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  • South Lake Union's old, low-slung warehouses have given way to modern, high-tech offices in Seattle, Washington,. In this aerial view, Amazon's campus rises at center between Lake Union and downtown Seattle's skyscrapers, but you won't find the Amazon name on any of the buildings. Company representatives didn't even show up for the campus groundbreaking. (Aaron Jaffe/Seattle Times/MCT)
  • Amazon's newest building is nearing completion, joining its neighbors along Boren Avenue North in Seattle, Washington. Lake Union is in the distance, at right. Most of the campus sits on blocks once occupied by light industry and parking lots. The developer preserved some distinctive brick buildings. (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times/MCT)
  • "Our core business activities are probably the most important thing we do to contribute, as well as our employment in the area," says Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (John Lok/Seattle Times/MCT)
  • For such a big company, Amazon's civic contributions are relatively tiny, but they're important to small organizations. Amazon co-sponsored last year's South Lake Union Block Party and has given local writers groups grants of about $25,000 each. (Dean Rutz/Seattle Times/MCT)
  • Vulcan Real Estate commissioned three aluminum sculptures by University of Washington professor Jamie Walker, including "Beacon, for a plaza at the Amazon campus in Seattle, Washington. Foot traffic in South Lake Union has skyrocketed since the campus opened. (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times/MCT)
Thursday, May 3, 2012

Amazon a virtual no-show in hometown philanthropy

Editor’s Note: This is the last in a three-part series examining the business practices of Amazon.com.

SEATTLE – Last year, amid a troubled economy, Seattle-based United Way of King County said it received record donations from some of the area’s largest companies.

Microsoft Corp. made a corporate donation of $4 million. Boeing Co. gave $3.1 million. Nordstrom Inc., nearly $320,000.

And Amazon.com Inc.? Zero.

Conceived on Wall Street, born in a Bellevue, Wash., rental house, and based in a dozen buildings on the northern edge of downtown Seattle, Amazon has grown into one of the Internet’s most-recognized name brands and a company so big that it holds staff meetings at Seattle’s KeyArena.

But as Amazon prepares to turn 18 this summer, it cuts an astoundingly low profile in the civic life of its hometown.

It’s a minor player in local charitable giving. Some nonprofit officials say it can be difficult to find someone at Amazon to even talk with them. Other business leaders say they’re hard-pressed to name examples of Amazon playing a significant role on broader public issues.

And while Amazon’s logo smile appears on billions of boxes that criss-cross the globe, neither that smile nor its name can be seen on a single building at its sprawling new campus in Seattle’s South Lake Union area. The company won’t even acknowledge how many employees it has there.

When the Puget Sound Business Journal named Amazon founder and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos “Executive of the Year,” he was a no-show at a January 2011 luncheon to honor him.

Larry Dohrs, vice president of Newground Social Investment, a Seattle-based firm that is pushing Amazon to disclose more information about its political spending, said Amazon’s leaders “have a tendency to want to consider themselves a startup in a garage, when in fact they’re not a startup in a garage anymore.

“They’re really quite a mature and influential player. And with maturity and influence comes responsibility.”

Jan Drago, a former member of the Seattle City Council and the Metropolitan King County Council, was blunter. “I think it’s fair to suggest that they take a bigger role in the civic life of their home.”

In a city noted for its big-time philanthropy, Amazon has been a small-time donor.

Though Amazon is a Fortune 500 company, you won’t find the company’s name on the rosters of major donors to such venerable local nonprofits as the Alliance for Education, Seattle Art Museum and United Way.

The Seattle Times also found no record of significant Amazon donations to the Seattle Symphony, Washington’s Special Olympics, YMCA of Greater Seattle or Forterra, a prominent conservation group formerly called the Cascade Land Conservancy.

Jan Levy, executive director of Leadership Tomorrow, which teaches civic leadership skills, says that while some Amazon employees have gone through her training program, they told her they covered their own costs.

