6 Corporate Heroes of Autism Research

Every week for the past year we've examined a CEO, or pair of co-CEOs, who's done an exemplary job of managing the company and delivering for shareholders, providing a fun and fruitful work environment for employees, and who gave back in extraordinary ways to the community.

Today, we're going to take a one-week detour from focusing on one specific CEO and instead highlight a group of six companies that have been significant donors in fighting one of the nation's quickest growing diseases: autism.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A disturbing trend
Autism spectrum disorders have been growing at an alarming rate since the new millennium. In 2000, ASDs affected about one in every 150 children, but as of 2008 this figure had narrowed to just one in every 88 children -- nearly double in just eight years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The causes of autism -- which is a complex brain development disorder that can cause children great difficulty in communicating and forging relationships -- are still largely unknown, thus treatments and preventative measures to treat and/or cure the disease are either in the very early stages or nonexistent. It's a disturbing trend that certainly needs research dollars thrown in its direction if we hope to make a difference.

Now I know what you might be thinking: "Sure, I support autism research, but what exactly does this have to do with investing?"

Why these donations matter
Keep a few of the following points in mind. First, public image is everything for some businesses -- especially for retailers and food service companies. I'm not in any way saying that these businesses are putting on a show by donating to autism research, but it does point to a company that cares for the community it operates in and creates a rosier view of how a consumer might view a business. I know I personally haven't shopped at certain stores based on their corporate actions, but I also know this pendulum swings both ways, and I've gone out of my way to shop at local and national chains that have given back to the community in the past.

Another consideration here is that a company that donates clearly has to be doing something right. Sure, a donation is a nice benefit comes tax time for businesses, but the chances of these companies donating to any cause is pretty slim if they weren't making a hefty profit to begin with. In sum, big donations often equal big profits and a healthy company.

Finally, considering how prevalent an autism diagnosis has become, the chances of a company having an employee, or multiple employees, with a familial connection to a child with autism is growing. I believe this to be a strong gesture by these companies to their employees and the community that they do indeed care about this growing issue. Think of it in terms of providing specialized care through donations to instill loyalty and camaraderie among its workforce. And as we all know, a happy workforce is an incredibly productive workforce.

6 corporate heroes of autism research
Without further ado, here are six companies that have partnered with Autism Speaks and are deserving of a bow for their efforts to help fund the fight against autism.

Toys R Us
If we were handing out gold stars here, privately held toy retailer Toys R Us would take top honors. This year, Toys R Us raised more than $2 million for Autism Speaks. Its "Shine a Light for Autism" campaign in the U.S. generated in excess of $1.3 million, and $765,000 was donated from its Canadian operations. Best of all, 100% of the proceeds goes to Autism Speaks. This is the seventh such year that Toys R Us has partnered up with Autism Speaks, and it's raised more than $18 million in cumulative donations over that time period.

Panera Bread
Curious what they're putting in the soup? Here's a hint -- in addition to healthy ingredients, it's some good old-fashioned TLC. Panera Bread hasn't been Autism Speaks' biggest donor by any means, raising a little more than $170,000 since it first partnered with the organization in 2010. That might be a far cry from Toys R Us and its $18 million-plus in donations, but Panera has done an incredible job of spreading awareness through the sale of Autism awareness blue bracelets in select restaurants, and through community events designed to raise money for autism. The dollar amount may not be huge, but the social awareness impact certainly is!

Build-a-Bear Workshop
From bread bowls we move on to furry stuffed animals! Build-a-Bear, a fixture in malls around the U.S., and a partner of Autism Speaks for nine years running, raised nearly $200,000 alone in 2013 thanks to the sale of a blue bear to commemorate World Autism Awareness Day and Autism Awareness Month in April. Having been partnered with Autism Speaks for such a long period of time, it isn't surprising to find out that Build-a-Bear has raised more than $1 million for research.

Dollar General
Among discount stores, few have done their part to raise autism awareness and generate money for research than the nation's largest discount retailer, Dollar General. In 2013, Dollar General helped raise more than $1.1 million through at-the-register donations, and even sported the Autism Speaks puzzle piece logo on its NASCAR-sponsored stock car throughout the month of April. Since it partnered with Autism Speaks in 2010, Dollar General has raised more than $3.4 million.

The Home Depot
One way to improve awareness of this disease is to partner with the largest chain of home improvement stores in the United States. This year, Home Depot sponsored a blue incandescent light bulb from March 1 through April 30 and donated a portion of all sales from its U.S. and Canadian locations to Autism Speaks. Cumulatively since it began its partnership with Autism Speaks back in 2011, Home Depot has donated close to $915,000.

TJX Cos.
Last, but certainly not least, is TJX Companies, the parent company behind discount name-brand clothing retailer TJ Maxx. For its 2013 campaign, TJ Maxx, in its 10th year of partnering with Autism Speaks, sold puzzle pieces in all of its 1,000-plus stores for $1 apiece. This year it raised a record $1.8 million, and over its 10-year partnership the clothing retailer is closing in on $11 million in donations.

These are actually just a handful of Autism Speaks' partners, but I feel they are the most fitting of the group to receive my two thumbs up this week.

Remarkable companies come in many forms. For the six companies here, it's in their ability to give back to the community. In the investment world, solid companies selling at depressed prices have consistently helped generations of the world's most successful investors preserve capital, minimize risk, and achieve long-term, market-trampling returns. For one such remarkable company, read our free report: "The One REMARKABLE Stock to Own Now." Just click here to get started.

The article 6 Corporate Heroes of Autism Research originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.The Motley Fool owns shares of, and recommends, Panera Bread. It also recommends Home Depot. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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