One smile fading

While some indicators in the arts are looking promising and we’re generally feeling vibes of a more hopeful arts community, not everything is moving forward, and the latest casualty is a “set it and forget” charity program that has, in theory, supported quite a few arts orgs in the Southland, across the US, and beyond.

Amazon announced yesterday that their AmazonSmile charity program will head into a planned “sunset” by February 20th. The announcement was revealed on the website, and also shared with Smile users via email, around 5pm PST. This is a short-notice decision that will save them millions, if possibly losing some tax benefits: according to their own totals, the program has provided more than $440 million to US charities (and additional millions worldwide) since its inception ten years ago. The announcement is sparking a wave of media coverage and has created strong reactions from customers. UPDATE: Here’s a savvy analysis from Seth Godin, which you may find illuminating.

On Amazon’s own @amazonsmile Instagram feed (which they probably should have taken down), the company’s activity is telling: they haven’t published anything there since late 2016, when an announcement was shared that the Smile program was hiring. It has been clear for some time that the corporate giant has long ceased active promotion of the program, and apparently whatever team-building was happening around the project is long gone. That last post has become the target of some angry customers, with more recent comments such as:

Screenshot from 1pm today

It’s clear that after raking in the bucks during the COVID shutdown, Amazon has been seeing a serious decline in activity over the past year, and in an additional announcement this week, is laying off another 18,000 workers around the globe. This apparent corporate panic isn’t a good look, and we’re very sorry to see AmazonSmile disappear, as it did seem to be a useful effort on the part of a frustrating juggernaut. Amazon tends to trigger strong love/hate/both emotions in millions of people, and this was one program that softened the overall impression for some customers, as you can see by several of the comments across social channels. While this move shouldn’t exactly be a surprise, the controversy is raging in full glory.

The numbers

But here’s the thing: if you’re imagining that your favorite charity is going to hurt as a result of this, you might want to look at the numbers for that charity, and you’ll likely see who nonprofit watchdogs have been scrutinizing the big A’s efforts for quite a few years.

If you go to (you’ll need to be logged in), the totals you see there may be a shock. Here are my numbers, supporting just one charity for the last decade, as I was an early adopter in AmazonSmile, and chose not to switch up the benefitting organization. As much as I’d love to feel virtue in that, it’s clear that Long Beach Opera has very little reason to thank me for that loyalty.

Please forgive me for blocking out the number of orders I’ve placed over those years — it’s a lot, as I’ve become quite dependent on Amazon for several reasons that are irrelevant here. But even as a diligent “Smiler” (as donations are only generated when you’re logged in through the Smile portal or the Smile app), each order has generated only pennies for LBO, and that impact can’t have helped them much. It’s important to understand that even the way these numbers are presented is deliberately confusing: $240.03 “as of November 2022” is not their total for November. It’s LBO’s November total since they signed up for the program, which is just shockingly meager. While there’s no need to criticize a cause for being part of a program like this (because every little bit does help), I’m quite confident in saying that the leaders at the time of sign-up probably expect better results than this, and since Amazon has always been cagey about just how much they’re contributing from eligible purchases, managing those expectations has been fairly impossible. So much for this experiment in consumer altruism…

There are other organizations who have been more aggressive in promoting the Smile program and encouraging fans to choose them as their beneficiary, but after keeping an eye on this program through the last couple of years, it’s clear that most charities have not been raking in the dough. In the end, funds lost due to the death of this program can likely be made up by each charity with a single, savvy fundraising campaign, with results to spare.

What to do instead

From one perspective, this is a wake-up call for all us, a reminder that convenience cannot be the primary reason we support the organizations we love. This system was nice, as it didn’t cost us any additional money and came out of what we were already spending, but it provided exceptionally little actual support to those orgs. It also didn’t provide us with any tax benefit at all, Amazon got to take the deduction. There are better ways to achieve the same goals.

  • If you really want to help, just a little planning will allow you to give a bit each year, and your cause will get more out of it. In my case, even $1/month would well exceed my previous “contributions” through this program, and yes, I can commit to that (at the very least) right now. (My own donations tend be varied and spread thinly each year, as we support a wide variety of causes in a number of different ways.)
  • You can continue to support the charity of your choice in myriad other ways, by sharing their events and posts on your own channels, encouraging people to donate by putting a button on your own website, showing up and creating a new fan by taking a friend to an event, or even hosting a small benefit for them: donate a piece of one of your own projects, host a bake sale (those still work!), or get a few people together for a house concert, featuring a couple of their in-house artists. Find a level of effort that’s sustainable, and you’ll benefit as well, with your own tax deductions, networking benefits, and general feel-goods from giving back.
  • If you’re a runner, you might want to check out Charity Miles, which contributes to health, wellness and social justice causes around the world.
  • If “set and forget” is really all you can handle right now, look for programs like Altruisto, which is a Chrome extension that allows users’ online shopping to raise funds for humanitarian efforts such as the global water crisis, animal rights, and the fight against poverty. While this isn’t an arts-focused site, their programs have the potential to do tremendous good worldwide, and with impact levels estimated at 2-6%, far higher than Amazon ever achieved. There are other options that serve various parts of the community, such as
  • If you’re a nonprofit looking for creative fundraising alternatives, one program from DonorPerfect seems to have potential, in additional to time-honored programs like grocery scrip and restaurant nights: take a look at ShopRaise, where you can set up a an online shop that you can share with others, and a portion of what they buy goes to your org. Again, the margins are far better than AmazonSmile, and while this program will be more hands-on for admins, it may be worth a look.

In truth, it’s hard to predict what will happen to programs like this. AmazonSmile is still the largest commercial charity engine of its kind, and one of the only efforts of this type that has partnered with so many arts-related organizations. Previous alternatives such as Benefit and Johnson & Johnson’s Donate a Photo have gone by the wayside. GivingAssistant, which was started in 2011 and seemed heading in a good direction, was bought out in 2022, and the charitable part of the new owner’s operations are mysterious enough that the site now appears to be a straight coupon portal — contributions unknown, if in existence. With the fall of AmazonSmile, it will be interesting to see if another corporation will step up and try to fill the gap, hopefully with a better model, or if this arm of donor relations will be remembered as a flash in the nonprofit pan.

Bottom line

Don’t give up supporting the organizations you love, even if you have to think about it a little harder. Make that support intentional, habitual and a seamless part of your life, and you can achieve “set and forget” with greater impact on all sides.

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