A Reason to Smile?

Maarten van den Heuvel • Unsplash

By Katy Crane

Have you been to your parish’s website lately and noticed a familiar corporate logo? The upturned arrow we look forward to seeing on our front porches and doorsteps has been appearing on many Donate pages on church websites for years now. Church use of AmazonSmile, the philanthropic arm of Amazon Inc., now seems as ubiquitous as UPS trucks in the weeks before Christmas. Churches have received donations from this program, but some express concerns about the automated nature of this kind of giving, and the lack of incarnational involvement in online shopping.

AmazonSmile launched in 2013 to offer Amazon customers a chance to help their favorite charities through smile.amazon.com. Through Smile purchases, Amazon will donate 0.5 percent of eligible item prices to a nonprofit organization of your choice. Many of America’s largest charities are registered recipients, such as the Red Cross and United Way, but a great many churches — Episcopal, Methodist, Orthodox, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic — are registered, too.

A web search reveals Episcopal participants using Smile in a variety of ways. On its website, the Diocese of Alabama directs members to Smile to help with diocesan ministry.

The Diocese of Ohio recently began using Smile to support the bishop’s annual appeal. “At AmazonSmile you’ll find the same low Amazon prices, selection and convenient shopping, plus Amazon will donate a portion of your purchase price to The Bishop’s Annual Appeal,” Ohio’s website says.

Northern California suggests helping Camp Noel Porter: “AmazonSmile will automatically give CNP extra funds to support programs here at camp when you log in.” Montana sends parishioners to Episcopal Relief & Development’s Smile page, directing donations to that national ministry. Countless parishes participate, as well.

How effective is AmazonSmile as a funding stream for such organizations? For geographically distributed entities serving thousands of members, Smile could be an effective, easy way to support a common concern. According to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, the average Amazon shopper spends about $700 a year — Prime members, who receive free shipping, spend around $1,300. Thus, a non-Prime shopper might produce about $3.50 for a parish or mission annually. A diocese of about 10,000 baptized members could, according to the averages, see a Smile check for more than $35,000 in any given year. Such numbers suggest a sizable donation to mission and ministry is possible.

Smaller organizations like parishes and missions would be looking at smaller possible returns. For example, a parish of 300 Prime shoppers would stretch to produce $2,000 per year in Smile donations, though actual numbers suggest that Smile is not yet that lucrative for most. Parishes that shared their numbers with TLC suggested Smile equates to a small drop in the collection plate — dozens of dollars per quarter.

Such math only holds if all members make Amazon purchases and if they always direct Smile donations to the same charity. If a member does not shop through Smile, the 0.5 percent donation disappears. Donations are not made through Amazon’s main site, and there is no account setting that passes your purchases automatically through Smile.

Cindy Rees, treasurer at St. Michael’s by-the-Sea in Carlsbad, California, told TLC this is one of the potential challenges of the program. “That’s the hardest thing to do, to make people go directly to our site to click on the Smile logo, that then brings them to the shopping site.” Rees said her parish earns about $50 per quarter, on average.

Despite the added hassle of reminding parishioners to go to the parish website before they shop, or simply to use smile.amazon.com and not amazon.com, the process of registering on Smile can appeal to churches looking for low-hanging financial fruit. Fill out the registration form, receive a little extra money, and remind parishioners of their faith as they shop.

But how does this affect the balance of tithing or charitable giving in general? As church use of the program is relatively new, it’s hard to say, but experts on sites like Philanthropy.com and HuffPost fear that Smile has an element of “clicktivism” — the phenomenon of online giving and virtual participation in causes that actually decreases the probability of real-life participation. If you donate online once, or like an event page for a rally, you might feel as if you have participated enough to decline giving or stay at home.

“Like any other thing, if it’s part of a well-balanced diet of a life of a follower of Christ, then that’s splendid,” said the Rev. Canon Victoria Heard of the Church of the Redeemer in Irving, Texas, and a writer for TLC’s weblog, Covenant. “If it is a substitution for genuine proportional giving, or tithing, or avoiding contact with Christ in his various disguises among the poor, then we have a problem.”

Most participants said they feel it is merely an extra that does not affect their overall tithing and should not be a substitute for regular, consistent giving.

“I see it more as a donation [rather than part of tithing]: it’s just so small,” said the Rev. Ross Kane, who serves as senior associate at St. Paul’s Church in Alexandria, Virginia. “We’ve gotten funds back, but it will be years before we really get some substantive income.”

Kane, who is also an ethics professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, said the donations should not distract from tithing. “I think my parishioners also think that, since we’re already there [shopping on Amazon], why not? It simply is a way to recognize how people spend money these days, and tries to use that as an opportunity to give back in a more consistent way. At the end of the day, it’s a way to implant the mission of the church in everyday life, including consumption.”

The Rev. Kevin Olds of St. Timothy’s in Fairfield, Connecticut, agrees. “This is not an excuse to get out of a pledge. This is a way of conceiving of stewardship in a broader sense — things you can do in other parts of your life for the church.” Olds tempers his enthusiasm for Smile with the knowledge that Amazon benefits more than the church. “Amazon gets a big tax write-off.”

Olds said faith communities have to weigh the pros and cons of Smile. “There’s nothing that’s pure, or 100 percent good.”

The tax break that Olds cites — Amazon does the giving, the consumer does not, so the donation is tax deductible by Amazon — should raise further questions for churches mulling participation. Purchases made through Smile ultimately reduce Amazon’s tax burden, and taxes provide needed services for communities, supporting schools, roads, health care, education — the very services that parishes often augment with their time and treasure. Throughout its lifetime as a corporation, Amazon has paid almost no state and local taxes on purchases and has objected to such taxes, arguing that it has little physical presence in most states.

