Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Amazon-Smile-LogoAmazonSmile brings to mind the observation of late great media critic A.J. Liebling about The New York Times’ fundraising campaigns on behalf of its Neediest Cases.  “Readers are invited to send in money,” Liebling wrote, “while the newspaper generously agrees to accept the thanks of the beneficiaries.”

AmazonSmile is bit like that. The website, created by Amazon.com in 2013, offers

the same products, prices, and shopping features as Amazon.com. The difference is that when you shop on AmazonSmile, the AmazonSmile Foundation will donate 0.5% of the purchase price of eligible products to the charitable organization of your choice.

Nice, right? Well, yes, but not nearly as a nice as it could be.

Two questions need to be asked about AmazonSmile.

First, what has it done to increase the quantity of charitable giving?

Second, what has it done to increase the quality of charitable giving?

The answer to both: Not much.

Let’s begin with the numbers, starting with that 0.5 percent figure. If you spend $20 at Amazon.com, that’s 10 cents. Spend $2,000 and $10 goes to charity–provided, that is, that you remember to bookmark or navigate over to https://smile.amazon.com before making a purchase. Predictably, most shoppers don’t. It’s hardly worth the bother to surf over to a new URL to give away a dime.

The results reflect that friction: In 2015, the AmazonSmile Foundation, which administers the program, donated $12,867,013 to charity, according to the foundation’s latest Form 990-PF filed with the IRS. That’s less than 0.5 percent of Amazon.com’s retail sales.

How much less? In 2015, Amazon generated about $99.1 billion in U.S. and international retail sales, its annual report says. (See p. 68). If my math is correct, that means that the $12,867,013 in charitable giving amounts to 0.00012 percent of sales. That’s $1.20 in donations for every $10,000 of sales.

Now, you could argue that this is the fault of shoppers (and, admittedly, I’m one of them) who are less than rigorous about finding their way to the AmazonSmile portal every time they make a purchase. Instead, I want to make the case that the low numbers are the product of a deliberate effort by Amazon.com to depress, rather than increase, giving.

After all, it would be a trivial matter for Amazon.com’s software designers to allow shoppers to make a one-time request to have 0.5 percent of their purchases go to charity, and make that the default option every time a customer visits the Amazon.com site.

As one perceptive Amazon shopper wrote on the company website back in 2014:

This is a wonderful program with a big BUT! Here’s the ‘BUT’: Why do shoppers have to go to the smile link in order for donations to kick in? Why can’t the contributions simply be linked to the shopper’s account? I want to support a nonprofit, but i frequently forget to go to smile. Is Amazon trying to get organizations to encourage their members to use Amazon, but secretly hoping they will forget to go to the smile link so Amazon doesn’t really have to make a donation? A truly noble approach would be to make it automatically link to the shopper’s account.

Exactly.

Further evidence of Amazon.com’s intentions come from the the fact that there are no cell phone or tablet apps for AmazonSmile. Users have asked for AmazonSmile apps, which is no surprise, given the growing share of e-commerce purchases made by phone. One survey found that about 40 percent of all e-commerce was conducted on phones or tablets last Thanksgiving, ReCode reported.  It’s not impossible to buy from AmazonSmile over the phone, by using the phone’s browser to reach the website, but it’s clunky so few people bother.

It’s sure looks as if Amazon.com wants to make it hard, not easy, to use AmazonSmile.

To put the $12.9 million donated by the AmazonSmile Foundation in a broader context: The Walmart Foundation made $166 million in donations in 2015. Microsoft, its Seattle neighbor, donated about $500 million last year. Amazon makes other donations as well, but they don’t add up to much and the company won’t release numbers, GeekWire reports.

Laziness, stupidity, indifference or caution?

What about AmazonSmile’s influence over the quality of giving? By that, I mean the potential for AmazonSmile to recommend charities  that do the most good, or at least those that are more transparent than their peers about their performance. As it happens, there’s an easy and useful metric to identify such charities–the Platinum designation awarded by GuideStar, which I blogged about last year. Alternatively, AmazonSmile could boldly turn to trusted evaluators such as The Life You Can Save, a nonprofit that recommends charities, based on evidence, that help the world’s poorest people. The Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania also does a fine job of identifying effective nonprofits.

This wouldn’t limit consumer choice. AmazonSmile permits shoppers to choose from nearly 1 million charities, it says, and it could continue to do so. But, since its early days, AmazonSmile also has nudged shoppers to give to what it calls Spotlight Charities. The company says:

We do this to make it easier for customers to choose an organization to support from the almost one million available, but we do not endorse any particular organization or the causes they support.

