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Santa Claus hands out gifts to Mary’s Place families donated by Amazon. The holiday giveaway is one of several Amazon is planning for area nonprofits this month. (Amazon Photo)

Amazon has been making headlines recently — and not just for the stories you’d expect.

The Seattle-based tech giant is providing housing for homeless families, contributing large sums to the University of Washington’s computer science program, and supporting a mass transit initiative.

Amazon’s CEO and founder, Jeff Bezos, has joined with his family to donate millions to Seattle institutions such as the Museum of History and Industry and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

This week, the company was publicly cheering its selection of 10 Seattle-area nonprofits that are each receiving surprise holiday donations of $10,000 worth of items from their Amazon wish lists. Last night, Amazon invited residents of Mary’s Place — a Seattle shelter for homeless families — to a party at the Cinerama movie theater that included a screening of two holiday movies, snacks and toys for the kids.

Mike and Jackie Bezos (center), with their son and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie (right) at the opening of the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Research Clinic at Fred Hutch. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

The actions stand in contrast to the Scrooge-like rap that has plagued Amazon over many of its 22 years: criticism for being standoffish, for its demanding workplace culture and for limited engagement in local issues and philanthropy.

As Seattle’s fastest growing economic juggernaut keeps increasing in size and dominance — the company has 25,000 employees in the city’s downtown area with construction underway to accommodate an additional 30,000 workers — it’s tempting to wonder if Amazon is undergoing a major cultural shift. Are we starting to see a kinder, gentler, more community-oriented side of the online retail and cloud services giant?

Amazon executives readily dismiss the notion as though presented with the classic ‘when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife’ loaded question.

There’s no change underway, the company’s executives say. The company has always been engaged with the community. People just haven’t noticed.

“In many regards, we’re a bashful company,” said John Schoettler, Amazon’s director of global real estate and facilities and a 16-year employee, in an interview with GeekWire. “We haven’t necessarily told our story very well.”

Amazon is less about promoting itself and “more about revealing ourselves,” he explained. You’ll find a lot of Amazon employees who are supporting arts programs, working to boost the number of women in technology and other worthy causes, he said, and yet “we haven’t done a really good job of conveying our involvement.”

At the same time, Amazon and its representatives now regularly pitch stories touting the good deeds of the company and its employees — a move rarely seen just a few years ago. Likewise, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the 13-year-old Bezos Family Foundation have stepped more boldly into the philanthropic limelight, including this month’s opening of the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Research Clinic at Seattle’s Fred Hutch.

John Schoettler, Amazon director of global real estate and facilities.

But past evidence of Amazon’s purportedly robust history of giving is difficult to come by. When GeekWire asked Amazon spokespeople for donation totals for the last five years, they were unable to provide them. Amazon, along with dozens of other companies, did not share contribution information for the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s recent analysis of corporate giving.

Many philanthropic and civic leaders say Amazon and Bezos remain a mystery, and it’s unclear whether the company’s more recent endeavors signal a true shift in corporate culture towards more community engagement.

“I look at Amazon as a work in progress,” said Norm Rice, a former mayor of Seattle who is working on a book about civic engagement in the 21st Century. “It’s going to evolve. I don’t know what it will be tomorrow.”

And while Rice doesn’t necessarily expect every tech titan to rise to Bill Gates’ level of giving, he urges Bezos to do more.

“If you want to stand tall as a leader in the industry,” Rice said, “you ought to think a little bit broader than the industry [you’re in].”

Local residents and leaders remain concerned about the impacts of Amazon’s continued boom, including the unending import of highly-paid Amazonians driving up housing prices in an already hot market, as well as the potential for further clogging local roads with traffic. While some  grumbling continues, more vitriolic attacks — including the posting of fliers featuring the unflattering Amazon-worker nickname “Am-Hole” — have simmered down.

In fact, many people concede that Amazon’s ongoing success is benefiting Seattle in big ways — revitalizing the areas around downtown, providing good jobs and stoking the local tax base.

Amazon’s growth has created “a lot of challenges, and I spend a lot of my time on the challenges,” said Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien. “But it’s important to remind myself that the absence of Amazon would provide a whole host of challenges that I’m not prepared to deal with. The net [effect] is a good thing.”

Even so, other community leaders yearn for Amazon to do more — following in the philanthropic path of other corporate giants that call the Pacific Northwest home. But, if anything has been learned about Amazon over the years, it is this: The company follows the beat of its own drummer, doing things in a style that is distinctively Amazon.

‘Part of a vibrant downtown’

This fall Seattle was dubbed “crane capital of America” by local media thanks to the fact that the city’s construction crane count was top in the nation. And a whole flock of those cranes are clustered at Amazon’s epicenter: Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.

