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Why Amazon’s donation to the Australian wildfires provoked a backlash — but Facebook’s didn’t

We’re getting pickier about corporate philanthropy.

Smoke Covers East Gippsland Following Devastating Bushfires
Thick smoke from bushfires in Bruthen, Australia, on January 13, 2020.
Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

On Sunday, Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon will donate $690,000 ($1 million Australian) in assistance to wildfire recovery after Australia’s devastating bushfires. Twenty-eight people and more than one billion animals have died in the fires, which have burned an estimated 15.6 million acres of land.

All around the world, people have come together to raise money to help — from the band Metallica to Kylie Jenner to national governments to do-gooders on Twitter.

But the reaction to Bezos’s announcement has been ... unenthusiastic. The donation is “less than he made every 5 minutes in 2018,” Business Insider pointed out. Amazon’s donation is “insulting,” said Vice. Twitter was even angrier.

The furor over Amazon’s donation — a simple corporate gesture of the kind that big companies make all the time after natural disasters — is a sign of the changing times. It used to be that donating to disaster relief was an easy way for companies to get some good PR and build rapport with their consumers. The reaction to Bezos’s announcement of wildfire relief contributions shows that’s not necessarily true anymore.

Instead, Amazon’s donation reignited existing anger about Bezos’s astounding personal fortune, Amazon’s policies as they relate to climate, and the ways that philanthropy gets waved around in cases where it can’t really do that much good.

Three big complaints about Amazon’s wildfire giving

The first complaint about Amazon’s gift?

Well, it’s just not really all that much money. Bezos is personally worth $116 billion right now (to be clear, the donation is coming from Amazon, not Bezos’s own pockets). He has been criticized — rightly — for being one of the world’s stingiest billionaires. Bezos donated just $200 million between 2000 and 2017, though in recent years he’s pledged more. (And when he does give to charity, he does so with arguably not the same rigor or clarity as he shows with running Amazon.)

Amazon has a market cap of nearly $1 trillion, which means the donation is effectively nothing to the company. Other companies, like Facebook, gave about twice as much — as did many celebrities and a few nude models on Twitter. That left critics wondering if the positive coverage the Amazon gift earned in Australian news is really deserved.

The second complaint is that Amazon’s corporate policies have contributed to the conditions that made the wildfires so disastrous, and have left Australia less equipped to handle them. Amazon’s core business — shipping consumer goods all around the world — is unavoidably a big greenhouse-gas emitter, a point that Amazon employees have actually agitated against. Moreover, the company has defended controversial partnerships with oil and gas companies. And Amazon employees who’ve urged the company to do more about climate change have been reprimanded.

Amazon has compounded these issues with its approach to tax policy. The company has taken advantage of various exemptions and loopholes in Australia’s tax code, paying just AU$20 million in taxes in Australia despite earning more than $1 billion in revenue (it was worse in the US — Amazon paid $0 in corporate income tax).

In a better tax regime, Amazon would pay higher taxes, reflecting the social costs of its carbon emissions, and Australia would be able to spend that money on disaster prevention, mitigation, and relief efforts. Instead, Amazon pays barely any taxes and then donates some money to the resultant problem. No wonder people find that frustrating.

A big change in how corporate philanthropy is received

It used to be that corporate donations were an easy source of good PR. As the backlash against Amazon’s bushfires donation shows, that’s not as true anymore. Some donations are still well-received (Facebook, which donated about twice as much money, has avoided similar public anger), but many aren’t.

That’s a change that has been driven, in significant part, by critics of big philanthropy. Over the past few years, prominent speakers have made the case that donations by the ultra-rich shouldn’t be uncritically lauded, that they’re part of a broken system where good PR prevents policy changes that would stop such concentration of wealth — and the bad policies that result from them — from occurring in the first place.

Expectations for corporate social responsibility, too, have evolved. While it used to be good enough for a company to donate to hospitals, schools, or disaster relief, now critics tend to emphasize how those companies create the social problems they donate to — whether it’s maintaining dangerous working conditions or lobbying for special exemptions and loopholes.

Will all this criticism end up discouraging corporate philanthropy? That’s unclear — but discouraging things like Amazon’s donation is much less of a loss than it might seem at first glance. A donation of $690,000 in light of the wildfires is just very little money compared to the amount the Australian government will need to spend on recovery and mitigation in Australia — a multibillion dollar endeavor. Furthermore, it’s hard to give to disaster relief in a useful way that actually makes things better.

More importantly, I’ve been watching the growing critique of philanthropy since the beginning, and I see some promising trends. Even philanthropy’s most vociferous critics are open to acknowledging the merits of important philanthropic projects, and applauding the people who make them happen. So far, it looks like the intensity of critiques of billionaire giving has been responsive to the facts on the ground — donations that are actually meaningful, impactful, and generous are criticized less than token or unhelpful ones. Perhaps Amazon could have avoided the frustration it stoked this weekend by donating more money, and donating it to effectively combating climate change.

Anger is justified when climate-driven disasters endanger billions of animals and thousands of homes, and when corporations that contributed considerably to the climate crisis make only token efforts to reduce its effects. But it’s important to think about what sort of behavior the anger incentivizes. Getting upset about token donations, but being supportive of real and substantive donations, hopefully creates pretty good incentives for corporate would-be philanthropists, rather than making them feel they’re stuck in a no-win situation.

The backlash also serves to remind policymakers that people are angry Amazon doesn’t pay taxes, and that they should close the loopholes the company uses, while hopefully making it less likely that Amazon will aggressively lobby against those changes.

That’s exactly what we should be aiming for — balanced critiques that support good philanthropy, that don’t have much patience for bad philanthropy, and a robust conversation about which is which.

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