Call Me Contrarian, But I Think It Was Time For Amazon To End Smile


I’ve chronicled the phenomenon of point-of-sale fundraising for more than a decade as publisher of the Charity Checkout Champions report because I believe that, done right, such online and in-store programs can generate tremendous positive social impact while strengthening bonds with consumers and employees.

So yesterday I took special notice when Amazon announced that on February 20, 2023 they’ll shutter the 10-year-old AmazonSmile program which has raised over $400 million for charities.

Social media is full of people harshly criticizing the demise of this program, but I’m not one of them. I always thought AmazonSmile was a poorly conceived initiative, was a bad fit with Amazon’s non-transparent communication culture and, because it was so broad ended up wasting a tremendous amount of time for many charities with very meager fundraising results.

The basic program mechanics were that consumers could go onto and select virtually any registered 501 (c) (3) organization to support. Then — if they remembered to go to when shopping (a big but) — 0.5% of their purchases would be donated to that charity.

A half-of-one percent of is a tiny percentage (50 cents on a $100 purchase.) If all Amazon purchases counted toward the donation then one could argue that the company’s massive volume would generate substantial revenue for a lot of charities — even small ones. But, human nature being what it is, requiring consumers to shop on the AmazonSmile site drastically reduced qualifying purchases. (To my knowledge Amazon didn’t release what percentage of shoppers used AmazonSmile.)

Don’t get me wrong. There are groups that successfully enlisted a lot of supporters to participate in this program. Amazon, widely known to be very tight with information, does not provide a way to easily look up how much leading charities have raised. Looking at Twitter, however, I found reports from people who shared how much their selected charity had generated over the last decade. Some examples: World Wildlife Fund: nearly $4.9 million. Cancer Research UK: $1.8 million. Dana-Farber Cancer Research Fund: $153,000.

But as Adam Clevenger, a longtime British expert on corporate social impact that I admire put it on Twitter: “Can we just be honest? Most programs spent more promoting #AmazonSmile than they actually received from Amazon Smile.”

That was certainly my experience. My AmazonSmile account shows that I made 50 purchases over the last 10 years that generated a grand total of $10.63 to my selected charity. (I failed to make AmazonSmile my default gateway onto Amazon — shame on me!) And even though this small local nonprofit dedicated staff time to share all sorts of communications about the program over the years, it generated a grand total of $240 in donations as of November 2022. To my mind, the juice was not worth the squeeze for that charity. I’m sure that was the case for many others.

And Amazon did so little to promote this program to consumers that they littled benefitted from what could have been the program’s strength: improving the brand’s image as a company that cared.

It’s up for debate whether the shutdown is just a cost-saving measure at a time when Amazon has laid off thousands or a more thought-out strategic move to create stronger social impact programming. In its announcement, Amazon indicates it is the latter:

“In 2013, we launched AmazonSmile to make it easier for customers to support their favorite charities. However, after almost a decade, the program has not grown to create the impact that we had originally hoped. With so many eligible organizations—more than 1 million globally—our ability to have an impact was often spread too thin….

“We will continue to pursue and invest in other areas where we’ve seen we can make meaningful change—from building affordable housing to providing access to computer science education for students in underserved communities to using our logistics infrastructure and technology to assist broad communities impacted by natural disasters.”

As much as I’ve criticized this initiative, I want to point out that I admire that as part program’s termination, Amazon announced that to ease the pain of the transition it would be donating to participating charities one quarter of what they earned from AmazonSmile in 2022.

Amazon is such a massive enterprise — over half a trillion dollars in revenue in 2022 — that I hope they will be successful going forward in creating stronger, meaningful programs that pay social and financial dividends. The world needs their help!

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