How Does AmazonSmile Work (and Should You Use It)?

Online Shopping and Charity? A Good Match for Amazon.

Packages being delivered from Amazon.
•••  Kim Kirby/LOOP IMAGES/Getty Images

What Is AmazonSmile?

AmazonSmile (smile.amazon.com) offers all of the same items, prices, and benefits of its sister website, Amazon.com, but with one distinct difference.

When users shop on AmazonSmile, the AmazonSmile Foundation contributes 0.5 percent of eligible purchases to the charity of your choice. Especially for frequent Amazon users, this additional perk is a great way to give back to charities effortlessly.

Since its launch in 2013, AmazonSmile has supported nearly one million charities and has donated over $80 million (as of February 2018). The website is identical to Amazon’s main site, and consumers can quickly browse and shop for items. They can even take advantage of Prime membership benefits, sales and more.

All users have to do is to visit smile.amazon.com (amazon.com and Amazon mobile app purchases do not apply) to earn 0.5 percent of their eligible purchase for their favorite nonprofit or cause.

There is no cost to charities or customers, and 100 percent of the donation generated from eligible purchases goes to the consumer’s charity of choice.

However, with any consumer charity or sales-based donation, questions naturally arise: Will my charity get the full 0.5 percent? What purchases are exempt? Can I write off these donations for taxes? How does the AmazonSmile Foundation deliver donations to each charity?

While Amazon, the most massive internet retailer in the world, is not the only example of giving to charity while shopping, it is the largest and its tech solution seems unique in its convenience. However, it is essential to understand how a platform like this impacts both charities and consumers. For the savvy consumer, it is also great to know how to get the most from AmazonSmile—and which purchases are actually helping your favorite programs.

How Consumers Can Use AmazonSmile

AmazonSmile is very simple to use—all you need is an Amazon account. On your first visit to the site, you will be asked to log in to your Amazon account with existing username and password (you do not need a separate account for AmazonSmile). You will then be prompted to choose a charity to support. During future visits to the site, AmazonSmile will remember your charity and apply eligible purchases towards your total contribution—it is that easy!

Want to support a different charity than the one you first chose? You can change your charity any time by logging into AmazonSmile and clicking “Accounts & Lists,” then scrolling down to “Your AmazonSmile.” From there, click “Change charity” under “Your current charity” on the top right.

Keep in mind that, unless your nonprofit or charity has registered with AmazonSmile, your accrued donations will go to another registered cause after eight quarters.

If you are wondering if your preferred organization is registered with AmazonSmile, you can reach out to it via email or social media before selecting them from the AmazonSmile charity list. That organization will also be notified by AmazonSmile that they need to register to receive donations from your (and other consumers’) eligible purchases once you select them in your account.

Unfortunately, you can contribute to only one organization at a time; the foundation does not allow multiple organizations on your AmazonSmile account. However, you can choose a different charity easily or alternate between several. 

Once you have selected a charity, you are ready to start shopping. However, you must be logged into smile.amazon.com—donations will not be applied to purchases made on the Amazon.com main site or mobile app. It is also important to remember that not everything qualifies for AmazonSmile contributions.

As a regular participant in AmazonSmile, I suggest that you check each time you shop to make sure you are on the AmazonSmile site. It is all too easy to start shopping and then realize you are on the main site. Sometimes Amazon will ask if you want to move to AmazonSmile, but that reminder does not appear consistently.

Also, keep expectations in check. Even if you are a regular Prime member of Amazon and shop there consistently, the donations add up slowly. After several years of shopping on AmazonSmile, my total donation to my selected charity comes to about $40. You can check how much you've donated by clicking the pull-down arrow next to the name of your charity.

Nevertheless, many donors are determined to send every possible dollar and cent to their chosen charity through an assortment of means. If you are one of those donors, then AmazonSmile can be part of your plan.

Also, you may want to send items your organization says it needs through AmazonSmile Charity Lists. Like any gift registry, nonprofits can create a list of things they need, and you can purchase them and have them sent right to the organization. You can browse the Charity Lists which is sorted into categories of charities such as pets or international.

What Items Are Eligible AmazonSmile Donations?

According to the foundation’s website, “The AmazonSmile Foundation will donate 0.5 percent of the purchase price from your eligible AmazonSmile purchases. The purchase price is the amount paid for the item minus any rebates and excluding shipping & handling, gift-wrapping fees, taxes, or service charges.”

In short, only the individual cost of the eligible item (after sales and discounts) will qualify for the 0.5 percent donation. There are tens of millions of eligible items on AmazonSmile, but before you click “Check Out,”you will want to make sure your purchase qualifies. To do so, check for the “Eligible for AmazonSmile donation” stamp in the product’s description. If it is not there, the product will not count towards your total donation.

Keep in mind: returned items no longer count towards the donation amount, and “Subscribe and Save” purchases are also ineligible.

Are AmazonSmile Contributions Tax Deductible?

Because donations are made by the AmazonSmile Foundation, they are not tax deductible by the consumer. You must donate cash or property yourself to qualify for tax deductions.