Amazon staffers give away free bananas to anyone who walks by its Seattle headquarters. (GeekWire File Photo)

Amazon has 30 buildings in Seattle encompassing more than 8 million square feet of office space, with plans to add an additional 2 million square feet. By comparison, the Columbia Center, the city’s tallest building at 76 stories, clocks in at 1.5 million square feet.

Until recent years, the company sought more conventional office spaces, occupying the former Pac-Med building south of downtown and leasing other pre-existing offices.

Then the company began building signature spaces of its own, including the trio of bubble-shaped, tree-filled biospheres that are still under construction and the Doppler and Day One skyscrapers.

“Amazon held to the old way of doing things for a long time,” said Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington history professor with a focus on urban history and capitalism. “The biosphere and the adjacent buildings are the first bespoke Amazon spaces and that is really interesting.”

Pro-density folks applaud Amazon for its decision to settle in downtown, a move that supports more environmentally-sustainable urban development, rather than locating their campus in the suburbs where land is cheaper. Bezos touted that viewpoint in 2013 when he noted that an urban campus is “inherently environmentally friendly.”

The Amazon projects are credited for taking a new, more innovative approach to multi-use developments. The first two floors of the Doppler and Day One buildings include retail space that is open to the public. And instead of building alleys for dumpsters, the trash is in the basement, leaving areas for public plazas, explained Amazon’s Schoettler.

“We try to keep the broader community in mind,” he said. “We could have gone to the suburbs or we could have put a big wall around us.”

The Amazon cafeterias are intentionally designed to serve only one-third of their employees, Schoettler added. That encourages workers to dine in local restaurants and buy from the dozens of food trucks that frequent the area.

Amazon’s biodomes under construction in downtown Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

“That is part of a vibrant downtown,” he said. “We want our employees to be a part of that.”

While the buildings and restaurants have revitalized a formerly sleepy, somewhat seedy neighborhood, the shiny new California-esque makeover is jarring to some longtime Seattle residents. And though the plazas serve the community, the greenhouse-like biospheres will be largely off limits to the public when completed.

“It’s not a showcase for people to come in from the outside,” said Scott Wyatt, a partner at Seattle-based global architecture firm NBBJ, which designed the biospheres.

“This is for the people who work at Amazon. It’s an alternative workplace, a place where you can be among plants in a profound way. Take your laptop, work the day there, have a meeting there,” Wyatt explained during a presentation at the GeekWire Summit in October. “It was the belief of our client that this would be a way to make happier, healthier, more productive and more creative employees. It’s a big investment in that.”

Increasing size, and expectations

And while Amazon is exploring ways to boost employee morale and productivity through innovative spaces, its sheer size and downtown setting make it part of a broader urban experiment that’s still playing out.

“Amazon is defining a broader ecosystem in housing patterns and this very visual footprint, and who lives here and works here,” O’Mara said. The question is, “what happens when you bring the suburban campus model and plop it in the big city? It has these civic impacts.”

Snarled traffic in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood near Amazon’s headquarters. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Amazon is blamed for helping drive up housing prices as it recruits out-of-state workers earning higher-than-average salaries. Traffic in South Lake Union and particularly Mercer Street — a problem that pre-dates Amazon — continues to be among the most snarled in the city.

Yet the company has kept a low profile in many civic matters, say local leaders.

“I don’t see civic leadership and so far, it’s served them well. So maybe they don’t have to,” former mayor Rice said. “But the bigger a corporation gets, the more people are going to ask about it.”

Others agree, and note that a company like Amazon bears an even larger responsibility due to the economically disruptive nature of its business.

“There can be no doubt that Amazon as a corporate entity could be far more civically involved in our community than they are, and they should be,” said Nick Hanauer, an early investor in the company, as well as co-founder of venture capital firm Second Avenue Partners and founder of Civic Ventures, during a presentation at the 2015 GeekWire Summit.

“But the bigger problem is the way in which these new business models ultimately and inevitably disrupt the economy generally,” Hanauer said, “and we have to find a way to make sure those disruptions are not civically, politically and socially harmful.”

The company has made some inroads into civic involvement. Schoettler, the company’s real estate director, recently served as board chairman for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

“I learned so much, not only about what is going on here in our community, but Seattle’s role in the greater world,” Schoettler said. Working with the chamber provided Amazon a way to promote Seattle in collaboration with other businesses and leaders. “We’re doing that collectively and in a cohesive way instead of companies going out on their own.”

O’Brien, the Seattle City Council member who leads the council’s sustainability and transportation committee, sees an upside to Amazon’s limited engagement in local policies. When you look at decisions around highway construction, labor issues and other matters, many established Northwest businesses don’t hesitate to make demands of city and state leaders, O’Brien said.

“There is something frankly refreshing to me, that after I had been in office for four years that Amazon hadn’t darkened my door yet,” he said.

