I know I'm not unique in this, but I love a good story. Whether it's written in the pages of a book, captured on a screen, or spoken in the everyday words of someone just telling me about what happened to his cousin, I'm all ears (and eyes) -- ready to be informed, amused, inspired, or enriched. That's one reason the business world is so interesting to me -- every company is an unfolding story.

Take Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV), for example. I don't know whether it's exactly a Hollywood-caliber pitch, but it's still an amazing story when told in a single sentence: In a world where many other airline companies have found it extremely hard to survive, much less thrive, Southwest has been eating high on the hog for decades -- while undercutting most of its competitors on prices.

A quick trip to its website's "History" page offers more eye-openers. Southwest began in 1971, and in only three years, it had transported its millionth passenger. Know those ticketing kiosks in airports? Southwest introduced "self-ticketing machines" back in 1979. The company has been profitable for some 32 years, runs nearly 3,000 flights daily, and serves 59 cities in the United States. Impressive, huh?

Then there's Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), which also traces its roots to 1971. At that time, coffee was pretty much an undistinguished commodity. But in just 34 years, the company has opened more than 9,600 stores and has millions of people around the world shelling out a lot more for a wide variety of specialty coffees than they were willing to pay for java a few years ago. What many people would have deemed ridiculous and doomed to failure 30 years ago has come to pass and profit.

Given the seemingly ubiquitous dog-eat-dog atmosphere of corporate America, I'm always impressed when successful companies donate a lot to charities -- while still remaining successful. I don't think companies should give away the farm, though. A good case can be made that maybe companies shouldn't donate money at all, unless shareholders can designate where it's going -- since shareholders do, after all, technically own the companies. For example, Ford (NYSE:F) has given many, many millions away in recent years, but considering that it's not been faring so well lately, one might wonder whether it's doing the right thing in donating so much.

But a lot of companies are able to combine philanthropy with financial success. A 2004 BusinessWeek article cited some corporate standouts: "Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) now has computer clubhouses providing Internet access and technology training to children in 32 countries, including South Africa, India, and the West Bank (the Ramallah Clubhouse). AvonProducts (NYSE:AVP) provides breast cancer programs to 50 countries, sponsoring research, donating medical gear, and subsidizing mammograms. This year, General Electric (NYSE:GE) pledged $20 million to construct 11 hospitals in Ghana." And in 2002, Target (NYSE:TGT) donated 2.6% of its 2001 net income to charity -- in cash. Details like this warm the hearts of investors like me.

Even more inspiring
As impressive as many of the business world's stories are, I've found myself inspired even more by many non-profits I've run across -- mostly since I've been involved in supporting the Fool's annual charity drive, Foolanthropy. (If your eyes are about to glaze over, please keep reading. You may be happy you did.)

Just to give you a sense of how amazing some charitable enterprises can be, check out these details, some of which I originally presented in 2002, as I reviewed the organizations we were then supporting. See whether many of these facts don't just blow you away:

  • Every $1 America's Second Harvest receives helps secure and distribute 28 pounds of groceries -- nearly six grocery bags -- to people in need across America. Every dollar raised can provide 16 meals to the hungry. When you go to the grocery store, can you buy 28 pounds of food for a dollar? Clearly, something wonderful is going on here. In 2004, the organization distributed some 2 billion pounds of food to 23 million hungry Americans.
  • Investing a total of approximately $11,000 over three years, Ashoka enabled Jeroo Billimoria to launch Childline, India's first 24-hour emergency telephone hotline for street children, who also receive follow-up support services, such as police assistance and health care. Launched in Mumbai, Childline answered more than 2 million calls and directly provided assistance to more than 26,000 children from 1998 to 2002. Yet Ashoka's investment amounted to a mere $0.42 per child. The model spread to dozens of additional Indian cities and is moving into other countries.
  • If you're among the many who grouse when you receive fund-raising mailings from charities, know that although some organizations may indeed waste money on doing so, many others make good use of it. For example, for every $1 spent on fundraising in 2001, Grameen Foundation USA raised more than $15. Can you blame the charity for sending out appeals when that's the case? In developing countries, Grameen's microcredit loans to women in poverty who want to start small businesses average $100 and are recirculated every six months. This means that for every $1,000 of new financing Grameen Foundation USA provides in a poor nation, 20 women and their families receive loans each year -- as many as 200 families over a 10-year period. This is a highly leveraged philanthropic investment!
  • It costs Heifer International $700 in animals and training to make a family of five or six people self-reliant for food and income. This is a worldwide average -- in the U.S., it would cost much more, and in many places, such as Burkina Faso, it costs much less. Heifer recipients commit to "pass on" their gift to others in need, thus spreading self-reliance even farther. (For example, recipients of an ox will give away its first female offspring.) On average, there are six pass-ons after each original gift animal -- an amazing ripple effect that potentially lifts 30 to 36 more people out of poverty. Again, this is leverage that can bring tears to the eye.
  • Did you know that water from your toilet bowl is cleaner than what 1.1 billion people around the world drink every day? According to the good folks at Lifewater, $5 will provide a person in the rural developing world with a lifetime of safe, clean drinking water. $25 provides a family of five with fresh, clean drinking water for life. With a pledge of $25 a month for a year (that's a total of $300 a year, or $0.82 a day, or $5.77 a week), you can provide a lifetime of clean water to 12 families (60 men, women, and children). A person in the U.S. can expect to pay about $500 to obtain a 20-year supply of water, not counting the effects of inflation. The United Nations estimates that providing water for one village in a developing country costs $50 per person for a lifetime. However, Lifewater surpasses the U.N.'s estimates, accomplishing this same goal for one-tenth of the cost: $5 per person.

Get ready!
To me, the Foolanthropy season at The Motley Fool is the most exciting time of the year. Together, you our readers and we the staffers have raised more than $2 million over the past few years. As the above snippets should suggest, a heck of a lot of good has surely been accomplished with those funds.

Right now, you can nominate organizations for us to consider supporting in our 2005 drive. Act soon, though. (Details here.) The nomination period ends Nov. 6.

On the 16th, we'll unveil the charitable organizations we'll be supporting this year. Please stay tuned -- we'll make the announcement on our main page. Once you read about the impressive organizations, please join me in contributing to our drive. We can make the world a better place so easily -- thanks to some awe-inspiring organizations.

Learn more about Foolanthropy!

Selena Maranjian has been supporting Foolanthropy since 1997. She owns shares of no company mentioned in this article. For more about Selena, view her bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written: The Motley Fool Money Guide and The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens . The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.