In Praise of the Corporate Heart

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, December 22, 2006

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who died this year, famously argued that businesses ought to stick to making money and leave it to shareholders to decide, individually, whether and how company profits should be distributed to charitable causes.

Let us give thanks this holiday season that the world did not follow Friedman's advice. It is not just that having corporations involved in philanthropy increases the amount of money given to worthy causes. It is also that companies can bring unique resources and expertise to these challenges and tap into the enthusiasm and creativity of their employees.

There are countless stories of extraordinary corporate philanthropy here in the Washington region, most of which go unheralded. Here are just a few:

The death of Josh Freeman in a helicopter accident last week didn't simply rob the region of a successful real estate developer and resort operator. Josh was also a hyperactive philanthropist whose company foundation regularly donated more than $1 million a year to local nonprofit groups. Arts institutions like the Olney Theatre Center and Strathmore Hall have been beneficiaries, as have the Olney Boys & Girls Club and Hospice Caring in Gaithersburg.

Reston-based Sallie Mae was presented with the annual Ron Brown Award for Corporate Leadership at a White House ceremony. The panel of judges cited Sallie Mae and its foundation for a $28 million grant establishing Building Hope, which provides construction funding for charter schools in the Washington area, along with a variety of programs designed to ensure that any D.C. high school graduate admitted to college will have the money to pay for it. This year alone, Sallie Mae invested more than $4 million in the region.

Not enough attention was paid last year when THEARC opened in the District's Anacostia neighborhood. This magnificent $27 million facility houses a middle school for girls; training programs; a gymnasium; and arts classes offered by the Corcoran College of Art and Design, the Levine School of Music, and the Washington Ballet. And none of it would have happened but for the tireless efforts and generous contributions of Ch ris Smith and colleagues at the William C. Smith Co., which was building in Anacostia long before it became fashionable.

You could fill the Palm with business executives who have tried over the years to improve D.C. public schools, only to be frustrated by the school department's central office staff. So let's lift a glass to John McMahon, chief executive of Miller & Long, a concrete company, and some of his contractor buddies for reviving vocational education in the District's schools. Early next year, the ribbon should be cut on a new facility at Cardozo High School, where more than 100 students will get training in carpentry, heating and air conditioning, and electrical work.

The Boys & Girls Clubs have always relied on the commitment of time and money from local businesses, too many to name here. But special mention needs be made of Venture Philanthropy Partners, put together by Mario Marino, which "invested" $4.25 million this year to improve the management and organizational effectiveness of the regional organization. The 120-year-old group also received its biggest operational grant ever -- $1.5 million -- from the Freddie Mac Foundation for its summer camp and educational initiatives.

One of the concerns about bank consolidation was that Washington would be shortchanged when it came to charitable efforts. So far, that hasn't happened. Bank of America has been particularly active with its Local Heroes and Student Leaders programs, along with $100,000 grants this year to the Arlington Free Clinic and D.C. Central Kitchen. And under Mike Harreld's leadership, PNC Bank has decided to focus on early childhood education, committing $10 million over 10 years.

Earlier this month, more than 2,000 yearbooks were distributed in the St. Bernard Parish (La.) Public School District, chronicling the extraordinary year its students and teachers had after Hurricane Katrina. Much of the credit goes to the staff of Atlantic Media, David Bradley's media empire, which helped to finance, design and produce the book of student essays and photos.

For sheer generosity, it's hard to top the $800,000 raised by employees of BAE Systems for the American Cancer Society this year. BAE matched the contributions dollar for dollar.

Tech firms have been active in trying to close the "digital divide" that separates low-income households from the world of the Web. Members of the Northern Virginia Technology Council now have six "computer clubhouses" running, serving 1,500 kids a week, and there are plans to open two more. In the District, Verizon supports five neighborhood technology learning centers, each of which received $20,000 grants this year.

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