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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Firms Learn Goodwill Is Also Good Business

NEW YORK -- Corporate goodwill in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has been anything but run of the mill.

Amgen, the biotechnology company, is donating $2.5 million to relief efforts, focusing on dialysis and cancer patients. General Electric donated a mobile power plant to restore capacity to a fuel transfer station in Louisiana. Employees of Papa John's spent the last week in Biloxi, Mississippi, handing out thousands of pizzas. Employees at many companies are also collectively matching, sometimes surpassing, direct corporate contributions.

As companies reach into their coffers in a time-honored gesture of corporate goodwill, they have grown increasingly creative, even strategic, about the way they approach their philanthropy.

"It seems like companies are being more responsive in these crises and perhaps using this as an opportunity for better branding and positioning relative to their day-to-day philanthropy," said Patrick Rooney, director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Corporate donations are at $312 million and counting, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy in Washington. "The response has been really quite stunning," said Peter Hero, president of the Community Foundation Silicon Valley in California. "Even though many of those companies don't have plants or business operations in the South."

Even where the quantity remains the same as in previous disasters, the quality of the help seems to be changing, as companies tailor their giving in a way that strives for a particular public image.

"This is an interesting time, because it's the third wave, after 9/11 and the tsunami," said Brad Googins, director of the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College. "And now companies can say, 'Let's step back and become more strategic and ask, What could we do that we could begin to leverage differently from what others can do?' "

Leading the pack is Wal-Mart. After an initial response that was widely considered miserly, the retail giant has donated the use of 18 vacant buildings to various relief agencies. This is in addition to the cash and the donated goods -- the company valued the goods at $3 million.

With two disasters behind them, some companies are applying lessons they have learned to their hurricane-related philanthropy. GE is a case in point. During last year's Asian tsunami, GE put together a team of 50 experts in portable water purification, energy, health care and medical equipment.

After Hurricane Katrina, GE executives took their cues from Jeffrey Immelt, GE's chief executive, and reactivated the same tsunami team for New Orleans. "Jeff told us, 'Don't let anything stand in the way of getting aid where it's needed,'" said Robert Corcoran, vice president for corporate citizenship.

Although few executives will publicly criticize the government for slow responses, many are trying to add corporate efficiency to government efforts. Transportation companies like United Parcel Service and Yellow Roadway have assigned logistics specialists to serve as liaisons to the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi to help direct people and supplies.