You can hardly buy a product today without seeing an appeal for aid for tsunami victims. Some chains are donating a percentage of a sale, others are acting simply as conduits for the American Red Cross and other groups by collecting and forwarding donations. Gel bracelets for the Lance Armstrong Foundation and rubber wristbands for other organizations have become as ubiquitous at the cash wrap as winter markdowns. Charitable endeavors are a feel-good way to win consumer approval and loyalty. But how do the retail and manufacturing industries stack up against other sectors? The Conference Board tallied up charitable gifts by industry. Companies involved in controversial projects or products often step up corporate giving as do those trying to clean up a tarnished image.

    Total: $1.94 billion

    Since the Food and Drug Administration revealed that Pfizer’s Celebrex and Merck’s Vioxx might cause increased risk of heart attack and stroke, pharmaceutical companies have been on the defensive. The industry also has been criticized for sunny advertising that markets drugs directly to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies donated 1.85 percent of worldwide sales to charities last year.

    Total: $544.7 million

    The charitable foundation of Microsoft Inc. co-founder Bill Gates is the world’s largest, with an endowment of about $27 billion, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. While Gates is recognized as one of the world’s greatest philanthropists, the industry as a whole contributed only 0.15 percent of 2003 sales to charity. Giant chip maker Intel Corp. provided Internet access and technology training to children and IBM developed an Intranet site allowing volunteers to access technologies for use in a variety of educational projects.

    Total: $423.6 million

    Health professionals (and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) have made cigarette smokers feel like social deviants. Dentists and nutritionists preach the ills of soda and fatty burgers and fries have been vilified by the food police. What’s a tobacco, soft drink company or burger chain to do? Donate 0.21 percent of global sales to charity.

    Total: $395.6 million

    Banks are duking it out for customers with services such as free checking and extended hours at a time when low interest rates make investing in real estate and the stock market more attractive. Banks made charitable contributions worth 0.24 percent of worldwide sales in 2003.

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