The Shutdown of AmazonSmile is a Step Back for America’s Non-Profit World

The end of AmazonSmile is not a measure of its impact. It is a measure of Amazon’s leadership focus on personal objectives being greater than the belief in supporting its loyal customers.

Yesterday, Amazon announced the cessation of its 10 year-old AmazonSmile program. The concept behind AmazonSmile was simple: to leverage corporate social responsibility into higher levels of customer engagement. Amazon shoppers could opt-in to the AmazonSmile program and then 0.5% of their eligible purchases were donated to the charity the shopper selected. While restricted to those who opted into a program that most where unaware existed and donating such a small percent, Amazon did donate more that $377 million globally since 2013. It should be noted that during these 10 years, Amazon’s revenues topped $1.87 trillion.

Amazon’s stated rationale for ending a program that democratized philanthropy by allowing customers the choice to donate to their favorite charity, as opposed to the C-suite executives, was: “It 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.”

This decision and statement is a shame. The cessation of AmazonSmile is a demonstration of how Amazon was not truly behind the culture of matching its values with those of its customers – a core facet of democratizing philanthropy. If Amazon was truly interested in aligning its core values with its loyal customers beliefs, then it would adjust the program instead of canceling it entirely. Instead, Amazon is retrenching to support causes its board and executives elect to focus on. This in no way is to devalue these contributions to assist extremely worthy organizations. However, the broader message is that this demonstrates a failure for Amazon to reciprocate the loyalty its customers provide to the brand. In the end, this decision is a cost savings effort in a downturn reflecting the giving choices of its executives rather than demonstrating loyalty to its customers.

A key point is that the cessation of AmazonSmile is based upon what we see as a poor performance metric. It appears that Amazon was expecting to have large donations to a small set of organizations. This though is the direct opposite of how this program was established and how any such program should be expected to perform. Every shopper is different. This means that there should be little if any expectation of massive donations to any single charity when the available pool is extremely large. AmazonSmile may indeed not demonstrate its success through highly visible impacts. Success should be measured by the proportion these dollars have to an organizations size and mission.

While small, these donations where extremely valuable. My annual AmazonSmile contribution to our synagogue was around $60.00. This was similar to several of our less than 150 member families. The total contributions, even though only a few hundred dollars enabled us to have programs that would not otherwise have been possible.
How could Amazon have adjusted AmazonSmile to achieve its desired impact?

First, it could have adjusted the expectations for the AmazonSmile donations away from the support for large-scale organizations and programs. Rather, Amazon could consider the program as one to support smaller charities starving for donations that provide valuable services under budget restrictions where even a few dollars impacts the organization. I call these the ”forgotten charities” and they include everything from the local food banks or soccer clubs to national animal rights and education programs.

Second, Amazon could have adjusted the program to be a default for every member and broaden the range of eligible purchases. At the very least, the AmazonSmile program could become a default as an added loyalty value for Amazon Prime members. This would immediately enlarge the scale of the program with greater participants and the costs offset by additional purchases, reduced cart abandonment, and membership value.

Third, AmazonSmile provided a donation of 0.50% on eligible products. We have found that the smallest of merchants are willing to provide a donation of at least 2% without reducing their other charitable activities. It is amazing to think that the largest online retailer in the world (no matter the fluctuations in its market value) can only manage to donate such a small percentage.

I imagine that the experienced leadership team at Amazon team would have figured out the aforementioned points. The choice then to cease, rather than adjust the AmazonSmile program is likely one where the leadership has decided that the support for their personal favorite causes are more important than those of their customers.