Corporate America often finds itself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons -- and it's no wonder why.
It seems every week we learn about another management scandal that rocks Wall Street, an executive pay package that could buy a small island in the South Pacific, or lobbying efforts by big businesses to protect their interests from potential legislation.
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However, this is only half the story. There's also a good side that often goes uncovered: The side of corporate America that looks out for the interests of customers and consumers who need a helping hand.
With this in mind, let's highlight the corporations that, according to a Giving USA Foundation report released last year, give the most to charitable causes.
You may be thinking, "What on Earth does corporate giving have to do with investing?" It's a fair question, but I have an answer.
To begin with, if a company is willing to donate millions of dollars in cash to charity, then it likely has a sustainable business model and expects its growth to continue for the long term. In other words, why would a business give away $100 million or more if its business model were weak?
Secondly, giving back to local and national charities can help forge an emotional bond between consumers and a brand. Emotional engagement is a key ingredient of brand loyalty. Giving back is an easy way for big businesses to demonstrate its commitment to the greater good and potentially to win over customers (and investors) for life.
Lastly, charitable giving sets a precedent that you'll often find in the mission statements of big businesses. By setting a standard for employees of bettering the world and acting on that standard through charitable giving, businesses can earn the trust of workers, and in turn, workers can feel proud of the company they work for. A proud workforce may result in better productivity and lower turnover.
America's most prolific corporate donors
According to Giving USA's 2013 data, the following businesses donated the most in cash in 2013.
1. Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT): $311.6 million in cash donations
No huge surprise that the largest retailer and employer in the world, Wal-Mart, led the pack in 2013 with more than $311 million in cash donations.
As noted by Giving USA, Wal-Mart donated about 1.3% of its pre-tax profit to charity in 2013, with a particular focus on providing food security and developing local communities. Giving USA also points out that when Wal-Mart employees volunteer for 25 hours with an organization, Wal-Mart provides a $250 volunteer grant to that organization. If an employee donates 50 hours of their time, that corporate donation moves up to $500.
Fighting hunger is among Wal-Mart's biggest concerns. The company and its Walmart Foundation have pledged $2 billion in cash and in-kind donations over many years to help fight hunger in America. In its efforts with VolunteerMatch, Wal-Mart is doing its part to ensure that there are an adequate number of trained volunteers and tools available to help fight hunger around the country.
2. Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC): $275.5 million in cash donations
Wells Fargo has done an exemplary job of keeping its nose clean, avoiding volatile investments like derivatives and largely keeping its name out of newspaper headlines relating to the mortgage mess stemming from the housing bubble. So it seems natural that this "old-school" bank is also the nation's second-most prolific corporate giver as of 2013, having donated $275.5 million in cash that year.
Wells Fargo donated about 1% of its pre-tax profit to charity, with the majority going to homeownership, affordable housing, and education initiatives. Remarkably, Wells Fargo matches employees' donations to accredited public or private educational institutions and foundations on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
What might surprise you is that Wells Fargo is a notable grantor of cash to environmental programs. Wells Fargo's Environmental Grant Program lends money to sustainable projects, such as agriculture and forestry, as well as land conservation, in order to help preserve a green economy for future generations.
3. Chevron (NYSE:CVX): $274.3 million in cash donations
Admittedly, the past year hasn't been kind to integrated oil and gas giants, with the price for crude plunging by more than 50%. Simple translation: Don't expect Chevron's incredible giving to increase anytime soon (or at least until crude prices recover). Nonetheless, Chevron managed to land the No. 3 spot on Giving USA's list of the top corporate donors in 2013.
Although its business revolves around fossil fuels, Chevron dedicates much of its charitable giving to public health and education initiatives. Chevron's employees can get a dollar-for-dollar match of up to $10,000 per year on contributions to their charity of choice, while retirees of Chevron can request a dollar-for-dollar match of up to $3,000.
Chevron is also becoming quite the force in emerging markets when it comes to global health initiatives. In Nigeria, it has partnered with the Lagos University Teaching Hospital to provide genetic diagnostic tools to more accurately diagnose and fight genetic abnormalities. In Colombia, Chevron has partnered with Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine to improve pediatric-care access in a region of the country that suffers high rates of poverty and pediatric mortality.
4. Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS): $262.6 million in cash donations
Investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, the nation's leading underwriter of merger and acquisition deals (at least thus far in 2015), is also among the most generous corporate donors, having given 2.3% of its pre-tax profits back to the people in 2013, or more than $262 million. Since 2008, Goldman Sachs has donated more than $1.6 billion to various philanthropic initiatives, per Giving USA.
According to Goldman Sachs' corporate engagement landing page, three major initiatives have been the target of its $1.6 billion-plus in donations. First, its "10,000 Women" campaign is a five-year, $100 million effort to provide capital, mentors, and networks to 10,000 underserved female entrepreneurs around the world.
Secondly, its "10,000 Small Business" campaign is a program active in 15 markets across the U.S. that's looking to invest $500 million in small businesses, providing everything from capital to support services.
Lastly, the "Goldman Sachs Gives" program allows current and retired employees to make suggestions as to which qualifying nonprofit organizations could be worthy of a grant. Since 2010, Goldman has divvied up more than 12,600 grants totaling $667 million across 35 countries.
This probably goes without saying, but corporate giving is by no means the only measure you should evaluate when deciding whether to invest in a stock. However, steady charitable giving is typically a sign of the long-term health of a business, and it could be another in a long list of factors you consider before making an investment.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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