Amazon.com dubbed a corporate scrooge by hometown newspaper

Amazon.com’s lack of philanthropic involvement in its hometown of Seattle is getting renewed attention as The Seattle Times kicked off a 4-part series on the company today.

Reporters Kristi Heim and Amy Martinez explore how the giant online retailer is a “virtual no-show in hometown philanthropy,” writing that the company is “a minor player in local charitable giving.”

In the introduction to the series, The Seattle Times writes:

We found that the company is a virtual no-show in the civic life of Seattle, contributing to nonprofits and charities a tiny fraction of what other big corporations give. In the political world, the company’s hardball efforts to fend off collecting sales taxes — a key advantage over brick-and-mortar stores — has ignited a backlash in several states. In the publishing world, smaller companies have begun to publicly criticize Amazon’s bullying tactics. And in some of its warehouses around the country, Amazon is drawing fire for harsh conditions endured by workers.

The lack of community giving is a topic that has been brought up before, with The Stranger hammering on the issue for years. Last December, The Stranger’s Paul Constant wrote: “If you measure how much a corporation cares about their community by how much they pour into local arts organizations—and there are very few other thermometers available to rate corporate concern, frankly—then the answer is no. Amazon doesn’t give a fuck about Seattle.”

A model of downtown Seattle with the proposed Amazon.com office towers in brown

It’s not just the media. The local labor group Working Washington just last week took direct aim at Amazon, raising questions about working conditions at the company and its stance on taxes. The group even sent members to a City of Seattle Planning Commission meeting to raise issues of Amazon’s practices.

All of the critics do raise an important issue that goes well beyond the tech industry. As Amazon.com hunkers down in the middle of Seattle — and explores a massive three million square foot expansion of its headquarters in the Denny Triangle neighborhood — what’s the role of the company here?

As The Times points out, Microsoft and Boeing take much more of a hands-on approach to philanthropy. The reason for Amazon’s lack of involvement is an overall libertarian philosophy, one that’s rooted deeply in the company’s value system and driven by founder Jeff Bezos, notes The Times. That doesn’t always sit well in Seattle, a community that leans left and likes to think of itself as very much community-oriented.

For a company that’s been so cut off from Seattle (I often said that Amazon.com was perfectly situated in its old headquarters atop Beacon Hill far from the daily life of the city) Amazon certainly is nothing but a mystery in its hometown.

And it will be fascinating to watch what occurs in the coming years as Amazon grows into the largest employer in downtown: Will it find a need to elevate its role in the community or continue to fly under the radar?

Some hints may have been given at the city’s design review meeting last week as John Savo, an architect for NBBJ who is working on Amazon’s new Denny Triangle project, repeatedly said how Amazon’s three-tower headquarters expansion in the middle of the city was about “building a neighborhood, not a campus.”

It was nice to hear, and it may have been a signal that the company wants to get more involved. But it didn’t come from the mouths of anyone at Amazon, and civic leaders and others quoted in Times’ piece suggest that little will change in how the company does business or interacts with its community.

We asked Amazon.com for comment on the expose in The Times, with the company issuing this statement:

At Amazon, if we do our job right, our greatest contribution to the good of society will come from our core business activities: lowering prices, expanding selection, driving convenience, driving frustration-free packaging, creating Kindle, innovating in web services, and other initiatives we’ll work hard on in the future.

We also contribute to the communities where our employees and customers live. Our contributions can be seen in many ways – through our donations to dozens of nonprofits across the United States, through the disaster relief campaigns that we host on our homepage, through our employees’ volunteer efforts, through the grants that we make to the writing community, and through the Amazon Web Services credits that we provide to educators.

We support several local and national nonprofits with cash and product donations, and we will continue to donate across the United States over the coming years.

  • RonJ

     Thank you Amazon for creating tons of jobs and helping to sustain a competitive economy in our beautiful city!

  • Guest

    According to my friend Henry, Microsoft — one of the most prolific donors to charity — recently laid off hundreds of employees. John, what do you think of companies terminating full-time employees while still writing large checks to the United Way?

    More to the point, why should Amazon care what the Seattle Times and the Stranger think about Amazon’s charitable giving? Should we consider that these two struggling institutions and beneficiaries of tax abatements need a little cash infusion of their own?

  • Peter H

    Glad the lefties at the Times have had their say. 

    Corporate giving is just a transfer payment away form shareholders.  Why not give the money to the shareholders and let them decide what to do with their own money.

    Not surprising that the Times has the view of Amazon hasn’t given away enough free money.  Have they even noticed how much Amazon has contributed to the local economy?

    BTW, how much has the Times given back?

    • Guest

      Nothing, Peter.

      In fact, the Seattle Times enjoys tax-exempt status from many local obligations, such as sales tax and B&O tax: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/WAC/default.aspx?cite=458-20-143

      As long as other organizations foot the bill for the arts, though, the Times will be happy.

