Like most investors, you probably aim for the best possible return when picking potential investments. But as consumers increasingly clamor for companies to embrace social responsibility, good corporate citizenship is becoming a vital part of many companies' success. And it can boost the performance of our portfolios, too.

Corporate Responsibility magazine (CR magazine) recently released its "100 Best Corporate Citizens" list for 2012, in which it rated members of the Russell 1000 large-cap index on 325 different elements related to responsible behavior. In the coming weeks, I'll delve into each of the seven categories that contribute to a company's overall score.

Today, we'll look at philanthropy, which gets a 9% weighting. Here are some of the companies that made the top 10 in this category:

  • Hewlett-Packard (NYS: HPQ)
  • Abbott Labs (NYS: ABT)
  • Microsoft (NAS: MSFT)
  • Dominion (NYS: D)
  • Wells Fargo (NYS: WFC)

To earn their high scores, the companies above engaged in a variety of good deeds, including donating in-kind gifts and loaned talent (along with cash, of course), paying employees who volunteer, having retiree volunteers, and offering employee volunteer services.

Food, jobs, and technology
Hewlett-Packard might not be a name you expect to see here, given the company's recent troubles that led to last week's announcement that the company would lay off some 27,000 people, or 8% of its workforce. Still, the company has a big-hearted culture, with employees given four hours per month to volunteer their expertise, and the company is using its technology and skills to help non-profits worldwide become more effective. Some projects include improving malaria detection and fighting counterfeit drugs in Africa, and testing a mobile health-monitoring system in Singapore.

Abbott Labs is quite impressive. Last year, for example, Abbott and its philanthropy arm, the Abbott Fund, contributed more than $730 million in grants, product donations, community partnerships, and efforts to strengthen health-care systems around the world. In Haiti, it joined with the respected Partners in Health organization to build a facility in Haiti that will not only produce food to treat malnourished children, but will also create jobs. Check this out, too: "Prior to the 2011 hurricane season, Abbott, the Abbott Fund and our partners had pre-positioned more than $1.2 million worth of donated products, which could then be delivered within two or three days of a disaster, compared with the seven to ten days that are typical of most relief programs." They also sent $3 million to Japan after its earthquake and tsunami.

Energy company Dominion Resources, like many other corporations, has a foundation that does much of its good deeds. It donates more than $20 million annually to non-profits and schools, and matches employees' personal donations to qualified charities dollar-for-dollar, up to $5,000 annually per worker. (That can be a powerful way to boost employee morale and retain workers.) Dominion traces its commitment to volunteering back to 1918, when employees packed up and delivered food to needy families. In 2011, more than 500 Dominion volunteers undertook 14 projects in seven states.

Big matches, big dollars
Wells Fargo takes an innovative approach by letting employees decide who will receive corporate donations. It contributes an average of $600,000 per day to nonprofits, and its employees logged 1.5 million volunteer hours in 2011. Last year, Wells Fargo invested $213.5 million in 19,000 nonprofits nationwide, surpassing $200 million for the fourth consecutive year, supporting homeownership, community development, education, supplier diversity, employee giving, and the environment.

Then there's Microsoft. It has to be noted that co-founder Bill Gates has created the world's largest charitable foundation, which is tackling health and education needs worldwide and is receiving Warren Buffett's fortune as well. Microsoft's TechSoup Global delivers technology and solutions to non-profits around the world. The company matches employee donations, and did so to the tune of $49 million last year. It also gave $844 million in software to 46,886 non-profits.

Companies that treat employees well can boost your portfolio. A Goldman Sachs report found that leaders in social, environmental, and governance policies outperformed their peers by some 25%. That's a great motivation for even the most coolly rational investors to take social responsibility to heart. And here's one more great employer to check out: The Motley Fool.

If you're in the market for solid socially responsible candidates for your portfolio, check out the Rising Stars portfolio run by my colleague Alyce Lomax. Out of more than a dozen portfolios run by smart Fools, she was recently in second place.

At the time this article was published Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, owns shares of Microsoft, but she holds no other position in any company mentioned. Click here to see her holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft, Wells Fargo, and Abbott Laboratories, and has created a covered strangle position in Wells Fargo. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Dominion Resources, Microsoft, and Wells Fargo, as well as creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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