The five current Spotlight Charities are the ASPCA, charity: water, Doctors without Borders, The Nature Conservancy and the American Red Cross. A less interesting list is hard to imagine. These choices can be explained only by some blend of laziness, stupidity, indifference or an abundance of caution. Since the people who work at Amazon.com are neither lazy or stupid, we can chalk this up to indifference or caution.

Of AmazonSmile’s five spotlight charities, only one, the American Red Cross, has a Platinum Rating from Guidestar. If you believe Pro Publica (here) or Senator Charles Grassley (here), the Red Cross is a disaster charity in every sense. Giving to The Nature Conservancy, for all of its good work, is like giving to Harvard: It had nearly $6 billion in net assets and brought in $786 million in revenue last year. The ASPCA has never been ranked among the most effective advocates for animals by Animal Charity Evaluators. As for charity: water, it is at core a fundraising platform, and a very good one, but most of the work it funds is carried out by partners, some better than others.

These recommendations have enormous impact. In 2014, which is the latest year for which grantee data is available, Spotlight Charities outpaced the rest by huge margins. AmazonSmile gave $602,495 to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital–more than 10 percent of all the money that passed through the foundation that year. It also gave $436,338 to the Wounded Warrior Project (!), $265,557 to the American Red Cross and $167,316 to The Nature Conservancy. All were Spotlight Charities. The vast majority of charities brought in less than $100 apiece. (I pulled these numbers from AmazonSmile’s 575-page Form 990, and might have overlooked a big recipient or two. The document isn’t searchable.)

Finally, consider the possibility that AmazonSmile could ultimately lead to less, not more, charitable giving. If it leaves shoppers feeling that they have done their part, they may be less likely to respond to a direct appeal from a nonprofit, as Brady Josephson, a fundraising consultant, wrote on Huffington Post back in 2013.

What, then, is AmazonSmile? It’s marketing, dressed up as altruism. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of charities put the AmazonSmile logo on their websites (here, herehere and countless other places). They’re promoting Amazon.com. It’s revealing that the president of the AmazonSmile Foundation, according to its latest Form 990, is Steven Shure, who is vice president of worldwide marketing at Amazon.com. Shure doesn’t mention the AmazonSmile Foundation on his LinkedIn profile. His only visible nonprofit experience is as a board member of US Rowing.

In the end, though, to understand the purpose of AmazonSmile, all we need to do is the math. Imagine that you spend $1,000 this year on AmazonSmile. Amazon gets $995. Your favorite charity gets $5. Someone’s doing well, and it isn’t the charity.

No wonder Jeff Bezos is smiling.

A note on sourcing: I tried every which way to get Amazon.com’s response to all this. I emailed two people in the company’s communications department, asked a DC-based Amazon exec to refer my request to its PR department and left a message on the AmazonSmile website. I’m aware that the company can’t respond to all media requests. If I do hear from Amazon.com, I will post a response below.

240 thoughts on “Why Amazon Smile doesn’t make me smile

  1. Jeff Notbezos says:

    What a bizarre, bitter, overly negative article (and many of the comments are in the same vein). A company adds a new feature that allows customers to funnel some small (but nonzero) portion of what they pay toward a charity of their choosing — and this is bad WHY? People complaining that it’s not enough: Maybe it’s not an ideal amount, but if it’s more than was donated previously, then at least try to muster some sort of positive/optimistic feeling about it. Besides, all that frowning will give you wrinkles. If you don’t think enough was donated, then donate to charities directly — yourself! Someone in the comments here was complaining that she’s upset that the donation amount was too small (then supplement it yourself if you feel that way), and at the same time, she was moaning that she feels bad that this is just a tax break for Amazon — well, if your donation amount was small, then that means it’s also a small incremental benefit to their tax break. Would you prefer it the donation amount be even smaller so that their tax break is less??? Or if they increased the percent of purchases that they donate, would you complain that it’s just for tax purposes? The check that your charity receives will still cash regardless of Amazon’s tax status… But there is no pleasing some people, it seems. There are a bunch of Negative Nancys here determined to be upset or offended about SOMETHING…

    Like

    1. bcole72 says:

      Many comments are missing the main point. Amazon is tricking people. The reason it is disingenuous is because it is a cheap marketing ploy, plain and simple. People are more likely to choose amazon for purchases – and to spend more – if they think they are making a difference. It’s the cheapest customer retention tactic they have, just pay 0.5% of sales to keep people loyal. My other point is that Amazon will easily establish an affiliate relationship with organizations that pay in the 6%+ range. 12x more. Organizations should invest their time in working those opportunities instead.