A deeper look into the mechanics of the Smile program raises questions about its suitability for charitable donations. A recent article by the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) interpreted the payments given to nonprofit agencies as “pure sales commission for marketing referrals, not donations.”

Jeff Milchen, co-director and co-founder of AMIBA, told TLC: “When Amazon sends a payment to the nonprofit in return for having delivered customers to buy from them, it’s misleading to call that charity — it’s a sales referral. It’s not to say it’s not worth doing, but it’s certainly not charitable: it’s marketing, pure and simple.” Thus, Smile could be interpreted as a form of pay-per-click advertising.

Milchen also said that Amazon, which did not respond to TLC’s request for comment, has had an effect on small-business owners — and that the choice to affiliate with Smile could be problematic. “There are invariably some business owners who may be alienated by this move. Part of the role of churches is to build community and strengthen local relationships.

“When you are sending people to Amazon, it comes off as an endorsement of an absentee corporation, whether that’s intended or not. In the vast majority of cases, these purchases made on Amazon could have been made in the community, even from actual members of the congregation.”

William T. Cavanaugh, professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University and author of Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, echoes the concern about small business. “Amazon has been murder on small businesses, which is a serious problem,” he told TLC. “The vastness of Amazon has funneled away power and money from local contexts into the hands of an impersonal megacorporation. It’s wreaked havoc on our downtowns, and has poor labor practices.”

Indeed, a report [PDF] by the Institute for Local Self Reliance states that between the years of 1997 and 2012, communities across the country have lost about 108,000 local retailers (enterprises with fewer than 100 employees). Even big-box retailers with brick-and-mortar stores have suffered. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, nine major retail chains have filed for bankruptcy in 2017. CNNMoney.com reports that 2,056 of JCPenney, Staples, and Bebe storefronts closed in 2016, and 5,077 in 2015.

Concerns about Amazon’s labor practices have also appeared in the press. A business leviathan, Amazon employs a massive workforce — approximately 90,000 — with many more thousands of temporary employees added in November for the Christmas season.

Life on the job has been documented many times over, and most harrowingly by The Huffington Post in a report from October 2015. The story described a worker found collapsed on the floor in an Amazon warehouse; he was later pronounced dead from cardiac dysrhythmia. Family described him as increasingly exhausted in an environment where workers are pushed to their maximum level of output. Management tracks how many seconds it takes a worker to process an order, and those with the best times keep their jobs. In 2015 interviews with Forbes, Amazon employees describe this corporate culture as “metrics-obsessed.”

The New York Times reported in 2011 on poor working conditions at an Allentown warehouse during the height of summer. Employees were forced to work in heat above 100 degrees, and ambulances were kept on site to treat fainting and heat-sick employees. Fifteen people were sent to the hospital, and between 20 and 30 were treated on-site. Workers sent home reported that managers imposed disciplinary points on them.

While these crises happened to real people, the simplicity, cleanliness, and remoteness of Amazon’s 1-Click home ordering can hide those people from view. And with an absence of locality, relationships between consumers, workers, and production do not form. “Having political and economic lives locally is really important. Local is human-scaled,” Cavanaugh said. “You can encounter human beings as human beings face to face, and see the face of Christ in them.

“Part of the characteristic of a global economy is that human beings disappear. Humans disappear from the whole thing, and that contact is replaced with a relationship with the product. I understand the logic of churches wanting to participate in the program, but the Church should be questioning the practice of buying from Amazon in the first place.”

American consumers, businesses, and nonprofits experience an increasingly complicated set of relationships with Amazon. It’s a necessarily convenient source of myriad goods; it’s a helping hand to nonprofits looking to raise consumer consciousness; it’s a promise of labor to cities and towns struggling with unemployment rates; it’s a threat to businesses and workers hoping to thrive in a challenging economic environment. The case of one Episcopal ministry in Atlanta shows how the lines of consumer, beneficiary, promoter, and partner can blur in this Amazonian world.

The Cathedral Bookstore, a nonprofit book shop run by the Cathedral of St. Philip, is an Amazon competitor, and is eligible to receive Smile donations.

“Our board of directors had talked about possibly putting the store on the AmazonSmile registry, so that on the one hand, for our customers buying [on Amazon] what we don’t sell here, we could benefit from those purchases,” Kay Becker, who has worked at the store for 12 years, told TLC. “On the other hand, we wouldn’t want our customers to get everything from Amazon and not patronize us.”

One of the few remaining Episcopal bookstores, the shop sends packages to all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. It distributes church calendars, worship and sacramental materials, hymnals, and prayer books, while also stocking other books and gifts.

Becker, who helps prepare items for shipment, said the bookstore has not been immune to the effects of the Great Recession and the ascendancy of online retailers like Amazon. “When I first started working here, I would prepare books to be shipped every day. Now, I could go several days without preparing a book to ship, even though we continue to ship lots of gifts and church-specific material — but regular books we ship less of.”

Support from Smile could help the store’s bottom line, yet Smile’s math is simple and brutal: $1 million in annual AmazonSmile purchases by patrons would only translate to a $5,000 check to the Cathedral Bookstore. Under these conditions, could the store thrive without relationships with Episcopalians?

“Episcopal bookstores have been disappearing, so that’s one reason we’re serving a much wider area than usual, and there are things that we carry that are very particular and unique to the church. However, if we don’t get the patron support we need, we won’t be able to offer what our churches rely on us for.”

Katy Crane has worked as a labor organizer and a community development missioner for the South Wedge Mission, a Lutheran-Episcopal church plant in Rochester, New York. She studied economics at Smith College in  Massachusetts.


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