I’ll admit it. I like shopping on Amazon. I buy a lot of obscure books on philanthropy and community building that are not available in our local stores. My furnace uses an unusual air filter that cannot be found on local shelves. And as much as I searched, nobody around town carried quite the right shade of purple shoelaces I wanted for my new bowling shoes.
While we have a remarkably robust retail sector for a community of our size, there are some things you simply cannot find in a small town. For those of us who live here year round on this little peninsula, Amazon is the modern equivalent of the Sears Roebuck catalog of a century ago. Amazon is a great place to turn when you’re looking for something specific that just isn’t readily accessible in the stores of Door County. I’ll admit that I shop at Amazon every now and then.
But I’ll tell you what I won’t do. As president and chief executive officer of the Door County Community Foundation, I will never encourage our friends and donors to shop on Amazon. Doing so would be disrespectful to our local business community.
Yet, unfortunately, too many of our local charities are doing just that.
In 2013, Amazon launched a program called Amazon Smile. Amazon donates half of one percent of every sale generated through the Amazon Smile website to a charity of the shopper’s choosing. I use it periodically with my personal online shopping and have no qualms with it at all. Businesses are not required to set up corporate giving programs, so when a giant company like Amazon voluntarily does so, it should be thanked for its willingness to give back.
What I object to are the charities of Door County that ask local business owners for a contribution then turn around and publicly tell their donors to shop on Amazon. Unfortunately, this is a growing trend among our local nonprofits and it’s something we as a community should demand come to an end. Just look closely at the websites, e-newsletters or social media feeds of an increasing number of Door County charities and you’ll find the Amazon Smile logo on display.
“I didn’t realize local charities were doing that,” said Mike Felhofer of the Door County Candle Company when he first learned of the practice. “It is disappointing to say the least.”
It’s frustrating because actively encouraging local residents to shop on Amazon is both unfair to Door County businesses and ultimately counterproductive for our community.
Ask anyone who owns a local company and they’ll tell you just how often they are inundated with requests for a donation. It can be quite overwhelming. Thankfully, the vast majority of our local entrepreneurs make gifts to all kinds of organizations without any expectation that the charity encourage people to shop at their store in return.
Carrie Hauser and Kim Herlache of Cornucopia are regularly asked to give and they frequently do so. “Now that we own the shop, we have less time to volunteer…but we do our part to support keeping this community as strong, healthy, supportive, and creative as it is. We do this by contributing to as many volunteers/organizations as possible. We feel this helps us all,” said Hauser.
Hauser and Herlache donate because they believe nonprofit organizations play a critical role in making our community stronger. They’re not asking for anything in return other than a “thank you” and a commitment that the organization do good things with their gift. Generous businesses like Cornucopia don’t expect Door County’s charities to tell people to shop at their store, but something has gone horribly wrong when those same nonprofit organizations publicly tell the community to shop at Amazon instead.
Diane Magolan of Monticello on Jefferson said that our charities “know so well the importance of community, of offering help and services where they are needed. Yet they seem a bit blindsided by what community means.” Magolan said that in our local nonprofits’ zeal to raise more money, “I think logic and consequences sometimes get lost. People need to think before [they] send their money to Amazon and the other big boxes that pretend to care for your little town or cause. What they do is actually export value from our local communities.”
I’ve written on several occasions of my firm belief that charities should avoid encouraging their donors to shop at one store over another. Nonprofit organizations solicit contributions from the entire community and that often includes competing businesses. It would be disrespectful to accept a freely offered gift from one company only to then encourage people to shop at another in exchange for some tiny percentage of sales. As a best practice, nonprofit organizations should simply avoid encouraging the community to frequent any particular business.
However, the one thing all of Door County’s charities can and should do is encourage people to buy local whenever practical. When people spend their money at our local stores, it creates jobs in Door County and generates the wealth that makes charitable giving possible in the first place.
“Retail businesses, any business in this beautiful but very seasonal community, are fragile,” said Vicki Wilson of Door County Coffee & Tea Co. “We hire and keep employees year round and during the quiet season, things get quite lean. For us to survive and be open to provide entertainment, hospitality, dining options to our community we need to be financially healthy.”
The people of Door County will always do some of their shopping online or at the malls in the bigger cities to our south. That’s just the reality of living in a place with limited options. But our community will quickly lose the wealth needed to “give local” if we don’t make an equal commitment to try to “buy local” first.
This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on November 3, 2017.