      Like

    2. Barbara says:

      This whole article is hog wash!!! If I’m on Amazon and go to select something for my cart a little box comes up and asks me if I want to go through Amazon.smile because I’m registered with them and I select “yes”. It doesn’t take a single thing away from me or any other charitable organization I support. You have your choice of organizations that you want to support and for this writer to suggest it’s a bad thing is way off base. It may not amount to big money in the way of donations but if we all did it, it would certainly help them and cost us absolutely nothing!

      Like

    3. AC says:

      agreed. maybe it’s not much, and I agree that they should do MORE, but it’s at least something, and I’d rather do something than nothing.

      Like

    4. My Amazon smile account says I generated $87 for my charity, my friend’s account says over $100. So, since I am the financial officer of my charity, I only see $5 go into our bank account about 4 times a year. What exactly do these numbers mean anyway- generated $87?

      Like

  2. Tom says:

    Amazon does contribute its own funds to charities. Bezos himself donated 10Million to Cancer Research (though for the world’s richest man its he’s been criticized fairly for not breaking into the top 50 largest donors list). Smile is just an ancillary program that donates a portion of its sales. Is there room for improvement? Certainly! However, it’s better than nothing. Last year Smile generated $100M to charities. Though that might be a drop in the hat for Amazon, it’s still a nice chunk of change and shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. To date this year, I have generated $110 for my charity just in the normal course of my shopping without the prices of my goods I purchase being hiked up significantly or noticeably. And, there is nothing stopping me from donating directly.
    Though Smile has its issues, our charities are still better off having it than not.

    Like

  3. Rob says:

    “If my math is correct, that means that the $12,867,013 in charitable giving amounts to 0.00012 percent of sales.”

    Actually it amounts to 0.012 percent. Your math is off by a factor of 100.

    Like

  4. Hi Marc,
    Came across this article while i was researching on Amazon smile for a blog post on my startup. The frustrations you raise in relation to Amazon Smile are part of the reason why I founded Spendow.com.
    Ecommerce generated donations are a lucrative form of raising funds if Causes and Charities have access to the right tools to harness this digital and demographic shift happening right now, accelerated by COVID.
    I wrote a blog trying to explain how Spendow solves many of the pain points with Amazon and why the additional features far exceed what Amazon Smile can do for charities.
    I hope you can gain some value from Spendow in the future. Here is the blog I wrote: https://www.spendow.com/a/charities-are-not-using-Amazon-Smile-2020

    Like

    1. Lenore Kuo says:

      There are 2 problems with your suggestion Simba. Firstly you fail to mention that Spendow is a British based charity so prices of goods are given in pounds Certainly a problem for your non-British users. . But more importantly, there are at least 5 Christian charities listed for donation but none that support any other religion. Why is that? It certainly has convinced me not to donate through you.

      Like

  5. Barry F says:

    I’ve been using Smile for months and my total contribution is only $0.27. I feel like all I’m doing is giving Amazon a tax break. I’m going to drop Smile and double my donations elsewhere.

    Like

  6. Ben Zenker says:

    FYI, AmazonSmile can now be used in their Mobile Apps:

    https://smile.amazon.com/b?node=15576745011

    Like

  7. KS says:

    Have you Smile donors ever checked with your charity if they have received the money that Amazon says you have generated for the donation? I have been checking in on my charity for the last 6 months but they have not received a penny from my purchases although Amazon show that I generated $178 last month and $50 this month. Wow, it’s a great feeling but how can you verify that Amazon is really donating to your charity? Do you have proof? A bank transfer statement, perhaps? Not even a record of all the donations you have generated!!!! Is this Amazon’s scam? I would like to get to the bottom of it.

    Like

    1. ralphweitz says:

      I was a staffer related to a 401(c)3 and annually we received a check. It wasn’t large but it was appreciated.

      Like

  8. afifkhaja says:

    I agree with what you are saying. Amazon Smile should be the company’s only option and 3% of all sales should go to charity. 0.5% of Amazon Smile purchasing is far too less.

