Time will tell on the philanthropy of Steve Jobs

Posted on October 11, 2011

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Bill Gates: $25bn. Gordon Moore: $6.8bn Paul Allen: $1.2bn. Michael Dell: $1.2bn. Jeff Skoll: $1bn. All billionaire beneficiaries of the technological revolution who have donated vast amounts of their own wealth to philanthropy, be it through their own foundations, other organisations or promises via the Giving Pledge. The big name missing from this list? Steve Jobs, the recently deceased founder of Apple.

Surprising, really. Yet the Washington Post badly overstepped the mark last Friday with an article questioning Jobs’ commitment to charity. It was certainly poor timing, for if there is a debate to be had about the philanthropic concerns of an individual it is presumably not in the immediate aftermath of his death. It was unquestionably poor journalism, because in a piece questioning Jobs’ commitment to putting his wealth to charitable use, the Post in fact notes several examples of his philanthropy as well as very good reasons why any philanthropic exercise on his part may have been curtailed.

The article states that the record is thin on Job’s philanthropy, which it is if we take the lack of a Jobs Healthcare Trust or a Jobs University at face value. Yet it goes on to shoot down its own premise, presumably that the degree of mourning over his death is unreasonable given his lack of charity, by quoting Bono as saying that “Apple’s contribution to our fight against AIDS in Africa has been invaluable.” The U2 singer notes that Apple has contributed “tens of millions of dollars that have transformed the lives of more than two million Africans through H.I.V. testing, treatment and counselling. This is serious and significant. And Apple’s involvement has encouraged other companies to step up.”

Not exactly evidence that the late Steve Jobs was a selfish man who didn’t care for philanthropy. There was more to follow. Jobs did set up a foundation in 1985, the Steven P. Jobs Foundation, suggesting he was willing to commit funds to philanthropic efforts. Though this failed as Jobs became in another business venture (he had left Apple at this point), the man he appointed to run the foundation has defended him for its shutdown. Regardless of the slant put on the article by the Post, very few people in fact seem that keen to condemn him for lack of philanthropy. Apple’s products were a contribution to society in themselves, say some. Jobs may have given to charity anonymously, say others.

And that is the point. Gates, Zuckerberg and others may get all the attention for signing up to the Giving Pledge and setting up their own foundations, but simply because they have chosen this very public (though still admirable) way of giving does not mean that Jobs was not giving himself. Those that point out that he may have been giving anonymously are correct. Others suggest that, in death, Jobs’ philanthropic concerns may become clear. He was certainly a busy man, and indeed had said in the past that philanthropy would have to be a full-time job if done well. I suggest that a better journalistic approach would be to wait and see if Jobs had made allowances for social concerns after his death, or indeed if more, as Bono has done, come to his defence in this case.

*As an aside, I cannot believe that a man who made this speech would not have considered philanthropy to be worthy of his fortune.

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Posted in: Issues, Media