Editor's Note: For the Common Good

Amazon takes its first steps on the road to social purpose.

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.


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