Congregants of Harris Creek Community Church in East Baltimore pose for a photo. The church is one of the local Baltimore groups that has received donations through the Amazon Smile program. Photo courtesy of Harris Creek Community Church.

Amazon Smile, the charitable platform that paid out a half-of-one-percent donation on top of shoppers’ Amazon purchases to the charity of their choice, will be ceasing operation on Feb. 20, and some Baltimore beneficiaries are not happy.

Amazon said in a press release that, with now over one million charities listed on its recipient list, the corporation’s ability to have an impact was “being spread too thin.” In the almost 10 years since its start in 2013, Amazon Smile states it has raised $400 million for U.S. charities.

That makes the average benefit to each local charity just $400 over the entirety of over nine years of donating. Some organizations have received much more. St. Jude Hospital, located in California, reported it had been the first to accumulate $10 million in donations from Amazon Smile by 2020.

It is not what Amazon was hoping for, but local organizations were happy to have it nonetheless.

Hansoo Jin is pastor of Harris Creek Community Church in East Baltimore. The church is a Christian endeavor that works to bring the gospel and a helping hand to some of the city’s more troubled areas.

“It helps us a little bit,” Jin said of Amazon Smile. “The disbursement we get pays for a small amount of supplies. The amount has never been big enough where it’s caused a huge impact. But it’s been helpful in causing small ripples. In this part of Baltimore there weren’t many long-standing avenues for support or donations coming into the community, so any small amount of support helps and is greatly appreciated.”

“We’re sad to see even the little amount that we got from them go,” he said.

Amazon stated in the press release it will still offer individual organizations “wish-lists” where charities and causes can solicit donations of Amazon-listed products. It will give each of the one million charities on its recipient list one last quarterly disbursement, based on their 2022 donation amount.

But the company said it wants to focus on areas it can have more impact, with potentially fewer but bigger donations. The corporation stated its areas of interest were housing for under-served populations, computer science education, food bank partnerships, disaster relief, and community giving. It stated in the release, it expects to be providing $2 billion in affordable housing around the nation, and claims it has already raised the availability of affordable housing in Alexandria, Virginia and Bellevue, Washington by at least 20 percent.

The new strategy for charity at Amazon may be an opportunity for the corporate giant to put bigger eggs in a smaller basket. It frees the company to perhaps more easily pursue its own specific charity goals, as well as garner more attention for its charitable work.

But Jin takes the change with a grain of salt. The change in strategy takes donation power away from the millions of Amazon consumers, and puts it squarely back in the lap of CEO Andy Jassy and, by proxy, founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos. It is a move away from the egalitarian, open-sourced roots of the internet.

“You can’t really trust any corporation that has as its bottom line financial considerations,” Jin said. “I’m still disappointed.”

The Baltimorean also spoke to the general consolidation of internet influence that has occurred for large corporations in the beginning of the 21st century.

“I believe that everyone is messed up, including me,” Jin explained. “So the idea of anyone, Christian or not, having consolidated power is scary. I don’t think I should be in Jeff Bezos’ shoes. I don’t think anyone should be in Jeff Bezos’ shoes.”

The Pride of Baltimore II clipper ship sails. The Pride of Baltimore is one of the local Baltimore groups that has received donations through the Amazon Smile program. Photo courtesy of Pride of Baltimore.

Other local organizations said, while the loss of Amazon Smile was sudden, it isn’t particularly impactful. Erica Denner, assistant director of Pride of Baltimore–a maritime history education organization that sails a clipper ship in Baltimore–was frank about their numbers.

“In 2022 we got $115,” she said. ”In 2021 we got $155, and in 2020, $58. It was not a large amount. Every penny counts. I did see on some Facebook groups that some nonprofit groups did get thousands of dollars a year.”

She said all the donations the organization receives goes toward general operating funds, which include the ship operation and maintenance and staff payroll.

“I don’t believe anyone promotes it (Amazon Smile) much because it was such a small percentage–point five percent.

She commended the platform because it was low maintenance, but acknowledged serious donation limitations.

“It was not a major portion of our fundraising program,” she said.

Jamiii Leadership Incorporated is a nonprofit that serves Northwest Baltimore with community services including education and workforce development needs. The nonprofit just started using Amazon Smile last year.

“We were kind of disappointed,” said Jamii’s executive director, Latania Chisholm. “We had a pretty decent amount of family members and community organizations helping us (through Amazon Smile), not including those we don’t know of.”

Chisholm said they had already received two disbursements of around $100. But she is confident that donors will be able to pivot to supplying students via Amazon’s wish-list option.

Still she will miss the democratic nature of the Amazon Smile system.

“I liked that the community got to make the decision,” she said. “A lot of times you don’t have a voice.”

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1 Comment

  1. I don’t think it’s right that Amazon chooses to stop the Amazon smile because then the companies or organizations that we help they can use the money where it’s needed the most and instead of a wish list. I would rather make a purchase and have a percentage go to an organization instead of picking from the wish list to provide them. That’s not fair that money goes right back to the CEO. That’s being very selfish and almost makes me want to quit using Amazon all together and I’ll shop someplace else.

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