Shopping for a Cause: Is AmazonSmile an Effective Tool for Nonprofit Fundraising?

The evolution of our cyberspace-driven world has drastically changed the way most non-profits now solicit and garner operating capital. Gone (mostly) are the days when cause-centered organizations stuffed flyers into envelopes and received a check back in the snail mail or reaped the benefits of plastic jars and point-of-sale locations. Indeed, today millions of mouse clicks translate into millions of dollars and cents put into the coffers of non-profit groups.


For the past several years, mega online retailer Amazon has upped the ante a bit, working off of a tried-and-true fundraising method to help people be more charitable. In the vein of a “shopping with friends” event—where an organization partners with a variety of usually local retailers for a day or weekend where a percentage of every purchase made is donated to said charity—the company has launched AmazonSmile (backed by the AmazonSmile Foundation), a simple and automatic way for users of the site to support their charitable organization of choice every time they shop and buy.

Amazon is promising that the new feature will offer the same low prices and wide array of “shopping experiences” as the standard Amazon site, but with a portion of purchase prices—0.5 percent—going to one of nearly a million charities chosen by the shopper. The service is free, and shoppers will recognize which merchandise gets a donation with “Eligible for AmazonSmile donation” marked on their product detail pages. It’s easy to navigate—you use your same accounts on both Amazon and AmazonSmile—and all your preference settings are identical. You can even change the charity you donate to whenever you want, and the change will be registered instantly.

It’s certainly a wonderful way to conveniently donate to charities for people who relish online shopping, but the real question is this: will it truly be an effective fundraising tool for non-profits or is Amazon itself the real winner with the program? The answer is this: it depends on what fundraising professional or philanthropy guru you ask. Here are some key points to consider before you sign up your charity on AmazonSmile.

  • Organizations can’t just enlist on the site and expect lots of dollars to start rolling in. In fact, charities need to constantly promote the fact that they’re on the service and remind their regular and new donors to change their shopping and buying habits, which can be difficult and a drain on marketing resources.
  • Amazon gets free advertising—with little or no effort on the corporation’s part—from those non-profits that push their supporter base to shop on the site. Essentially, it’s their brand—Amazon’s—that gets tremendous promotion.
  • It’s no great surprise that millions and millions of people shop on Amazon, so non-profits have a built-in portal for garnering donations rather than having to spend lots of time pushing events-based fundraising or social media “click and give” efforts. So in that sense, at least, it’s a somewhat easy way to get at least a few dollars flowing in here and there.
  • When it comes to the amount of dollars charities actually receive, it may not seem worth the effort. After all, even for those people who shop heavily on the site, 0.5 percent isn’t a lot. One cyber-marketing expert reviewed his purchases for an entire year and discovered his charity received only a couple of bucks. However, he admits that the money they did receive was more than he would have given them had they not been on AmazonSmile, so there’s a bit of paradox to consider here.
  • Lastly, Amazon, as a giant in the online shopping world, doesn’t have the best track record in terms of treating their employees well and in a conscience manner—think long hours in sweltering warehouses, subpar benefits and low wages—or of being a responsible corporate tax payer, and the national media has been quick to point this out. So by essentially allying with them they’re sending a message to the public and supporters, and that message may not be one a particular non-profit really wishes to advertise.

In the end and despite the obvious pros and cons, most online fundraising professionals seem to agree that it’s worth it for non-profits to at least give AmazonSmile a try as it’s relatively painless and, as with so many things, they can get out of it what they put into it. And an organization can always opt-out if they find that the amount of effort vastly outweighs the benefits in dollars and cents earned.

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