Amazon Smile. Is it a good fit for your nonprofit?

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A few weeks ago, a former client asked me to help make a few updates to their website. It had been over three years since I’d helped them create the site, and one of the first things I noticed when they brought me back was a prominent promotion for Amazon Smile on their homepage. I’ve participated in Amazon’s Smile program as a customer more or less since its debut in 2013, and have had a handful of clients either mention that they were considering it, or ask if I thought they should. As always, my advice has been to estimate whether a positive return appears possible and then to test, test, test. Seeing it featured so prominently on this site, however, led me to want to take a closer look.

In case you’re not familiar with the program, it’s a way for Amazon customers to direct .5% (yes, one half of one percent) of their qualified purchases toward the charitable organization of their choice.

Obviously .5% isn’t much. It takes $1,000 in qualified purchases to accrue $5 in donations. And Amazon has come in for criticism: some observers point out that it reaps the tax breaks for the donations, while others worry that the program could actually lower donations to the nonprofits in question, since people will feel like they already gave while shopping. And then there’s the decision of whether to promote a behemoth retailer that many feel unfairly drives smaller local businesses to close.

On the other hand, Amazon has something like a kajillion customers, and odds are that more than a few of your community members are among them. Sometimes my own front door looks like an Amazon fulfilment center, so if any of your supporters are like us, those $5 checks could add up–without a heavy lift on your part.

So Does It Work?

Curious how the program is working for this particular client, I asked about their experience and any receipts. I received mixed reviews. Among them, they reported $14 from the previous quarter and disappointment that Amazon doesn’t share information about who made the purchases that led to the donations.

While I get the concern with not knowing who made the gift (and also get why shoppers might not want this information disclosed), the amount of money seemed like a good start. I’ve worked on several smaller annual fund campaigns where we’ve been perfectly happy with a recurring $15 quarterly donation, assuming it didn’t require much effort to earn and maintain. So I started to wonder how much effort it takes to register for the program and begin collecting checks.

It turns out, not much. I’ve confirmed with a few other folks who’ve done it, and the registration process is reportedly simple. Amazon provides a few tools to help you promote the program on your website, emails, and social media (offline marketing channels are not allowed, and some state restrictions apply).

So then I got to thinking about the effort required to continue promoting it, and started poking around a little. I made a somewhat random selection of 35 US-based current and former clients as well as organizations represented by subscribers to our blog, and viewed their websites for evidence of the program. Here’s what I found.

Of the 35 organizations I looked at:

  • 29 were available via Amazon’s program page
  • 3 of those promote the program on their homepage
  • 1 promotes it on another page on their website

Approximately 83% of surveyed organizations were eligible via the Smile program, but of those only about 1% promote the opportunity on their website.

Thinking that a few organizations likely opt to promote the opportunity via social media, newsletters, or blog posts instead of on their site, I asked a few of the eligible organizations whether they promote Smile other than on their website. Of those queried, none promote it elsewhere, but each said, “We probably should”, or something similar.

Should You Participate?

If the most you can hope to raise through the program is $5 to $15 a quarter, then there are likely better things to do with your time. If you think your community can support something more and you won’t have to put much effort into it, or if your fundraising motto is “we’ll take every penny we can get”, then it may be worth considering.

This program should not take priority over developing relationships with known donors and prospective donors, but it wouldn’t hurt to at least notify your donors, board, staff, and others in your community of the chance to support your work with purchases they’re already making.

That said, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • If for some reason promoting Amazon over smaller local businesses conflicts with your mission or philosophy, then obviously think twice about promoting the opportunity.
  • Like any promotion, if managing it takes more time than it’s worth, don’t do it.
  • If you're concerned that Amazon’s graphics will look ugly or be a distraction on your site (I would be too!), it can be done tastefully as a text link or limited to other online channels.
  • Finally, if you’re concerned about the effects of social exchange theory on other forms of giving, or in other words, that people may not make regular donations because they’ve already “given” via Amazon, then don’t do it or consider limiting promotions to internal community members only.

At the end of the day, the Amazon Smile program and other programs that share a sliver of retail profits with nonprofit organizations aren’t going to become your biggest source of funding. But given how simple it is to set up and given the undeniable reality that Amazon has millions of existing customers, it couldn’t hurt to explore whether this is a fit for your organization.

Image Credit: Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion

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