Of course, if you are a nonprofit or fundraiser wondering if AmazonSmile is a good option, you probably have a few questions and concerns.

Is AmazonSmile Right for Your Nonprofit?

If the charity you operate or work for isn’t already on AmazonSmile’s list, you can sign up quickly on their Org Central page. Once you have entered your qualified 501(c)(3) organization name or EIN and submitted all necessary information, you will be able to receive donations from the AmazonSmile Foundation once your account is approved. This account is free to organizations, so take advantage of it if you can.

Why Should You Register for AmazonSmile?

Because consumers can search for your organization, your charity may be listed but unclaimed on AmazonSmile. Unfortunately, a consumer’s eligible purchase donation will go in a “communal” fund if you do not register your account. At the end of eight quarters, that fund will be donated to other registered charitable organizations. Even if it is a minimal donation, it is still a donation intended for your cause, and Amazon customers like to know it is going where they wanted it to go.

It is also important to check your organization’s status on AmazonSmile, even after you have enrolled. Changes in standing with the IRS or “violations” of the AmazonSmile Participation Agreement can eliminate your organization for eligibility. While you will be notified in either case, it is crucial that you respond promptly and fix the issue if you want to continue to be listed on the Foundation’s site.

If you do not want your organization to be listed at all, you can request that it be removed via the foundation’s contact page.

How Do Charities Receive Donations?

Once an order is placed, AmazonSmile applies the donation amount and puts it in the fund for individual organizations. Each quarter, the AmazonSmile Foundation deposits the donation funds via electronic funds transfer. Your organization should receive the funds approximately 45 days after the previous quarter ends or when the amount reaches a minimum threshold.

Does AmazonSmile Benefit Charities—or Hurt Them?

For nonprofits and charities, AmazonSmile’s 0.5 percent of eligible purchases may seem negligible. Many nonprofit experts are also concerned that using AmazonSmile will dampen consumers’ personal (and much more substantial) giving habits. By feeling like they have already “contributed” through their purchase, fundraisers worry that their previously engaged donors will not donate more, or donate directly, to their favorite causes.

Also, nonprofits and charities are unable to access donor data through AmazonSmile. This eliminates a vast source of information that could influence future donations and make it easier for nonprofits to access new opportunities for donation. In other words, your organization will not be able to add that donor to your database or send a thank you.

Despite that, though, AmazonSmile offers one significant benefit to nonprofits: passive, long-term donations. Unlike other channels, AmazonSmile offers donations based on already-engaged consumers. It also remembers each consumer’s chosen charity, automatically collecting donations as the consumer shops.

The website also “spotlights” charities from time-to-time, increasing visibility for nonprofits and making it more likely that unengaged Amazon users switch to AmazonSmile to support the spotlighted organization.

Amazon also often reminds shoppers who have previously used AmazonSmile to use it again should they forget to log into the unique site. The AmazonSmile platform has over 100 million users a month, making it one of the largest platforms for nonprofits to passively access.

However, the experts are right—AmazonSmile may not be the best option for your nonprofit, especially if data and personally engaged donors are essential for your cause. It is not the path to large-scale giving, nor will consumers make a huge difference in their chosen charities by shopping online a few times a year. So how should nonprofits and consumers regard AmazonSmile?

Although AmazonSmile does perform some marketing for its program, it is essential that your nonprofit also market it. Let your supporters know that your organization has signed up with AmazonSmile and nudge them to use it when shopping at Amazon. Before you do any of that promotion, however, examine the AmazonSmile Participation Agreement closely. It contains dense legal language like all such agreements but read it carefully anyway. And then follow the rules exactly. Know what you're signing up for.

Don’t overestimate what AmazonSmile can do for your fundraising. Keep expectations realistic, especially if you are a small nonprofit.

AmazonSmile as a Tool, Not a Solution

The easiest way to get people to donate is to make it easy for them to do so. AmazonSmile, while not perfect, does make donation accessible to millions of people. Because it is free and easy for consumers and charities alike, the foundation can be a useful tool for everyday giving.

The critical thing to remember is that AmazonSmile is not meant to replace cash or goods donation, but it does offer consumers one more chance to support charities while going about their daily lives.

Making charitable giving a “no-brainer” is the one real benefit to AmazonSmile, but it should be just a piece of a more extensive giving machine. Consumers should (and will) continue to open their wallets for more direct methods of donation, and nonprofits will continue to seek new donors and fundraising opportunities.

AmazonSmile should not replace personal giving, but instead become part of a culture of automatic giving, one that continues to build as more people get involved. If used well, AmazonSmile can be part of your nonprofit’s baskets of income, just not a huge basket.

An Easy Way to Extend Amazon's Potential for Your Donors

AmazonSmile Charity Lists can be a useful tool for charities and donors, especially around the holidays. Organizations can use the list tool at Create Your List to set up a list of products your nonprofit needs and then supporters can buy those products and have them shipped to the organization. You might want to direct supporters to your list in your holiday communications.