  • Mission Impossible

    The
    Stranger- definition- a collective group of people who entertain themselves by
    self-righteously bitching about how unfair things are with the delusional idea
    that other people actually care what they think all while contributing to the
    local economy in a very, very minor way at best.

    Amazon-
    definition- a wildly successful for profit company that has massively contributed
    to the local economy through their investors, Madrona, who happen to be local,
    their employees, many who have become multimillionaires, and the tax base the
    company has built as it has continued to build and expand local facilities in
    Seattle. The company has continued to execute and be successful in a demanding
    and difficult sector, one measured in low margins and lack of barriers.

    Now the
    company is supposed to be vilified because they aren’t giving the money that’s
    rightly owned by the shareholders randomly away to various causes, all of which
    do nothing to help the company sustain itself?

    Give
    me a break.

  • Webinfusion

    It is impossible for Amazon to not be supportive of the local community. Well, unless they only hire people who don’t live there?

    “The reason for Amazon’s lack of involvement is an overall libertarian
    philosophy, one that’s rooted deeply in the company’s value system and
    driven by founder Jeff Bezos, notes The Times.”

    Here, here.

    I wonder, has anyone who is running a philanthropic venture in Seattle ever ASKED Amazon to contribute? Or are they all sitting around, feeling entitled, and doing nothing other than waiting for a handout?

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for asking whether we’ve asked.  Here’s your answer:

      yes.

  • http://twitter.com/dylanw Dylan Wilbanks

    It’s deeper than this, though.

    Name the last time Amazon sponsored any sort of local tech event. Name the last time any local tech event was held at Amazon. Now, count the number of Amazon employees you’ve met at a local tech event.

    Amazon does not interact with the local tech community. You rarely see anyone from Amazon speak at conferences, much less people from Amazon attending on Amazon’s dime. By comparison, even the smallest startups engage and share.

    I had a friend turn down a lucrative job at Amazon because they explicitly told him he could not continue his public speaking engagements. It didn’t matter that he’d do them on his own time, Amazon would terminate his employment if he were to do so. The company who ultimately employed him, OTOH, was ecstatic about his speaking engagements, since he’d be representing their brand at major trade shows. 

    I know it’s easy for Ron Paul techies to wave their hands at the lack of charitable engagement, but Amazon’s problems are far deeper than their parsimonious attitude towards local NFPs. They just don’t want to engage, period. 

    • Guest

      Dylan,

      Just because you and your friend don’t see Amazon at conferences doesn’t make the company a hermit. Amazon attends and hosts many events. (For the latter, bing “amazon ‘van vorst’” on Meetup. For the former, read Jeff Barr’s blog.)

      Perhaps you and your friend don’t interact with Amazon as part of your speaking engagements, but hundreds of others do. You should visit a Meetup some time.

    • Guest

      Amazon is a high level sponsor at the upcoming Cloud Fair Conference April 17th – 19th at the Sheraton Seattle.  Jinesh Varia is giving a presentation, which I know several of my co-workers are very interested in.  There are several discount codes floating around on the web, hurry before they are all gone.

  • Rob

    Amazon got hit again this morning, this time for squeezing suppliers.  I thought the first report was somewhat fair, if not a little biased but not a witch hunt…too bad they threw all that goodwill out the window by proving they just have an axe to grind.  Even money says that Amazon destroys them once and for all with Kindle newspapers.  It’s been fun Seattle Times.

  • Keepinitreal

    I agree with folks that AMZN is under no obligation to be a big donor to the local community.  I will say that from a recruiting and PR pov, the cost of doing a little more for Seattle would easily pay for itself in the long term when it comes to attracting and retaining top talent or getting cooperation from local government on land use and other issues.  So ironically, this perception of not being more active locally is actually a business liability for them.

  • Barb W

    Pardon me.  I must correct you here.  This presentation was not made to the Seattle Planning Commission.  I suspect it was either the Design Commission or the Design Review Board.  Please correct your story. 

  • Scott

    The same public flogging occurred in the early Microsoft boom times, it was exactly the same situation.  In fact, it is probably the same old tired article used back in the day, with a search and replace of “Microsoft” for “Amazon”.    Notice now that Microsoft has aged, it has become a philanthropic powerhouse.  The same thing will happen with Amazon in time.   Amazon, keep your head down, build a great company, and the rest will take care of itself.   

    Seattle-Times, pull your head out and get some perspective.   

  • Asdf

    Like it or not Amazon was built on the back of a very significant charity – the US taxpayer.  This was a significant stimulus to the growth in online retailing and no company has benefited more from it.  This is clear in the threatening position Amazon like to take in states looking to do away with this charitable giving.

    Time to grow up Amazon