Giving is often portrayed as the act of the soft — soft because the people doing it cannot stand to feel their heartstrings pulled on, or because they cannot face the problem themselves so they throw money at it hoping it will simply go away. But actually, giving can be a powerful act of resistance, if we take the time to consider what matters to us, research organizations working toward the goals we believe in, and explore avenues to help them continue this fight.
With this in mind, it was heartening to see that Amazon Smile, a program by the online retailer created to help nonprofits, has thus far welcomed organizations that support sex workers rights. Amazon, like so many companies, has suffered from the sort of knee-jerk that unjustly targets people in the sex industry — even those whose work is legal. (Most recently, they shut down the wish lists of cam girls who used that feature because the people accessing their lists were not their “family and friends.”)
Despite this, the Amazon Smile program, which donates 0.5 percent of the price of eligible items on the internet superstore to any charity of a customer’s choosing, lists both the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP-USA) and the Red Umbrella Project (RedUP) among eligible charities. There is, of course, no reason that they shouldn’t, given that both of these organizations qualify under Section 501(c)(3), are not private foundations, are based out of the U.S., are proactively inclusive, and otherwise conform to Amazon’s requirements for inclusion in the program.
But we know how these things go — remember when Google canceled the AdWords campaign for the Dublin-based Turn Off the Blue Light sex workers’ rights nonprofit, suggesting that anything that doesn’t actively stigmatize sex work is somehow promoting it? Sanity prevailed in that particular case, but it doesn’t always.
How Smile Works
For a year now, Amazon has enabled costumers to select charities through their Smile portal, which holds a searchable database of all organizations that have registered with the program. You can easily find if your organization of choice is in their database if you know their tax employer identification number (EIN) by inputting it in place of the Xs in the following URL: smile.amazon.com/ch/XX-XXXXXXX
There is no exact figure on how many charities are currently listed, but not long after launch, Lifehacker pegged the number at “a million or so,” and you can imagine how much it’s grown in a year.
Once you pick a charity to support, you will notice that if you browse Amazon through the Smile portal, on the right-hand side where you usually see things like price, whether an item is in stock, where it ships from, and so on, you’ll find the words “Eligible for Amazon Smile donation” right above the “Add to cart” button. If you don’t see the words, the product you’re looking at isn’t eligible for donation.
Smile is a little user unfriendly in that, even after you pick your charity, you have to browse for and buy things through the Smile portal. Going straight to Amazon from a link, for example, will not result in a donation for your charity even if that item is eligible unless you let a pop-up redirect you (which may not always work). There is, however, a Chrome extension and Firefox add-on — or you can just manually add “smile.” at the beginning of the Amazon URL to get redirected to a product on Smile.
Shopping from an Amazon app, your Kindle, or through an affiliate link won’t contribute to your charity. In the latter case, you will need to decide whether you want to feed the blogger or site that suggested the thing you’re about to buy, or support your charity. If you arrived at the product from an affiliate link from your charity, switching to Smile will not give the charity both 0.5 percent and the affiliate percentage — actually, the amount affiliates get is higher (between 4 and 15 percent!), so if faced with that choice, stick with the affiliate link.
And you should keep in mind also that you can only use Smile for one charity at a time (though switching charity can be done easily by clicking on the charity name that appears at the top of any Smile page and selecting the “Change your charity” at the bottom of the information pop-up).
Some people have come out against Smile, concerned that the “feels” of doing good with the click of a button — even though it’s only 0.5 percent of the item cost — will make it less likely that people will feel inclined to make more serious contributions down the line. This is a legitimate concern.
But there’s also something to be said for reducing the barrier to entry by bringing the potential for donation right into people’s lives. People are a lot more likely to encounter Amazon in their day-to-day lives than they’re likely to encounter people seeking donations for causes that resonate with them. This has value — if they can commit to loading Smile every time they think about buying something, of course. Or, if the organization is has an affiliate relationship with Amazon, using that avenue. Donation always calls for some degree of intent.