Amazon’s Doppler building. (GeekWire File Photo)

While Amazon is also largely missing from big fundraising events, said O’Brien, “I’m willing to trade that off, that they’re not throwing their weight around to influence policy.”

By contrast, Amazon is actively lobbying over federal regulations, spending millions to try to influence legislation addressing taxes for online sales and drone policies, among other issues. Earlier this year, an article in the New York Times said the company “has emerged as one of the tech industry’s most outspoken players” in the nation’s capital.

Closer to home, Amazon has taken smaller steps to shape the region.

The company donated $110,000 in support of this November’s successful initiative to expand light rail lines. Amazon has helped pay for an additional public streetcar in South Lake Union, contributed to the city’s annual fireworks show and is building a dog park in their neighborhood.

To help its employees commute more easily, which reduces their contribution to traffic, Amazon gives its workers ORCA cards that cover mass transit fares and the company runs a private shuttle service for workers. More than half of Amazon’s Seattle employees use public transportation, walk or bike to work, the company reports.

It’s a help, some say, and all that Amazon is obligated to do as a corporate citizen.

“We, as a community, have to continue to address transportation,” said Nadia Shouraboura, who was at Amazon for eight years and served on Bezos’ senior leadership team. She left Amazon in 2012 to found high-tech retail startup Hointer. “It’s not Amazon’s job — it’s our job as a community.”

But O’Brien desperately wishes the company would do more to support affordable housing, going beyond the contributions they’re required to make as part of their building permits.

And Rice, who was mayor for eight years ending in 1997, the year that Amazon went public, says that large, successful corporations do have a responsibility that extends beyond providing jobs and serving their customers and shareholders. He urges companies like Amazon to choose important issues to focus on and commit to them.

“You can’t go gentle into that good night,” said Rice, quoting the poet Dylan Thomas. “People are going to have high expectations for the corporation, for the long term for what it can do. It’s going to have to be clear with its priorities. It has to be clear that it’s in for the long haul.”

‘A cost to not doing philanthropy’

Some 67 Northwest nonprofits shared information about their organizations at Amazon’s Nonprofit Expo in September. (Amazon Photo)

This fall, roughly 1,000 of Amazon’s Seattle employees attended the company’s first Nonprofit Expo. They roamed among some 67 booths set up in the company’s massive Meeting Center, learning about tutoring opportunities with the YMCA, Food Lifeline’s need for volunteers to pack donated food and other causes.

In 2014, employees formed a group called Connect@Amazon and last year began hosting networking and other events where they volunteered with area nonprofits. The group has helped residents at the Mary’s Place homeless shelter create job resumes, served meals at the nonprofit Ronald McDonald House that supports families of ill children, and sorted shoes for the Redeeming Soles charity.

“It’s important to have an understanding of the issues facing the community and getting involved,” said Rafael Grijalva, who works on the Kindle team and also participated at the Nonprofit Expo as a volunteer with United Way of King County. Before coming to Amazon, Grijalva was at Microsoft and appreciated their commitment to nonprofits.

“Amazon is building its tradition, too,” he said.

Many agree that the time has come for more engagement.

“Now [Amazon] is of the size that perception matters and there is a cost to not doing philanthropy,” said Sandi Lin, a former senior manager at Amazon who left in 2013 after more than three years. Lin, who is CEO and co-founder of the local startup Skilljar, said philanthropy can boost the company’s reputation and serve as a recruiting tool.

The nonprofit Mary’s Place was a big draw at Amazon’s Nonprofit Expo. (Amazon Photo)

One of Amazon’s most prominent philanthropic actions came in April when the company announced that it would provide housing for families served by Mary’s Place. The building will ultimately be demolished for Amazon office space, but at least until this spring some 60 families a night have somewhere to sleep.

Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place, said she’s optimistic that Amazon is committed to helping into the future.

“In our communication with them, they are looking to continue to support families and really want to make an impact for the long haul,” said Hartman.

Additionally, the AmazonSmile Foundation has contributed $37 million over three years to charities through AmazonSmile. The program allows shoppers to select a nonprofit and the foundation donates 0.5 percent of eligible purchases to the group.

Four years ago, Amazon funded two endowed UW professorships in machine learning. In October, the company announced a $10 million donation to help construct a second building for the UW’s Computer Science & Engineering program.

In an interview with GeekWire announcing the fall donation, an Amazon leader again dismissed the idea that the donation was part of a concerted effort to boost philanthropic engagement.

Ed Lazowska (left), the Bill & Melinda Gates chair in the UW department of Computer Science & Engineering, and David Zapolsky, senior vice president and general counsel at Amazon, stand on the top floor of the UW’s current CSE building. (GeekWire File Photo)

“I think it’s less of a philosophical change, and more just people noticing,” said David Zapolsky, senior vice president and Amazon general counsel.

