The End of AmazonSmile Is an Opportunity for Nonprofits to Revisit Their Values
A former colleague of mine who grew up in Ukraine once warned me that “nothing [is] for free but cheese in mousetrap.” I recalled her advice as I read about the frustration nonprofit leaders felt following Amazon’s announcement that it is ending its charitable giving program, Amazon Smile.
Smile allowed Amazon customers to choose a charity to receive half a percent of the purchase price of whatever goods they bought on the online marketplace. With a company the size of Amazon, those pennies added up. Since initiating the program 10 years ago, Amazon says it donated
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A former colleague of mine who grew up in Ukraine once warned me that “nothing [is] for free but cheese in mousetrap.” I recalled her advice as I read about the frustration nonprofit leaders felt following Amazon’s announcement that it is ending its charitable-giving program, AmazonSmile.
AmazonSmile allowed Amazon customers to choose a charity to receive half a percentage of the purchase price of whatever goods they bought on the online marketplace. With a company the size of Amazon, those pennies added up. Since starting the program 10 years ago, Amazon says it donated $449 million globally through AmazonSmile.
That seems substantial, but given Amazon’s enormous wealth, is it really? Since starting the program, the company’s revenues from product sales alone grew to $1.2 trillion, and total revenue, including from its web-services business, reached just under $2 trillion. That’s a trillion with a T, which rhymes with B, which stands for Bezos.
What percentage of those revenues went to AmazonSmile? Less than 0.04 percent. Even as a share of profits, AmazonSmile donations are only a tick more than half a percent of the money accumulated by Amazon’s shareholders — or almost exactly the amount that the company’s accountants might dismiss as a rounding error. In other words, Amazon was doing the bare minimum with its AmazonSmile program. Those criticizing its cancellation might instead direct some of their anger at the company for not doing more.
But this complaint only starts to address the problems with AmazonSmile, and the reasons I’m not sorry to see it go.
Until last year, I ran the fundraising and business side of the nonprofit Falconworks Theater Company in Brooklyn, N.Y. In my fundraising capacity, AmazonSmile seemed like a dream: free money that required no effort. Unlike a gala or even a house party, no amount of time was expended for planning or setup or asking the local wine store to contribute a case.
Even better, it cost our donors nothing. There were no awkward phone calls or patiently repeated elevator pitches explaining our mission, vision, and values. Fear of rejection was minimal. “Give us some of Amazon’s money” is not an especially hard sell. When donors signed up to give AmazonSmile donations to the theater company, we gratefully took the money.
But I think about the words of my Ukrainian colleague — or, as is often said of social media, “if you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product.” AmazonSmile was not so much a charitable-giving program as it was an advertising scheme in sheep’s clothing. A marketing consultant quoted by the New York Times called it “incredibly clever and incredibly effective in bringing in new customers. … They ended up making all these grassroots charities into a referral source.”
So as no-cost marketeers for a megabillionaire’s empire, what did charities like mine give away?
Relationships with donors. One of the problems with AmazonSmile was that there was no accounting of who selected a particular organization, or how much their selection was worth. While I wasn’t interested in the amount our donors spent on Amazon, I would have liked to let them know how much their choice meant to us — but there was no way to determine who should even receive such as message.
The value of the hard sell. Awkward elevator speeches and other efforts to demonstrate a nonprofit’s worth help build relationships with donors not just as sources of money but as volunteers, advocates, and possibly staff or board members. By getting out and talking about their work, fundraisers also get feedback about whether their appeal is effective or if they need to change the way they describe what their organization does — or even need to take a look at whether particular programs are worthwhile.
Giving as a value worth promoting. The belief in something for nothing has a corrosive effect. It is valuable for a community to have sports leagues and after-school programs and hospitals and, yes, even theater companies. Since they are valuable, they are worth spending money on — not just other people’s, but our own, because supporting the people and the world around us is the right thing to do.
Our own values. Amazon is the most ravenous of the wolves roaming our economy. Especially for a small, local organization, driving people to Amazon in order to collect half a percentage of what they may spend undermines the work most of us aim to accomplish. Corner stores everywhere could have used the business that nonprofits drove to Amazon — stores that would in turn purchase from other local businesses, employ local people, organize to improve their neighborhoods, and cast light on otherwise dark sidewalks.
Any small organization, whether explicitly working for social justice or not, carries forward the mission of building a community. I can’t think of a single company that is less community minded than Amazon — or more destructive of the fabric of communities.
Sure, it’s hard to run a small nonprofit and nearly impossible to run one with any confidence that you can pay the bills next month or next year. The people running pet shelters and youth programs are doing the Lord’s work, with heart and effort, and they deserve only praise. I don’t fault them for taking money that was handed to them.
But you can’t serve God and Bezos. The death of AmazonSmile ought to remind nonprofit executives that the way we perform our work is integral to the outcomes we hope to achieve. With the program’s end, maybe some in the nonprofit world will rediscover this truth as they seek to replace the easy money Amazon supplied.