March 5, 2010 / 7:44 PM / 9 years ago

Bumpy ride for corporate giving amid recession

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Giving by U.S. companies endured the worst recession in decades with mixed results as some pared back philanthropy in the face of tough times, others increased budgets and most predicted a steady 2010.

The economic downturn sparked some changes in giving priorities as well, with several companies placing more importance on basic needs such as fighting hunger and homelessness and others focusing more in their local communities.

“This is not just giving money anymore. It’s solving problems. These are social issues that we’re addressing,” said Charles Moore, executive director of the nonprofit Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy.

“Companies continue to examine their priorities. Very few are taking on new kinds of causes, and they are tending to reallocate the funds they do have,” he said. “There’s great expectation on the part of communities and (employees) on companies — they expect more.”

Reuters spoke to 10 companies whose philanthropic arms are ranked by the Foundation Center among the top U.S. foundations. Four said the dollar value of their giving increased in 2009, two said it remained steady, and four said it dropped.

Coca-Cola Co (KO.N), Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N), MetLife Inc (MET.N) and ExxonMobil (XOM.N) all said their giving rose at least a few percent — from between $1 million and $10 million — in 2009 from 2008, when the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers triggered the global economic crisis.

“While we haven’t dramatically changed the areas of giving, we have within those areas concentrated on basic human needs,” said Margaret McKenna, president of the Walmart Foundation. “So we have done a great deal more with hunger relief and work force and basic access to education.”

2010 GIVING SEEN STEADY

Verizon Communications (VZ.N) and Bank of America (BAC.N) said their giving was steady last year.

“In terms of our giving, we’re not stepping away from the plate,” said Kerry Sullivan, Bank of America Foundation president. “We understand that these investments in the community are so important to the health of the community and therefore the health of our business.”

Giving by General Electric Co (GE.N) fell about 5 percent in 2009, Wells Fargo & Co (WFC.N) said its philanthropy dropped about 10 percent and Caterpillar Inc (CAT.N) and Alcoa (AA.N) said giving fell 30 percent last year.

“In response to the economic downturn, Caterpillar has taken steps to reduce costs in a variety of ways,” said Caterpillar spokeswoman Bridget Young to explain the cut.

All the corporate foundations told Reuters their giving would likely remain steady or be a slightly higher this year. Most said they were still receiving high demand for help.

“The (MetLife) foundation’s giving in 2010 will be up slightly over 2009,” said its president and chief executive Dennis White. “We have shifted some resources in response to tough economic conditions.”

“We are making more grants for food banks across the country and are providing increased support for housing counseling, including services to address the growing number of families affected by foreclosures,” he said.

The tough economic times have also seen companies call on one of their strongest assets to boost their philanthropic work — their employees.

Since 2007, the number of Alcoa employees taking part in the company’s “Month of Service” initiative has more than doubled to 37 percent, while Wal-Mart employees gave more than 1.5 million volunteers hours last year, up from 1.25 million in 2008.

At Bank of America, employees spent more than 800,000 hours volunteering at nonprofit groups.

“It’s a morale builder but it also augments our impact in the community,” Sullivan said. “We really want to encourage employees to be more engaged.”

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