Most businesspeople subscribe to the "no free lunch" philosophy, but sometimes it pays to look beyond the bottom line. Last year, Vernon Freeman, president of Mainpro Inc. in Irving, Tex., established a benefit program dubbed "Do Something Nice for Someone." Each month, Mainpro gives each of its 50 employees, including Freeman, a check for $24, to be used for any philanthropic cause.

Mainpro, a $2.8 million maker of lubricants and maintenance products, with a sales force of about 30, finds that its benevolent perquisite works well as a tool for building sales as well as goodwill. Most of the checks go to charitable organizations suggested by or associated with customers. Uses for the company's largess have included donations to nursing homes, fees for sending an underprivileged child to summer camp, and the expense of bringing meals to the homes of the disabled.

The program, which costs the company $1,200 a month, is tax deductible. "It's one of the least costly but most effective of our fringe benefits," Freeman explains. "It has created a lot of enthusiasm among our employees, and we've had no problems with misuse or control." Canceled checks allow fairly close monitoring.

Instead of actively promoting the program, Freeman lets it speak for itself. "We make friends out of customers pretty quick," he crows, noting that a number of Mainpro's customers are hospitals and nursing homes.

Although the amount of $24 was chosen arbitrarily, Freeman says that the program is tied to Mainpro's performance, and he hopes to raise it to at least $30 next year. "It depends on how much we grow," he says, underscoring the notion that a bigger pie benefits all.