If the organization doesn’t have an affiliate relationship, half a percentage point can still go a long way, as many of us rely on Amazon to make a considerable number of purchases. Either way, shopping with intent to contribute can add up, no matter how tight our budgets — the price of an item, after all, doesn’t go up when we use Smile or affiliate links and if we need that textbook no matter what, why not let Amazon pay forward a part of that revenue to a cause we believe in?
Smile, like affiliate shopping, is a real way for people who may not have been able to participate actively in charity, to do so. If you have the means to give more, approach Smile or affiliate shopping as a small, daily avenue instead of a substitute. Through it you amplify your charity’s opportunity to receive, not entirely unlike when you submit an employee gift matching request.
Devil in the Details
Keep in mind that because it’s Amazon that’s donating, you won’t get a tax benefit for using Smile. This may not matter to you — since contributions are only deductible if you itemize your deductions, which some people don’t.
If deductions are something that you do, though, you should seriously consider making personal donations. This is also true if your employer has a corporate gift matching program — again, you can’t claim what they give, but if you can double the amount your charity gets, you should take that chance!
While many companies with gift matching programs need employees to submit matching gifts requests by March 31 of the following year, some have deadlines that are much earlier (such as December 31 of that same year) so it pays to do your due diligence here to ensure your charity gets the most bang out of your buck. If your company uses a database, it also helps to make sure organizations that you support are listed, so you don’t have to deal with this at the eleventh hour.
If you don’t have a charity that you support, consider setting apart some time in your calendar to seriously consider issues that are important to you. Once you know the issues that matter to you, it’s a lot easier to put Google to work. Learn your issues, learn what has been tried, and whether it failed or succeeded. Bloggers or social media users who spend a good deal of time discussing things you care about may also be a good resource for finding organizations that are working toward the kind of change you want. But don’t take their word for it: do your own research.
Once you find a few organizations that look like a fit for you, dive in. Read their sites carefully, and don’t be afraid to call them up with questions. Don’t assume anything — ask, but don’t just ask them. If the organization you’re looking into deals with helping a specific group, consider seeking feedback from people who are affected. Social media platforms like Twitter have opened our world to a number of voices. Try to find them.
An unfortunate example of organizations that could use better educated donors exist in the realm of human trafficking. A surprising number of them do not see sex work as a form of labor a person can choose and as a result treat everyone who engages in it as a victim of trafficking, which directs funding into initiatives that do very little to actually address the problem, in some cases causing real harm. In addition, many of these groups focus on sex work exclusively, overshadowing other form of trafficking that exist in less prurient, but no less horrific forms.
Don’t be afraid to get specific. If an organization tells you that they provide shelter to “prostituted” women to “keep them from harm,” ask what that means. Are women being locked up and guarded like prisoners or free to leave? If an organization says they provide avenues for people in sex work to make money without “selling” their bodies, ask what that means. If the answer is that they’re laboring in factories or fields, ask if they have a choice. Trafficking can’t be fought with coercion. Likewise, if you are serious about fighting HIV and AIDS, ask the organization you support if they leave anyone out. If they refuse to treat sex workers, for instance, they are not in the best position to address the issues you care about.
Ask hard questions. As a donor, you’re responsible for being diligent in learning how the organizations that you support go about addressing the issues that matter to you.
(Of course, it does also pay to think bigger than yourself. If you are worried about a current crisis like ebola and donating to Médecins Sans Frontières to fight the good fight, it will go a long way not to restrict your donations, in case the organization needs funding to address other issues that come up. And given the number of wars in the world right now, trust me, ebola is not the only issue they’re dealing with.)
It can be a little overwhelming to think about these things, but it matters. As a person inhabiting this world, it is your ethical responsibility to take the time — however much you need — to decide how to best work toward something better. Whether you’re donating $50, $500, $5,000, or $50,000 — or only able to use Smile or affiliate links to help out at the moment — it counts, and it’s worth it. Not for the “feels,” but for tomorrow.
Header image by Tim Green (Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0).