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Yes, Corporations Can Play Santa Claus After All

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CNBC.com

Everybody's angry at The Man. People have lost jobs, lost money, lost homes. CEO's are flying private jets, asking for handouts, exiting with huge parachutes. It's easy to detest and distrust the boss.

But I was reminded yesterday that many executives also believe in generosity, never more so than now. Even better, they do it anonymously.

Yesterday I was at the Salvation Army in Ventura, California, where they've set up a "toy store" which needy parents can walk through and choose gifts for their kids. The number of families with no money for Christmas has doubled compared to a year ago. Yet this year, unlike last, the local Salvation Army didn't have to spend a dime buying toys. They had enough donated, thanks to individuals--and thanks to companies. There were pallets of stuffed animals from one toy company, boxes of Barbies from another. One very well-known publicly traded corporate titan dropped off 100 free turkeys. Moving companies donated boxes to pack it all in.

Here's how the set-up worked. Salvation Army volunteers walked parents through the set-up, letting them choose two toys per child (and making sure no one took more than their fair share). This method allows parents to pick presents their kids will really want, as opposed to receiving gifts which may or may not be a great fit. It also gives them the feeling of shopping. Families had to prove financial hardship to sign up--the needier they were, the earlier they got to shop.

A few people were needy because of poor choices--the guy with maxed out credit cards who has no money to buy gifts for his kids, or the unemployed mother living at home with her parents who could work a little harder at getting a job. Those folks will be among the last to come through, but they'll still get to shop. As one volunteer told me, "I'm not going to deny their kids Christmas just because their parents are idiots."

The families I saw coming through were humbly grateful. No one was angling for more presents (I've seen that before). More than anything, they were stunned at the quantity and quality of gifts ("an iPod!"). In addition to the two toys per child, every parent could choose one free stuffed animal per kid. I watched one mother spend ten minutes going back and forth between a velvety bear and a soft frumpy dog. She would pick them up and put them down, look for something else, and then come back. I could see she really couldn't decide. So when no one was looking, I told her to take both. Don't tell.

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