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Steven Pearlstein

Charity That Defies Economics

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page E01

One of the blind spots of classical economics is that it cannot explain why people give money and time to charity. This is particularly true of supposedly profit-maximizing companies, which year after year -- often without much fanfare or publicity -- provide the crucial base of support for many of the nonprofit organizations in the Washington region that provide necessities of life to those most in need.

Neither time nor space permit a definitive accounting of this "irrational" corporate generosity, but consider these examples: The week's news brought fresh reminders of the sacrifices being made by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those GIs have been a charitable focus of four companies. Lockheed Martin and its employees contributed more than $600,000 to send more than 24,000 care packages to the troops. AT&T donated more than 325,000 prepaid calling cards to be included in those packages, making possible $6 million worth of overseas calling. US Airways, with the Fisher House Foundation, donated 10 million miles for use by families visiting wounded soldiers at places like Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. And Sears has promised that any of its employees serving with the Reserves or Guard overseas need not worry -- they'll have a job when they return.

Volunteers serve breakfast at Miriam's Kitchen at Western Presbyterian Church on Valentine's Day. Bailey Law Group has been staffing a breakfast program there for the past two years. (Melanie Burford For The Washington Post)

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Capital One, the credit card giant out at Tysons, recently made news with its donation of $450,000 to provide college scholarships to foster children. No less impressive is Capital One's support for the Child and Family Network Centers in Alexandria, which provides free preschool to at-risk children. The company and its employees provide the center with grants, winter coats, holiday parties, event sponsorships, management advice -- whatever they are asked, reports Kathleen Herndon, the centers' volunteer coordinator.

Another big supporter of the Network Centers is Freddie Mac, which recently sent a check for $450,000 to buy and fix up a location that will add 62 kids to the roster. During this year, Freddie Mac's foundation also had a slam dunk with its Hoops for the Homeless event. It raised $475,000 for three local nonprofits: Carpenter's Shelter in Virginia, Shepherd's Table in Maryland and Miriam's Kitchen in the District.

Scott Schenkelberg of Miriam's Kitchen wrote in to sing the praises of the Bailey Law Group, a small firm that has been staffing a breakfast program for the past two years. This year, Bailey stepped up its involvement by becoming the presenting sponsor at the annual "100 Bowls of Compassion" event, which raised a record $180,000 -- enough to cover about a third of Miriam's annual operating budget.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut back on its prevention funding for the D.C. area this year, Metro TeenAIDS lost a third of its funding. Happily, Robin Portman, Kevin Vigilante and their colleagues from Booz Allen Hamilton stepped in to provide the strategic planning and grantsmanship needed to make up much of the loss. Booz also sponsored the group's annual fundraising auction, which raised a record $90,000.

This has been a tough week for Fannie Mae. But whatever you want to say about the company, its foundation has consistently been on the front lines of corporate giving in Washington. This was a record year for Fannie's Help the Homeless Program that enlisted more than 110,000 people for various walkathons and raised $6.5 million for local programs. And Fannie employees rallied around the Hope for Henry Foundation, created by employee Laurie Strongin in memory of her 7-year-old son, who died two years ago from a rare genetic illness. This month, the Henry Foundation provided computers, Gameboys, portable CD players and the like to kids undergoing cancer treatment at Georgetown University Medical Center.

AOL and its millionaire executives have become fixtures in the Washington philanthropic community. One thinks of Jim Kimsey's support of New Leaders for New Schools, Steve Case's commitment to cancer research, Jack Davies's support of charter schools and George Vradenburg's leadership on Alzheimer's research, to name a few. The company itself is quite focused on what it calls its "aspiration fund," which makes grants to schools for programs that encourage students to think big and envision brighter futures. Out in Loudoun County, folks also know AOL as the lead sponsor of a summer music festival.

Safeway has had a relationship with Easter Seals in this region going back to 1978. This year's involvement by the company and its employees included sponsorship of the annual Pro-Am golf tournament, Cruise for Kids and Walk with Me events and lead sponsor of the first-ever advocacy awards luncheon, which collectively raised more than $500,000 for Easter Seals programs.

The next time you see news clips of Habitat for Humanity putting up another new house in the Washington area, there's a good chance that the bed and dresser that will go into that house will have been recycled from one of Marriott's Fairfield Inn hotel rooms.

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