As the planet’s most successful retailer, Amazon often is in the news. But recently the company spent several days on the front pages of the Seattle Times, and not always in the most flattering light. Over the course of a four-part series, the paper gave Amazon a mild chiding for issues such as working conditions in the company’s fulfillment warehouses, and for its fights with states over sales-tax collection.

That sort of criticism probably is inevitable – parking ambulances outside a warehouse so they are ready to haul off heat-stricken warehouse workers is asking for it. But one article seemed to hint at a real blind spot the company has, and where it could easily have dodged a scolding. The Times kicked off its series with a hard look at Amazon’s near-invisibility in the area of philanthropy. The lead offered a perfect example: In a year when Microsoft donated $4 million to United Way of King County (Seattle is in King County), and Boeing $3.1 million, Amazon’s contribution was exactly this:


The same went for a whole slew of charitable and arts organizations in the area. And that despite Amazon’s cash pile of $5 billion.

Now, we aren’t writing about Amazon to bash them. But it does seem that Amazon is missing an important opportunity to shape its image. Companies succeed in part because of the community in which they’re based – because of the energy and dedication of the people they hire. And when they do succeed, it seems they have an obligation to become active in that community and use some of the fruits of their success to help groups that could use some extra dollars.

And the fact is, charitable giving has real business benefit. For one thing, had Amazon been a bit more generous in the past, the Times’ series would have consisted of three parts, not four – so that’s one less day taking heating from the press. But in addition, philanthropic work can help a business:

  • Show that a company is about more than profit
  • Become a source of pride and goodwill within a community
  • Create influential friends who can come to your defense when you are criticized
  • Attract employees that share specific values
  • Deepen customer bonds – one study showed that 80 percent of U.S. residents have a more positive image of companies that support a cause they care about
  • Help provide employees a sense of their own ability to do good (Microsoft, for instance, matches all employee donations dollar for dollar, creating a real incentive to contribute)
  • Create the face of a good neighbor within a community

And much more.  As a Washington DC and Seattle PR agency, we ourselves think we have an obligation to try to help when we can. That’s why we perform pro bono work for entities such as SURF, a new incubator for start-up tech companies. This isn’t entirely altruistic – we hope that these startups learn the value of PR and perhaps someday will hire us. But that’s OK. No charitable work is entirely selfless, especially at the business level.

Perhaps Amazon could take that as a lesson. Sharing a little of their wealth could help a charitable or arts organization. It also could help Amazon’s bottom line.