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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.

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