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Altruism or PR? 

Wal-Mart looking after itself, study charges.




Wal-Mart Stores Inc., through its foundation and directly, will give more than $200 million in cash and in-kind donations in 2005, $30 million more than it gave away in 2004. The Wal-Mart Foundation, while not the country’s largest corporate foundation, has been the country’s most generous corporate giver since 2002.

The foundation’s contribution to Katrina relief, totaling more than $20 million, was also more than any other foundation’s.

But Betty Feng and Jeff Krehely’s “The Waltons and Wal-Mart: Self-Interested Philanthropy” looks Wal-Mart’s gift horse in the mouth, and charges that its corporate foundation is little more than a public relations account whose non-profit status gives the company a tax break as well.

The world’s largest company could use some good news to balance the bad. Wal-Mart Inc. has been plagued by highly publicized lawsuits over its union-busting attempts, alleged discrimination against female employees, and hiring of illegal immigrants. It drives small specialty stores out of business. The fact that it pays low wages to part-time workers who then must rely on government assistance for health care has lead to protests in California, Maryland and other states.

Feng and Krehely acknowledge that “corporate philanthropy has become an integral part of a corporation’s business plan.” Corporate foundations gave $12 billion in cash and in-kind donations to charity in 2004, according to “Giving USA.”

But the two charge the foundation’s increasing donations over the past couple of years were meant more to deflect criticism than to help communities.

Wal-Mart has engaged in a public relations campaign, to be sure. In April, a month after Wal-Mart paid $11 million to settle a federal suit that charged it used undocumented workers to clean its stores, sometimes even locking them inside, the company held a special press confab in Bentonville to give its side of the story to the national press. Last week, the company announced it would invest $25 million to create a private equity fund for women and minority business owners.

But the charges leveled in the report, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Melissa O’Brien told the Times by e-mail, are “more opinion than fact.” She said the NCRP is “being promoted by (and promoting in return) a union-sponsored campaign — UFCW’s Wal-Mart Watch” — a fact that she said challenges the report’s credibility.

The report makes much of the fact that the Wal-Mart Foundation makes some 100,000 grants a year, so that while the aggregate is large, most of its grants are meager. It complains that its tax return form, as a result, is 2,000 pages long and difficult to scrutinize.

It also warns that the Walton Family Foundation — the family’s private foundation — gives to conservative causes that could destabilize public education. It does briefly note that charity is often directed toward causes the givers support, and that some foundations — such as George Soros’ — are “progressive.”

The study notes that while Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has more than $288 billion in revenues, its foundation ranked 51st in assets in 2003. (It would rank much higher today.) But while the foundation’s assets and donations could be greater, its giving — $103 million in 2002, $120 million in 2003, and $170 million in 2004 — is already the most generous in the nation.


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