Does Amazon Have an Obligation to Philanthropy?

Sorry to let the cat out of the bag so soon, but I think the straight answer to this question is no, Amazon does not have an obligation to philanthropy. However, before I go any further let me get two things clear: yes, we do have Amazon employees who volunteer at Jolkona; no, I’m not one of them.

In case you were on the moon (with Jeff Bezos’s private aerospace company perhaps), the issue of Amazon’s apparent absence in the philanthropic life of its hometown (Seattle) featured in an article belonging to a wider four-part series by the Seattle Times questioning some of the company’s practices.

View from an Amazon office building, South Lake Union, Seattle. Photo credit: Flickr, Cliff Hung

First of all, I don’t really wish to comment on the other issues regarding Amazon’s ethics of business, mainly because capitalism doesn’t strike me as a particularly ethical system in the first place. It’s a paradoxical argument, in my view. And secondly, because we’re talking about philanthropy here, not business. Which is precisely my point.

The truth is, a company has legal obligations to its shareholders, employees, customers, and…. well that’s about it.

At the heart of philanthropy is not corporate business. At the heart of philanthropy is the individual promoting the well-being of man-kind. Businesses, though, are about people, and so one could argue that it would be beneficial for them to care about the well-being of the community and people they serve.

But as we’ve seen the foundation of almost every business is a visionary individual. Likewise, the foundation of almost every non-profit is not thanks to a corporation, but to a single person with a single mission. A case in point, of course, is our own CEO, Adnan Mahmud, who started Jolkona whilst simultaneously holding down a full time product manager position at Microsoft.

Microsoft, though, is a good example of a large corporate business that does encourage philanthropic participation from its employees, offering donation matching, volunteer matching, and pro-bono software to non-profits, among other company wide philanthropic initiatives. The question, then, becomes can businesses like Amazon become serious participants in encouraging individuals towards philanthropy and they themselves as a company promoting the well-being of others? Absolutely they can. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they indeed should.

According to a study by Corporate Citizenship 85% of Americans have a more positive image of a product or a company when it supports a cause they care about. Whilst 79% of Americans say they would switch from one brand to another if the other brand is associated with a good cause. It’s hardly rocket science, but in a nutshell: a company is likely to make more money if they are seen to be connected to philanthropic causes. Tom’s shoes is an excellent example of this.

The gain for Amazon, then, in theory, should be greater profitability. But if philanthropy equates to profitability, then one might ask why has Amazon not done more for philanthropic initiatives in its own community. Clearly, though, they’ve assessed what is most profitable for them, and at the moment they seem to be saying corporate philanthropy is not the direction they want to go in. You can’t criticize them for that. Can we criticize them ethically, though? We can question them, yes. But I still don’t believe corporate businesses have obligations to philanthropy. Whether or not, though, Amazon will suffer an eventual consumerist backlash is yet to be determined.

The possibility remains that if Amazon becomes more philanthropic it could improve its own bottom line, which in turn would be a win win situation for shareholders and the community.

Does Amazon have a obligation to philanthropy? No. Might Amazon benefit from taking part in philanthropic activities? Very possibly, yes. Could Amazon have a big impact on the philanthropic community? Absolutely they could.  But again, I personally believe philanthropy is more about the individual, not corporate business. Non-profits need and value the help of corporate businesses, but we must rely on ourselves to better the world around us.

Don’t ask what Amazon can do for philanthropy. Ask what you yourself can do for philanthropy.

Be the change you want to see in the world here.

This post was written by Gabriel St. John.  He is a volunteer with Jolkona and contributes and manages the blog.  He has a Masters of Research degree in European Languages and Culture. He hails all the way from Cornwall, England, where he studied at the University of Exeter.




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One Comment

  1. Thomas Moran / April 10, 2012

    Totally agree with this post. And whether it impacts business in the future remains to be seen, and Amazon will probably adapt quickly. I do think there are a couple points to consider:

    I feel that those who can do something, should. Bezos is making the argument that doing good at business will have a positive effect on people and the world. We can argue whether that is the most effective choice or not, but he is being intentional and making a choice for his company in this regard. He sounds very similar to Carlos Slim, actually, in this. They are doing something, though many people may not agree with the approach.

    I also feel that to remain competitive in hiring the best talent for the long term, they may be missing a big opportunity. That opportunity is to actively enable their employees to make a difference in the communities they care about, and that can be a key differentiator for both employee and customer satisfaction. That is a very different approach from Amazon simply contributing cash to causes.

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