Steve Jobs’s philanthropy

By Felix Salmon
August 30, 2011
Andrew Ross Sorkin takes a look at the private life of Apple's chairman today, passing on rumors about activity he clearly doesn't want publicized, in the face of stony silence from Apple.

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Andrew Ross Sorkin takes a look at the private life of Apple’s chairman today, passing on rumors about activity he clearly doesn’t want publicized, in the face of stony silence from Apple. But hey, Sorkin’s a journalist, I guess that’s what journalists do.

The column is headlined “The Mystery of Steve Jobs’s Public Giving,” but really there’s no mystery at all: there is no public giving from Steve Jobs. Sorkin isn’t happy about this. “Most American billionaires have taken up philanthropy in a public way and helped inspire future generations of charitable giving,” he writes, concluding that “perhaps” in future years Jobs might “inspire his legions of admirers to give.”

Some of Sorkin’s points are good ones. There’s no good reason, for instance, for Jobs failing to reinstate Apple’s philanthropic programs, which he cut on the grounds of wanting “to restore the company’s profitability.” Similarly, Apple’s failure to match its employees’ charitable giving does make it stand out — and not in a good way — from its Silicon Valley peers.

I think this is maybe a downside of Jobs’s famous micromanaging: if he’s personally not interested in something, then his entire company becomes uninterested in it.

Now there are good reasons why Jobs might not be much of a philanthropist, at least in public. For one thing, it’s far from clear that seeing billionaires give away lots of money and put their names on hospital wings does any good at all in terms of inspiring other people to make charitable donations. So if a private man like Jobs wants to make his charitable donations privately or anonymously, I don’t see much if any harm in that. And the coverage of Jobs in recent days is proof positive that he’s hardly in need of good press.

On top of that, effective philanthropy is hard work. Just ask Bill Gates. If it’s as difficult to give away money as it is to make it, and if you’re already stretched between making Apple insanely great, spending time with your family, and dealing with personal health issues, then it’s reasonable not to even try on the philanthropy front.

The sad fact of the matter is that Jobs’s wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, will almost certainly outlive him; what’s more, she is more familiar with the philanthropic world than he is, sitting on the boards of Teach for America and the New Schools Venture Fund, among others. Jobs is a technology visionary; that doesn’t make him a great philanthropist. Maybe he’s simply and lovingly trusting his wife to be able to take care of such things after he’s gone. That would be a very admirable and selfless act.

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