If you use Amazon.com or support any local nonprofits, you know the call to action: use AmazonSmile when you shop online and a portion of your proceeds are automatically donated to the nonprofit of your choice. Easy, right?
Amazon describes its AmazonSmile program as “a simple way for you to support your favorite charitable organization every time you shop,” and gives 0.5% of the purchase price of eligible products to the nonprofit selected by Amazon users. The program is heavily touted by start-up and small nonprofits as an easy way to support their work, a win-win for donors, nonprofits, and Amazon itself.
But with a notoriously low pay-out, no way to track or access donor information, and an uncomfortable tie to Amazon’s growing labor rights concerns, is the program worth it?
The Real Cost of AmazonSmile
AmazonSmile certainly does a good job of painting an appealingly philanthropic picture, and the program is vociferously defended by small nonprofits that tout the benefits to their organization and their donors. But it’s important to remember that the program offers one half of one penny as payment for every dollar paid to them. To put it another way, if your donors spend $50,000 through AmazonSmile, you’ll get a check for $250. And for me, the real cost of that $250 is not worth the payout.
To start, not all purchases through Amazon are eligible for the program. Purchases must be made through smile.amazon.com, and not all products are included in the program, and it wasn’t until this year that AmazonSmile could be used in the mobile app on iPhones (although Android users could toggle to the program for years.)
And, while the AmazonSmile program has “earned Amazon invaluable organic exposure from nonprofits across social media” even the most avid Amazon user will have only pennies of their purchase redirected to charity.
To date, I’ve generated a whopping $6.74 in support for the nonprofit I support (out of a total $1,345.55 disbursed to them through AmazonSmile) and I’ve placed an embarrassing 76 Amazon orders in 2020 alone. In comparison, I held a birthday fundraiser and asked family and friends to make a small gift in lieu of a birthday present. That raised more than $400 – more than 50 times my AmazonSmile contribution!
Slacktivism, Not Fundraising
One of the top concerns I hear as a nonprofit coach is that start-ups and small nonprofits don’t feel like they’re talking to their donors enough. Cultivation outreach is rare, and thank-you’s almost nonexistent. We simply aren’t talking to our donors about our work and impact enough.
So why muddy the waters by asking them to think about AmazonSmile? Supporters who use AmazonSmile are not actually donating to your organization, but it’s too easy for donors and nonprofits to see the program as a critical fundraising program (because that’s what we tell them in every email blast and social media post) when the reality is that it is unpredictable and unlikely to yield much money at all.
While the $250 check that an organization might receive certainly will have an impact, it can also have an undue toll on your donor base. AmazonSmile does not build relationships with donors, and an Amazon shopper isn’t actually making a gift to your organization (Amazon is!), but the shopper still feels like they’ve donated. It’s far too easy for potential donors to purchase a product, assume that they’re made a donation to your organization, and move on with their lives.
I’d much rather start-up and small nonprofits find another way to raise that $250. Instead of plugging AmazonSmile, launch a monthly giving program, use a tip jar, or just focus on cultivation and stewardship. And if you feel like your donors won’t engage in those efforts, go back to fundraising basics and figure out why, so you can build long-term donor relationships that will yield far more than $250.
Compromising Core Values for Cash
I’ve admitted I shop on Amazon far more than I’d like to admit, particularly during the pandemic (during which time the company doubled its profit!), but I view AmazonSmile as antithetical to the mission and core values of the very organizations I see heavily promoting the program.
Amazon has consistently come under fire for questionable labor practices, tax avoidance, and the role the tech giant has played in shuttering local businesses, indie bookstores, and mom and pop shops. And, even as Amazon committed to helping small businesses in 2019, a growing number of marketplace sellers have questioned the company’s use of their data and the company has been accused of using this data to undercut the very small businesses they claim to support.
Why should that matter to your nonprofit? Well, while that $250 check you receive (or the measly $6.74 I raised this year) might be an immediate relief to a cash-strapped nonprofit, that $250 represents $50,000 not invested in your local community. “Amazon isn’t the company sponsoring your little league team,” said a friend when discussing the program, and that rang very, very true. As nonprofits, we are all too quick to approach our local businesses for sponsorships, silent auctions, and partnerships, yet are we failing to give back to them by asking our supporters to shop on Amazon Smile instead of at their stores? For me, the cost of that $250 is far too high.
So, what can you do instead? Start by focusing on fundraising best practices. Ask your supporters for what you want and need – direct donations, not slacktivism. While that may take you more time and energy, the payout will likely be far more than $250.
Want to read more content from Catherine and her team at Giant Squid Group? For more intriguing articles and expert advice on fundraising and nonprofit strategy, visit their full blog here.