updated 3/27/2007 8:28:12 AM ET 2007-03-27T12:28:12

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. increased its U.S. charitable giving 10 percent last year to $272.9 million, the world’s largest retailer said Tuesday, likely defending its position as the country’s largest corporate donor of cash.

The rate of growth was lower than a year earlier, when Hurricane Katrina relief helped push the annual rise to 19 percent, but it was ahead of Wal-Mart’s 7 percent rise in net profit last year. The company’s profit for the fiscal year that ended Jan. 31 was $12.2 billion.

Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart released its annual donation numbers a few days after publicizing its annual bonuses to hourly store workers as it seeks to counter union-led critics by defending its record as a corporate citizen.

Wal-Mart said most of its U.S. giving was in cash, about $250 million, vs. $22.9 million of in-kind donations.

Wal-Mart was ranked the country’s top corporate cash donor in 2005 by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a biweekly newspaper that tracks the nonprofit business. The 2006 ranking is not yet available.

“It’s pretty sure that they’ll get the same for 2006. They’re pretty far and away the highest” cash donor, said Chronicle senior writer Ian Wilhelm.

Corporate giving increased
Most major corporations increased their charitable giving last year as the economy and the stock market remained in good shape, Wilhelm said. Only companies and sectors in financial trouble typically cut back, he said.

Internationally, Wal-Mart said its donations in 13 other countries where it has stores were also up 10 percent, to $28.9 million.

Wal-Mart said U.S. donations went to organizations including the National Teacher of the Year program, hospital aid group Children’s Miracle Network, the Salvation Army, United Way and food bank America’s Second Harvest.

Wal-Mart said the majority of donations are made at the local level by its 4,000 Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores to charities they pick.

“Supporting our local communities is at the very heart of Wal-Mart’s corporate giving philosophy. Our stores and clubs are empowered to support the issues and causes that are important to their neighborhoods,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Shannon Frederick said.

Critic isn't swayed
Union-backed critic WakeUpWalMart.com said the increase in giving did nothing to dampen their claims that Wal-Mart exploits its workers.

“Charity is always good, but what is not good is Wal-Mart forcing poorly paid and uninsured workers to depend on charity,” WakeUpWalMart.com spokesman Chris Kofinis said.

Wal-Mart has repeatedly denied those claims, defending its wages as competitive and its health coverage as affordable.

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