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Freely Give, Freely Receive

Corporate philanthropy that comes with no strings attached has benefited many a good cause. But when such giving tries to solve the very problems the corporation has caused, perhaps it's time to look these gift horses in the mouth.

Take the news that The Coca-Cola Foundation is giving $1 million to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry - ostensibly for research and to promote dental hygiene. The academy says Coke will not dictate the research produced by the grant, nor influence the academy's educational messages to kids.

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But groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest say too many sweet sodas only send kids to the dentist more often. The impression is left that Coke is trying to buy some innocence by supporting dentistry.

Many corporations see money grants as a tool to reduce negative perceptions of the goods they sell. A number of pharmaceutical companies, for instance, gave money for an American Medical Association campaign in 2001 urging doctors not to accept gifts from drug companies. Now there's a deal fraught with potential hypocrisy. And last year, McDonald's helped UNICEF - which is trying to improve child nutrition - promote "World Children's Day."

Alcoholic-beverage companies encourage responsible drinking and driving, and tobacco companies run anti-smoking ads. Is that doing community-service time, or just plain branding?

While corporate giving is down in the slumping economy, last year's corporate scandals have many companies scrambling to appear "responsible" by partnering with reputable nonprofits. And at a time when nonprofits are looking for money, ethical boundaries can be bent. Too often, companies may be unnecessarily forcing compromises and trade-offs for their partners.

Of course, many corporate giants have social responsibility as an integral part of their mission. They set an example of good corporate citizenship for others - one that involves commitment to social ideals above and beyond the bottom line.