It’s worth noting that the Bezos Family Foundation has made additional contributions of millions of dollars to a variety of charitable causes, including the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Research Clinic. The family has donated about $30 million to immunotherapy research at Fred Hutch. Five years ago, Bezos donated $10 million to create the Center for Innovation at the Museum of History & Industry, located just north of the Amazon campus.

The combined figures aren’t exactly staggering for a company that reported $32.7 billion in revenue in the third quarter of this year and for a CEO whose net worth was most recently estimated to be $66.5 billion.

But they’re a notable improvement from a 2012 headline in the Seattle Times that called Amazon “a virtual no-show in hometown philanthropy.”

And taken all together, one could be forgiven for thinking that Amazon, and in turn its employees, are deliberately pursuing a more charitable path.

“In the early days, when we were small, it made a lot of sense to be very customer centric and customer focused, and now there is more capacity to give and focus on other things,” said former Amazon employee Shouraboura.

“We are definitely hearing from more Amazon employees interested in engaging with nonprofits,” said Ben Reuler, executive director of Seattle Works, a nonprofit that helps facilitate volunteer activities and preps people for serving on nonprofit boards.

That enthusiasm comes despite the fact that Amazon doesn’t match employee cash donations or volunteer hours, as some large corporations do, including Microsoft.

Microsoft, which has its own philanthropy division, has been a global leader for employee and corporate giving, donating $1 billion internationally last year. The company matches employee donations up to $15,000 and workers can request a grant of $25 per every hour volunteered to be donated. Microsoft’s 113,600 employees worldwide regularly give more than $100 million annually.

The company additionally has an initiative to encourage IT-focused volunteering through its Tech Talent for Good program, which launched last year. At the same time, Microsoft also committed to donating $1 billion in Microsoft cloud services over three years to non-profits and university researchers.

Microsoft, which was founded 20 years before Amazon, will likely remain light years ahead of the fellow tech giant in philanthropic efforts — at least for the foreseeable future. But Seattle-area nonprofits welcome the involvement from Amazon employees and the corporation, and join those who hope this is a sign of good things to come.

“We do pretty well with Microsoft employees and several of the downtown employers, but we’re eager to increase our engagement with Amazon,” said Lauren Martin, director of philanthropy for the YMCA of Greater Seattle, during the Nonprofit Expo.

Amazon is “the nut to crack” in the world of philanthropy, added Mary Martin, a grant writer for the Bellevue-based nonprofit LifeWire.

Quieter approach to engagement

Seattle’s history can be broken into eras, says the UW’s O’Mara, and each era starts with a gold rush and a company or industry that defines it.

There was the first, literal Gold Rush at the turn of the 20th Century when miners flocked to the town before heading north to Alaska. Then Weyerhaeuser’s logging company became the area’s dominant player. That was followed by the rise of the Boeing airplane company, driven in part by military demand during World War II. In the 1990s, Microsoft became a major player in the region.

“There was an era of Microsoft, but maybe the next gold rush is now,” O’Mara said. “Amazon could be the company of this decade, and into the next decade.”

The “gold rush” companies of the past share certain traits — including becoming prominent civic leaders and philanthropic donors. These days, it’s rare to open an arts program or peruse a donor list for a nonprofit group and not find some, if not all, of these companies thanked for their generous gifts. Some wonder if Amazon could be joining their ranks.

“It’s a maturation thing and moving out of the entrepreneurial mindset,” said Alex Daniels, a staff writer with the Chronicle of Philanthropy who is focused on foundations and corporate giving. “Once a company becomes more established, it can think about how it relates to others.”

Amazon leaders, however, say their focus always has been, and will continue to be, on serving their customers. It’s a key provision of their “Leadership Principles” — to obsess over customers — and there is no mention of community or philanthropy in the guiding ideals. But serving the customer and running a profitable company enables charitable acts, Schoettler said. And what’s more, the messages contained in many of the principles — to be leaders, be curious and to invent and simplify — all support meaningful involvement in charitable, community causes.

Jeff Bezos at the Museum of Flights 2016 Pathfinder Awards. (Photo by GeekWire/Kevin Lisota)

“These are all part of our pillars and the underpinning of our organization,” Schoettler said. “To serve our customers and ultimately to serve our community.”

But despite Amazon’s adherence to the party line, to the repeated assertion that nothing has changed culturally, even Bezos recently suggested that the company is ready to make changes internally to benefit the environment and support working parents. In his April letter to shareholders, he said that the company, which has grown to more than 230,000 employees globally, has reached a size that allows for addressing these additional issues.

“We’re a bit like parents who look around one day and realize their kids are grown — you blink and it happens,” Bezos wrote. “One thing that’s exciting about our current scale is that we can put our inventive culture to work on moving the needle on sustainability and social issues.”

The question now is how broadly that “inventive culture” will be applied toward important philanthropic and civic causes outside of Amazon, as well.

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