For one reason or another, many people have come to consider Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) the Ebeneezer Scrooge of American business. Among many other criticisms, activists have argued that the company's low prices harm local businesses and society at large. I'm not here to defend the retail giant, but I would like to highlight another side of the company: the charitable efforts undertaken by both Wal-Mart itself and the Wal-Mart Foundation.

Big retailer, big giver
According to data from The Foundation Center, which tracks corporate giving, the Wal-Mart Foundation leads the corporate pack in total giving. Major contributions of $1 million or more were recently made to national organizations like the American Cancer Society, the American Red Cross, the United Negro College Fund, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, among many others.

The Wal-Mart Foundation also made major contributions to support specific organizations in Arkansas, the parent corporation's home state. These charitable gifts include awards to the Bentonville Library Foundation, the Mercy Hospital System of Northwest Arkansas, and the Arkansas Single Parent Scholarship Fund Program.

Disaster relief
In addition to its major contributions to the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, Wal-Mart has given $15 million to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund. That's in addition to donating $3.5 million worth of merchandise to shelters and command centers throughout the Gulf Coast region.

Wal-Mart hasn't simply defined its disaster-relief efforts with easy cash gifts and merchandise donations; it's looked within its own corporate infrastructure to identify other ways in which it can contribute. For instance, Wal-Mart has dispatched 2,450 trucks to assist with the relief effort in the Gulf Coast states. One hundred of these shipments were devoted entirely to transporting donated merchandise.

In addition, the company supplied more than 150 Internet-ready computers to shelters, so that evacuees could log and locate missing loved ones. It also established an online Emergency Contact Service to help the public "to locate and communicate with their friends and family members." The service has received "more than 50,000 postings and more than 2.1 million visits."

Environmental conservation
The Wal-Mart Foundation has also embarked upon significant efforts in environmental preservation. One initiative includes a partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to create "Acres for America." Through the company's real estate division, it has committed $35 million to the partnership over the next 10 years, which seeks "to conserve at least one acre of priority wildlife habitat for every acre developed for company use." Acres for America marks the first time that a company has merged its land conservation with real estate development initiatives. It is also "one of the largest ever public-private partnerships."

Wal-Mart is also exploring how the construction and operation of its stores can contribute positively to the environment. The company has retrofitted energy-efficient lighting systems in approximately 800 of its stores to date, which has been estimated to "reduce CO2 emissions by 274,000 tons annually."

Furthermore, Wal-Mart has constructed three Environmental Demonstration Stores that highlight some of the cutting-edge possibilities in energy-efficient and environmentally friendly building construction. Features of these new stores include a recycled asphalt parking lot, a futuristic HVAC system, electric-car charging stations, high-performance skylights, and a gray-water plumbing system that "captures water from the parking lot and roof for treatment and reuse as landscaping irrigation water."

Scrooge or Santa?
Is Wal-Mart the Scrooge that many in the media have portrayed it to be? I've got my own opinion, but I think it's important for consumers and investors alike to have as much knowledge as possible on the companies we buy from and invest in. In addition to Wal-Mart, we'll be highlighting the efforts of corporations such as Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), Verizon (NYSE:VZ), AT&T (NYSE:T), Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), and many others in the coming months. To get the whole story on the companies in which we invest, we Fools owe it to ourselves to understand not only how a company dominates its competitive landscape, but also how it contributes positively to the world around it.

Further socially responsible Foolishness:

The Motley Fool's own philanthropic endeavor, Foolanthropy, is in full swing for 2006. Read up on our five reader-nominated charities, then make a donation, at our Foolanthropy site.

We're proud to partner with Hilton Family Hotels in our Foolanthropy 2006 campaign.

Wal-Mart and Intel are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations, while Bank of America is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. AT&T was a former Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection.

Fool contributor Jeremy MacNealy is writing a law and ethics thesis paper on corporate social responsibility as part of a graduate program at Duke University. He has a player rating of 96.88 and is ranked 4,448th out of 14,311 participants at Motley Fool CAPS, the Fool's free new stock-rating service. He has no financial interest in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.