Businesses awarded for donating time, products

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On May 13, 1985, 61 homes in Philadelphia burned to the ground during the police seige on the radical group MOVE. Lost in the fire were the personal belongings of the families living in those houses, including their financial records.

``Thousands of people were donating clothing, money, food,'' recalls Patricia Walker of the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants. ``We wanted to donate our professional services.''

So the next morning, they sent Mayor Wilson Goode a letter offering to help each family reconstruct the records -- amending tax returns and figuring out for insurance purposes the inventory of what they had lost.

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One CPA worked with each family, for free, ``for however long it took.'' It took about six months, though some CPAs are still working with their adopted families. No one has asked to be reimbursed, Ms. Walker says.

The Pennsylvania accountants are one of 100 corporations and associations honored by President Reagan Wednesday for their community involvement. The projects run from putting the pictures of missing children on grocery bags (Giant Food) to helping police cultivate leads in solving crimes and tracking down criminals (Columbus, Ga., Chamber of Commerce) to giving senior citizens free airline tickets so they could visit their families on holidays (Southwest Airlines).

The real story behind corporate giving is not the 13 percent increase in donations last year, to a record $4.3 billion, says Patricia Kearney, associate director of the White House Office of Private Sector Initiatives. It is that companies are using their talents -- ``bringing mainstream business practices'' -- to help their communities.

Avon Products is a case in point. Three years ago, ``We had discovered that a lot of economically disadvantaged children were under stress during the holiday season,'' says Peggy Roberts, who runs Avon's ``Christmas is for Children'' program on the East Coast. ``Not because they weren't able to receive products, but because they weren't able to give gifts to members of their family and people that they loved.''

Avon got in touch with social welfare groups in two cities, which picked out about 250 children, ages six to 13. The kids could earn up to five coupons for doing ``good deeds'' such as cleaning up areas where they lived or running errands for senior citizens. They could then buy gifts (Avon products), which ranged from $5 to $30 in value, with coupons.

``It allowed these children to have a tremendous amount of dignity in the sense that they worked very hard, earned their own money, and could make their own choices,'' says Ms. Roberts, who is accepting an award from the President for Avon. ``We think a value system was also instilled in these young people.''

Last Christmas, 4,000 children earned coupons in 15 cities across the US, and cost Avon about $375,000. It hopes to include twice as many children next year.

Roberts stresses that money was not an important factor; it would have been easier to donate money and take the tax deduction. Indeed, the 100 companies and associations here were being honored for their creativity, not the size of their checks.

And sheer monetary considerations may be even less important in the future. The tax overhaul plan being hammered out by Congress would eliminate most deductions for charitable contributions.

Corporate giving fits into the Reagan philosophy of trimming back government and relying on private initiative. However, the increase in corporate charity is a drop in the bucket next to the cutbacks in social spending over the last five years. Such cutbacks, says Ms. Kearney, have increased the incentive for businesses to get involved in the community.

``They believe it's good business,'' Kearney says, and not just from a marketing point of view.

Companies want to attract a strong workforce and have a prosperous community around them, so it's in their interest to promote a education, a low crime rate, culture, and the arts, she says.

Sometimes corporate programs arise from personal experiences. Arthur Gunther, former chief executive officer of Pizza Hut, saw his son drop out of school at age 16. Mr. Gunther discovered that his son had a reading impediment, and in the course of his research into the problem, the executive learned that millions of Americans are illiterate.

He launched the ``Book It'' program to encourage elementary kids to read. Each child in the program -- which is being used in 238,000 classrooms across the country -- has a reading goal set each month. If the child makes the goal, he or she gets an award certificate for, you guessed it, a free pizza at Pizza Hut.

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