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Will the third sector miss Amazon Smile?

The global brand recently announced that it was withdrawing its Amazon Smile service. An underrated and often overlooked fundraising tool, the platform was similar to other ‘donate as you buy’ initiatives, such as Give as You Live, Charity Checkout, etc.

The premise of these fundraising platforms is for consumers to donate to their chosen charity whilst they do their weekly or monthly shopping. Some, such as Give as You Live, sit on your web browser, ready to jump into action when you make a qualifying purchase. Amazon Smile remained within its own platform and simply made a significant number of its product lines part of the initiative; if one of these was bought, Amazon would donate 0.5% of the purchase price to the consumer’s charity of choice (providing the organisation was registered on the platform).

0.5% may not sound much, but if you were a regular, conscious shopper who spent a decent amount of money via Amazon Smile, the pennies could add up. The best part of the model is that charities didn’t have to do anything for the donations they received, other than maybe promoting the fact that they were registered with Amazon Smile.

Having spent many years in the third sector (or the VCSE sector, as it now likes to be known), I’m aware of these kinds of websites and platforms. The general public clearly aren’t as informed, and activity on these fundraising platforms is limited. Maybe this is the reason why Amazon has pulled the plug on its version. The company has said that it instead wishes to apportion any donations it makes to charities itself, rather than putting the choice in consumers’ hands.

That they will continue to support good causes may sound great to Amazon’s shareholders, but it’s a blow to smaller charities whose donations received via the Smile programme made up a significant part of their income. Though supporters of these charities can still help their favourite good causes by purchasing items the organisation may ask for on an Amazon wish list, these will likely require a larger contribution from consumers to buy the product outright than the small percentage they would have otherwise donated from Amazon’s coffers.

On paper, such fundraising tools and platforms are a fantastic idea—a win/win for all parties. In practice, however, and even with these tools installed on my browser, it’s easy to forget to click on them when making an online purchase. And when you do use such as Give as You Live to buy a qualifying item, the extra steps involved (to do with cookies and tracing purchases) can be a bit of a pain. For an ardent but infrequent consumer, these elements may not prove much of a hassle, but if you’re someone who shops on the web a lot, it’s sometimes easier to bypass the donation tool and simply click directly on the relevant website/checkout instead. After all, the most profitable methods of donation are those that are the simplest and quickest to apply/get behind.

Now that there is one less ‘donate whilst you shop’ platform, what does this mean for similar fundraising companies? I’d imagine that committed donors will simply switch to one of the other tools/platforms. However, I also think that some consumers who gave to charity in this manner will simply stop donating altogether. At a time when small charities in particular (99% of the charity sector in the UK is classed as such) are fighting to keep their heads above water, and to paraphrase a well-known supermarket brand, every little helps. These platforms provide a valuable service, especially at a time when donations are down across the board, due to a drop in most people’s disposable income. Providing them with a way to donate money to their favourite charity without it impacting their budget could prove valuable, if such initiatives were marketed properly; however, this could be part of the reason Amazon has taken action against its Smile platform—if few people know about it, few people will use it.

Yes, as mentioned, via an Amazon wish list, a charity could still appeal to potential donors for the things it needs, such as a new office printer, a toilet brush or coffee mugs. The best thing about donations made via Amazon Smile, however, is that they were unrestricted. The charity could spend the money on anything—which includes things that aren’t listed on Amazon, such as branded leaflets, social media spend, or the maintenance of their headquarters.

Amazon is a huge company worth over a trillion dollars. It surprises me that it’s even bothered to withdraw its Smile programme—the money it donates to charities via this platform must be less than spare change for Bezos and his shareholders. Yet their decision will affect so many good causes—and, ultimately, beneficiaries—across the UK.


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