Editor's Note: For the Common Good

Amazon takes its first steps on the road to social purpose.
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On a recent sunny autumn morning, Amazon.com opened the doors of the high-security meeting center at its massive new downtown campus to 70 nonprofit organizations, which set up tables at the “Nonprofit Expo” to compete for the attention of the 1,000 or so Amazonians who showed up to explore volunteer opportunities.

Isabel Niu, who moved to Seattle 10 months ago to work on global commodity sourcing for Amazon, says she came looking for other ways to contribute to her new community. “By helping other people, we help ourselves,” says Niu. “It helps us gain inner peace.” Helping employees find volunteer opportunities is not something you would expect from Amazon, a company with a reputation for discouraging civic engagement. 

While founder/CEO Jeff Bezos’ family foundation has contributed a combined $52 million to three nonprofits — Fred Hutch, the UW and MOHAI — Bezos has long argued that his company’s contributions to society should come through its business activities, not charity.

Fair enough. Amazon’s decision to put its headquarters in the heart of Seattle has been a boon to the Seattle area economy, helping to drive down unemployment rates. And Amazon has used its tech savvy to make the lives of its customers more convenient, including helping make it easier for them to support nonprofits. Amazon Wish List, for example, lets people see what their favorite nonprofits need. They can send anything from diapers to toilet paper with a single click. Amazon Smile, which directs 0.5 percent of the purchase price of a product to a customer’s nonprofit of choice, has channeled millions of dollars in contributions to charities.

Cynics will point out that Amazon has merely found a clever way to get credit for the contributions made by its customers. And it’s true that the company is indeed a Grinch when it comes to spending its own money. While Microsoft matches $12,500 of an employee’s volunteer or cash gift to a nonprofit, Amazon, which will likely soon overtake Microsoft in total value, offers no match.

Even so, when Amazon agreed last spring to allow a former Travelodge hotel it acquired near its campus to be used by the nonprofit Mary’s Place to house 220 homeless people while the land awaits development, that single act seemed to tap a wellspring of goodwill among Amazon’s employees.

The Mary’s Place table at Amazon’s Nonprofit Expo was crowded with employees signing up to volunteer to help at the organization’s refuges for homeless women and children. Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place, says that ever since Amazon lent the use of the building last April, more than doubling its capacity to house the homeless, Amazon employees have been eagerly helping out with everything from putting on carnivals and hosting Father’s Day ice cream socials to showing up during lunch breaks to help residents with résumé writing and job interviews.

In October, Amazon pledged $10 million to help expand UW’s computer science program, adding to the $2 million already contributed. We are happy to see Amazon begin to establish the kind of philanthropic presence Microsoft and Boeing have long had. We encourage the company, for the sake of its employees, the community and the tech sector, to expand its role in improving the life of the region it calls home.

 

Final Analysis: The Sporting Life in 2017

Final Analysis: The Sporting Life in 2017

Three predictions for the coming year on a new arena, an old arena and the Mariners.
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As every first-year business student knows, a city’s economy is not considered “world class” until said city has erected at least four shrines to professional sports and these shrines remain empty and unused most days of the year. Seattle is knocking on the door of world classiness because it already has KeyArena, Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field up and running. Occasionally. Just one more monument to appease the great mass of athletic supporters and we’re there. Hallelujah!
 
It’s only a matter of time because Chris Hansen, the San Francisco rich guy who wants to build a new arena on First Avenue South and bring pro basketball and pro hockey to Seattle, is this close to getting his way. In October, Hansen revealed that he and his investors are now willing to pay the whole honkin’ bill for plopping a new arena into the SoDo neighborhood a block from Safeco Field. He still wants a piece of Occidental Way vacated and also expects some tax breaks from the city, but that’s how rich guys are. (See: Trump, Donald.) Besides, the people who believe we’re not world class until the NBA returns to Seattle are salivating over this deal because it’s the best deal we’re ever going to get
 
Of course, these same people said Hansen’s previous offer, which would have required that $200 million in public money be plowed into a new arena, was also the best deal we were ever going to get. 
 
Hansen’s decision to pay more for his arena places the sports economy clearly in the local spotlight this year. Heaven knows we could use more opportunities to pay $9 for a beer and see millionaire athletes selling Jaguars and BMWs on TV. It’s the kind of economic shot in the arm that only comes around whenever a sports league is in a coercive mood. 
 
And so, in the spirit of this January issue’s “looking ahead” theme, we offer three predictions relating to the regional economy as the Hansen arena intrigue continues to unfold.
 
Prediction 1: Hansen, who has already spent more than $120 million buying up property in the area of his proposed arena, will persuade the Port of Seattle, his arch nemesis in this melodrama, to fold up its tent and send all cargo-handling operations to Tacoma. That decision will pave the way for so many trendy bars and restaurants with names like Kale & Kumquat or Cobblestone & Wingtip that Hansen will be persuaded to create a private streetcar system to connect Pioneer Square with the burgeoning Stadium District. 
 
Prediction 2: The city-owned KeyArena, whose very future is clouded by the Hansen proposal, will announce plans to house up to 10,000 homeless persons every day. Even on days when the Seattle Storm and Seattle University basketball teams need the building, the city believes the Storm and the Redhawks could use the attendance boost, so it becomes a classic win-win.
 
Prediction 3: The Seattle Mariners, who still don’t like the arena proposal, will channel their hostility onto the field of play — and still not win the World Series. (This is called pattern-recognition analysis.) However, always mindful of improving the fan experience — because it’s not whether your team wins or loses, but whether you’re inclined not to press charges for being gouged by a vendor — the Mariners will introduce several new fan-friendly food items, plus mani/pedi stations in the pricey seats and roving loan officers to assist anyone trying to finance the purchase of hot dogs and sodas for a family of four. 
 
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at john.levesque@tigeroak.com.