    Like

  9. Joelle Rice says:

    All u have to do is bookmark smile.amazon.com no big deal

    Like

    1. Madear says:

      It is so darn hard to use Amazon Smile. I tried to send my daughter a gift card thru text, simple, I do it all the time, right? Well, not so simple as smile came back and told me the telephone number was inaccurate. I checked and double checked and finally sent it via email. Then, just to make sure it wasn’t her service provider blocking it, I sent another (smaller) amount in my amazon App via text. Went thru immediately. Likewise trying to manage my subscribe and save orders thru smile. The amazon app works beautifully, why can’t it be replicated for smile? My conclusion, sadly, is that Amazon isn’t really excited about donating the money.

      Like

  10. John Audette says:

    Let’s update things a bit. It’s January 2020 and total donations to charity through the Amazon Smile program are $156,109,910.00. Hardly worth mentioning huh? Too much complaining about everything in our society and way too much complaining in your poorly thought out and poorly reasoned article. Who cares what their motive is? Charity folks have to get over the sackcloth and ashes model.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marc Gunther says:

      $156m over how many years? This is a fraction of a fraction of a percent of Amazon’s profits. Most big public companies do better. Progressive companies like Salesforce give 1 percent of revenues away. Amazon remains a laggard.

      Like

    2. Amy Peach says:

      Thanks for the update. I do have to say, though, that motive does actually matter. This drives changes in consumer behavior for specific products under the Smile umbrella and, knowing Bezos, the data is collected differently and used to improve the business model. It drives more traffic to a company that had the brass cahooneys to ask for private donations for their out of work employees shortly after Bezos recovered 3 billion in sold stocks before the market tanked. Greed breeds greed. Don’t get me wrong. We live in a capitalist society so everyone (including Bezos) can do whatever they wish with their money. So as a consumer, I’d rather keep my data more private and donate without Amazon knowing about and profiting from it at the expense of small businesses and employees.

      Like

  11. GeekyGranny says:

    Well, here it is 2020 and AmazonSmile automatically changed my normal shopping home page into Smile shopping after I selected the charity of my choice which was a small organization in Flat Rock, Ohio. I think maybe they might have listened to your criticism. Maybe it’s time you update this story and turn it into something a bit more positive. I realize my $0.85 isn’t going to change too many things for this organization, but it’s better than nothing and it makes me more aware that they might need more help than the help they are getting from me through Amazon. Hopefully Amazon lets me know how much money I have raised and subliminally causes me to scold myself and directly donate to my chosen organization. Please try to contact them again and suggest they increase the amount to 1%. The world knows they can afford it.

    Like

  12. I am not going comment on Amazon Smile but I find your assessment Nature Conservancy quite silly “$6 billion in net assets” assets being the 119,000,000 acres of land and thousands of miles of rivers worldwide that is protected as in the mission of the organization and for the most part all open to public for free?

    Like

  13. neeshweb says:

    I just received an email to say that Amazon has donated £328k to my chosen charity.
    To me, that seems ok.
    Sure, it’s not a lot for Amazon, but I reckon the recipients will find good use for this money, money they’d probably not have the use of if it were not for Amazon.
    We are free to make additional donations to charity from the money we save by shopping at Amazon.

    Like

  14. aregularpsn says:

    bdeanna, I waded through all these comments, and then read yours at the end. I’m glad it was at the end because it is such a perfectly logical refreshing attitude, and a contrast to all those nay-sayers.
    To that, I would like to add that something is better than nothing, right? So to those who complain that any specific amount is not enough, then my question to you is, what is enough? See – it is up to you to choose what is enough for you, but not decide what is enough for others.

    Like

  15. Ariane says:

    My question is, how does Amazon Smile affect Amazon’s tax bill? In other words, is Amazon getting federal tax credits for the Amazon Smile money it gathers from others and then donates it in it’s own name? If so, I’d rather not participate. I’d rather stick to making my own direct donations and getting the tax credits myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jack says:

      You can set up the Amazon app to use Smile and bookmark it as such on your browsers. Easy peasy… we generate a good bit of money to our kid’s school without really having to do anything. And Amazon gets a tax write-off? Cool, everyone wins.

      Like

  16. Michael says:

    I too have gone down this rabbit hole and am very disappointed in Amazon. I would hope they will increase donations to 25% during the months of August and September on “All School Supplies” not just Eligible Items then it would make me Smile.