“That’s unusual. Most large corporations pay for their participants’ tuition,” she said. “My colleagues in the nonprofit community have made similar comments about Amazon – they’re noticeably absent from civic involvement.”

Since 2009, Amazon has helped some 80 writers groups in the U.S., including 19 in the Puget Sound region, with grants of about $25,000, and it gave the University of Washington $51,000 over a three-year period.

But critics note that Amazon’s support of writers groups coincides with the growth of its publishing business.

And besides, they say, these are small sums for a company with a cash pile of $5 billion and more than $1,500 in sales every second.

Given its large physical footprint, Amazon is seen as an anomaly among major employers for its reluctance to get involved in local matters.

It does not, for example, belong to the Washington Roundtable, a group of corporate executives focused on education and transportation issues. Although Amazon recently endorsed Washington’s gay-marriage legislation, it did so only after Microsoft and other prominent Northwest companies came out in support.

Last year, for the first time, an Amazon executive joined the boards of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Seattle Association, but he has since left the company.

“Now that they’re a major neighborhood presence, they have a lot of employees for whom the quality of that neighborhood is going to be important,” said Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association.

Indeed, Amazon leases more office space downtown than any other private-sector employer, according to estimates by local real-estate experts.

Amazon will have enough space downtown for more than 10,000 employees when its South Lake Union campus is finished next year. And after tentatively agreeing to buy three blocks in the Denny Triangle area, it plans a new high-rise office complex that, at 3.3 million square feet, would be the largest development ever proposed downtown.

Last year, when Seattle nonprofit One Reel sought to raise $500,000 for a popular Fourth of July fireworks show over Lake Union, organizers reached out to the neighborhood’s biggest newcomer for a donation.

Aubbie Beal said Amazon never got back to her with a “yes” or “no.”

At Microsoft and Boeing, philanthropy is a more integrated part of the culture.

Microsoft matches employees’ charitable donations and pays nonprofits $17 for every hour that they let a Microsoft employee volunteer for them. Boeing sponsors an annual “Global Day of Service” and covers the administrative costs of community funds owned and managed by its employees.

Barbara Dingfield, who helped develop Microsoft’s philanthropic programs as its director of community affairs from 1994-99, recalls that as the Redmond, Wash., technology giant became increasingly successful, “it realized it had a responsibility to give back to the community.”

“Amazon is a bit of a black box for all of us,” said Dingfield, now a Seattle philanthropy consultant. “I’ve not seen much from them in terms of sponsorships, matching grants or employee volunteer programs.”

Several current and former Amazon employees said they have wanted to change the company culture to encourage more giving. But colleagues told them not to bother – they’d be better off figuring out how to do good on their own.

“I kind of tested the waters by asking around, and I got a sense it’s not worth pursuing,” Kintan Brahmbhatt, head of products for Amazon’s IMDb Everywhere initiative, recalled last year.

So Brahmbhatt, who came to Amazon from Microsoft and donates time and money to fight poverty in developing countries, decided to help nonprofits directly.

He asked about arranging to have charitable donations automatically deducted from his paychecks. But he learned that employees who do paycheck donations are charged a 6 percent fee from a company that processes them for Amazon.

Bezos declined repeated requests for interviews for this story, and Amazon did not make other executives available.

After last summer’s annual shareholder meeting, where Drago, the former city and county council member, quizzed Bezos about his company’s community involvement, he made clear that he believes Amazon can do the most good by doing good business.

“Our core business activities are probably the most important thing we do to contribute, as well as our employment in the area,” Bezos said.

In a 2010 interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose, Bezos expressed doubt that philanthropy was the best way to solve social problems.

“I’m convinced that in many cases, for-profit models improve the world more than philanthropy models, if they can be made to work.”

Amazon supporters also note that the company runs on tighter profit margins than many of its tech rivals, including Microsoft.

“They are investing in growing the business and in finding their way,” said Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington.

“There is very little margin for error. The slightest miscalculation, and they crash and burn.”

Distributed by MCT Information Services.