization(s) that you favor?

Wal-Mart, for example, gives to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and ExxonMobil gives to the United Way (both also give to other organizations). Maybe you love animals and fish, but you think that helping humans who are sick or dying is a greater priority. Well, too bad -- because Wal-Mart is sending out a certain sum for fish and wildlife. Maybe you like some things about the United Way, but you don't like others, and you'd prefer to give to some specific charities directly, not through the United Way. Well, too bad -- ExxonMobil is taking some of the money it makes from you at the pump and is sending it to the United Way.

A better way
Is there a better way? Yes. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger at Berkshire Hathaway practiced it, until a few years ago. They gave each of their Class-A shareholders the right to designate to which charitable organization a portion of the company's earnings would be donated. So if you owned many shares, you would be able to send a certain sum to the charity of your choice. If you owned fewer, you would be allocating a smaller sum. But it was all fair. Why have a CEO choose where your money goes, after all?

[The program was discontinued because of protests that threatened some employees' livelihoods -- protestors objected to company money going to Planned Parenthood, for example.]

I loved the Berkshire system since it was so fair. I also love The Motley Fool's approach to corporate philanthropy: For more than a decade now, we've worked together with our community of readers to select and support some amazing charities. This year, we're focusing our efforts on ridding the world of financial illiteracy. (Learn more about why it's a more critical problem than you thought.) Together with you, we've raised more than $3 million.

Our annual campaign is in full swing now, and we're raising money in earnest. I invite you to at least take a few minutes to learn more about this year's drive and the fascinating charity we've decided to support: DonorsChoose. I just made my own first donation to the outfit and look forward to receiving updates on how my money was spent. I'm not a big corporation, but my few dollars can still have a big impact.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Wal-Mart. Bank of America is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Berkshire Hathaway are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Best Buy and Berkshire Hathaway are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Best Buy and Berkshire Hathaway. Try our investing newsletters free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.