    Like

  17. Jerry says:

    You can set up amazon assistant which will ask you to redirect while on amazon. Just make sure to turn off all other notifications

    Like

  18. Andy U says:

    To all those who are criticizing Amazon Smile and not affiliated with a Not For Profit Charitable Organization, please realize the following:
    1 – regardless of the amount, it is not costing you any more to make the purchase you were going to make anyway.
    2 – Amazon does not have to give any percentage to any Charity.
    3 – It is getting more and more difficult to raise funds for our specific cause. Tax laws aside, there are just so many pieces of the Charitable pie that can go around.
    4 – Every dollar helps…ALSAC the fundraising arm of St Judes Children’s Hospital raises upwards of $750 MILLION per year. The average donation is $30 PER YEAR OR $2.50 PER MONTH. A little bit can go a long way.

    Thank you Amazon.

    Andy U.
    President, Empire State Special Needs Experience, Inc.

    Like

    1. Darlene says:

      Well said Andy U. I concur.

      Like

  19. Lisa C says:

    I see this differently. I’m thrilled that I can specify a tiny non-profit that I personally care about. What other foundation would allow that level of customization? I still donate monthly to them, and when I get my Amazon Smile report, I see it like a huge bonus. This is a really cool program, IMHO.

    Like

  20. Kori says:

    I run a Non-Profit and have never registered for this program. I received a letter in the mail that I have a $17.02 pending donation. What??? At the rate they give…someone spent close to $4000 and picked a non registered organizationt??? The only way I can get the money is if I give them my bank account number, routing and either a voided check or copy of my statement. Why can’t they deposit it our paypal account? I don’t feel comfortable giving them all my bank information.

    Like

    1. Ann says:

      Amazon has never liked Paypal. They have a (neglected and little-known) competing service called Amazon Pay, so Amazon refuses to integrate anything with Paypal. If you don’t want to give Amazon your primary bank account information, most banks/credit unions have a free add-on account of one type or another available, that you could set up and then provide to Amazon instead of your primary account.

      Like

  21. So thanks for telling me that giving millions of dollars to charity is a bad thing.

    I know, I know. You are saying Amazon could do more.

    But you are also treating it like a bad thing that it is giving millions of dollars.

    If you had written this as “what they have given is great, but they could do so much more, and here is why they should,” it would make for a much more compelling and interesting read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. katier19 says:

      I agree!

      Like

  22. Teresa Lou Thompson says:

    You know, this hasn’t been my experience at all. Whenever I accidentally go to Amazon, I am asked if I want to go to AmazonSmile instead. Everytime…..

    Like

  23. Mort says:

    In a different way, I see two sides too. A few moments ago, I made a purchase. Amazon.com and another site I frequently shop were the same price. I, generally, try to shop away from Walmart and amazon.com hoping to keep competition stronger. This time, with the Amazon fires in the news and Rainforest Trust being my Smile contribution, I bought from amazon.com, giving the Rainforest Trust about 35 cents. Being a believer that everything matters, I spent $70 at amazon.com, making the strongest on-line retailer stronger (stifling competition), while helping the Rainforest Trust with 35 cents that I wouldn’t have given shopping elsewhere (or added to a future contribution). Did I make the world better or worse?

    Like

  24. DB says:

    Interestingly, the people on both sides of the debate are correct.

    Those who say Amazon’s Smile program is good are correct. Amazon gives money IF the consumer uses the “smile” domain when shopping.

    Those who say Amazon’s Smile program is bad are correct. Amazon has constructed this program in such a way as to discourage the use of the “smile” domain while proclaiming that they’re doing wonderful things by having it in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. bdeanna says:

      I find your comment half-right, the top half. Just my opinion, and it’s just about your comment, NOT about YOU 😉 As a fellow human, I am happy that you took the time to comment, and even happier to have been born in the US, where freedom of speech is still a thing, despite the number of ppl thru the generations who keep trying to get rid of it

      Like

  25. Josh says:

    I just noticed that I have spent a couple thousand dollars with Amazon smile and my total donations is $3.67 yes three dollars and sixty seven cents….. that is outrageous.

    Like

    1. bdeanna says:

      Then set up and administer your own system for charitable contributions. Or just donate directly. Or here’s an idea: go to the source, talk to Amazon directly. I’ve found them to be some of the most amazing customer-support ppl I’ve ever talked to. They do care, and they do like feedback. If ppl were ticked off at you, would you prefer they just come to you directly or plaster criticisms all over the Internet?

      Like

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