Amazon.com is among the most progressive companies when it comes to sexual-orientation equality, offering benefits to same-sex partners of its employees and covering transgender surgical procedures.
At the same time, though, Amazon also gives money to groups seeking to undermine lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality.
It’s a paradox the company created when it debuted AmazonSmile a year ago. That’s the online retailer’s philanthropic program that donates 0.5 percent of every purchase through the program to the charity of a shopper’s choice.
Customers can choose from nearly a million nonprofits, including groups that oppose same-sex marriage such as the National Organization For Marriage Education Fund and Focus on the Family, as well as the Boy Scouts of America, which bans openly gay adult leaders.
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“There is clearly a conflict between Amazon’s values and the program,” said Seth Adam, a spokesman for GLAAD, which advocates on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “They are supporting anti-gay discrimination.”
AmazonSmile was never supposed to be a lightning rod. The company, which has faced criticism in the past for relatively meager corporate giving, set up AmazonSmile in October 2013 to give its millions of U.S. customers an easy way to support their favorite charities.
The company is trying to replicate the broad product selection of its website, offering shoppers the widest possible variety of nonprofits to designate for Amazon’s giving. The choices range from the smallest local animal shelter to the giant United Way organization.
“Amazon prides itself on being customer-centric,” AmazonSmile general manager Ian McAllister said. “We’ve structured it to put customers in control, and we feel good about that decision.”
By letting customers choose, Amazon avoids taking sides. The overwhelming majority of the nonprofits AmazonSmile supports are apolitical. But shoppers can designate the NRA Foundation, which supports “organizations and programs that ensure the continuation of our proud shooting and hunting heritage,” according to the organization’s website. Or they can direct gifts to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a group that pledges to use “the courts to reduce gun violence.”
AmazonSmile customers can choose the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which works to ensure access to reproductive health-care services, including abortion, or anti-abortion groups such as the Oregon Right To Life Education Foundation.
“We are really pleased about how easy it is for pro-lifers to donate,” said Liberty Pike, a spokeswoman for Oregon Right to Life, whose education foundation has received AmazonSmile money.
List company uses
There are very few limits on the nonprofits that customers can choose. According to the terms of AmazonSmile’s Participation Agreement, Amazon says it won’t give to organizations that “support, encourage, or promote intolerance, discrimination or discriminatory practices based on race, sex, religion, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, or age.”
So how then do groups that discriminate against the LGBT community get Amazon money? Amazon says it uses the Southern Poverty Law Center’s survey of hate groups to “determine if certain organizations are ineligible to participate.” (AmazonSmile also denies eligibility to nonprofits on a list compiled by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury Department division that tracks groups suspected of ties to terrorism.)
But Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the hate-group list is not a catchall for every group that discriminates. It was created to help law enforcement track extremist groups — those that espouse violence, for example. The list also serves as a reminder to the public of dangerous groups that operate in the United States.
But Beirich said the list was never intended to help philanthropies screen out discriminatory groups for their giving.
Amazon is using the Southern Poverty Law Center hate list as a shield to absolve it of making decisions about excluding nonprofits, GLAAD’s Adam said.
“They’re punting,” Adam said.
It’s clear Amazon has no interest in weeding out specific groups. It’s much easier for the company to automate the process, relying on a published list produced by an independent organization.
And if Amazon really wanted to disqualify groups that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, it might also have to ban religious organizations that bar gays and lesbians from employment.
But the company’s AmazonSmile policy runs the risk of alienating the LGBT community, which has historically embraced the company. Amazon’s workplace policies have helped the company earn a high score on the Corporate Equality Index, a rating system set up by the LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.
Next year, though, the group will add new criteria to track corporate giving. The Human Rights Campaign wants to hold companies to account for contributions “to organizations that actively work to undermine LGBT equality and/or discriminate against the community,” said Deena Fidas, the head of the HRC Foundation’s Workplace Equality Program.
There are other motives for supporting such a wide variety of nonprofits. Cause marketing, the term for tying sales to charitable giving, generates revenue. In the case of AmazonSmile, 99.5 percent of every sale goes to Amazon.
According to a 2012 study by professors at North Carolina State University and the University of South Carolina, allowing shoppers to pick charities that match their beliefs increases the likelihood that they’ll buy products. The study also found that shoppers are willing to pay more for products from retailers offering a selection of causes than from retailers not offering choice.
“Every retailer wants engagement with their consumers and the best way to get engagement is to hit them where they care, and that’s with charities,” said Mara Einstein, a Queens College professor and author of “Compassion, Inc.”
Plenty of help
There’s little doubt that AmazonSmile is helping plenty of nonprofits. Though the company won’t offer specifics, McAllister said the program donated “millions of dollars” in the third quarter alone. The company will have to disclose its total giving next year, when it files its tax return. In the two months that AmazonSmile collected and distributed funds in 2013, it gave out $341,558, according to its tax filing.
Among the biggest AmazonSmile beneficiaries is Code.org, the Seattle-based computer-science education advocacy group backed by such industry leaders as Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Mark Zuckerberg. Code.org, which launched last year, has received $70,000 from AmazonSmile.
“Given that we’re very young, we’re very happy with that,” said Michelle Page, the group’s director of finance and administration.
Code.org’s donations swelled, no doubt, from being listed for a few months among the five “Spotlight Charities” that AmazonSmile highlights when shoppers choose where to direct funds.
1 million nonprofits
Because AmazonSmile lets shoppers select from nearly 1 million nonprofits, the giving is spread broadly. What’s more, consumers have to spend $1,000 on AmazonSmile for their charity of choice to get $5. That’s why many of the nonprofits on AmazonSmile have taken in far less money than Code.org’s haul.
Take the Puget Sound Navy Museum Foundation, which supports the Bremerton naval-heritage museum. The group has received $18.32 from AmazonSmile, after spending $126.09 advertising it with bookmarks and fliers. The museum believes it will one day develop into meaningful funding.
“Every little bit helps and we are not disappointed,” said George Bieda, the foundation’s president. “We are very grateful to Amazon for doing this.”
Tails of Joy, a Los Angeles group that supports pet-rescue organizations, has taken in about $125. The group’s founder, comedian Elayne Boosler, said she’s happy to get the quarterly contribution. But she’d like more transparency from the program so she can plan her budget and thank shoppers who designated Tails of Joy for contributions.
“That said, we are extremely, extremely grateful to Amazon for this program,” Boosler said. “Like sex, even an imperfect donation is a good donation.”
Jay Greene: 206-464-2231 or email@example.com. Twitter @greene