The New Scrooge
Are there lemonade stands that devote more to charity than Amazon.com?
With Amazon.com's recent announcement of profits of $645 million on revenues of $19.17 billion last year, the company isn't just surviving the recession—it's pounding its rivals into the dust. So it's cakes and ale all around for charitable beneficiaries of the Seattle giant's largesse, right?
Sure—if they're buying.
While Amazon.com is famously cheap in its prices, it's also become infamously cheap to the community it lives in. The tacit silence over Amazon's stinginess was first broken in a 2007 complaint on a Publishers Weekly blog by a rival Seattle bricks-and-mortar bookseller. When Paul Constant, books editor at the Seattle alt-weekly the Stranger, followed up on the post last year, he hit a stone wall: "[Amazon.com] has refused to return repeated e-mails and calls from The Stranger about the company's seemingly nonexistent contributions to the Seattle arts scene," he wrote at the time. "Internet searches for any sign of philanthropy on behalf of the company prove fruitless."
Wait … no corporate giving at all? None?
Amazon.com's own account hardly inspires confidence. True, their Giving page cites employee efforts, and the Bezos family maintains its own comparatively modest foundation. The company has also allowed other people's donation money—and page views—to course through its site. But the only listed donations by Amazon.com itself are a single Nonprofit Innovation Award that has not been given since 2005, and the delivery after "recent flooding in Southeast Kansas, [of] more than 10 pallets of household goods ... to local Red Cross shelters in Coffeyville, Kansas." What they don't note is that "recent" is July 2007—and, as Amazon.com is the largest employer in Coffeyville, that their own employees may have been among those benefiting from the goods.
Recent Amazon.com SEC filings and annual reports make no mention of grants, charitable donations, local arts support, or any other civic-minded efforts by the online giant. By contrast, their rival Barnes & Noble actually notes community relations in its annual reports and maintains a Sponsorships and Charitable Donations page complete with application instructions. For that matter, most multibillion-dollar corporations pay at least some lip service to doing good—especially when the company itself is doing great.
Puzzled, I e-mailed Patty Smith, Amazon.com's director of corporate communications. Yes, she said, she'd like to hear Slate's questions. But when asked specifically about the extent of Amazon.com's charitable contributions—indeed, for any comment at all on a corporate policy regarding philanthropy—the company's response was silence. Repeated calls and e-mails have since gone unreturned.
Two perfectly reasonable explanations come to mind for this. The first is that Amazon.com is exceedingly discreet—that it changes into superhero tights in a phone booth, then rockets off to provide clean water to poor villages, dole out blankets to shivering orphans, and phone in whopping anonymous grants during Car Talk pledge drives.
The other is that there are lemonade stands that donate more to charity than Amazon.com does.
But should this matter to consumers?
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.